For those who are new to whiskey, diving into the bourbon category can be an intimidating prospect. Bourbon is so popular nowadays, and everyone has an opinion about what is the best bottle, what’s a waste of money, and all the different flavors that you should pick up when you are tasting. But bourbon is actually a style of whiskey that is accessible to anyone, no matter what your experience is. You may even already be familiar with our top choice Knob Creek. We spoke to some bar industry experts to find out what the best bottles for beginners are, and what makes them stand out. Here are our top picks.
Best Overall: Knob Creek
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Corn, Fruit
Knob Creek is part of Jim Beam’s Small Batch Collection. This 9-year-old bourbon is a great place to start for anyone interested in the category. You will get a bit of oak on the palate here, but nothing that overpowers the classic flavors of vanilla, caramel and dried fruit. This bourbon works as well in a cocktail as it does sipped in a glass neat.
Best Single Barrel: Four Roses Single Barrel
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Spice, Cherry, Chocolate
Carlos Lopez, bar manager of Stiltsville Fish Bar in Miami Beach, recommends trying Four Roses’ Single Barrel expression. “It has a smooth and long finish, which provides the perfect entrance to anyone knocking on the Bourbon Trail’s front door,” he says. While bottles will vary based on what barrel they come from, Four Roses is consistently a good choice.
Best Budget: Wild Turkey 101
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50.5% | Tasting Notes: Oak, Spice, Vanilla
Given its higher proof and low price, Wild Turkey 101 is an excellent budget entry into the bourbon category. Don’t be put off by the ABV, because this whiskey backs up its heat with a complex palate and smooth finish. Wild Turkey is a classic for a reason, and while the brand has many other expressions to try, we recommend starting with the 101.
Read Next: The Best Bourbons Under $50
Best Sipper: Woodford Reserve
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45.2% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Molasses, Pepper
Woodford Reserve is a really high quality sipping bourbon and an easy entry point for the whiskey newcomer. That’s because the palate of this bourbon is sweet and soft, with just a bit of spice lingering in the background. The proof is just high enough to augment the flavors without creating an overly hot sipping experience.
Best Value: Old Forester 100 Proof
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Apple, Spice, Oak
“Old Forester must be the best bang for your buck, so if it turns out bourbon is not your thing it’s no big deal,” says Chris Keller, bartender at Osaka Ramen in Denver. “It’s an authentic bourbon with excellent flavor. Take a sip, then add an ice cube to feel the flavor develop.” There are a variety of expressions with different ABVs, but the 100 proof version is one of the best.
Best Age Statement: Eagle Rare
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Orange, Honey
“Eagle Rare goes down smooth and leaves awesome light caramel, toasty notes that make you feel loved,” says Katsumi Yuso Ruiz, bartender and co-owner of Curio Bar, Roger's Liquid Oasis and Brass Tacks in Denver. This bourbon, made by the Buffalo Trace Distillery, is aged for at least 10 years. It might cost a little more than other bottles, but who says bourbon beginners don't deserve the quality stuff?
Best High Rye: Basil Hayden’s
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Baking Spice, Vanilla, Butterscotch
Basil Hayden’s is another entry in Jim Beam’s Small Batch Collection. The higher amount of rye in the mash bill gives this bourbon a spicy kick that goes well with its sweet character. “I would choose Basil Hayden’s as a good beginner bourbon,” says Bryan Walls, lead bartender at Barnsley Resort in Adairsville, Ga. “It’s only 80 proof so it’s not too hot. It’s very smooth and easy drinking. I prefer it served on the rocks with an orange slice.”
Best Small Batch: 1792 Small Batch
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 46.85% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Oak, Ripe Fig
“1792 Small Batch from Bardstown is a whiskey that drinks higher than its price tag,” says Mike Vacheresse, owner of Travel Bar in Brooklyn, N.Y. The term “small batch” doesn’t really have a defined meaning other than the batch of barrels used is smaller than for other expressions from the same distillery. Whatever size the batch is, this bourbon is a good place to begin your bourbon journey.
Best Wheated: Maker’s 46
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Cherry, Vanilla, Caramel
“Maker's 46 is a great entry-level bourbon,” says Brendan Bartley, head bartender at Bathtub Gin Speakeasy Bar. Like regular Maker’s, this is a wheated bourbon (made with wheat as a flavoring grain instead of rye), but French oak staves are added to the barrel for a few months to augment the flavor. “The French oak gives the whiskey some more interesting notes, like baking spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon, with the addition of soft fruits like apple and pear,” says Bartley. “For those starting out or those well versed, this is an interesting, rich and layered whiskey for everyone.”
Read Next: The Best Bourbons
Best for Cocktails: Buffalo Trace
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Anise, Vanilla, Orange
“The best bourbon for beginners is Buffalo Trace,” says Shannon Tebay, head bartender at the American Bar at The Savoy in London. “It’s bottled at 90 proof, giving it enough structure to stand up in a cocktail without being so boozy that it’s unpleasant on its own, especially with an ice cube or two. Its high percentage of corn in the mash bill (estimated at around 80 to 90%) results in a whiskey that has a lot of structure, relative sweetness, and lower spice factor compared to bourbons with higher rye contents. This combination of factors makes it extremely user-friendly for drinkers who are new to the category.”
Best Barrel Finish: Legent Bourbon
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 47% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Dried Fruit, Spice
“[Legent] is a lesser-known bourbon that blends Japanese techniques and traditional Kentucky bourbon,” says Joshua Lopez, bar manager at Osaka Nikkei Miami. “It’s finished in sherry and red wine casks, and its tart notes lend to a beautiful finish on the rocks or in an Old Fashioned.” The bourbon is made at the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky.
Best High Proof: Old Grand-Dad 114
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 57% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Pepper, Tobacco
This budget bourbon from Jim Beam is a fantastic way for the novice whiskey drinker to dive into higher-proof spirits. Old Grand-Dad 114 clocks in at 114 proof, as indicated by the name, which is high but not overpoweringly so. This higher proof, along with the high rye mash bill, allows the complex flavors of this bourbon to shine—and makes it a good choice for cocktails.
Best Craft: Frey Ranch Bourbon
Region: Nevada | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Brown Sugar, Vanilla
Frey Ranch is a newer craft distillery located in Nevada, making grain-to-bottle whiskey on a family farm. The bourbon is made from a mash bill of four grains—corn, wheat, rye, and barley—all grown locally. While some craft bourbon can read a bit young and woody on the palate, this whiskey tastes fully mature and carefully produced. Anyone new to the category who would like to give a craft product a try should sample this bottle.
Best Bottled in Bond: Heaven Hill 7 Year Old Bottled In Bond
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Corn, peanut, caramel
Fans of Heaven Hill’s original six-year-old bottled-in-bond bourbon were sad to see it retired a few years ago, but the new-look bottle, now a seven-year-old bourbon, is very good too (although more expensive). Heaven Hill is a longstanding Kentucky distillery that makes whiskey under other labels like Elijah Craig and Evan Williams. For the newcomers, the bottled-in-bond designation means the whiskey is at least four years old, bottled at 100 proof, and comes from one distillery and one distilling season.
Knob Creek (view at Drizly) is the best bourbon for beginners to try. It’s affordable, and has all the classic bourbon flavors you want, from vanilla to spice to oak and caramel. It also is one of the few to bear a nine-year age statement, not always a mark of quality but in this case indicative of a properly aged bourbon.
What To Look For
Beginners to the bourbon category should look at the price, proof, and mash bill. There are so many good bottles out there that are extremely affordable, so there’s no reason to spend too much money. Don’t be afraid to go above the minimum 80 proof when starting out, it’ll provide more flavor as you sip. And make sure to try out different mash bills, from wheated bourbons to high-rye recipes.
How is bourbon different from other whiskeys?
Bourbon is specifically defined by law in the US. It must be made from a mash bill of at least 51 percent corn, aged in new charred oak containers (virtually always barrels), distilled to no more than 160 proof, and entered into the barrel at no more than 125 proof. Like other whiskey, it must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. No color or flavor can be added.
How much alcohol is typically in bourbon?
The minimum proof is 80, or 40 percent ABV. But from there bourbon can soar past 120 proof, particularly when you are dealing with cask-strength expressions that have not been cut to proof with water before bottling.
What's the best way to drink it?
Any way you choose! Think about trying it neat first to find its character, but then go ahead and add ice, mix it into a cocktail, or even add cola to it if that’s your preference.
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Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries to taste and discover for many 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.