Your grandpa drank it, it's popular among people who wear flannel, and it has something to do with Kentucky...but what is bourbon, exactly? By definition, bourbon is a type of American whiskey made from at least 51% corn, complemented by grains like malted barley, rye, and wheat. 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 a characteristic sweetness from the corn, which is absent in other American spirits such as rye whiskey. Those elements also help make it different from Scotch and other popular types of whiskey like Canadian and Japanese whisky.
Our top pick is the Henry Mckenna Single Barrel because it has a smooth and structured flavor profile and a reasonable price.
With origins in Bourbon County, Kentucky, the production of bourbon has since expanded across numerous states with bottles of various flavors and price points available. Here are the best bourbons to try today.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bourbon
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Honey, Vanilla
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 available and offers a smooth, sumptuous, structured flavor profile.
Xania Woodman, bar manager and lead bartender at O.P. Rockwell Cocktail Lounge & Music Hall, describes the 10-year-old bourbon as rich and buttery, "like butterscotch candy," but with an appreciable bite. And for all its attributes, the price point isn't as exorbitant as some other celebrated bourbons. “It just goes to show you,” says Woodman, “that an astronomical price doesn't necessarily indicate actual quality.”
Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Butterscotch, Cherry, Vanilla
The darling of the bourbon category in decades past, Maker's Mark has largely been eclipsed in the affections of today's generation of connoisseurs by a dizzying range of cult bottlings and hard-to-find special releases—but don't count out this modern classic just yet. This venerable "wheated bourbon" (a bourbon that uses wheat as the secondary grain instead of rye, resulting in a sweeter flavor profile) is delicious on its own, and also plays well in any classic whiskey cocktail. The best part about it is the price—this bourbon punches way above its weight class. Expect to pay no more than around $30 a bottle, which is quite reasonable for something so versatile, complex, and well crafted.
Best for Sipping
Widow Jane 10-year Bourbon
Region: Kentucky/Tennessee/Indiana/New York | ABV: 45.5% | Tasting Notes: Cherry, Light Char, Vanilla
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 in upstate New York. 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.
Related: The Best Bourbons Under $50
Best for Cocktails
Michter's US*1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45.7% | Tasting Notes: Sweet corn, Peach, White pepper
Michter’s is certainly not the cheapest bourbon you can find, but for a special-occasion cocktail made with premium ingredients, it's hard to imagine a better base spirit than their flagship US1 bourbon. Aged somewhere between four and six years, it's not so barrel-dominated as to override your other ingredients—and it's bottled at a higher proof, which allows it to stand up to the addition of vermouth, simple syrup, citrus, or whatever other cocktail component you're reaching for. There are some really excellent older expressions available, like the 10- and 25-year-old bottles, but your bank account will be grateful if you stick with the US1 for your drink of choice.
Best Under $50
Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Cocoa, Maple Syrup, Stone Fruit
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) with a rich smoothness resulting from spending 10 years in barrel. 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 presents 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 Small Batch Bourbon
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 57.15% | Tasting Notes: Allspice, Vanilla, Brûléed sugar
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 the Kentucky-operated Willett Distillery’s finest offerings. “This amazing bourbon is essentially cask-strength at 114.3 proof," says Vitacca, "but there's so much flavor in this bourbon that you don't realize you are sipping on such a high proof spirit. The burn is present, but it's a good burn.”
Related: The Best Rye Whiskeys
Best Barrel Strength
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 60-65% | Tasting Notes: Toast, Apple, Vanilla
Named after a Baptist preacher who famously founded a whiskey distillery in 1789, the Elijah Craig line from Heaven Hill distilleries was introduced in 1986, becoming an early player in the fledgling "craft whiskey" movement. The brand currently offers four different bourbons, including their high-octane, 12-year-old "single barrel" expression, which is one of McKay’s favorites. "It’s just delicious," he says, "and you don’t need to pour very much."
“It’s my go-to at work for its versatility (being equally sippable and mixable) and its affordability. It's an accessible bourbon that I can use in any bourbon recipe." —Xania Woodman, bar manager and lead bartender at O.P. Rockwell Cocktail Lounge & Music Hall
Wyoming Whiskey Small Batch
Region: Wyoming | ABV: 44% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Orange, Espresso
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 barbecued ribs, honey-garlic mushrooms, and even 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, et cetera,” says Vitacca. “Until I tasted this—it blows away the competition.”
Related: The Best Bourbons for Beginners
Frey Ranch Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Nevada | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Sourdough, Cinnamon, Dried banana
The term "estate" is well-known in the wine world: essentially, "estate wines" are those which are made by the same person (or family, or winery) who grew the grapes. But "estate spirits" aren't a familiar concept to most consumers, and for most of the last hundred years or more it's been basically impossible for someone in the US to purchase a bottle of whiskey that was (legally) distilled by the same small family operation that grew the grains. With the farm-to-glass movement in full swing, however, fascinating and nuanced spirits are now being produced by estate distilleries across the nation.
The Frey family has operated a farm in Nevada since 1854 (incredibly, before Nevada was even a state), but only recently began setting aside some of their grain to use in distillation. Raising their own grain means that the family can control every aspect of production, and their signature four-grain bourbon—featuring a mash bill of 66.6% corn, 12% malted barley, 11.4% rye and 10% wheat—is a study in complexity and terroir. Expect an intriguing nose bursting with cherries and sourdough, which leads into a rich palate featuring notes of vanilla, cinnamon, and dried banana.
Redwood Empire Pipe Dream Bourbon
Region: California/Indiana | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Peanut, Vanilla, Apple
Named after the 14th tallest tree on the planet, Pipe Dream is built around a high-corn mash bill, is aged for four to 12 years, and emerges with maple aromas, complex roasted pecan flavors, and a nice golden hue. Besides its classic bourbon palate, you also get to enjoy the tasty benefit of helping the planet: For each bottle sold, the distillery plants 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 Kentucky Bourbon
Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 43.3% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Cinnamon, Oak
Each bottle of this Evan Williams bourbon lists the 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 Tennessee Bourbon
Heaven's Door Tennessee Bourbon
Region: Tennessee | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Pepper, Cinnamon, Honey
Created in partnership with Bob Dylan, Heaven's Door is an award-winning line of stylish Tennessee straight, double barrel, and straight rye whiskeys. They all stand out for their looks and their long, lingering finishes.
The 90-proof Tennessee bourbon proves the most memorable thanks to a big, round mouthfeel boasting strong butterscotch, cherry, cinnamon, and honey notes. Its eight years spent in American oak barrels result in plenty of spice character coupled with a smooth, lasting taste.
Related: The Best Whiskey Stones
Among the many esteemed bourbons on this list, Henry McKenna Single Barrel offers the most superlative presentation of sturdiness, richness, and elegance. Although its accolades and awards in recent years may have inflated the price a bit, it’s a truly excellent whiskey, aged for a decade and bottled at 100 proof, with flavors that run the gamut from oak to spice to sweet vanilla.
What's the difference between bourbon and whiskey?
Simply put, all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Legally, bourbon produced for consumption in the U.S. must comprise at least 51 percent corn, must be aged in charred new oak barrels, must be distilled to no more than 160 proof, must be entered into the barrel at no more than 125 proof, and must be bottled at 80 proof or more. No color or flavoring can be added, unlike other categories of whiskey including Canadian and scotch. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States—not just Kentucky (as many people believe).
How is bourbon made?
A mixture of the grains listed above are milled and then combined with water and yeast and allowed to ferment—turning it into what basically amounts to a low-ABV beer. This liquid, known as mash, is then distilled, typically twice, in column or pot stills. Once it reaches the appropriate strength, the distillate, known as white dog (or "white whiskey," i.e. moonshine), is put into new charred oak barrels and allowed to age. (There is no minimum length of time the spirit has to be aged, excepting that it must be aged for a minimum of two years to be called "straight bourbon.") Once it is mature, the whiskey is either "cut" with water or bottled at barrel strength.
What's the best way to drink it?
A rich, high-proof bourbon loves a big, gorgeous piece of ice, while a more elegant bourbon will shine with just a few drops of water, or might even be best served neat. Meanwhile, your more affordable bourbons just beg to be mixed into a cocktail: you can go classy and whip up a full-bodied Old Fashioned or Manhattan, but bourbon also shines in a Whiskey Sour or a Mint Julep.
Why Trust Liquor.com?
Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries to taste and discover for years. His work has appeared in many different national outlets covering trends, new releases, and the stories and innovators behind the spirits. His first love remains whiskey, but he is partial to tequila, rum, gin, cognac, and all things distilled.
This roundup was updated by Jesse Porter, who finds that keeping a bottle of bourbon on his desk next to his computer helps improve his overall workflow and thus writes it off monthly as a business expense.
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