Bourbon has been in boom times for years now, with brands like WL Weller, Pappy Van Winkle, and Old Forester Birthday Bourbon becoming instant collector’s items upon their release, and commanding exorbitant prices on the secondary market. These are all fantastic bourbons, but there’s a world of attainable and much more affordable bottles to focus on. Craft distilleries in nearly every state make bourbon nowadays, and some are better than others, mostly due to a glut of fairly young expressions and just the general learning curve. But it’s an exciting time to be a bourbon drinker, as it seems like a new bottle comes out every week from both established and upstart distilleries. And it’s good to have both in the whiskey world because they provide incentive and inspiration to each other for making a good product and innovating. Still, the best bottles tend to be from distilleries that have been making bourbon for decades, or even centuries in one shape or another.
What Makes a Whiskey Bourbon?
Some common misconceptions about bourbon still abound. Firstly, it was formally recognized by Congress in 1964 as a “distinctive product of the United States,” not “America’s native spirit” as many claim. Also, it does not have to be made in Kentucky, although the majority of it is (around 95 percent according to some estimates). Bourbon doesn’t have to be aged in barrels for a set length of time, but it does indeed need to see the inside of a wooden container. And lastly, you can drink it any damn way you please — there’s absolutely no right or wrong way to enjoy bourbon. Like it neat or with a couple of ice cubes? Great. Maybe you prefer it in a cocktail or even (sorry about this, purists) with some Coke? Fantastic, go right ahead and drink it that way.
Aside from that, the main things to know are that bourbon must be made from a mash bill, or mix of grains, of at least 51 percent corn. The rest is usually rye or wheat with a small amount of malted barley, but it can also include rice or oats, for example. As mentioned before, bourbon must be aged in new charred oak containers — not barrels specifically according to the TTB, although virtually all bourbon is aged in them. It has to be made in the US, distilled to no more than 160 proof, and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. And no flavoring or color can be added to bourbon.
To help you get started on your bourbon journey, we’ve put together a list of the 12 best brands to try now. Happy sipping.
1. Maker’s Mark
Maker’s Mark is kind of underappreciated by the bourbon fandom, but those in the know recognize it as being a really high-quality whiskey that doesn’t cost much. Maker’s is a wheated bourbon, meaning wheat is used instead of rye as the secondary grain (along with malted barley), which gives it a sweeter palate. In addition to the flagship bottle, there are some other expressions to check out. Cask Strength is always a good bet for those who like a higher ABV bourbon, but with a range between 108 and 114 proof, this will not overwhelm you with alcohol the way some barrel-proof whiskeys can.
There’s also Maker’s 46, which takes regular Maker’s and finishes it for nine weeks in a barrel with 10 seared virgin French oak staves added to impart some extra flavor to the whiskey. Most recently, Maker’s has released several iterations of its Wood FInishing series, which builds on the idea of 46 by custom-making different types of staves with which to finish the bourbon and create specific flavor profiles.
2. Knob Creek
The Jim Beam distillery produces many different brands, including its eponymous white label bottle, one of the best-selling bourbons in the world. The distillery also has a Small Batch collection, created by legendary master distiller Booker Noe in the early ‘90s. The lineup includes Basil Hayden’s, Booker’s, Baker’s and Knob Creek. The latter is arguably the best of the bunch, a collection of bourbon and rye whiskey that is consistently tasty and dependable in a world of countless new brands. The core expression is the 100 proof bourbon, which recently got its nine-year-old age statement back after it had disappeared for a few years. The palate is classic bourbon, with big notes of vanilla, caramel and the signature Beam nuttiness. Other expressions to check out include 12 and 15-year-old versions of the bourbon, a straight rye whiskey, and some high-proof single barrel releases.
3. Four Roses
Four Roses stands out from the pack because of the distillery’s use of 10 different recipes to make its bourbon. The distillery uses two mash bills combined with five different yeast strains, resulting in 10 different styles of bourbon to blend and marry into its various products. The core release, commonly referred to as “Yellow Label” even though the color has changed to a light tan, uses all 10 recipes and is an excellent budget bourbon for sipping or mixing. Small Batch, on the other hand, uses just four of the recipes, Small Batch Select uses six and ups the proof to 104, and the Single Barrel bottlings each are made using just one recipe. Bourbon nerds would enjoy trying all of these bottles as a side-by-side comparison to really see how the recipes differ from each other on their own and in a variety of combinations.
4. Wild Turkey 101
Wild Turkey 101 is one of the best deals in bourbon you can find, a high-proof, high-rye bourbon that hits the sweet spot in terms of age, flavor and ABV. This is no-frills, just a classic whiskey that you can sip on or mix with. There’s an 81-proof version available, but really just stick with the 101 for the full experience of spice, vanilla and candied fruit that make it so good.
Of course, the distillery isn’t just a one-trick pony, and also has a slew of other expressions to sample including the barrel-proof Rare Breed and single barrel Kentucky Spirit. For those looking to drop some cash, the distillery has been releasing its Master’s Keep collection over the past few years. The most recent edition was the 17-year-old Bottled-in-Bond, a truly remarkable whiskey, and a testament to master distiller Eddie Russell’s ability to select barrels that have not become overly oaky even nearing 20 years old.
5. Woodinville Whiskey
As mentioned earlier, good bourbon (or even bad bourbon) doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky. There are terrific smaller distilleries around the country making top-notch spirits, like Woodinville in Washington State. Now owned by drinks conglomerate Moët Hennessy, production still operates on a level close to its small craft distillery origins. The 90-proof bourbon is distilled at the distillery outside of Seattle and then brought to warehouses in central Washington to age for at least five years. The bourbon stands with the best, with rich vanilla, oak and toffee flavors that are the result of careful distillation and proper aging. If you’re a fan of cask-finished whiskey, do try the Port Finished release, which spends an extra six months in ruby port barrels after initial maturation to pick up loads of cherry and chocolate flavors.
6. Woodford Reserve
Woodford Reserve, owned by Jack Daniel’s parent company Brown-Forman, started out back in the ‘90s as a brand focused solely on bourbon, but has since expanded into many different types of whiskey including rye, wheat and malt. The bourbon is the backbone of this distillery’s lineup, however, a premium sipper with an expansive palate that master distiller Chris Morris likes to say has over 200 different flavor notes. Try this one along with the Double Oaked as a comparison; the latter is finished in a new set of deeply toasted and lightly charred barrels before bottling giving it a new depth of flavor in the process. Also, the annual Kentucky Derby bottle is now available, featuring the work of artist, former baseball player, and Louisville resident Richard Sullivan on the label.
Maker’s Mark is not the only wheated bourbon in the game. Indeed, it’s far from it. Larceny is made at Heaven Hill from a mash bill (68% corn, 20% wheat, 12% malted barley) that the distillery says contains 25% more wheat than its competitors. This is kind of a slept-on bourbon, although that has been changing in recent years due to it being priced affordably with a softly sweet palate that is extremely pleasing to both new and experienced drinkers. In 2020, Heaven Hill introduced a Barrel Proof version of Larceny which will be released three times a year in limited numbers. This is a good, strong bourbon, made up of whiskey aged from six to eight years with the ABV varying per batch. Generally, the proof is going to be higher than Maker’s Mark Cask Strength.
8. Colonel EH Taylor Small Batch Bourbon
Buffalo Trace’s eponymous flagship bourbon is a great pick for those looking for affordable bourbon that doesn’t skimp on flavor. But if you’d like to dive into something a bit more complex from this venerable Kentucky distillery, check out EH Taylor. Of course, Buffalo Trace also makes the incredibly hard to find and expensive Pappy Van Winkle and Antique Collection lineup, but for your money, EH Taylor is a solid choice (although certain bottles can be pricey as well). The entire range is bottled-in-bond, meaning it’s 100 proof and at least four years old among a few other qualifications (aside from the Barrel Proof expression that will, of course, have a higher ABV).
This bourbon has a bit of spice that underlays creamy vanilla and apple notes, and is a great choice for sipping but makes some excellent whiskey cocktails. And recently Buffalo Trace released a commemorative edition of EH Taylor Single Barrel, autographed by country artist Chris Stapleton with initial proceeds going to benefit his charity Outlaw State of Kind. Additional funds will go to other charities throughout the rest of the year.
9. Barrell Bourbon
Louisville’s Barrell Craft Spirits is not a distillery, it’s a company that sources barrels of whiskey from different states (and sometimes countries), blends and bottles them. And the team at Barrell is really, really good at all of this, usually procuring bourbon from Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. The bourbon is released in batches, the current of which is number 28. Age statements vary, but the latest is a blend of 10 and 11-year-old whiskey bottled at a cask strength of 108.86 proof (all of the bourbon is barrel-proof). The distillery’s tasting notes for this bottle include intriguing flavors of praline, smoked sea salt and brown butter. Sounds like a winning combination, as is usually the case with anything Barrell puts out.
10. Angel’s Envy
Angel’s Envy is known as being a leader in cask-finishing in American whiskey, with a lineup based entirely around this process. For the bourbon, the distillery puts its six-year-old whiskey into port casks after initial maturation for an additional three to six months. This opens up a whole new world of flavor, adding notes of spice, candied dried fruit and dark chocolate to the mix. If you’re looking for something a bit stronger than this 86.6 proof whiskey, check out the cask-strength version which is released annually. The latest was 120.4 proof, which is powerful but not overwhelming and brings out juicy orange and some tannic notes, especially with a splash of water.
Bulleit only recently opened its own distillery, so the whiskey in the bottle has been sourced from other facilities (undisclosed, but whiskey sleuths have many theories posted online about where it has come from over the years). It’s a really successful brand, partly due to marketing and that instantly recognizable old-timey bottle, and partly due to it being a solid bourbon. If you’re looking for something older or stronger, try the barrel-strength and 10-year-old versions. Also, Blenders Select was released last year, for which blender Eboni Major combined three of the 10 distillates used together. But the flagship bourbon is definitely worth checking out, and a very good introductory whiskey for those new to the category. It should be noted that founder Tom Bulleit no longer represents the brand after he was accused of sexual abuse by his daughter, Hollis B. Worth, in 2019. Bulleit denies any wrongdoing.
12. Evan Williams
There are a few bourbons that are low in price but truly high in quality, as opposed to many more that are cheap in terms of both flavor and price. In other words, if you find an affordable bourbon that doesn’t disappoint, keep it well stocked. Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams brand fits this bill, priced at around $20 a bottle, aged for somewhere around five years and bottled at 86 proof. It’s not the most complex bourbon you’ll ever try, but it’s got everything you are looking for in terms of palate and versatility. There are a few other expressions from Evan Williams worth checking out as well, including the Bottled In Bond and Single Barrel expressions. Many industry tastemakers cite the latter as being an excellent bourbon that is still easy to find and won’t break the bank.
Bourbon Frequently Asked Questions
Got some bourbon questions? You're not alone. But don't worry, we've got some answers to all of your burning bourbon questions.
The best overall bourbon is Maker's Mark. Surprised? You shouldn't be. Maker’s Mark is kind of underappreciated by the bourbon fandom, but those in the know recognize it as being a really high-quality whiskey that doesn’t cost much.
If you ask us, really any of the options on our list are great for drinking straight! That said, if we had to pick one, we'd choose Angel’s Envy. The distillery puts its six-year-old whiskey into port casks after initial maturation for an additional three to six months. This opens up a whole new world of flavor, adding notes of spice, candied dried fruit, and dark chocolate to the mix. In other words, the process makes for a complex and delightful bourbon.