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Kentucky is not the only place you can find real bourbon (despite a common misconception), but it’s certainly where you can find some of the best bottles—and some of the most celebrated. 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 (iron 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. He said there is no wrong way as long as you are enjoying it,” says Lauren Parton, general manager of Devereaux at the Viceroy Chicago. “I love that. Personally, I love whiskey neat or over one rock, but when it's a hot Chicago day, throw in some lime juice, simple syrup and shake it up like a Daiquiri." No matter how you like to drink it, there’s a bourbon here for you. Here are some of the best.
Best Overall: Jefferson's Reserve
ABV: 45.1% | Tasting Notes: Toasted vanilla, Honeyed fruit, Caramel
Founded by Trey Zoeller and his bourbon historian father, Chet, Jefferson’s produces some wonderfully innovative bottlings, such as the Ocean, which spends time sloshing around on a boat while traversing the globe, and the richly tropical Old Rum Cask Finish. But you can’t go wrong with the whiskey that started it all. It’s full-bodied with toasted vanilla flavors upfront and a long, comforting finish.
It’s great on its own or in a refined Manhattan. And it’s not cheap but also not too expensive. So you can feel free to enjoy its honeyed fruit and caramel notes regularly. No need to save this bottle for a special occasion. The end of a Tuesday is special enough.
Best for Mint Juleps: Eagle Rare
ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Citrus, Cola, Leather, Hint of mint
The unofficial Kentucky state cocktail, the Mint Julep simply must be made with Kentucky bourbon. And Eagle Rare is the way to go. The citrusy aroma pulls you in, then upon sipping, you get a hit of sweet grass, cola, leather, a zesty finish—and just a hint of mint. Those tongue-tingling flavors are wonderful on their own, but particularly in a sweet and frosty Mint Julep.
Considering its quality and age (at least ten years), this bourbon is quite affordable. If you’re not the Mint Julep type, try pairing a shot with a pale or amber ale for a superlative Boilermaker.
Best Budget: Buffalo Trace
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 home bar, Buffalo Trace is the way to go. It’s a classic Kentucky bourbon, with notes of vanilla and dried orange peel upfront and a dark, spiced finish. It’s 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. Plus, the price and wide availability can’t be beat for the complexity of the spirit’s flavor.
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Best Craft: Town Branch
ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Oak, Caramel, Toffee, Brown sugar, Cherry
One of the newer labels on the block, Town Branch launched in Lexington, KY in 2012. It was the first new distillery to open downtown since Prohibition. The brand focuses on small batch production and emphasizes 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 few ice cubes on a hot day.
Best Splurge: Old Forester Birthday
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 comprised of spirit created on April 16, 2009.
While the official MSRP is a bit over $100, you’d be hard-pressed to find that in the wild unless you have a really great working relationship with your local state-run liquor store. If you are 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.
Best High Rye: Wild Turkey 101
ABV: 50.5% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Rye spice, Baking spice, Oak char
"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.”
Strong as it is, you’d never know this bourbon was 101 proof upon first sip. Made with a high rye mash bill and aged in deeply charred barrels for a heavy hit of delicious vanillins, this unexpectedly smooth (and affordable) 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.
The high alcohol also means it can stand up to powerful flavors in a cocktail. 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.
Related: The Best Rye Whiskeys
Best Bottled in Bond: Henry McKenna Single Barrel
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 (home to Elijah Craig and cult favorite Old Fitzgerald, among others), Henry McKenna’s bottled-in-bond offering blows past those four years, aging for ten years. While it has bourbon’s signature vanilla notes, it also packs a wallop. Tame the fire with an ice cube or two. It’s strong enough to handle it and still show its spiced, toffee flavors.
Best Cask Strength: Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
ABV: 54.5% | Tasting Notes: Burnt caramel, Brown sugar, Roasted corn
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 still full-bodied and packed with caramel and brown sugar flavors. It just happens to be bottled at barrel proof—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 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.
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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 start decoding the recipe, you start feeling like a bourbon spy. But the bottle is worth picking up even if you aren’t a complete bourbon geek. It’s 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
Runner Up, Best for Sipping: Elijah Craig Small Batch
ABV: 47% | Tasting Notes: Fresh apple, Candied ginger, Marmalade, Nutmeg
This easy-drinking whiskey is named for Elijah Craig, a Baptist preacher who is often credited with inventing bourbon—even though there’s no real proof to back up that claim. The legend claims that Craig was the first to age his whiskey in charred oak barrels. Again, there’s no proof. But it’s a nice story, all the same. And the whiskey that has come out of that story is downright delicious.
With aromas of fresh apple and flavors of candied ginger, marmalade, and nutmeg, the brand’s flagship bourbon is great for sipping on a porch or in front of a roaring fire.
Best in Cocktails: Pinhook Bohemian
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 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 this bottle, be sure to stock up on it. 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.”
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Best Single Barrel: Elmer T. Lee
ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Leather, Honey, Cloves
"A well-balanced, smooth bourbon,” says Parton. “For those that are fans of Blanton's but can't seem to get your hands on it, Elmer T. Lee is a great alternative. Both are made from the same distillery with a similar mash.” She’s referring to the Buffalo Trace distillery, which is home to many of the great Kentucky bourbons as well as master distiller, Elmer T. Lee, for which this bourbon was named. He helped popularize and mass-produce single-barrel bourbons with Blanton’s, which he named after the man who originally hired him, so it’s only fitting that he should receive his own namesake single-barrel bourbon. “To me, it's the ideal bourbon,” Parton says. “Just enough baking spice notes and sweetness to drink it with one cube."
It’s hard to go wrong with any of the bourbons on this list. Each one has its own merits, its own uses, its own occasions. But you won’t regret buying the Jefferson’s Reserve (view at Drizly). It’s just so satisfyingly delicious and, for lack of a better word, bourbon-y. If you’re looking for something with a bit more of a kick, though, 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.
Not all bourbons carry age statements, but it can be a good 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. It is not 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 a single barrel bourbon from them.
What makes bourbon different from other whiskeys?
While bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky, it does have to be produced in the United States, according to the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits. It also must be primarily distilled from corn (over 51 percent of the mash bill), aged in new, charred oak containers, distilled to no more than 80 percent ABV and aged at no more than 62.5 percent ABV. Aside from that, distillers have free rein to do as they please with a few nuanced rules.
Can bourbon be made outside of Kentucky?
Absolutely. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. It’s not like Champagne or Cognac.
How best to drink bourbon?
While you can, of course, drink bourbon in any way you like—heck, you bought the bottle, do with it as you will—there are a few classic ways to enjoy it. Try sipping it straight or with a splash of water (like you might with scotch), pour it over a big hunk of ice, or mix it into a cocktail. You can choose something as simple as a Bourbon & Soda, Bourbon & Coke, or Bourbon & Ginger, or opt for a more complicated cocktail such as an Old Fashioned, a Whiskey Sour, or a Manhattan.
How long does it last after opening?
Bourbon isn’t like wine or even 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.
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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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