Bourbon might as well be America’s version of Single Malt Scotch because it’s truly drinkable in many forms and boasts a flavor experience that’s deep and wide. Bourbon drinkers are no longer found just in bars along dusty roads in the south. In fact, those who imbibe cut a wide swath of socioeconomic status and lifestyles, taking into account that its devotees have grown exponentially over the past decade.
What is Bourbon Whiskey?
Unlike Scotch Whisky, Bourbon whiskey isn’t made primarily from malted barley. It uses a mash bill (a blend of grains) made predominantly from a corn and then aged in new charred oak barrels. Let’s also dispel the myth that all bourbon is from Kentucky. While it’s the heart of bourbon production, it’s not a requirement. Moreover, the requirements of its manufacture in the U.S. are actually quite stringent. Additionally, there are four key production requirements for bourbon.
1. Bourbon must use at least 51% of its grain mixture from corn.
2. It must be stored in new charred-oak barrels, though no aging timeframe is specified.
3. Bourbon must not enter the barrel for aging any higher than 125 proof (62.5 ABV); distillation should not exceed 160 proof (80% ABV).
4. Bourbon must not contain any additives, flavorings, or colorings.
The remaining ingredients may include other grains. Traditional choices include wheat, rye, malted rye, and malted barley. Some distilleries have used non-traditional grains such as rice, oats, millet, and triticale, a hybrid grain that uses rye and wheat. The aging in new charred-oak barrels means that the barrel is more likely to impart flavors to the bourbon than the second-hand barrels used to age single malt Scotch Whisky. If a bourbon uses wheat instead of rye, its flavor profile is on the sweeter or softer side. More rye-forward bourbons tend to be bolder and have a stronger aroma, and 20-35 percent rye in the mash bill is generally considered high rye. Both wheated and rye bourbons should be experienced neat, on the rocks, and in mixers without pigeonholing either.
Keep in mind that the bourbon experience takes time to sift through, and you will probably never get through everything that’s offered. The good news is that it’s a journey worth taking. Missteps are never bad experiences, and the great ones will stay in your imbibing repertoire forever. Here’s our list of the unsung heroes, the overblown celebrities, and the most approachable values in bourbon.
Most Underrated Bourbons
Wild Turkey 101
For a few days worth of Starbucks coffee, you can get one of the best bargain bourbons on earth. Wild Turkey might sound like the kind of booze you hammer after your girlfriend dumps you, but you’d be wrong. This high-rye whiskey has been made for over 60 years, and it’s aged between six and eight years in deeply charred American oak barrels. The spice of the rye content overshadows the sweetness, and that makes it a unique drinking experience. Caramel, honey, cinnamon, and mild oak transforms into black pepper, rye, and celery seed at the long back end. Drink this one neat in cooler months and on the rocks in summer, and you’ll realize it needs to be a year-round home bar staple.
Noah’s Mill Genuine Bourbon Whiskey
If you want a powerhouse that tastes just like it smells, then Noah’s Mill will make you a bit of a bourbon addict. Although there’s no age statement, no mash bill content disclosed, and no distillery named, it is one of the best bourbons we’ve ever tried. Burnt sugar, tobacco, and orange peel on the nose lead to the same palate experience with roasted nuts and vanilla added in. The pleasant and palpable burn from the 114.3 proof stays the entirety of the long and spicy finish. It’s not an easy bottle to find, so grab one when you can.
Nikka Coffey Grain Japanese Whisky
Nikka Coffey Grain qualifies as Single Malt Whisky in Japan and also falls within bourbon criteria in America. The 95% corn mash bill and new charred oak barrel aging result in one of the smoothest bourbon experiences we’ve had, belied by the minimalist bottle and label. The name comes from the style of still used (no coffee beans were harmed in the process). Notes of corn, hay, apples, and caramel permeate the nose, and the palate is rich with toffee, honey, caramel at the front end with vanilla, oak, and cloves at the back end. It ends with a long-ish finish with noticeable char, oak, and vanilla. It’s one of the most balanced and drinkable bourbons I’ve ever experienced. I’d consume the whole bottle if I didn’t have to wake up the next morning.
Eagle Rare 10 Year Single Barrel
Finding a 10-year bourbon that’s under a hundred dollars is a rare feat, and finding one that’s as good as this is doubly challenging. There’s so much to experience within, including raisins, caramelized brown sugar, and bread pudding on the nose, followed by applesauce, raisins, char, and maltiness in the flavor profile. At the end, expect mild sweetness, a hint of mint, and some delightful butter. You’ll want to unpack all the nuances over and over again. It’s just that good.
Most Overrated Bourbons
Bulleit bourbon just so happens to be the darling of the bourbon uninitiated. Sure, it’s drinkable but otherwise, it’s pretty underwhelming. It’s a tad too light on the nose for our liking, with honey, dried orange, licorice, and some mild oakiness. The thin aroma seems lacking upon first impressions. It’s also too bad that nothing jumps out at you on the palate, despite the fact that you can taste fruit, honey, pineapple, cinnamon, and some rye. The finish is medium to long with honey, rosemary, and then oak and rosemary trails. Its bourbon experience is deflated when measure against its appealing name and shapely bottle, but you can’t drink those.
Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Knob Creek isn’t bad. Its reputation, however, is overblown. It lacks some richness and complexity that we hope it surprises us with every time we crack open a bottle. The caramel-heavy and oaky nose are rich, but the palate disappoints with too much sweetness and vanilla, oak, and caramel that’s on the thin side. It tapers off into a disappointing finish that lacks complexity despite its length.
We might get pummeled for this, but we have to call it out. This Kentucky bourbon has become synonymous with American whiskey, but perhaps it hasn’t earned it. That hand-waxed bottle might make it the most tantalizing choice from the bar seat, but the combination of an overly sweet and ethanol-fumed nose isn’t a great draw. The sweet flavor that’s accentuated by oak, toffee, and vanilla isn’t helped by the thin mouthfeel. The finish seems to disappear immediately and then a strange heat emerges briefly. There are just too many things working against each other to make it anything more than a decent mixer. At least it’s not expensive.
Weller Special Reserve
There’s nothing wrong with this bourbon, but there’s also nothing spectacular about it. Buffalo Trace’s W.L. Weller brand has been overhyped quite a bit, and prices have soared while availability has gone in the other direction. While it might be the most affordable iteration of the line ($24), prices have inflated two or three times retail prices. It uses an undisclosed wheated mashbill and the proof is a decent 90. It’s smooth, mild, and has butterscotch and honey notes with a thin layer of oak and citrus. Nothing jumps out at you, but that’s part of its appeal. It’s very drinkable. Again, it’s hard to say anything bad about Weller’s Special Reserve, but in no world should you be paying more than its retail price.
Many will characterize Woodford Reserve as lacking any truly distinct character, but we appreciate its stratospheric smoothness whenever we pour a glass. Made in one of the oldest distilleries in America, the formula has been perfected. The mash bill is made up of 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley, and limestone-filtered well water is used to ferment the grains. The result is vanilla cream, butterscotch, charred wood, and leather on the nose, followed by honey, rye, espresso, and some mild sweetness on the palate. It’s a very approachable bourbon but also a tried and true one for the regulars. The refined look and feel of the bottle does not match the excellent price point.
Larceny Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Get a case of this as soon as you can. The drinking experience is like a dessert thanks to the boastful wheated mash bill that delivers notes of butterscotch, baked bread, caramel, honey, and bread pudding. Its finish is a combination of mild sweetness combined with a savory layer, something rather unique in the bourbon drinking experience. There’s a reason why it has won so many awards, including a Best Buy win.
Old Forester 100
For under $30, you’ll be blown away by how good Old Forester 100 is. Sister bourbon to Woodford Reserve in the Brown-Forman family, Old Forester 100 Proof has a nice balance of sweetness and spice. It works just as well in a mixed drink, especially a good Old Fashioned, as it does all by itself. You’ll pick up maple syrup, toasted pecan, oak, and black pepper on your flavor journey.
Four Roses Small Batch
There might not be a better everyday bourbon than this. It gets plenty of accolades, but the pleasure it bestows is beyond just about anything at this price. We’ve been through more than our fair share of bottles, and we can attest to Four Roses Small Batch’s excellence and consistency, as well as its tremendously balanced character. There’s a sweet caramel nose right away, paired with orange zest and a hint of apples. The palate is rife with buttery caramel and some barrel oakines, and then there’s some pepper and spice from the rye in the mash bill. At the front end of the finish are distinct butterscotch, and vanilla that trail off into cedar and oak. The end is delectably smooth. For around 30 bucks, it’s a complete steal.
Want to read more about the best bourbon whiskey? Click here for Cool Material’s Guide to Bourbon.