September is National Bourbon Heritage Month. This means that there’s no better time to finally purchase that bottle of bourbon whiskey you’ve been wanting to try and get to know the corn-based American-born spirit. But before you go out and grab a bottle of the first bourbon you see, you should learn a little about the spirit.
Like just about anything that causes you to have fuzzy memory, the origins of bourbon are hotly debated. Most stories of its genesis begin with Elijah Crag back in 1789. The Baptist minister opened a distillery in Georgetown, Kentucky. While he might not have technically invented bourbon, he’s the first on record to age corn whiskey.
Besides the origins of bourbon, you should also know the technical guidelines. To be called a bourbon, the spirit must be made up of at least 51 percent corn, it must be distilled to no more 160 proof, it must be aged in new, charred American oak casks for a minimum of two years, and it can’t be added to the barrel at higher than 125 proof.
Whew. Now it’s time to have a drink (or two). Since you’re new to the bourbon game, I decided to list my personal favorite gateway bourbons. Get acquainted with these classic bottles and you’ll be well on your way to embracing this truly American spirit.
Distillery: Maker’s Mark
There’s likely no better bourbon to get yourself acquainted with the style than Maker’s Mark. The iconic red wax-dipped bottle is easy to find at your local liquor store and for good reason. Made with corn and red winter wheat (instead of the usual rye), this consistently great bourbon is mellow and supremely easy to drink whether you’re new to whiskey or a seasoned veteran of the style.
From the first nose, Maker’s Mark is exactly what you hope your bourbon is going to be. Your nostrils will be filled with the aromas of rich, toasted oak, sweet vanilla, and caramel. The first sip brings forth epic corn sweetness, sticky toffee, and subtle dried fruit flavors. The finish is long and warming, with subtle wheat and honey flavors.
If you’re only going to pick up one bottle to get started on your journey, make it Maker’s Mark. You won’t be disappointed with your selection.
Wild Turkey 101
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Distillery: Wild Turkey
One of Maker’s Mark’s biggest rivals is Wild Turkey. Once you’ve sipped on the aforementioned Maker’s Mark, it’s time to graduate to Wild Turkey 101. That’s because, while the latter was full of winter wheat, this whiskey starts with corn, but ends with a solid hit of spicy rye. It’s aged in charred American white oak barrels and bottled at 101 proof for a bold, rich flavor perfect for cocktails or slow sipping.
This is a high-proof whiskey and its quite noticeable of the first nose. On top of the spicy ethanol scent, you’ll find vanilla and rich, toasted oak. The first sip yields toffee, caramel, and gentle cinnamon. From there, you’ll find hints of butterscotch and subtle rye spice. The finish is long, dry, and full of more peppery spice that’s extra pleasing a cool fall day.
This is a great slow sipper for a cool, fall evening. The higher alcohol content should warm you up, even if you forgot your jacket at home.
Distillery: Buffalo Trace
The flagship bourbon from Buffalo Trace Distillery, this iconic bourbon has been made the same way for more than 200 years. While there’s no age statement, it’s believed that this juice is at least eight years old. It’s low in rye grains, made up of no more than 40 barrels at a time, and aged in the middle of rickhouses in order to benefit from the most moderate temperatures. These reasons and its low-price tag should guarantee that this bourbon permanently finds a spot in your liquor cabinet.
This whiskey deserves a nosing before you taste it. You’ll be met with toasted oak, dried leather, and sweet vanilla. The first sip brings forth hints of butterscotch, more vanilla, sweet corn, caramel, and just a hint of cinnamon. The finish is mellow, long, and dry, with flavors of oak and dried fruits.
Great for sipping or mixing into your favorite cocktails, you’ll go back to this well-rounded bottle year after year.
Evan Williams Single Barrel
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Distillery: Heaven Hill
Often times, Evan Williams doesn’t get the respect it deserves and that’s likely because it’s so cheap. Even if we don’t try to, we sometimes equate quality with price. True bourbon fans know that even though this is a bargain bottle, it’s a perfect gateway bourbon. Named for Evan Williams — the man who opened the first-ever distillery in Kentucky — the brand’s single barrel offering has won numerous awards and is made from casks hand-selected by the master distiller.
From the first nose, you’ll be met with toasted oak, sweet vanilla, and subtle baking spices. The first sip brings you hints of sweet corn, rich caramel, sticky toffee, candied orange peels, and cinnamon apples. The finish is long, smooth, and ends with just a wisp of peppery spice.
Sure, you could grab a bottle of Evan Williams Black Label for under $20, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better single barrel offering with this level of quality at this price point.
Four Roses Small Batch
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Distillery: Four Roses
Another offering with no age statement, Four Roses says that its small-batch is aged between 6 and 7 years. It’s made from four original bourbon recipes that were picked by master distiller Brent Elliot for their mellow, easy to drink flavors. It’s super high in corn content (75%) and is made from two different mash bills and five yeast strains.
From the first sniff, you’re met with vanilla, toasted oak, and cinnamon. The first sip brings forth the high corn content with sweet corn flavor followed by dried fruits, cooking spices, and toffee. The finish is very long, warming, and full of sweet vanilla, butterscotch, and just a hint of spice at the very end.
When it comes to small-batch bourbons, it’s hard to top Four Roses. It’s perfect for your favorite whiskey-based cocktail or on the rocks while you sit by an end of season campfire.
Elijah Craig Small Batch
Distillery: Heaven Hill
This high corn bourbon is the original small-batch whiskey. It’s been made longer than the term has even existed. It carries no age statement, but it’s so mellow, sweet, and sippable that you shouldn’t even care. It’s made up of barrels selected from the middle of Heaven Hill’s barrelhouses, it’s always high-quality, and has earned its stripes as one of the best bargains in the bourbon world.
The first nose yields Christmas spices, toasted vanilla, and pecans. The first sip brings forward cinnamon, sweet caramel, honey, and charred oak. The finish is long, dry, sweet, with hints of nutmeg final flourish of peppery spice.
Don’t waste this bottle on cocktails. Its high corn content and expertly selected casks makes it one of the best beginner sipping bourbons on the market.