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By definition, bourbon is a type of American whiskey made from at least 51% 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.
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Best Overall: Henry Mckenna Single Barrel
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 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: Maker's Mark
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Butterscotch, Cherry, Vanilla
Maker’s Mark differs from many other bourbons in that wheat is used as the flavoring grain instead of rye. The result is a sweeter whiskey that is delicious on its own or when used 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
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. 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
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 43.3% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Cinnamon, Oak
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 Tennessee Bourbon: Heaven’s Door
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 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 Under $50: Four Roses Single Barrel
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) 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.
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Best Under $100: Willett Noah's Mill
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 57.15% | Tasting Notes: Coffee, Vanilla, Raisin
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 High-Proof: Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 55% | Tasting Notes: Almond, Vanilla, Dark Chocolate
This high-proof bourbon from Wild Turkey is aged in char number four, or “alligator char,” barrels and bottled at a strong 110 proof. The deep char of the barrels and the strong ABV result in an assertive bourbon that has deep notes of fruit, chocolate, and smoke, and lingers on the palate well after your first sip. It’s also a single barrel expression, so expect subtle differences in each bottle.
Try this one side-by-side with classic Wild Turkey 101 to explore the world of differences in flavor that one distillery can imbue into different expressions.
Best Barrel Strength: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 60-65% | Tasting Notes: Toast, Apple, Vanilla
The 12-year-old Elijah Craig is one of 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 Wheated: 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 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
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, 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: Michter’s US1
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45.7% | Tasting Notes: Brown Sugar, Caramel, Plum
Michter’s is certainly not the cheapest bourbon you can find, but sometimes you want to use something a little more premium in your cocktails. The flagship US1 bourbon is a good option here, as it’s aged appropriately (somewhere between four and six years), and bottled at a higher proof that allows it to stand up to the addition of vermouth, simple syrup, citrus, or whatever other cocktail component you can think of. There are some really excellent older expressions available, like the 10 and 25-year-old bottles, but stick with the US1 for your drink of choice.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel is the best bourbon on this list. 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 must be made from a mash bill of at least 51% corn, aged in new charred oak containers, and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. 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 grains are milled and then combined with water and yeast and allowed to ferment, turning it into a low-ABV beer. This liquid, known as mash, is then distilled, typically twice, in a combination of column and pot stills. Once it reaches the appropriate strength, the distillate, known as white dog, is put into new charred oak barrels and allowed to age (there is no minimum length of time it has to be aged). Once it is mature, the whiskey is either cut with water or bottled at barrel strength.
What's the best way to drink it?
There is no right or wrong way to drink bourbon, so the best way is how you enjoy it. Bourbon is extremely versatile, and is delicious sipped neat, with a couple of ice cubes, or used in a classic cocktail like an Old Fashioned or any variety of new-school creations.
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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.
This piece was updated by Jonah Flicker, 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.