No other drink is as American as bourbon. Eastern Europeans can carry the vodka flag, the Scottish can bring the best scotch, but we’ll take a bottle of bourbon and a pigskin-loving bald eagle any day. And when you’re stocking your home bar with some Kentucky classics (though not always from Kentucky), there are bottles that deserve a spot on a shelf. Not all of these are hard to find (though many are), but they’re all extremely tasty, interesting, and worthy of a sip once in your life. Here’s our list of the best bourbon around.
Heaven Hill Green Label
This is the cheapest bourbon on the list, but it may end up being the one you work hardest to find. It’s really only available in Kentucky and made mainly to give the state’s residents a cheap, solid option for their traditional spirit. Pretty much every review puts this bourbon at a quality way beyond its price point, which, apparently, can go even lower if you find yourself in Kentucky. In fact, we’d say you’d be well within your rights to take a road trip to Kentucky and buy yourself a case. It’s cheap enough to make it financially viable, good enough that you couldn’t have too much, and rare enough that you’d probably need to travel to get it.
Whiskey in an oil can sounds like one of those classic marketing ploys where someone makes a cool bottle or package and then fill it with a mediocre whiskey. But we could avoid all that skepticism with Stillhouse. We’ve already tried their moonshine, which was delicious and made it onto its respective bucket list, so their bourbon is a natural addition to this bucket list. There’s a heavy sweetness to this bourbon, thanks to the coffee finish it gets. It’s a cheaper, high quality option that looks great on a bar cart and will be hard to throw away when you finally finish the can.
John E. Fitzgerald Larceny
Like we said, some bourbons on this list will be pricey, very pricey, but not all are. Want a tremendous bottle that’s less than 30 bucks? Get yourself some John E. Fitzgerald Larceny. From Heaven Hill, this wheated bourbon gets its name from John E. Fitzgerald’s propensity to sneak into warehouses and steal the best barrels for his use. The taste is approachable but still full of flavor. It’s like a Maker’s Mark killer. Seriously, this is a small batch bourbon you can, and should, get.
W.L. Weller 12 Year
You want Pappy but can’t get Pappy. It happens. Forlorn hunters should seek out W.L. Weller 12 Year. The wheated bourbon is about the closest you’ll come to experiencing what a young Pappy tastes like. That’s because it’s basically, for all intents and purposes, Pappy—or at least a slightly inferior Pappy. You see, W.L. Weller 12 Year is Pappy that didn’t quite make the cut to become Pappy. Just missing the Pappy threshold means Buffalo Trace used it to make W.L. Weller 12 Year. Super smooth and approachable, but still with plenty of complexity to make those tiny taste bud brains kick into gear.
Our main introduction to the Watershed Distillery was their bottled Old Fashioned, a great time saving premade cocktail though not exactly something you’d expect to come in a bottle (and not nearly as good when it does). Their bourbon is similar in that it shirks a few conventions. Most bourbons are made from a mix of different grains, but usually it’s varying levels of corn, with rye making up the rest. Watershed’s bourbon uses a few more. There’s corn, wheat, rye, barley, and the rarely used spelt, giving this a more diverse flavor than its competition.
Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey
The first bourbon to be distilled in New York makes this list for its high corn mash bill, at 90% corn and 10% malted barley. Bourbon, by definition, has to be at least 51% corn and most distillers we’ve seen hug that fairly closely. It allows them to customize their mash bill to fit their taste, since different grains produce different flavors. It’s rare to see a distiller opt for this much corn. What does that mean for you? This bourbon, like all bourbons with plenty of corn, has a sweeter profile, so if you have a sweet tooth, this could be the bottle for you. It’s also unique because it’s aged in much smaller barrels than normal. Smaller barrels means more surface to liquid contact. What you’re left with is a truly unique bourbon that’s very smooth. It might not be our favorite bourbon, but it’s something you should try and it’s far from bad.
Four Roses Single Barrel
Okay, you want a bourbon that’s a stunner and doesn’t break the bank? This is it. Four Roses Single Barrel rivals many more expensive bourbons at half the price. It has a high rye mash bill (35% rye) and definitely delivers on that spiciness, but it does so without having that overwhelm everything else going on. The nose offers up all sorts of notes, and the finish is nice and long. Don’t take our word for it; Four Roses Single Barrel has won medals at the Denver International Spirits Competition and the San Francisco World Spirits Competition along with being named an Ultimate Recommendation at the Ultimate Spirits Competition. We’re not saying it’s cheap, but it’s a steal for under 50 bucks.
Koval bourbon been raking up spots on our whiskey lists for a little while now, especially when it comes to experimental or unusual whiskeys. The reason is the grains they use. There’s the mandatory corn majority of 51 percent, but the rest of the mash bill is filled by millet, a grain mostly found in Asia and Africa. It’s very similar to corn in that it’s a sustenance grain, but the flavors it brings to whiskey are much different. Thanks to the millet, this ends up becoming a much fruitier bourbon than you’d normally find and a welcome change of pace.
High West Prairie Bourbon
As a distillery, High West seriously emphasizes the frontier aspects of bourbon, when it was a drink cowboys, settlers, and explorers drank around the campfire. They nail it, too. The bottle looks pretty much exactly like what a bartender would slide to you in a saloon and the whiskey is excellently constructed with the exact right balance of heavier, sweeter flavors and fruity lightness. That’s likely thanks to the proprietary blending process that produces each bottle, as well as the high corn bourbons used in that process.
Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Woodford Reserve makes the list for bull-headed quality. They’re not messing around with different grains in the mash, don’t finish their whiskey in experimental casks, and haven’t imported a distiller from Scotland to bridge the gap between American and international whiskeys. They just made a ridiculously good bourbon. It’s sweet and spicy where you want it to be, is beautiful to look at, and retains the edge of a slightly higher proof whiskey. We know people who have sworn off every other bourbon and they like to remind us why every time they open a new bottle.
King’s County Straight Bourbon
Virtually any product from King’s County can be hard to track down, so expect to do some work to get a bottle of this one, especially if you can’t readily get yourself to the Brooklyn distillery. That trip might be worth it if you pride yourself on your ability to decipher the flavors in a whiskey. We’ve heard more flavors traits listed for this particular whiskey than for most we’ve encountered. It seems like this is a bourbon you have to sit with and sip slowly to really pick apart what’s in there.
Want to taste pure bourbon? Pick up a bottle of Booker’s. Booker’s was the first bourbon to be bottled straight from the barrel. It’s not cut or filtered. The cask strength bourbon is obviously pretty powerful stuff, and it delivers a raw and smoky drinking experience. Singed tastebuds aside, Booker’s is actually a fairly complex bottle of booze, with nice little notes of coffee you can pick up. Booker Noe, the man who created the whiskey, first gave it as a holiday gift to his friends, and we’d imagine you’d make someone very happy if you did the same. Just make sure you share a drink with them.
Bulleit Barrel Strength
Not too long ago, someone described what a “panic beer” was to us and it’s an idea we haven’t been able to get out of our heads. For the record, it’s the beer you order when the waiter comes over and you haven’t had a chance to look at the tap list yet. To extend that idea a bit, Bulleit is probably our panic bourbon, and Bulleit Barrel Strength is what we order after we panic and order a Bulleit, then remember they make more than one kind of bourbon. It’s more complex, higher proof, and retains the reliability of the Bulleit name. You could do a lot worse in a panic.
With numerous awards under its belt, Blanton’s—or, “Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon,” as it was originally known—is deserving of a spot on any Bourbon lover’s bar. Since it’s a single barrel bourbon, there can be slight variations, but we’ve found the nose to be packed with delicious vanilla and caramel notes, and, while the finish leaves a little to be desired, the overall aroma and taste are more than fantastic. Even if you don’t want to drink it often, the bottle looks mighty fine on any home bar, as the unique bottle shape and iconic horse and jockey topper are hard to miss. Not to mention, Frank Underwood drank it in House of Cards, and it’d be wise to agree with Frank.
Jefferson’s Ocean: Aged at Sea
The obvious Jefferson’s bourbon here would be Presidential Select, seeing as how it’s the most prized and the most pricey. That wouldn’t be the wrong choice, but we’re going with something a little more interesting and with more of a story to tell when you pour someone a glass. Jefferson’s Ocean: Aged at Sea is almost equally delicious and far more interesting. Jefferson’s took the filled barrels and sent them on a container ship around the world to 30+ ports and across the equator four times. The idea being that as the contents of those barrels swirled and sloshed with the rocking waves, more liquid would come in contact with the sides of the casks. More contact, more character and depth of flavor. A bunch of baloney? You can’t knock the results, captain.
George T. Stagg
The finest of Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection, George T. Stagg is a high proof beast that opens up like a folded paper fortune teller with a drop of water. It’s rich and loaded with dark fruit and other punchy notes. There’s a burn, hell it has an ABV of around 70%, but it isn’t like taking a flamethrower to your tongue. Consistently highly rated, George T. Stagg is a rich bourbon perfect for cold winter nights.
Michter’s 10 Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Michter’s standard bourbon offering is a perfectly acceptable bottle to keep in the house. We’ve also been burned more than once buying an expensive whiskey that doesn’t hold up the way you want it to, so we’d say it’s the standard bourbon that gives us the confidence to recommend their 10 Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon. The flavors have gotten more time to mature and develop and you’re getting a richer, more attractive color palette, both without having to leave the comfort of the Michter’s name.
Black Maple Hill 16-Year-Old Small Batch
If there were no Pappy, this might be the bourbon that people lost their minds over. Black Maple Hill is shrouded in mystery. There’s little info out there on the independent label (actually a non-distiller producer), and the ingredients, sources, and blending is not shared with the public. This version, the 16-year-old small batch, was a limited production that was only available in California. It packs a nice spicy punch, so we’ll go ahead and assume there is a decent amount of rye that goes into it. But that’s it. That’s all we’ve got. All we can tell you is it’s really, really good. It will be pretty damn hard to find, however, so if you have the opportunity to try it, do it, and if not, try to at least sample the standard Black Maple Hill expression.
Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 Year
Let’s just get this one out of the way. Considered by many to be the world’s finest bourbon, the 20-year-old hooch is the stuff of legends. Pappy hunting is now a pastime among bourbon fans, and while any Pappy is good Pappy, this is the nicest of the bunch. Its sweetness and finish that seems to last 20 years itself are almost worth the $100 price tag for a pour we’ve seen at some establishments. So how do you get a bottle? Well, you could steal one, like the 222 bottles that went missing a few years ago, but we’re not advocating you go to jail over some bourbon. Your best bet is to shell out the cash for a bit at a good bar or join a list somewhere and pray you get a bottle eventually. There doesn’t seem to be any interest in upping production to meet demand, so it’s not like it will just flood the shelves one day. Is it worth the price tag or is it just hype? That’s up to you, but we will say it’s the best we’ve ever tasted.
A.H. Hirsch Reserve
Want a bottle for your shelf that announces to the world that you’re not f’ing around? Try getting your hands on a bottle of A.H. Hirsch Reserve. (The fact that it’s no longer produced is your first hurdle; the price is your second.) It’s really expertly balanced, however, while leaning just a bit on the dry side. The aroma is powerful and memorable. Basically, if you made a cocktail with it someone might have a heart attack. There’s also a Humidor Edition which comes in a mahogany case with a cigar, but then you’re just showing off.