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Bourbon doesn't need to be made in Kentucky, despite a common misconception, but the Bluegrass State is certainly the source of some of the best examples of the category. Maybe it's the limestone-filtered water, maybe it’s the decades of practice, but there’s just something about Kentucky that makes for great bourbon.
“There are numerous historical factors that made Kentucky the epicenter of bourbon production, but as luck would have it, the water and the climate also make Kentucky uniquely suited to produce world-class whiskey,” says Sean Josephs, founder of Kentucky-based Pinhook Bourbon. “Large beds of limestone in Kentucky naturally filter iron out of water, an element that creates unwanted flavors in whiskey, and the limestone enriches the water with calcium and magnesium, minerals that add complexity of flavor during fermentation of the grains.” The state’s seasons also contribute to the quality of the spirit. “Once inside the barrel, the whiskey expands during the warmer months, pushing through the layer of char into the pores of the wood and contracts during the colder months bringing with it natural color and the signature rich caramelized flavors and spices that make bourbon a truly unique whiskey,” says Josephs. “Kentucky has extremely cold winters and very hot summers, which is the ideal climate for accelerating aging and imparting the bourbon with the most intense and vibrant flavors.”
The state produces a range of styles for every taste, from the classic, vanilla-heavy, full-bodied bottlings, to spicy, high-rye versions, to head-clearing cask-strength sippers.
And there are just so many ways to drink it. "One of my favorite responses on the best way to enjoy bourbon was from Fred Noe of the Jim Beam family," says Lauren Parton, general manager of Devereaux at the Viceroy Chicago. "He said there's no wrong way as long as you are enjoying it. Personally, I love whiskey neat or over one rock—but when it's a hot Chicago day, I throw in some lime juice and simple syrup, and shake it up like a Daiquiri."
No matter how you like to drink it, there’s a Kentucky bourbon out there for you. Because it packs a big punch, Noah's Mill Small Batch Bourbon is our favorite.
Here are some of the best.
Best Overall: Noah's Mill Small Batch Bourbon
ABV: 57.15% | Tasting Notes: Allspice, Vanilla, Brûléed sugar
Kentucky bourbon is characterized by big flavors, rich mouthfeel, and—sometimes—high proof. Noah's Mill is a small batch bourbon that checks all these boxes, boasting a nose replete with allspice, cinnamon, and oaky vanilla. On the palate, expect to encounter textbook bourbon notes of toasted pecan and brûléed sugar, which then segue into a rich finish of caramel and cream.
Produced by the family-owned Willett distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, Noah's Mill has won multiple gold medals at the San Fransisco World Spirits Competition. “This amazing bourbon is essentially cask-strength at 114.3 proof," says Anthony Vitacca, an award winning bartender based in California. "But there's so much flavor in this bourbon that you don't realize you're sipping on such a high proof spirit. The burn is present, but it's a good burn.”
Best Budget: Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon
ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Dried orange peel, Spice
Whether you’re looking for a reliable bourbon to order at a dive bar or a go-to house bourbon to stock your own liquor cabinet, it's impossible to go wrong with Buffalo Trace. An iconic Kentucky bourbon, it features notes of vanilla and dried orange peel upfront, leading to a dark, spiced finish. Buffalo Trace is full-bodied and goes down smooth, making it perfect for sipping solo (try it over ice to enhance the citrusy notes), with a beer back, or in a cocktail like an Old Fashioned. It's a safe budget buy wherever you may find yourself, and the bargain price and ubiquitous availability belie the quality and complexity of this fine spirit.
Best Splurge: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon
ABV: 52% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Dark chocolate, Almonds, Dark cherry
Forget Pappy: this is the bourbon worth a month’s rent. Though the blend is different every year, the quality is always top-notch. Each annual release is a blend of barrels that were laid down on one particular day. (This year, for example, the bourbon is composed of spirit created on April 16, 2009.)
The Birthday Bourbon is ridiculously culty, so while the official MSRP is a bit over $100, you’ll be hard-pressed to encounter a price like that in the wild (unless you have a really great working relationship with your local state-run liquor store). If you're able to snag a bottle or have the cash to secure one at the market price, pour yourself a tasting glass and savor it. Sniff, sip, add a dash of water to bring out the nuanced flavors—really enjoy the event. And if you’re looking for a birthday gift for us, why not pick up a second bottle?
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Best Single Barrel: Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey
ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Baked apple, Dried nuts, Cinnamon
As its name suggests, a single barrel is a bourbon that comes from one barrel instead of the usual blend of many different barrels that go into a batch. Consequently, each barrel will taste different, although there's usually some consistency that allows the discerning imbiber to identify the brand. In the case of Evan Williams, each bottle lists the barrel number, 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 Bottled-In-Bond: Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bourbon
ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Cinnamon, Toffee, Vanilla, Dried fruit
If you see “bottled-in-bond” on a label, it means the spirit was made by one distiller at one United States distillery within one “distillation season,” has been aged for at least four years in a federally bonded warehouse, and was bottled at 100 proof.
Made at Heaven Hill Distillery (producer of Elijah Craig and cult favorite Old Fitzgerald, among others), Henry McKenna’s bottled-in-bond offering blows past those requisite four years, clocking in at ten full years of aging. While it definitely features bourbon’s signature vanilla notes, it also packs a wallop, so feel free to tame the fire with an ice cube or two. It’s strong enough to handle the dilution and still show off its spicy, toffee-rich flavors.
Related: The Best Irish Whiskeys
Best Cask Strength: Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
ABV: 54.5% | Tasting Notes: Orange peel, Cherry, Tobacco, Roasted corn
"Cask strength bourbon" refers to a whiskey that has not been cut with water before bottling to reduce the ABV, resulting in a proof that may be well over 100. If you’re looking for smooth but strong, turn your attention to the hand-dipped wax seal of Maker’s Mark’s amped-up brother: Maker’s Mark Cask Strength. Like the flagship bottling, it’s full-bodied and packed with caramel and brown sugar flavors. On top of that, it adds the mouthfeel and structure that results from being bottled at barrel strength—108 to 114 proof, depending on the barrels.
Don’t let the heat stop you from sipping this powerful whiskey straight, but do take advantage of its elevated alcohol levels by mixing it into some cocktails. Try it paired with lemon and honey in a Gold Rush, or enjoy it in a frosty, far-too-drinkable Mint Julep. It’s friendly enough for even cask strength neophytes to handle it.
Best Craft: Town Branch Kentucky Straight Bourbon
ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Oak, Caramel, Toffee, Brown sugar, Cherry
One of the newer labels on the block, Town Branch launched in 2012, and was the first new distillery to open in downtown Lexington since Prohibition. The brand focuses on small batch production and emphasizes the human touch, eschewing automation in favor of manually hand-filling barrels and bottles. The bourbon is low on the rye, giving it a mellow, smooth, and sweet character.
“It’s medium-bodied with a subtle dry finish,” says Anthony Baker of hospitality studio Cocktail Professor. “It leaves just enough room for a bar spoon of maple syrup.” It’s surprisingly affordable, so you don’t have to feel bad about experimenting with a spoonful of maple syrup like Baker, or pouring it over a big ice cube on a hot day.
Related: The Best Rye Whiskeys
Best High Rye: Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon Whiskey
ABV: 50.5% | Tasting Notes: Maple, Old Leather, Charcoal
"I really love Wild Turkey 101,” says Drew Johnson, head bartender at The Musket Room. "This is a super affordable, dynamic, and tasty over-proof Kentucky straight bourbon.” Crafted using the same high-rye mash bill that legendary distiller Jimmy Russell stubbornly adhered to even during the wheated bourbon craze of the '80s and '90s, Wild Turkey's flagship whiskey boasts assertive notes of cinnamon, maple, old leather, white pepper, and charcoal.
And the unexpectedly smooth bourbon is warming and spicy on its own—no ice needed. “I usually like to enjoy this one neat, but I always stand by the opinion that it totally depends on the individual's preference,” Johnson says. If your preference is for cocktails, Wild Turkey's high alcohol also means it can stand up to powerful flavors, so try it in a Whiskey Smash with seasonal fruit, mix it with a potent ginger beer in a Bourbon Buck, or close out the night with a 101 Manhattan. (Just try to sip slowly, for your own sake.)
Best Wheated: Larceny Small Batch Bourbon
ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Honey, Caramel, Stone fruit
A wheated bourbon is essentially the opposite of a high-rye bourbon: the mash bill features wheat as the secondary flavoring grain instead of the usual rye (along with the required minimum of 51 percent corn, plus some malted barley). This imbues the bourbon with a softer, slightly sweeter flavor profile, with less emphasis on the trademark spice notes of rye. If you haven't tried a wheated bourbon before, pick up a bottle of Larceny: made by Heaven Hill, this bourbon uses one-third more wheat than other similar bourbons, according to the distillery. It’s aged for six years and has notes of honey, caramel, and even stone fruits.
Best for Sipping: Four Roses Small Batch
ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Stone fruit, Baking spices, Sweet oak, Caramel
Bourbon nerds, get your hands on one of Four Roses’ Small Batch offerings. Each bottle features a code that reveals the blend of bourbons that went into the bottle, along with not only the mash bill within each specific bourbon but also the yeast strains that were used and the minimum age. The hitch? You just have to know how to read it. We won’t go through it all now, but if you’re interested, do look it up. Once you learn how to decode the clues, you may begin to feel like a bourbon forensic pathologist.
But the bottle is worth picking up even if you aren’t a complete bourbon geek: it offers a delicious blend of spice and fruit that languishes on your tongue. Baker calls it “full-bodied” and “semi-sweet,” adding that it’s “so rich that a touch of my usual maple syrup would put them over the top.” Lengthen out the notes of stone fruit with a splash of soda water, or sip it straight for dessert.
Related: The Best Whiskeys for Beginners
Best in Cocktails: Pinhook Bohemian Straight Bourbon
ABV: 47.5% | Tasting Notes: Toasted oak, Orange zest, Cocoa, Almonds
At 95 proof, this robust bourbon is packed with warm, oaky flavors and notes of orange zest. It’s cozy and welcoming, but fruit-forward enough to work in a range of cocktails, from a classic Old Fashioned to a tangy Whiskey Sour to something more exotic like this take on a Pina Colada. If you like the Pinhook bottle you try, be sure to stock up on it, as the distillery offers new vintages of bourbon and rye every year.
“Pinhook takes a winemaker's approach to whiskey,” says founder Sean Josephs, who has experience as a sommelier, and also was the former owner of celebrated NYC whiskey bars Char No 4 and Maysville. “We embrace what nature has given us and make the best whiskey we can as a celebration of the year's harvest. We don't have a set target flavor profile or predetermined proof for any of our whiskeys, so each vintage is an opportunity to create a unique whiskey that will never be made again.”
Best for Mint Juleps: Eagle Rare 10 Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Citrus, Cola, Leather, Mint
As the unofficial Kentucky state cocktail, the Mint Julep simply must be made with Kentucky bourbon. And Eagle Rare is the way to go—if you can get your hands on a bottle. The citrusy aroma pulls you in, and the palate welcomes you with a hit of sweet grass, cola, and leather, all leading to a zesty finish where you might just encounter a hint of mint. Those tongue-tingling flavors are wonderful on their own, but they particularly shine in a sweet and frosty Mint Julep.
Considering its quality and age (at least ten years), this bourbon is remarkably affordable, and makes a handsome addition to any home bar. If you’re not the Mint Julep type, try pairing it with a pale or amber ale for a superlative Boilermaker.
Related: The Best Bourbon Books
While Kentucky offers up no shortage of excellent bourbons for the novice and expert consumer alike, it's hard to find fault with the Noah's Mill Small Batch from Willett Distillery (view on Caskers), a classically-inclined bourbon with a bold take on the traditional flavor profile and some extra body from the elevated proof. If it's a budget offering you're seeking out, the Wild Turkey 101 (view at Drizly) is an affordable no-brainer and a bottle we all should have on our bars at all times.
What to Look for
While Kentucky bourbons typically hover around 45 percent, there are some that jump up to 50 percent or more. If you’re looking to mix your bourbon into a cocktail, this is a good thing: higher proof bourbons can stand up to strong flavors and make themselves known in a drink. But if you’re simply looking to sip on a bourbon, you might want to stick to a more gentle ABV (or plan to temper your high-proof bottle with a nice piece of ice).
Not all bourbons carry age statements, but those that do offer a helpful indication of the drinking experience you can expect: more contact with the barrel means more of those woodsy vanilla notes. The generally accepted optimal age for bourbon is anywhere between 5-12 years. But if you’re willing to pony up a good chunk of change, you can also find bourbons that are nearly 30 years old.
If you see “single barrel” on a label, then you know that the bourbon in that bottle came from one particular barrel, and isn't a blend of multiple barrels as most bourbons are. That means the bourbon is unique, as every barrel has gone on its own journey, expanding and contracting with the heat in its own specific way. If you’re interested in tasting the pure expression of a distillery, try one of their single barrel bourbon offerings.
What makes bourbon different from other whiskeys?
Bourbon is a category of whiskey that's defined by several different types of regulations (geographical, grain composition, aging, proofing, etc.), just like scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, Japanese whisky, etc. Specifically, bourbon produced for consumption in the U.S. must comprise at least 51 percent corn, must be aged in charred new oak barrels (for a minimum of two years to be called "straight bourbon"), 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. It is not the case, though, that all bourbon needs to be produced in Kentucky, despite the well-circulated rumor. (It’s not a protected place-name, like Champagne or Cognac.)
How is bourbon best enjoyed?
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 economy-priced bourbons will often beg to be mixed into a cocktail: you can go classy and whip up a full-bodied Old Fashioned or Manhattan, but let's not forget the simple pleasure of a bourbon-and-cola enjoyed while watching the sunset on a humid summer's evening.
How long does it last after opening?
Bourbon isn’t like wine or vermouth: it won’t turn into vinegar if you don’t drink it in time, and it’s fine to keep out of the fridge on a shelf. But once it is opened, it will start to evaporate and oxidize, which will affect the flavor after a year or so. If you want to extend the shelf-life of your bourbon, keep it in a cool, dark place, and store it upright so that the cork remains intact.
Why Trust Liquor.com?
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.
Justine Sterling is an experienced spirits writer and cocktail recipe developer. She has been writing about the wide world of drinking—from new spirits to cocktail trends to wines and beers—for over a decade. Her home bar is always stocked with a range of spirits, from the staples (like Kentucky bourbon) to the downright strange, and she has serious opinions about Martinis.
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