When it comes to bourbon brands, there’s a pretty impressive range from the incredible to the truly terrible. (Apparently, this isn’t the case with Irish whiskey.)
We chatted with Kim Ohanneson, President of Women Who Whiskey Los Angeles, founder of Ardent Spirits L.A., and curator of Highlands & Islands Distillery Tours and with Rob Boirun of Boozemakers to get their thoughts on the best bourbon brands. Then we went to Reddit to find no-holds-barred reviews of the worst. Those are first so you can use them for gifts for your mortal enemies.
From Pappy Van Winkle to Maker’s Mark to Angel’s Envy, a whole host of popular and small batch bourbons made the list. But, we weren’t able to include every amazing bourbon out there on this list, so let us know if we missed your favorite by sending us a bottle. Or leaving a comment.
What Is Bourbon?
To start, all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. But what exactly are the requirements for bourbon?
For a whiskey to be considered bourbon, it must be:
- Made from a mash of at least 51% corn
- Aged in new charred oak barrels
- Produced in the United States
- Distilled to no more than 160 proof
- Barreled at no more than 125 proof
- Bottled at minimum 80 proof
- Straight bourbon must be aged for two years or more
The flavor of bourbon can vary, as it all depends what the second major ingredient is. If a distillery uses wheat, the flavor will be sweeter. while those made with rye will be spicier.
Roughly 95% of bourbon is made in Kentucky, in part because of the blue limestone deposits that cover the state that contribute to bourbon’s unique taste. The drastic seasonal temperature changes also cause the charred oak barrels to absorb and release the whiskey, giving it a more complex flavor.
Kentucky also has fertile soil great for growing the corn that makes bourbon, well, bourbon. And while there’s no one consensus about how bourbon got its name, people speculate that it may be due to Bourbon County in Kentucky, or from Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
Bourbon Brands Ranked Worst to Best
25. George Dickel Tabasco Barrel Finish
We’re not really sure what to think about this one. We love Tabasco sauce as much as the next person, but…in bourbon? One review notes that it “Tastes like sour chalk covered in Splenda.” However, Reddit users determined that it makes a great Bloody Mary mix, or works well as a ribs marinade.
Most reviewers agreed that it was “interesting” and “unique.” We say sip at your own risk.
$22.96 at Drizly.
24. Kentucky Gentleman
While the “generous sweet wood and caramel aromas” in this bourbon sound absolutely great to us, one Redditor called it “bottom of the pond scum” and another said it was the only whiskey that “immediately make[s] me gag.”
$14.99 at Drizly.
23. Kentucky Tavern
22. Winchester Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey
According to Reddit, Winchester Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey either tasted like “gasoline,” “sadness,” or a word that rhymes with sass. Guess we’re not having a pint of this and watching everything blow over.
$17.99 at Total Wine.
21. Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond
Several Drizly reviewers rated this as the best bourbon for the price, and at $19.99, it’s certainly affordable. This 100 proof whiskey fits the Bottled-in-Bond requirements. It’s aged 4 years, and distilled in one distilling season at one distillery (say that 5 times fast).
$18.49 at Drizly.
20. Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon, $33.99
Elijah Craig, also known as the “Father of Bourbon,” is said to be the first distiller that aged his whiskey in charred oak barrels. We know what you’re wondering: But who is the Daddy of Bourbon?
We don’t know. But we do know that the process turned the color from clear to amber and infused the alcohol with the flavors of the wood. If the sound of warm spice and subtle smoke flavors turn you into the heart-eyed emoji, you should probably try this whiskey.
$33.99 at Drizly.
19. Sweetens Cove 2021 Release Bourbon
Sweetens Cove releases whiskeys in limited batches that tend to sell out fast. This particular 2021 batch of Tennessee bourbon has sweet, spice, oak and dark fruit flavors created from a blend of 16, six, and four-year aged whiskeys.
It’s almost as sweet as when Southerns tell us we’re a peach.
$184.99 at Total Wine.
18. Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon
This Kentucky bourbon is matured in “Alligator” Char American Oak Barrels and unfiltered for a full-flavored, more intense profile. You’ll taste wood and fruit with a long finish. What is this, mahogany?
$66.99 at Total Wine.
17. Widow Jane 10 Year Straight Bourbon
Made in New York, this whiskey is aged 10 years and is said to have deep cherry notes and a light tannic finish. Apparently, “it takes sweet water from tough rock to make great whiskey,” and Widow Jane takes this to heart. Unlike her deceased husband, who was reportedly, a jerk.
The distillery uses pure limestone water from New York’s Rosendale mines where the Widow Jane Mine is located. Limestone is what’s said to give Kentucky bourbons their distinct flavor. Finally, we know what revenge tastes like.
$76.99 at Drizly.
16. Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
This 100 proof Kentucky bourbon is aged 9 years and won the Double Gold Medal at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. In case that means nothing to you, Rob Boirun of BoozeMakers says, “It has a nose of maple and oak with a hint of raisin. The mouthfeel is full with a caramel bite, but a few drops of water will bring out the smoothness with an oak and vanilla finish.”
15. Bib & Tucker 6 Year Bourbon
Boirun says, this 46% Tennessee bourbon “has a caramel color in the retro style bottle that looks like it should be on a pirate ship. The nose on this is more like dried dark fruits with a hint of cocoa. The mouthfeel is smooth to oily with vanilla and spice and you can make out the cocoa. The finish is sweet and oaky.”
Try adding it to an Old Fashioned or Whiskey Sour. Or your morning coffee.
$51.99 at Total Wine.
14. Laws Four Grain Straight Bourbon Bottled In Bond
Bourbon? In Colorado? It’s a thing. Laws’ 50% ABV spirit is the first bonded bourbon in Colorado history.
Boirun says, “the nose is more aromatic with a hint of citrus. The mouthfeel is smooth with an oaky and burnt caramel finish. Add a few drops of water to this one to bring out the citrus finish.” No, not La Croix.
$59.99 at Total Wine.
13. Basil Hayden Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Basil Hayden uses double the amount of rye as whiskeys normally do, which adds to the spicy flavor. Ohanneson says, “this elegant sipper has traditional bourbon notes of vanilla along with honey and orchard fruit.”
She continues, “it’s accessible for bourbon newbies because of the lower proof, but complex enough to satisfy enthusiasts.” She’s clearly hasn’t seen us try and solve a Rubik’s cube.
12. Maker’s Mark Bourbon Whisky
Maker’s Mark began with bread. And apparently, burnt drapes. But for now all you need to know is that Master Distiller Bill Samuels baked a bunch of bread with different grains to determine what to make his new Kentucky whiskey with. And instead of rye, he chose red winter wheat.
Ohanneson explains that “the wheat highlights and brightens the dominant corn flavors, and is softer and less spicy on the palate than bourbons made with rye as the secondary grain.” We’ll be sending a thank you note to his co-founder and wife for creating bottle’s iconic red wax top. Just as soon as we find a stamp.
11. Heaven’s Door Tennessee Bourbon
This Tennessee bourbon was created by Bob Dylan, Angel’s Envy founder Mark Bushala, and Master Blender Ryan Perry. It’s aged for more than six years in American oak barrels, giving it what Ohanneson says are “notes of caramel, peanut brittle, and a thread of delicate, early summer fruit.” And, if you drink enough of it, it’ll also give you Dylan’s signature gravely voice!
10. Woodford Reserve Bourbon Kentucky Derby Edition 2022
9. Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon
Ohanneson says that, “The Hillrock Estate Distillery from the Hudson Valley in New York makes bourbons of great complexity with notes of stewed dark fruit and nutty tannins.
The combined result of finishing the whiskey in sherry casks after the initial Solera Aging process, which involves adding younger whiskey to barrels of older whisky stacked in an inverted pyramid.” This is the best pyramid scheme we’ve heard of yet. Where do we sign up?
$89.99 at Total Wine.
8. Booker’s Bourbon
This super-premium Kentucky bourbon is part of Jim Beam’s Small Batch Collection, and gets bottled directly from the barrel. The barrel-strength line was created by Jim Beam’s son, sixth-generation Master Distiller Booker Noe.
Ohanneson says that while it’s “bottled uncut at barrel strength, the high proof is balanced with exceedingly rich, warm, dark flavors and a label with enough bourbon stats to satisfy any whiskey nerd.” Excuse us, but we like our pocket protector thank you very much.
$99.89 at Drizly.
7. Hudson Bright Lights Big Bourbon
Not all bourbon is made in the south. This one is actually created in New York. It has notes of vanilla and salted caramel, and is made from New York corn then aged in new charred American oak barrels. The attitude is added later.
$40.99 at Total Wine.
6. Four Roses Small Batch Select Bourbon
Ohanneson explains that to create this Kentucky bourbon, “Four Roses Distillery creates ten bourbon recipes and Master Distiller Brent Elliott uses six of them in the Small Batch expression.
The rich but subtle notes of crème brulée and Christmas cake, and spiced fruit of this accessibly priced bourbon deliver a lot of bang for the buck.” Finally, something inspired by fruitcake that we don’t want to throw off a cliff.
$59.99 at Drizly.
5. Wild Turkey Longbranch
Matthew McConaughey returns, not for another rom-com, but to partner with Wild Turkey Master Distiller Eddie Russell for this eight-year bourbon that reflects their Texas and Kentucky backgrounds.
When it comes to tasting notes, Ohanneson says it this bourbon adds “a whiff of Texas mesquite smoke to the familiar Wild Turkey Kentucky Bourbon profile of toffee and vanilla. At 43% abv, this is more accessible than the iconic Wild Turkey 101 and great as an all-evening sipper.” Well, alright.
$37.99 at Drizly.
4. Old Forester 86 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky
Once sold as medicine, this evolved into a bourbon that Ohanneson has “traditional notes of caramel and orange peel” that are “joined by dried cherry and Christmas cake spices.” She suggests drinking this whisky “neat, over ice, with a splash of water, or in a cocktail.”
$19.99 at Drizly.
3. Pappy Van Winkle’s 23 Year Family Reserve
Buffalo Trace’s Pappy Van Winkle’s $3,000 price point points to the fact that it’s one of the best bourbons on the market today. Ohanneson explains that the “Holy Grail” of bourbon “is produced from just a few barrels and released yearly in very small batches.”
Eventually, “bottles of this epic bourbon, which features notes of cocoa, coffee, and exotic spices, quickly make their way to the secondary market where they sell for greatly inflated prices.” Maybe we’ll just book a ticket to Petra instead.
$2999.99 at Drizly.
2. Old Forester 117 Series: High Angels’ Share
While this whisky is only available at the Old Forester Distillery in Louisville, Ohanneson says it’s worth the trip. This whiskey is taken from “barrels containing hyper-concentrated whisky” which gives the bourbon rich layers of dark flavor notes, dried fruits, and surprising herbaceous qualities.
$649.99 at Cask Cartel.
1. Angel’s Envy Port Barrel Finished Bourbon
According Ohanneson, the Port Barrel Finished Bourbon by Angel’s Envy is the best of the best. “Port might evoke images of stuffy private clubs,” she says. And she’d be right.
But in this case she says, “it adds complexity to the whiskey via juicy, red fruit notes in addition to more familiar flavors of vanilla, toffee, and citrus….the brand name refers to the ‘angel’s share’ – the whiskey that evaporates from the barrel during aging.” Do fallen angels get some too? Asking for a friend.
$95 at Personal Wine.
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