Bourbon has never been more popular than it is right now. This detailed guide of the best bourbon whiskeys you can buy in 2019 explores everything you need to know about America’s favorite brown spirit, including important terminology and, of course, a list of the best bottles you can buy at your local liquor store or online.
Let’s start with the basics. And the basics begin here: All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon. Meaning, bourbon is the one variant that’s uniquely American throughout the whole manufacturing process dating back centuries to the very foundation of America. Since the early days, we saw the production of American whiskey take full advantage of the American climate, agriculture, and of course the entrepreneurial sense of adventure. Unofficially, it’s believed the first bourbon whiskey was distilled in the late 18th century by the Samuels family (whose youngest heir now runs Maker’s Mark) but skeptics have voiced their concern since the Samuels Family hadn’t begun to produce commercially sold bourbon until the mid 19th century.
Others believe that the Even Williams distillery, established along the banks of the Ohio River in the late 18th century, led the way for the bourbon whiskey as we know it today. It was just a few years later when Bourbon Country, Kentucky was officiated and then Mister Elijah Craig himself broke new ground when he started aging corn whiskey in oak barrels. Mr. Craig then proceeded to open a little distillery in Georgetown, KY to capture the new method. Today, Heaven Hill distillery is one of leading players in the bourbon industry alongside Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, and Brown-Forman.
So, what is bourbon if not standard American whiskey? Well, thanks to a federal decree passed in 1964, we can summarize the legal definition of bourbon whiskey in a few short sentences.
What Is Bourbon really? On the 4th of May 1964, the United States Congress recognized Bourbon Whiskey as a “distinctive product of the United States.” The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (27 CFR 5) state that bourbon must meet these requirements: :
Bourbon must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn.
Bourbon must be distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume).
Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
Bourbon may not be introduced to the barrel at higher than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume).
Bourbon which meets the above requirements and has been aged for a minimum of two years, may (but is not required to) be called Straight Bourbon.
Bourbon aged for a period less than four years must be labeled with the duration of its aging.
If an age is stated on the label, it must be the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle.
Only whiskey produced in the United States can be called bourbon.
These are the “rules” that all bourbon distillers must obey. Any deviation from the aforementioned mandates results in a spirit that is prohibited from being labeled as bourbon. We’ve also seen more specific rules come into play over the years as well. Namely, that bourbon cannot be artificially flavored or enhanced with coloring. That’s the reason why Jack Daniels is labeled as a Tennessee whiskey and not a proper bourbon. Also, some bourbon devotees suggest if the spirit doesn’t come from Bourbon County, KY and utilize Kentucky limestone water in the distilling process then it isn’t bourbon. The federal government doesn’t recognize such strict standards so that “rule” is bypassed for the time being. What is worth noting, however, is to always be aware exactly where your favorite bourbon originated. That means, from which distiller is the raw spirit first distilled prior to shipment. It’s very important to understand it because odds are that small boutique bourbon brand is selling you a label that’s been well-designed and printed on a bottle of bourbon they sourced from one of the big players mentioned above. There’s also the different variants to consider: bottled in bond, straight, cask strength, barrel proof, etc. These terms are explained in the bourbon glossary below.
BOURBON GLOSSARY: LEARN THE INDUSTRY
Knowing how to read a whiskey label is almost as important as knowing how to enjoy the spirit. The reason behind this, is that for novices or even apathetic drinkers , it’s easy to be fooled by what’s been written on the label. Due to the fact that there is a wild glossary regarding bourbon, we took this time and outlined the most important terms that are needed to know when ordering or purchasing a bottle online or in your local store.
BOURBON GLOSSARY: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Straight Bourbon Whiskey: Bourbon that’s stored in charred new oak barrels for at least two years. These can also include blends of other straight bourbons as well (much like the rules for what constitutes a single malt) as long as each batch comes from same-state distilleries.
Sour Mash: An industry technique that pulls mash bills from previous distillations into the new mash to prevent unwanted yeast strains from infecting the new batch.
Proof: A number used to reference the amount of alcohol present in the whiskey. Found by doubling the ABV percentage.
Bottled In Bond: An old federal regulation that mandated bourbon must be the product of a single distillation by a single distiller at a single distillery. The whiskey must then be stored at a federally-bonded warehouse (hence the name) for at least four years and bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV). From here, the label must also identify the distillery where the distillation process tookplace.
Small Batch: A term used to specify the bourbon was made via an exclusive number of barrels and/or recipes in a blended bottling. Typically reserved for special variations of larger brands.
Non-Distiller Producers: Referenced earlier, these are the companies that purchase the whiskeyfrom actual distillers and blend accordingly for individual branding.
Single Barrel: As the name might suggest, single barrel bourbons are aged using single barrelsthat work to impart a greater range of variations in nose, palate, and finish.
Buffalo Trace, the powerhouse distillery of the modern era, knows bourbon. And with their flagship product available in just about every package store under the sun, it’s impossible to ignore. Each batch is made with healthy proportions of rye, barley, and corn in a magnificent manner that imparts notes of caramel, honey, citrus, and mint on the nose with mellow toffee, brown sugar, and rye on the palate. It leaves you with an oaky finish that’s quintessentially on-brand.
W.L. Weller, were the first to offer a bourbon with wheat as the flavor grain in the bill, as opposed to rye. And we’ll be honest, the result is fantastic. This small batch bourbon hosts a taste that’s dry, complex, and toasty. The amazing notes of cocoa dust and spices followed by the obvious touch of wheat, cedar, and a nutty finish work in harmony to take the edge off after a long day.
Straight from Lawrenceburg, KY comes one of the smoothest yet full-bodied bourbons that exists under the $50 price point. Of course we are talking about the Four Roses. All the blending we know and love about Four Roses is still intact, the distillery just opted for a more refined model this go-around. Here, enjoy complex notes ripe plum and cherry that give way to fruity and spicy aromas, yielding a discoverable palate full of rich vanilla, more spice, and floral notes.
For the most part, Bottled-In-Bond is a sign of trust between the distiller and the consumer that everything you see before you took place on a single location during one season. A merit-badge if you will, this certification of sorts ensures that you’re consuming exactly what’s outlined on the bottle. Gimmick-free in this regard, King’s County is just that, aged for four years, bottled at 100 proof, and distilled and aged on-site. So, if purity is your preference for bourbon, there’s not a whole lot out there that can match the aesthetics and composition of this particular expression.
Balcones not only operates outside of the Kentucky “bourbon belt” in the Lone Star State but they use roasted blue corn in their mash bill. Now, while that might have purists protesting against it, we suggest giving Baby Blue a try as we believe that you’ll find the expression pleasantly surprising. We’re talking a tasteful of tropical fruit, brown sugar, sweet tea, smoked chilis, and cotton candy of all things. A true award-winning original from the Texas backcountry. What’s more American than that?
As the 2018 winner of the World’s Best Bourbon at the World Whiskies Awards, 1792 Bourbon Full Proof is very special and needs to be considered. It’s a small batch bourbon coming from Kentucky and is both interestingly strong and full of flavor. It offers deep tasting notes peppered with just the right amount of smoky elements that yield something special. Furthermore, we can’t neglect the fact that this expression offers up delicately balanced notes of sweet vanilla and caramel to help level out the 125 entry proof. Not the most prevalent bourbon around, but perfect for its price. If you findit, better go for it.
From the respected Buffalo Trace distillery comes a two-for-one small batch and bottled-in-bond special. That is of course a Colonel E.H. Taylor. Usually, we see bottled in bond whiskeys found on the lower end of the industry due to the high cost and regulations to produce them. This is not the case here, for this amazing bourbon that consists the sweet tasting notes of caramel, sweet corn, butterscotch, and just the right amount of licorice. As for the finish, how about some subtle pepper and tobacco to help bring out your inner southern aristocrat at the next garden party.
Did you know that you knew everything about Wild Turkey? Well, think again. Perhaps Wild Turkey is trying to enter the more refined market by creating the Rare Breed or maybe it’s just an experiment they are trying out. No matter the reason behind it, this is an amazing small batch which features blends of six, eight, and 12-year expressions that work to impart notes of oranges, mint, and tobacco with a respectable nutty finish for good measure. Not your average bourbon that’s for sure.
Prohibition was an extremely hard period for bourbon and we all know that. We believe that these are the thoughts at the Old Forester behind this amazing bourbon we are talking about. Here, we have a 155 proof expression that reminds to everyone the prohibition period and offers a flavorful palate complete with notes of caramel, cinnamon, toffee, dark chocolate, and cherry. Give it a try, it won’t disappoint you.
Another bottle that is worthy of being in your house, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof has the right balance of fury and tranquility in its profile to keep things interesting without it being too strong. Of course everything comes together due to the notes of caramel, vanilla, and butterscotch alongside black pepper and cinnamon which are making their presence known without being too obvious. The cherry on top is nothing else than the notes of spearmint. Certainly a bourbon worth getting your hands on.
Blanton’s is possibly the best bourbon available at its price point. Plus, that bottle that it comes in? An amazing diamond to look at. The gold is their standard selling bourbon. It is distilled from a mash bill of corn, rye, and malted barley that is properly aged to help impart a complex palate with pleasant top notes, chewy oak, stone fruits, and deep spices prior to a finish characterized by toffee and more spice.
If you are lucky enough to find one and of course be able to afford it, then, George T. Stagg is one of those bucket-list bourbons to keep at home and enjoy it when the time is right. You know, a big event of some sort. This extraordinary bourbon hosts pleasant undertones of caramel, tobacco, and vanilla that, is everything that is needed next to a fine cigar.