Spirits & Liqueurs Bourbon

The 11 Best Bourbons for Beginners in 2021

The essential bottles every whiskey newcomer should start with.

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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. We spoke to some bar industry experts to find out what the best bottles for beginners are, and what makes them stand out.

Best Overall: Knob Creek

Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Courtesy of Wine.com 

  • 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

Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon

Courtesy of Wine.com 

  • 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

Wild Turkey 101

 Courtesy of Reserve Bar

  • 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, start with the 101.

Read Next: The Best Bourbons Under $50

Best Sipper: Woodford Reserve

Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Courtesy of Reserve Bar 

  • 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

Old Forester 100 Proof Signature Bourbon

 Courtesy of Wine.com

  • 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

Eagle Rare 10 Year Bourbon

 Courtesy of Wine.com

  • 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 bourbon beginners will be very happy when they taste this.

Read Next: The Best Whiskey Glasses, According to Experts

Best High Rye: Basil Hayden’s

Basil Hayden's Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

 Courtesy of Reserve Bar

  • 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

Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

 Courtesy of Wine.com

  • 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 the size the batch is, this bourbon is a good place to begin your bourbon journey.

Best Wheated: Maker’s 46

Maker's 46 Bourbon Whisky

Courtesy of Drizly.com 

  • 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

Buffalo Trace Bourbon

Courtesy of Drizly.com

  • Region: Kentucky
  • ABV: 45%
  • Tasting Notes: Anise, Vanilla, Orange

“The best bourbon for beginners is Buffalo Trace,” says Shannon Tebay, head bartender at Death & Co in New York City. “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 Sourced: Belle Meade

Belle Meade Straight Bourbon Whiskey

 Courtesy of Wine.com

  • Region: Tennessee/Indiana
  • ABV: 45.2%
  • Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Maple, Apricot

Belle Meade is a product of Nelson's Green Brier Distillery in Nashville, which sources its whiskey from MGP in Indiana. “It’s an incredibly well-balanced bourbon with a bit of complexity, thanks to the higher percentage of rye in the mash,” says Alex Jump, bar manager of Death & Co in Denver. “The youngest age (of the bourbon in the blend) is at least 6 years old, so it’s got lovely notes of vanilla, cola and biscuits. Great for mixing in cocktails but also completely wonderful over an ice cube.”

Read Next: The Best Gifts for Bourbon Lovers

Why Trust Liquor.com?

Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries for the past six 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.

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