We take bourbon way too seriously these days. 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, and how you feel about it is entirely subjective. But there are a few objective bourbon truths: It must be made from a mash bill containing at least 51 percent corn, aged in new charred oak containers (not necessarily barrels, even though virtually all bourbon is aged in them), and distilled in the U.S.; and it must meet certain proof requirements, which you can Google if you are interested.
Other than that, there is no wrong or right, despite what blowhards online and at bars 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. Don’t let anyone 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 (or much less than even that)—here is an updated list of 10 great bourbon brands to drink in 2020.
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. Yeah, 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 whiskeys they produce. There are four Jim Beam Small Batch expressions available: Booker’s (barrel-proof, filtered only for char), Basil Hayden’s (mild, 80-proof, high-rye bourbon), Baker’s (recently 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, with rich caramel and brown sugar flavor, along with that signature Jim Beam nuttiness, shining through. The 100-proof Knob Creek lost its 9-year-old age statement a few years ago, but Beam is bringing it back. And if you want something closer to Booker’s with a higher ABV, there are several Knob Creek single barrel releases to choose from, the most recent of which was Quarter Oak, a bourbon finished for four years in smaller casks to increase the interaction between the whiskey and wood.
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 flagship expression is bottled at 101 proof, 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. It also has some higher-end releases like Master’s Keep, the most recent of which was Cornerstone Rye, and the smaller batch Russell’s Reserve lineup. Though you really can’t do better than the humble 101 (don’t waste your time with the 81-proof version), look out for these recently announced bottles this year: Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond, Rare Breed Rye, and Russell’s Reserve 2003.
Evan Williams may be Heaven Hill’s star budget bourbon, but Elijah Craig, which is aged for a few more years, is worth the extra $15 to $20. Elijah Craig used to carry a 12-year-old age statement, but the brand dropped it a few years ago and whiskey fans lost their collective shit. This is the new reality for bourbon drinkers, and it’s only as bad as you convince yourself it is. Case in point: The no-age-statement Elijah Craig is still very good, and I challenge anyone to distinguish between the two in a blind taste test. But there are limited releases of the 18- and 23-year-old expressions floating around out there, and the Barrel Proof is definitely worth a try for a blast of high-proof Heaven Hill whiskey that retains the 12-year-old age statement. (New to the Elijah Craig family is a rye whiskey, a solid addition made using the “barely legal” rye recipe of 51 percent rye grain.) In an era of limited release bottles that get a lot of press but are nearly impossible to find, it’s smart to spend your hard-earned cash on something reliable and affordable like this sweet, fruity bourbon.
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 20 bucks. The Single Barrel is an excellent whiskey too, but for something tasty and more moderately priced, check out Four Roses Small Batch. The distillery used two mash bills and five yeast strains to create 10 different recipes to work with, and four of these recipes were 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.
The new Michter’s Fort Nelson Distillery is up and running in Louisville, a small operation with stills producing whiskey that will be bottled in a few years’ time, although the main production facility remains the much bigger Shively distillery. The Michter’s range includes bourbon, rye, American whiskey, and sour mash whiskey. And while these aren’t the cheapest bottles you can find, they are some of the best. The Michter’s team carefully selects contract-distilled barrels of whiskey before blending the liquid into an incredibly balanced flavor profile that 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.
Old Forester is a storied bourbon brand known for making inexpensive whiskey that has seen a big resurgence over the past few years. And it’s finally getting the respect it deserves by releasing some truly fantastic new expressions in its Whiskey Row series, like the 1920 Prohibition Style and 1897 Bottled In Bond. There’s also the annual Birthday Bourbon, one of those coveted unicorn bottles that people line up outside of liquor stores to get 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 the new Old Forester Rye while you're at it, 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 chooses 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. And recently, the distillery has been furthering its innovation with the lengthily named Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series 2019 Limited Release: Stave Profile RC6, which is basically Maker’s finished with different proprietary wood staves to develop unique flavors.
Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr.
There is so much great bourbon coming out of the Buffalo Trace Distillery. All of the liquid that will become future Pappy Van Winkle and ultimately get sold for thousands on the secondary market is distilled there. Likewise for the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, a series of remarkable bourbon and rye whiskeys that is also impossibly hard to find. Then there’s the eponymous flagship Buffalo Trace bourbon, yet another inexpensive whiskey of very high quality. But the best bourbon produced by Buffalo Trace is the E.H. Taylor, Jr. line, with the Small Batch Bourbon leading the way. This is a bottled-in-bond bourbon (meaning it’s 100 proof and at least four years old) that is named after an important figure in distilling history. It’s also an incredibly flavorful whiskey that never disappoints. All of the whiskey in the E.H. Taylor lineup is bottled-in-bond (with the exception of the Barrel Proof, which has a higher ABV), including experimental limited releases like Amaranth and Cured Oak.
There are bourbon brands that source their whiskey, slap a label on it, and call it a day. Then there are companies like Barrell Bourbon, which carefully selects stock from various whiskey-producing areas, tastes and blends innovative combinations, and frequently releases new batches without being afraid of missing the mark. Barrell doesn’t deal with that problem very often though, as is the case with its newest bourbon, Batch 023, a blend of 10-, 12-, and 15-year-old bourbons. The brand doesn’t just do bourbon, however. Barrell Rye Batch 003 (aged between four and 14 years, sourced from America, Canada, and Poland) is in the works, as well as 18-year-old Whiskey Single Barrels and the Barrell Whiskey Private Release series (blends finished in different barrel types) that are due out this spring.
Woodford Reserve is a relatively new brand. Although the distillery operates on a site where bourbon has been made since the 1800s, Woodford wasn't introduced until 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 a Double Oaked version too, which is matured for a second period of time in lightly charred barrels—all supplemented by 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 123.6.
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