Bourbon, a true American liquor, is a crowd favorite especially in the South, where bourbon originated. One universal thing that unites people there is definitely a good bourbon. It is customary to offer your guests something to drink, celebrate happy or sad events, or relax and hang out for an hour or two after work with a drink in your hand.
Every place in the world has their own particular liquor, depending on climate and what crops are readily available and bourbon is definitely something else.
What is it About Bourbon That is So Special?
Ask anyone who is born and raised in Kentucky, and they will give you a lengthy explanation. The main thing to remember is that it is only produced in the United States, and it is the pride and joy of the South.
So next time anyone asks you, you can feel comfortable enough to explain to them what you learned here, even if you’re no expert. At least you will be able to differentiate bourbon from whiskey.
How is Bourbon made?
Just like its cousin the American whiskey, bourbon is made from corn. The rules are a bit different for bourbon than they are for whiskey. To get qualified as bourbon, the mash bill has to contain at least 51% of the total grains from corn, the rest can be a mixture of malted barley, rye or wheat. And 90% of the production of bourbon comes from Kentucky.
For the legalese of the US regulations to become a recognized spirit, you can also check out our article with the 10 best bourbon brands, so we will not get into it again here.
The main difference between bourbon and whiskey comes in the distillation process, which is made twice most of the time. The ageing is important as well. Bourbon has to sit and get the flavor from oak casks for at least two years, some even longer. This process also eliminates any tannins and gives it a smoother flavor. And charring the barrels gives the smoky aroma and caramelizes the liquid.
Some Bourbon Terminology
Now, for the seasoned bourbon drinker, the following terms are surely familiar. But for those of you who are interested in learning the terms to use when referring to “America’s Native spirit”, here they are.
Age or Statement
Most distilleries will display the amount of time the bourbon is aged. Usually, the longer time it spends in barrels, the better the taste, but there are always exceptions to this rule.
The barrel is an oak cask, in this case new, that is charred from the inside for maximum flavor.
There are some blended whiskies that are mixed from different offerings, as well as different types of grains, coloring and flavors.
This is the Act of 1897, a set of requirements which are to be followed in order to be qualified as a recognized spirit. They also need to be aged for four years in a state-owned warehouse and bottled at 100%proof, or 50 ABV.
The process which cools and heats the liquid for maximum purity. In this case, the alcohol that was created during fermentation is removed.
Mash or Mash Bill
The mixture of grains and the ratio they can be found in. Each distillery usually has their own specific ratio which gives them their signature.
Pretty straightforward, it refers to limited editions, or a selected number of bottles of a specific offering.
A mixture of grain meal and crushed malt that is generally added into a fresh batch for fermentation. Now that you can show off in front of your acquaintances that consider themselves connoisseurs in the bourbon area, you should also take these three things into consideration when heading to the liquor store for your purchase.
Do a bit of research on the brand you’re interested in and you’ll be surprised how some distilleries reduce their ageing process, but still offer very flavorful spirits.
Most expensive does not necessarily mean the best, it just means that some are produced with the purpose of becoming a base for a cocktail, while others are best for sipping.
In general, a higher proof makes a better on the rocks drink, while a lower proof is great for mixing.
Enough with the theory, let’s get down to business. Here are 25 top shelf bourbons you should give a try right now.
25. Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve
To start off our list we wanted to share one of the top bourbons that has a strong, bold taste. Aged for nine years, this dark amber liquor packs robust aromas of nuts, oak and vanilla. Despite its 120 proof body, it goes down smoothly and makes a great sipper.
24. Russell’s Reserve
A mid-range bourbon that is bottled at 90 proof, it offers you a nice balance of sweetness and spice with a hint of oak. Produced at Wild Turkey by Eddie and Jimmy Russell, master distillers that have two generations worth of experience, it is a great spirit to enjoy on its own or as a base, your call.
23. Booker’s Tommy Batch
This is a 2017 release that shocked some of their fan base. First, by jacking up the price from their more affordable bottles, but then by pleasantly surprising them with the taste. A light corn syrup mouthfeel is what jumps at you, but then it ends with a caramel and nutty flavor for a smooth finish.
22. Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style
This 115 proof was released during the prohibition era by distiller Brown-Forman. With woodsy notes that make up the base, the nuts, seasoned oak and vanilla are the prominent notes that finish off with lightly spicy aromas. A classic that is a real bargain and a great start for any novice.
21. Evan Williams
Great for both connoisseurs and novices alike, this unpretentious brand will please all. It is a best selling brand that is well priced, therefore accessible to everyone. This well-rounded medium bodied spirit varies in aromas ranging from brown sugar and caramel to vanilla and hints of mint.
20. Four Roses Small Batch
A predominant name on the Bourbon scene, Four Roses has been producing tasty and affordable spirits since 1888. The Small Batch has notes of cinnamon and dark fruits with hints of citrus on a rye base, and finishes with aromas of caramel and toffee.
19. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon
This distillery is known for their special craft of 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley that combine into perfect harmony. The Double Oaked version is a real treat with its hints of caramel and vanilla. Mellow spiciness with a smooth and woody aroma your palate will adore.
18. Old Grand Dad 114 Proof Bourbon Whiskey
This spicy high rye mash is not for the faint of heart. You can definitely enjoy it on its own, but it makes a great base for many different cocktails, such as the Old Fashioned or the Bourbon Sour. The complex nose of this 114 proof spirit offers you a burst of flavors on your palate.
17. Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon
For the adventurous type that likes to experiment with different flavors, try this unique and delicate blend of corn bread, menthol, mint along with hints of stone fruits and walnuts. It is a silky smooth spirit that flows into a light finish and aftertaste.
16. High West Yippee Ki-Yay
A nice rich amber color spirit with hints of rose gold looks good in any glass, but the taste is something out of this world. The simple aroma of brown sugar blended with peaches feels nicely on the palate. The stone fruits along the butter and cream give a lingering finish that reminds you of honey.
15. George T. Stagg
This is a top-shelf bourbon that comes out in a limited supply only once a year. So keep your eyes and ears open if you want to experience a unique flavor that can change from year to year. They are all aged for at least 15 years, and their dense and robust body will warm you all over.
14. E.H. Taylor Four Grain
This traditionally flavoured Bourbon is perfected by years of experience. Bottled-in-bond is something the distillery is responsible for, and they even advertise it on the bottle. A nose of bubblegum and sweet cherries on a rye base finishes off with oak notes for a little smoky texture.
13. Black Maple Hill 16 Year Old Small Batch
If you like a more intense flavor, you will love this small batch from the Black Maple Hill distillery. Although a bit challenging to find, this expression is surely worth the search. With notes of deep, dark caramel and peppery toast, once you taste it you will savour it to the last drop.
12. I.W. Harper Straight
This light yellow spirit is a nice mellow No Age Statement. With a lower proof than others on this list, it makes the perfect sipping choice for the novice. The corky sweetness that starts you off is complemented by the smoky blond oak and vanilla nuttiness. All in all a gentle and simple yet elegant option.
11. High West Bourye 2017
Another offering from High West is this 2017 blend of straight bourbon mixed with straight rye. Hints of spices are first noticeable, but then you quickly taste the nuttiness of the vanilla and the tartness of the raspberries. It’s like a festival of nuts and woody oak in your mouth that falls very nicely on your palate.
10. Jim Beam Black
We couldn’t make a list of Bourbons and not include Jim Beam. It is the most popular brand that is known across the world, with good reason. They’ve been making great quality Bourbon since the end of the 18th century. This offering has an elegant texture, with a heavy caramel aroma along notes of cinnamon, oak and vanilla, and ends with a smooth finish.
9. Widow Jane 10 Year Old
This newbie on the scene gets its name from the water surrounding the Widow Jane Mines in Rosedale New York. The distillery opened its doors in 2012 and has made quite a name for itself in a short space of time. The dry flavor notes of caramel, cinnamon and oak marry well with the smoky feel of char in this single barrel Bourbon.
8. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
This is one of the best pairings for an Old fashioned you can find, but it’s smooth enough to sip or enjoy on the rocks. With a taste that is neither sharp nor bitter, it has a subtle flavor due to fruit essences and the red winter wheat, and some extra heat from the oak and spices. This interesting mix sets them apart from other distilleries.
7. Blanton’s Single Barrel
Released in 1984 by Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee, this high-rye mash was a hit from its introduction on the market. With super premium taste and a unique bottle that comes with eight different collectors’ bottle stoppers, it makes a great sipping option. The nose of nutmeg and spices along with hints of honey and vanilla flavors make it a smooth blend.
6. Wild Turkey Bourbon
A premium brand that really knows what they’re doing, they have been perfecting their technique for over 100 years. A reason for this pricey offering is the sherry barrels they use in their ageing process. Another is the complex yet subtle flavor. Perfect for sipping with aromas of nuts, raisins, and a strong tropical fruit finish.
5. 1792 Single Barrel Reserve
A superior bourbon in every sense of the word, it is a winner of many international awards.You will notice hints of fruit and toffee along with notes of rich butterscotch and caramel that will go down smoothly. This small batch includes a high rye content and uses special barrels for the ageing process.
4. Jefferson’s Ocean Bourbon
This is the only Bourbon that ages by traveling the world in their barrels on board a ship. The sea salt along with the fluctuations in temperature give this spirit its’ dark and thick texture. You can detect aromas of dried fruits and red apples with some bitterness from the strong dark chocolate.
3. William Larue Weller
This one-of-a-kind annual release is worth the hefty price tag. Matured for a maximum of 14 years, this offering is well-known for the caramel and spicy notes. Either their 2015, 2016 or 2017 releases are excellent and worth sampling at least once in your life as a one-off. You will be glad you did.
2. Michter’s 10 Year Old
The brand has been producing high-end small-batch and single barrel bourbons since 1753. In particular, their Celebration Sour Mash retails anywhere from $3,700 to $5,000, and their 2019 release only made 277 bottles. With flavors ranging from cloves to pineapple and notes of dark chocolate truffles, it is a very special truly premium spirit.
1. Poppy Van Winkle’s 23 Year Family Reserve
To round off our list we had to include the best and one of the most expensive offerings on the market. Selling for about $2,500 a bottle, you will surely want to sip this one and enjoy every single drop. With dark aromas and flavors, their 23 Year Release is by far the best, but their 20 Year or 15 Year offerings are great too.
- What is it About Bourbon That is So Special?
- How is Bourbon made?
- Some Bourbon Terminology
- 25. Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve
- 24. Russell’s Reserve
- 23. Booker’s Tommy Batch
- 22. Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style
- 21. Evan Williams
- 20. Four Roses Small Batch
- 19. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon
- 18. Old Grand Dad 114 Proof Bourbon Whiskey
- 17. Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon
- 16. High West Yippee Ki-Yay
- 15. George T. Stagg
- 14. E.H. Taylor Four Grain
- 13. Black Maple Hill 16 Year Old Small Batch
- 12. I.W. Harper Straight
- 11. High West Bourye 2017
- 10. Jim Beam Black
- 9. Widow Jane 10 Year Old
- 8. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
- 7. Blanton’s Single Barrel
- 6. Wild Turkey Bourbon
- 5. 1792 Single Barrel Reserve
- 4. Jefferson’s Ocean Bourbon
- 3. William Larue Weller
- 2. Michter’s 10 Year Old
- 1. Poppy Van Winkle’s 23 Year Family Reserve