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By definition, bourbon is a type of American whiskey made from at least 51 percent corn, along with malt and rye. The American Bourbon Association also points out that it must age in charred new oak barrels and include no color or flavor additives. Other qualities distinguish bourbon as well, including sweetness from the corn. Those elements help make it different from Scotch and other popular types of whiskey like Canadian and Japanese whisky.
With origins in Kentucky, bourbon production has since expanded across several states with bottles of various flavors and price points available. Here are the best bourbons to drink today.
Best Overall: Henry Mckenna Single Barrel
From Heaven Hill Distillery, this Henry Mckenna bourbon was named "Best in Show" at the 2019 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and with good reason. Aged in oak barrels, this bourbon is the only extra-aged bottled-in-bond single barrel bourbon for a smooth, high-quality taste.
Xania Woodman, bar manager and lead bartender at O.P. Rockwell Cocktail Lounge & Music Hall, describes the 10-year-old bourbon as rich, buttery, "like butterscotch candy," but with an appreciable bite. “It just goes to show you,” she says, “that an astronomical price doesn't necessarily indicate actual quality.”
Best Value: Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch
A great value at under or around $20, this bourbon is named after the year Evan Williams built his distillery on the shores of the Ohio River. With classic bourbon notes of brown sugar and caramel syrup, this award-winning small-batch bottle goes down warm with pops of black pepper and cinnamon, along with corn and malt on the finish.
Guthrie McKay, the owner of Toddy’s Liquors in Bardstown, Ky., selects this as one of his best offerings. “[It's] real smooth and tasty and goes down easy,” he says.
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Best for Sipping: Widow Jane 10 Year
Widow Jane meticulously sources its favorite bourbons from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana and blends them in five barrel batches in Brooklyn, N.Y. Its team wanted to add something that “had the intense taste of New York in each sip,” so it cuts that blend with limestone mineral water from the famous Rosendale Mines. The distillery’s signature 10-year-old bourbon presents a nose of nutmeg, cream, vanilla, and a dash of cinnamon and a palate that flirts with maple syrup, almond, cherry and orange.
“My new favorite sipper, and one of the best bourbons I have ever tasted, hands down,” says Anthony Vitacca, an award-winning bartender based in California.
Best Kentucky Bourbon: Evan Williams Single Barrel
Each bottle of this Evan Williams bourbon lists barrel numbers, the date it entered the barrel, and the date of bottling. One of Heaven Hill Distillery’s most-awarded whiskeys, this reasonably-priced single barrel is big, balanced, spicy and sweet, and enjoys a backbone of honey and citrus.
“It’s straightforward, flavorful, not heavy-handed, and terrific neat,” says Jeff Moses, a Charleston-based spirits entrepreneur. “I like it best when I have it with a meal like a barbecue or a rotisserie chicken.”
Best High-Proof: Jim Beam Single Barrel
With a high, 108 proof, Jim Beam’s first single barrel bottling still has a soft flavor profile. It’s a harmonious swirl of char, oak, and sweet caramel corn flavors. This bourbon is also precisely what McKay seeks out in his favorites.
“There are only about three things I want with my bourbons,” he says. “I want smooth, I want tasty, and I want the ‘it’ factor; that’s what you get here.”
Best Under $50: Four Roses Single Barrel
One of Kentucky’s proudest and most tenured producers, Four Roses has been around since the 1800s. Its single barrel might be the strongest offering in its decorated portfolio thanks to an uncanny balance of potency (100 proof) and smoothness from spending 10 years in barrels. Better yet, aromas of maple syrup and vanilla on the nose give way to ripe stone fruit on the tongue. Straight-up or on the rocks, it carries a delicate and lengthy finish that’s surprisingly nuanced.
This bourbon has also earned a treasure trove of awards including multiple golds and double golds at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Best Under $100: Noah's Mill
Pops of cinnamon and allspice leap out of this bourbon, flanked by mellow yeast, a little oak, and inviting vanilla. There are also flavors of toasted pecan and brûléed sugar, which merge into gentle notes of caramel and cream.
Formerly aged 15 years, Noah’s Mill is one of Kentucky-operated Willett Distillery’s finest work. “This amazing bourbon is essentially cask-strength at 114.3 proof but there is so much flavor in this bourbon, with every sip, you don't realize you are sipping on such a high proof spirit,” says Vitacca. “The burn is present but it's a good burn.”
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Best Bottled-in-Bond: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
To be considered a bottled-in-bond spirit, according to the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, bourbons must be 100 proof and spend four years or more in barrels, supervised by the U.S. government alcohol division. That means no adding coloring or neutral grain spirits, and assuring any spirit with that distinction is made on distillery property.
Insiders call bottled-in-bonds the best deal in bourbon, and the 12-year-old Elijah Craig is McKay’s favorite. “It’s just delicious, and you don’t need to pour very much," he says. Woodman is also a fan, noting, “It’s my go-to at work for its versatility (being equally sippable and mixable) and its affordability." She adds, "It's an accessible bourbon that I can use in any bourbon recipe."
Best Tennessee Bourbon: Heaven’s Door
Created in partnership with Bob Dylan, Heaven's Door is an award-winning line of stylish Tennessee straight, double barrel, and straight rye whiskey. They all stand out for their looks and appropriately lingering finish.
The 90-proof Tennessee bourbon proves the most memorable thanks to a big, round mouthfeel, strong butterscotch, cherry, and honey notes. It also spends a minimum of eight years in American oak barrels for a smooth, lasting taste.
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Best Wheated: Wyoming Whiskey Small Batch
Wheated bourbons swap in more wheat on the grain bill, usually in place of more rye. The Wyoming Whiskey Small Batch Bourbon presents a superior value compared to more famous names, is a robust 88-proof, and is versatile with food pairings including beef and dessert. Aged five years in oak barrels, it's full of creamy vanilla and caramel elements accented by floral nectarine flavors.
“I’ve never been much of a fan of anything wheat (Hefeweizen beer, wheat bread, etc.),” says Vitacca. “Until I tasted this—it blows away the competition.”
Best Eco-Conscious: Redwood Empire Pipe Dream
Named after the 14th tallest tree on the planet, Pipe Dream is built around a high-corn mash bill, aged for four to 12 years, and emerges with maple aromas, complex roasted pecan flavors, and a nice golden hue. “Smooth and complex,” its distillers say, “a true sipping whiskey.” Plus, for each bottle sold they plant a tree in partnership with Trees for the Future.
“Both myself and our company owner Derek Benham were raised with a strong appreciation of the outdoors,” says Head Distiller Jeff Duckhorn. “The location of our distillery, being directly in the Redwood Empire, combined with our passion for the outdoors made us want to honor a sense of place with our whiskey and embrace our roots.”
Best for Cocktails: Johnny Drum Private Stock
From Willett Family Estate, this Kentucky bourbon is a particular favorite of Vitacca's: he likes how the 101 proof stands up to anything he throws at it, and how its depth, character, and what he describes as “a multitude of flavors”—think ginger, caramel, peanuts, vanilla, honey and more—make for an incredible classic or mixology-driven cocktail. “My go-to cocktail bourbon is and always will be Johnny Drum Private Stock,” he says.
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Mark C. Anderson has been covering adult beverages for more than 15 years across six award-winning publications and five continents.