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These days, we take bourbon way too seriously. We argue incessantly about it on Twitter and Reddit. We tell people they are wrong for liking certain brands or drinking it a particular way. We spend exorbitant amounts on rare releases, then make fun of people for doing the very same. And we come to bars and liquor stores armed with a ridiculous amount of knowledge about the truth behind the stories distilleries weave. Some of this is actually helpful in understanding what's out there, while a lot winds up being useless bourbon bloviating.
Bourbon, and all whiskey really, is subject to passionate obsession as much as anything else that people have strong feelings about—music, food, cars, movies, etc. How you feel about bourbon is entirely subjective, although there are a few objective truths: it must be made from a mash bill containing at least 51 percent corn, aged in new charred oak containers (not barrels, even though virtually all bourbon is aged in them), distilled in the U.S., and meet certain proof requirements, which you can Google if you are interested.
Other than that, there is no wrong or right, despite what blowhards and bourboomers online might tell you. If you like to sip Pappy Van Winkle from a Baccarat crystal tasting glass, that’s just fine. If you prefer drinking Jim Beam out of a red plastic cup with a healthy pour of Coke, that’s cool too. Or vice versa–go ahead and make a cocktail with that $500 bottle if you damn well please. Just don’t let the haters whiskey-shame you for your personal preferences. However, if you are in the market for a little guidance as to what might be a quality bourbon to try, one that you can actually find for less than $100 per bottle (and mostly much less than that), here is an updated list of twelve bourbon brands to drink now.
Jim Beam’s Small Batch Collection was created by former master distiller Booker Noe in 1992, at a time when bourbon was struggling for relevance (hard to imagine now). There is no real meaning behind the term “small batch,” so for many brands it simply means smaller volume than other whiskies they produce. There are four Small Batch expressions available: Booker’s (barrel proof, filtered only for char), Basil Hayden (mild 80-proof, high-rye bourbon), Baker’s (relaunched as a single barrel release), and Knob Creek. While this last whiskey may not be the flashiest, it’s arguably the most consistently excellent. This 100-proof bourbon (and rye) got its 9-year-old age statement back in 2020 after it was removed for a few years, and some limited-edition 12 and15-year-old expressions came to market as well. Whatever the age, the rich caramel and brown sugar flavor, along with that signature Jim Beam nuttiness, shines through. There are several single barrel releases to choose from, if you want something closer to Booker’s with a higher ABV. And if flavored whiskey is your thing, don’t let anyone shame you–there’s even a Smoked Maple expression of Knob Creek for you to try.
Wild Turkey is a classic, unpretentious American whiskey brand that permeated the public’s consciousness well before Matthew McConaughey was named creative director back in 2016. The distillery’s affordable flagship expression is bottled at 101 proof (and has a new bottle design), giving this inexpensive, but always dependable bourbon a slightly hotter, spicier edge than other comparable whiskeys. Wild Turkey generally bottles liquid aged for at least six years, and the barrels are given the more intense No. 4 “alligator” char to help deepen the flavor as the whiskey ages. There are also some higher-end releases like Master’s Keep, the most recent of which was called One and was finished in toasted oak barrels (the new edition is due out this fall). Then there are smaller batch releases like the barrel-strength Rare Breed and the single barrel Kentucky Spirit to try. All that being said, you really can’t do much better than a humble bottle of 101 (don’t waste your time with the 81-proof version).
Bourbon fans know that you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a good bottle, and Evan Williams is proof positive of this fact. Jim Beam White Label is fine, but for around the same price this Heaven Hill whiskey just packs more punch and flavor (it’s a bit stronger at 86 proof). Evan Williams is a great cheap cocktail bourbon, and you can certainly sip it on its own. There are, however, some other really good expressions to try besides the classic Black Label. There’s the Bottled in Bond version, which brings the ABV up to 50%, 1783 which has the nebulous “small batch” designation but is bottled at 90 proof, and lastly the slept-on Evan Williams Single Barrel. While the bourbon will obviously differ depending on which barrel it comes from, this is a really good and affordable whiskey that you should try and compare tasting notes to the classic Black Label.
If it isn’t already, Four Roses Yellow Label should be your go-to budget bourbon (though the label isn’t actually yellow anymore). It’s great in cocktails, you can sip it on its own, and it is hands down one of the best bourbons you can find for the price. The Single Barrel is an excellent whiskey too, but for something tasty and more moderately priced check out Four Roses Small Batch. The distillery uses two mash bills and five yeast strains to create 10 different recipes to work with, and four of these recipes are used to make Small Batch. The newer Small Batch Select uses six recipes, it’s non-chill filtered, and it’s bottled at a higher 104 proof. Generally, the bourbon is about six to eight years old, with the spice from Four Roses’ high rye mash bill nicely complementing the fruity notes from the yeast. Of course, this distillery has its own unicorn bottle, and that comes in the form of the annual release of Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch. This is a blend of more mature liquid selected by master distiller Brent Elliott that is pretty hard to get your hands on, but a lovely sipping bourbon if you do. Details for the 2022 edition will be arriving soon, so stay tuned.
The Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery in Louisville is a small but charming operation with stills producing limited amounts of whiskey, but the main production facility remains the much bigger Shively distillery. And after years of shifting into different production phases, Michter’s is finally at the point where the whiskey produced in-house is making its way into bottles, along with sourced and contract distilled stock. The Michter’s range includes bourbon, rye, American whiskey, and sour mash whiskey. These aren’t the cheapest bottles you can find, but they are some of the best. The flavor profile of the US1 Straight Bourbon hits all the right notes—sweet, spice, vanilla, cocoa, and more. Go ahead and pick up a bottle of the 10- or 25-year-old bourbon if you can find it (sorry, you probably can’t), or the bold Barrel Strength Rye, but Michter’s US1 is what you should turn to for everyday drinking. And note, the release of the 10 Year Single Barrel Bourbon has been delayed until 2023, although there is one release of the 10 Year Rye this year.
Old Forester is a storied bourbon brand known for making inexpensive whiskey that doesn’t sacrifice flavor or quality. The distillery has released some truly fantastic new expressions in its Whiskey Row series, like the 1920 Prohibition Style and 1897 Bottled In Bond, as well as the 117 Series which includes the recent Whiskey Row Fire expression. There’s also the annual Birthday Bourbon, one of those coveted unicorn bottles that people line up outside of liquor stores for the night before it hits shelves. But the core lineup has long been full of solid options. The Classic 86 Proof clocks in with slightly higher alcohol content (and more flavor) than your average baseline bourbon, while the Signature 100 Proof is a bartender’s best friend. Don’t forget to try Old Forester Rye as well, a 65-percent rye whiskey that is soft and sweet on the palate.
You haven’t fully explored the bourbon category until you’ve tried wheated whiskey—or in the case of Maker’s Mark, whisky (they spell it like the Scots). "Wheated" just means that wheat is used as a flavoring grain in the mash bill instead of the usual rye, along with the requisite corn and malted barley. Maker’s Mark uses red winter wheat, resulting in an instantly recognizable soft and sweet flavor with a nice, lasting finish. Sure, Pappy Van Winkle is also a wheated bourbon, but why even consider that when you can find Maker’s Mark virtually everywhere for a fraction of the price? If you’re looking for Maker’s with some extra kick, check out Cask Strength, an uncut bourbon that is still very approachable with a relatively low barrel proof of 108 to 114, or the 101 proof expression. Recently, the distillery has been innovating with the Wood Finishing Series, sort of a different take on Maker’s 46 which uses different proprietary wood staves to develop unique flavors. Last year’s FAE-02 was finished with double heat-treated French oak staves.
No bourbon list would be complete without a brand completely dedicated to barrel-proof whiskey, and Booker’s (part of the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection with Knob Creek) is one of the best. This is the OG of the collection, created by legendary master distiller Booker Noe at a time when such high proof bourbon wasn’t really what anyone was looking for. The whiskey comes out in four batches per year, although sometimes less, and usually is aged between six and seven years and clocks in between 120-130 proof. This is strong, but not undrinkable–add a little water if you want to tamp it down, or mix it up in a cocktail if you’re looking to go big. These bottles have gone up in price over the years, and the differences between each batch are subtle and nuanced, but overall Booker’s remains one of the most consistently high-quality barrel-proof bourbon brands out there.
There are bourbon brands that source their whiskey, slap a label on it, and call it a day. Then there are brands like Barrell Bourbon (part of Barrell Craft Spirits), which carefully select stock from various whiskey-producing states and countries, tastes and blends innovative combinations, and frequently releases new batches without being afraid of missing the mark. Barrell doesn’t have that problem very often though, as is the case with the newest bourbon, Batch 033 (a blend of 5 to 9-year-old bourbon from Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee). The brand doesn’t just do bourbon, however. There are rum and rye whiskeys, with the latter making its way into the always interesting Seagrass series that is finished in different types of barrels. If you’re looking to spend some dough on your whisky, check out the Gold Label series. The latest is a 16-year-old blend of bourbon that will likely set you back about $500.
Although Woodford Reserve operates on a site where bourbon has been made since the 1800s, the brand was first introduced in 1996 by parent company Brown-Forman (which also owns Jack Daniel’s and Old Forester). The whiskey has become a bar staple over the past 25 years, and the flagship bourbon is the main reason why. It’s sweet and just a little bit spicy, with prominent notes of vanilla and fruit. There’s also a Double Oaked version, which is matured for a second period of time in lightly charred barrels, as well as rye, wheat, and malt whiskeys. The distilling team also experiments with mash bills and maturation with Woodford’s Master’s Collection and Distillery Series, as well as the annual Batch Proof Series—the current release takes the proof up from Woodford’s standard 90.4 to 118.4. And if you’re looking to taste outside the box, head to Kentucky to find a bottle of the new Distillery Series Toasted Oat Grain Bourbon, which as the name indicates is bourbon made with oat grain that’s finished in a toasted barrel.
There are a lot of expensive, difficult to find bottles of bourbon that come out of the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Pappy Van Winkle, WL Weller, the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection… all very good bourbons (and some ryes), but exorbitantly expensive and nearly impossible to get your hands on. Fortunately, the core eponymous expression from Buffalo Trace is a solid workhorse bourbon that plays well with other ingredients in a cocktail and is solid enough to drink on its own. The mash bill for this bourbon is said to be low in rye content, so the predominance of corn makes this a sweet but not saccharine sipper. Sure, you could spend more money on an age statement bottle of Eagle Rare (also produced at the distillery), but if you’re looking for high-quality and affordable whiskey give Buffalo Trace Bourbon a try.
This relatively small Washington State distillery can hold its own with the best of the best in the bourbon world. Its craft whiskey that tastes as good as the big brands (although it should be noted Moet Hennessy now owns the company). Don’t get me wrong, there are some very good craft whiskeys out there, but there are also a lot that just have a slightly immature palate, which could stand a few more years inside a barrel. Woodinville Straight Bourbon, however, tastes fully developed and mature. The grains come from a farm in Quincy, WA, and production takes place at the Woodinville Distillery, which is not far from Seattle. Then the barrels are shipped over the Cascades to Central Washington to mature in the fluctuating climate there to ensure interaction between whiskey and wood. There are several limited-edition barrel-finished bourbons as well like port and moscatel, as well as a cask-strength version. But really the 95 proof core bourbon is a lesser known bottle that you should get more familiar with.
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