Each part of the world has its own signature spirit, often decided by the type of crops that grow in that particular land, depending on the temperature and climate there. For example, Sake is produced in Asia by fermenting rice. Vodka originated from Russia in the 14th century and can be made from cereal or potatoes.
Champagne comes from the region of Champagne in France where the perfect type of grapes grow for the production of this drink. Whisky originates from Scotland, and bourbon is the drink that is distilled in America.
What is Bourbon?
Bourbon is a type of American whiskey that is made primarily from corn. As the saying goes: “All bourbon is said to be whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon”. So it can get pretty confusing, right? I know I was confused at first. The main thing to remember is that whisky is made in Scotland from rye, and bourbon is made in the US from corn.
That is the easiest explanation, but it is just a little more complex than that. We will look at how bourbon is made to see the different nuances. We also covered an article on scotch whisky for more detailed information on whisky, so we will not repeat it here.
The Legal Requirements
Just like other legalized spirits in the world, bourbon had to be approved by the US regulations for becoming a recognized spirit. Every country has its own laws concerning alcoholic beverages, so we won’t dwell on too many details about legalese. The only thing we will briefly mention is that bourbon is recognized as a spirit produced in the US and its requirements defined by the Federal Standards Of Identity for Distilled Spirits of the United States are as follows:
- It has to be produced in the US.
- It has to be made from a mixture of grains that consists of at least 51% corn.
- It has to be aged in new and charred oak barrels
- It has to be distilled up to a maximum of 160 US proof (or 80% alcohol by volume).
- Once entered in the container for aging it cannot pass 125 proof (or 62.5% alcohol by volume).
- It has to be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof or more (or 40% alcohol by volume).
Distilling of bourbon has supposedly started in the 1800s in Kentucky by Scottish, Irish, and Welsh settlers who brought their techniques of producing whisky from back home. Since in the American South corn is their crop of choice, they modified their ingredients for the distilling process and came up with the new spirit which they named bourbon.
It is not sure how they came up with the name, but it is speculated that it either came from Bourbon County in Kentucky or Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Either way, it is a popular southern spirit that is appreciated throughout the world.
How is Bourbon Made?
Just like whisky, bourbon is aged in new, not previously used charred oak barrels, but they are made of at least 51% corn as whisky is made primarily from rye. It can be produced in any of the 50 states of the US, but 95% of bourbon production comes from the state of Kentucky.
Bourbon has no specific requirements for the aging process, but they usually range anywhere from three months to four years in order to be sold as bourbon.
It can also come as ‘straight’ bourbon, which means that it has been aged less than four years, or ‘blended’ bourbon, which contains at least 51% straight bourbon and added coloring and flavor. The longer the spirit is aged, the more color and flavor it contains, which comes from the wood of the barrels used.
The shorter the aging period the less expensive but also less flavourful the end product. Needless to say, there are many different types of bourbon sold in the US, and they cater to every budget.
Now let’s take a closer look at the best bourbon brands we consider you should try out right now.
10. Woodford Reserve
Although its first distillery dates back to 1812 and was located on the National Historic Reserve of the Woodford Reserve Distillery, the new site has been introduced in 1996 by the company Brown-Forman. They also own Jack Daniels and Old Forester, and their staple has become a favorite for the last 25 years.
What differentiates them from other distilleries is their own touch of a special craft, which consists of 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley. The sweetness of the corn, mixed with the spices of the rye and the nuttiness of the malt balance out to build a flavourful base on which they have crafted their spirits.
There are hints of vanilla and fruit that balance the spiciness perfectly. Their most popular versions are the Double Oak, the Master’s Collection and Distillery Series, and their annual Batch Proof Series.
9. Barrell Craft Spirits
A Kentucky Bourbon, this spirit is versatile, to say the least. The company is known for trying new blends and playing with interesting flavor combinations, so you should definitely give it a try. Based in Louiseville, Kentucky, Barrell Craft Spirits is a fairly new and innovative distillery. They pride themselves on catering to the people’s changing tastes and wants.
Just because something was popular decades ago doesn’t mean it cannot be modified. They have ventured outside the box and have no regrets. They have explored different distillation methods, barrel types, and aging environments. Each distinct flavor profile is unique and they are released as limited editions, so get your hand on it while you can.
Their newest batch 024 has a deep flavor of caramel and dark sugar with a hint of orange scent. The finish has notes of tobacco and toffee, so a mature drink for the lovers of high-rye bourbon.
8. Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr.
This brand is produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, which produces lots of great bourbons. The single barrel E.H. Taylor is one of their most popular products, and that is because it offers a perfectly balanced mix of sweetness and woodsy flavor. E.H. Taylor, Jr. was a true visionary and built his empire in the late 1800s.
His methods were ahead of his time, which gained him the title of “Father of the Modern Bourbon Industry”. He was responsible for pushing for higher standards in the bourbon industry and the passage of the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897.
Among his innovative ideas were the copper fermentation tanks, modernized grain equipment, improved sour mash technique, and the first steam heating system that is still used in barrel warehouses today. If not sure which of their expressions to try, we suggest the Amaranth or the Cured Oak, they will not disappoint you.
7. Maker’s Mark
For the real bourbon lovers out there, you must try this brand’s wheated version of whisky. Now, you might wonder, what does wheated mean? It is simply just that wheat is used as a flavoring grain that is added to the corn and malted barley mash instead of the more popular rye. The red winter wheat they use adds a sweet and soft flavor to the spirit.
The price is another reason many people favor this brand over their competitors. This small-batch bourbon is produced at the Beam Suntory distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, and it is one of the newest brands around as it was introduced on the market in 1958.
It is aged for roughly six years, and they produce three varieties: the original (45% alcohol by volume), a mint julep flavored expression, and Maker’s 46 (47% alcohol by volume).
6. Old Forester
One of the most affordable bourbons on the market, Old Forester has reinvented themselves in the last few years with some new expressions. The 1920 Prohibition Style and the 1897 Bottled in Bond are just a couple of examples of their newly marketed products. Their base woodsy notes are underpinned by oak and sweet corn and hints of vanilla and orange flavors will please your palate.
Their spicy, chocolatey, and praline notes are very much appreciated by their customers. But their old-time classics are still going strong, just check out the reviews for their Classic 86 Proof. Their higher alcohol concentration is preferred by hardcore bourbon aficionados, while the Signature 100 Proof is one of their best sellers.
Michter’s distillery has been around for many decades, but in the last few years the company has undergone some major changes. Their new Louisville Ford Nelson Distillery opened only last year, with Dan McKee as their new master distiller. The revamp has proved to work in their favor.
Sometimes a new vision is needed, and their new creative recipes are quickly becoming fan favorites. Although on the more expensive side, they pride themselves with top of the line quality products. Their balanced flavor profile includes vanilla, cocoa, and spice in a lovely blend that melts on your palate. Go ahead, live a little, and give their 10 or 25-year-old profile a try, it’s worth the money.
4. Four Roses
One of the best budget brands, the Four Roses Yellow Label is one of those spirits which you can drink for your everyday enjoyment. Great on its own, or a good base for cocktails such as the Old fashioned, one of my all-time favorites mixed drinks, it can become your go-to staple.
Since 1888 the company has been a predominant name on the bourbon scene. Handcrafted for decades, it is the only distillery that combines 5 yeast strains with two separate grain recipes.
Out of their 10 distinctive recipes, the flavors vary from spicy to fruity, and they are all hand-selected by the master distiller. Another difference from other distilleries is in the way they store the barrels in their warehouse. They use single-story racks for the aging process, which provides the maturation process to be gentle and consistent. The result: a tasty and affordable end product.
3. Elijah Craig
Heaven Hill, the Kentucky distillery, introduced their statement Elijah Craig in 1986. Their sought-after 12-year-old expression was discontinued several years ago for unknown reasons, and it has been replaced by the younger version unaged statement. If we are to be completely honest, the taste is not all that different, but they at least compensated by introducing the 18 and 23-year-old release.
Although they are hard to find as they fly off the shelves as soon as they are restocked, their Barrel Proof is a great compromise. The Small Batch bourbon is simply adored because of its notes of caramel, mint, spice and oak flavors.
The limited releases are very popular these days, but unfortunately not as easily accessible to everyone. If you happen to be lucky enough to get your hands on one of those bad boys, you will literally savor the bottle to its last sip.
2. Wild Turkey
This unpretentious American classic bourbon is one of the most popular brands, and that is not only because they made Matthew McConaughey their creative director in 2016. It is mostly a combination of great price, high proof, and flavor which are the main reasons Wild Turkey 101 is one of the best sipping bourbons available.
This spirit has been produced by a distillery founded in 1869 on Wild Turkey Hill in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. It only started using its name in 1940, following a wild turkey hunting expedition, go figure! It is a flavourful bourbon and it exhibits aromas of vanilla, barley sugar, sweet spices, and cherry.
Their new releases are also worth a try if you can find them: Master’s Keep Bottled in Bond, Rare Reed Rye, or Russell’s Reserve 2003.
1. Knob Creek
If you’ve heard of bourbon, you’ve heard of Jim Beam. The distillery from Clermont, Kentucky is home to the most famous bourbon brand in the world. Knob Creek is their small batch brand which is aged for nine years in white oak barrels and bottled at 100 proof. It caters to the high-end liquor stores, even though it is not the most expensive expression available.
What makes it so sought after is the bold and rich full-bodied taste. With aromas ranging from rich wood and vanilla, and notes of maple sugar and roasted almonds, your palate will appreciate the fruity undertones, mixed with hints of cinnamon and spice.
Their most popular expressions are Knob Creek 9 year and 12 year Bourbon, as well as the Knob Creek Single Barrel Select Bourbon. There are a few more, all truly a treat for your senses.
We hope you enjoyed this quick virtual guide with the best bourbon brands in the world, now go have a real drink. Cheers!