Let’s get this out of the way — older bourbon isn’t always the best bourbon. But there is a sweet spot that a lot of bourbon can hit somewhere between six and 15 years that just works. It doesn’t really matter if it’s single barrels, bottled in bonds, or small batch bourbons — there’s a heightened sense to most bourbon whiskeys at these ages. Beyond 15 years and the bourbon can get very tannic (woody and bitter); while younger than six years and you’ll get more goopy porridge and plasticky vanilla.
Fair warning — bourbon also gets pretty freaking expensive when it’s over 10 years old. So hunting it down and purchasing it isn’t for the faint of heart. To that end, I’m going to lend my expertise via yet another bourbon blind taste test, with the goal being to help you spend your money on truly special bottles.
This time around, I’m picking mostly 12-year-old bourbons to find the absolute best. Since this is a narrow field, I also added two 13-year age statements to widen the pack a bit (also because there are even fewer 13-year-old bourbons on the shelf). It just felt right because — insider alert! — most of these 12-year-old bourbons have older barrels in the mix, some up to 15 years old. If you want to get really insider-y, Michter’s 10-Year Bourbon is mostly 15-year-old single barrels. So age ain’t nothing but a TTB-approved label number (in reality the label’s age has to be the youngest barrel in the batch).
Our lineup today features the following old bourbon whiskeys:
- The D12tance Puncher’s Chance Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Cabernet Sauvignon Barrels Aged 12 Years
- Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey 12 Years Old
- Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Years Old Lot “B” Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Baker’s Single Barrel 13 Years Minimum Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Weller The Original Wheated Bourbon Aged 12 Years Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Knob Creek Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 12 Years
- Daniel Weller Emmer Wheat Recipe Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- George Dickel Tennessee Whisky Bottled In Bond Aged 13 Years
Since I’m tasting old bourbons on this panel, my ranking will go a little deeper than “Does it taste good, yes or no?” Bourbon has to be aged in new oak vessels. That fresh wood has a lot going on and imparts a lot of wood sugars readily (depending on a gazillion mitigating factors that we don’t need to get into right now). More time does mean more wood influence in the spirit though. Too much or perhaps more importantly not a deft enough hand at building a batch or finding a single barrel can mean an over-oaked and overly tannic or bitter product. And while some folks like chewing on kindling in their whiskey, it’s not generally ideal.
So I’m looking for balance in the spirit and wood that sings while tasting really f*cking good from top to bottom. Sound good? Let’s dive in!
Part 1 — The 12-Plus-Year-Old Bourbon Blind Tasting
Nose: The nose opens with a sense of cherry Tums next to soft grains, dried sage and thyme, and a hint of smoked pork fat.
Palate: The taste leans into that Tennessee whiskey vibe with soft grains next to vanilla Necco Wafers, old cellar floors, and a good dose of sharp winter spices.
Finish: The finish lets the cherry chine with a hint of old glove leather, apple pie filling, and a sour sense of butter with a garden-center earthiness.
This is actually pretty dynamic all things considered. It’s clearly from Tennessee (that Tums’ vibe) but goes beyond that in great ways (that hint of smoked pork fat is really good).
Nose: The nose is creamy with deep notes of old boot leather, dark and woody winter spices, black-tea-soaked dates, plum jam with clove, and an underbelly of chewy toffee-laced tobacco.
Palate: That creaminess presents on the palate with a soft sticky toffee pudding drizzled in salted caramel and vanilla sauce next to flakes of salt and a pinch of orange zest over dry Earl Grey tea leaves with a whisper of singed wild sage.
Finish: The end leans into the creamy toffee chewy tobacco with a hint of pear, cherry, and bananas foster over winter spice barks and a deep embracing warmth.
This is f*cking fantastic. There’s a perfect balance between the wood and deeper bourbon-y notes that explode on the senses in all the right ways. This is a winner right here, folks!
Nose: The nose opens with a throughline of a caramel apple with a slightly tart edge, sourdough apple malt doughnuts dusted with cinnamon and brown sugar, and a braid of old dry sweetgrass, cedar bark, worn leather, and dry tobacco leaves.
Palate: The palate adds some walnuts to apple pie filling with a hint of rum-raisin sneaking next to vanilla malts, salted caramel, and a dash of eggnog spice.
Finish: The end leans into the dried fruit and spent vanilla pods with a sweet sense of cinnamon and apple-spiced tobacco leaves folded up with old leather and cedar with a whisper of dark chocolate bitterness behind it all.
This is really classic bourbon. There wasn’t a lot of pop to the whole affair but it kind of didn’t need thanks to a crystal clear bourbon feel.
Nose: There’s a nice sense of dried sweetgrass, salted ballpark peanuts, and old vanilla pods that leads to softer notes of marzipan, vanilla sheet cake, and mild cherry.
Palate: Soft winter spices and minty tobacco drive the palate toward smudging sage and roasting herbs with a sense of marzipan slowly building on the mid-palate with a minor key of orange and cherry.
Finish: The vanilla sneaks in on the finish with more roasting herbs and dry grassiness with a hint of menthol and peanut shell and distant oak.
This is very rye-heavy bourbon (all those herbs and grasses) but kind of light all things considered.
Nose: The nose hits softly with bruised peaches and old pears next to fresh wool sweaters, vanilla pancake batter, and moist marzipan next to orange oils, worn-out wicker deck furniture, and old Buffalo Trace leather with a faint hint of dried roses.
Palate: The palate kicks around cherry bark and apple-cider-soaked cinnamon sticks with spiced cranberry sauce over buttermilk biscuits and gingerbread.
Finish: The end leans into the sharp brown spices with a mild sense of vanilla cake with apple cider and cinnamon frosting, a touch of burnt orange, and more of that moist marzipan covered in salted dark chocolate.
This is just good whiskey. It’s so well-rounded and delightfully bold while never overpowering any one note. This is a stand-up and start a “slow cap” sort of whiskey.
Nose: This opens with clear notes of dark rum-soaked cherry, bitter yet creamy dark chocolate, winter spices, a twinge of a sourdough sugar doughnut, and a hint of menthol.
Palate: The palate leans into a red berry crumble — brown sugar, butter, and spice — with a hint of dried chili flake, salted caramels covered in dark chocolate, and a spicy/sweet note that leads toward a wet cattail stem and soft brandied cherries dipped in silky dark chocolate sauce.
Finish: The very end holds onto that sweetness and layers in a final note of pecan shells and maple candy.
This is deep Kentucky bourbon with a beautiful balance between well-aged and holding onto bright and fun bourbon vibes. This is another winner.
Nose: The nose feels like a slice of emmer wheat sourdough bread covered in seeds that you get in a very good bakery somewhere like Germany (I honestly cannot think of a U.S. analog for it) next to Nutella, fresh orange zest, and salted caramel with a hint of marzipan.
Palate: Bright orchard fruits pop on the palate as fresh honeycombs (with a hint of earthiness) vibe with more marzipan, deep sourdough bread notes, and a good bit of old oak in old rickhouses just kissed with falling leaves and soft rain.
Finish: That Buffalo Trace leatheriness comes through on the finish with more of that oak and warehouse vibe next to orchard bark, dark winter spice, and creamy honey kissed with rum raisin.
This is so bready that I can barely feel the age. If I didn’t know better, I’d peg this as a six-year-old crafty.
Nose: Sour cherries, maple syrup, and pecan waffles mingle with dried apple chips, old leather boots, and winter spice with a hint of vanilla wafers on the nose.
Palate: The taste leans toward spicy apple pie filling with walnuts, plenty of cinnamon, and some raisins before malted vanilla milkshakes, blueberry cotton candy, and dark chocolate milk arrives on the mid-palate and lead toward a moist oatmeal cookie dipped in salted caramel.
Finish: The end has a dry woody spiciness with star anise, cinnamon, and allspice mingling with marzipan and cherry/cinnamon tobacco.
This is very Tennessee (vanilla wafers) that goes so much further in all the right ways. It’s just really good and has a great balance of age, Tennessee vibes, and old-school bourbon feels.
Part 2 — The 12-Plus-Year-Old Bourbon Ranking
8. Daniel Weller Emmer Wheat Recipe Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 7
Average Price: $2,999
We finally have a brand-new Weller release from Buffalo Trace (at an incredible cost). The whiskey in the bottle is an experimental wheated bourbon made from Emmer wheat (an ancient Egyptian strain). That whiskey is then left alone to mature for 12 years before batching, proofing, and bottling.
This is so bready and grainy that it’s hard to find anything else in the pour. That said, I would reach for this when I was in the mood for something completely different. In the same vein, there are other crafty bourbons that cost a f*ckton less than this one and accomplish the exact same thing.
This is a pass from me. Don’t worry, folks, the good people at the Sazerac Company will be just fine.
7. Baker’s Single Barrel 13 Years Minimum Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 4
Average Price: $450
This brand-new re-release of Beam’s Limited Edition “Minimum 13 Year” Baker’s just dropped. The whiskey in the barrel is from single barrels that hit just the right mark for something special. Beyond that, there’s not much else to know besides this is Baker’s at a high age that shines bright.
This is good but the thinnest pour by far on this panel. I liked all the rye vibes on the palate — it truly felt unique and balanced. I just wanted more, which means that I’ll likely be using this for Manhattans and Sazeracs this fall/winter.
6. The D12tance Puncher’s Chance Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in Cabernet Sauvignon Barrels Aged 12 Years — Taste 1
Average Price: $128
This sourced whiskey is a 12-year-old Tennessee straight bourbon whiskey. Those barrels are emptied and the whiskey is refilled into old Cabernet Sauvignon casks for a final maturation before proofing and bottling.
This is good whiskey. It balances wood, Tennessee, and bourbon notes very well and delivers a fun sipping experience. It wasn’t as deeply hewn as the rest of the panel from here but that’s not a knock.
Brasstacks, if you’re a UFC or Bruce Buffer fan who likes a nice pour of good whiskey, this is a no-brainer purchase. I’d sip it over ice though to let it open up a bit more in the glass.
5. George Dickel Tennessee Whisky Bottled In Bond Aged 13 Years — Taste 8
Average Price: $43
Nicole Austin has been killing it with these bottled-in-bond releases from George Dickel. This release is a whiskey that was warehoused in the fall of 2008. 13 years later, this juice was bottled at 100 proof (as per the bottled-in-bond law) and left to rest.
This has a great balance of age and American deep whiskey notes. There’s a lot going on and it all works while adding that Tennessee dimension in the best ways. It’s distinct. That said, this still feels like a great cocktail base more than a neat sipper. So … make some awesome cocktails with this one.
4. Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 Years Old Lot “B” Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 3
Average Price: $1,204
This is an interesting wheated bourbon. The “Lot B” moniker means that these barrels were tested at 12 years and marked for “Van Winkle” batching, which means they weren’t going in the right direction to be batched into the “Pappy Van Winkle” line with more aging (which is 15 years and older). In this case, instead of aging further, the barrels are set aside, batched, and cut with that soft Kentucky limestone water to bring them down to a manageable 90.4 proof, then bottled.
This is what I love about blind tastings and rankings. I like this whiskey a lot and probably would have ranked it higher given the label. At the end of the day, this is a really good sipping bourbon that’ll make an amazing cocktail, which is exactly what you’d expect from a $79 price tag (the MSRP).
3. Knob Creek Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 12 Years — Taste 6
Average Price: $71
This is the classic Beam whiskey. The juice is left alone in the Beam warehouses in Clermont, Kentucky, for 12 long years. The barrels are chosen according to a specific taste and mingled to create this aged expression with a drop or two of that soft Kentucky limestone water.
This was dynamic and delicious. Over some ice, it’ll shine as a sipper. In a simple whiskey-forward cocktail, it’ll shine even brighter. This is a great high-end bourbon that just works while giving you a little age and fantastically quintessential Kentucky bourbon vibes.
2. Weller The Original Wheated Bourbon Aged 12 Years Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 5
Average Price: $395
This Buffalo Trace wheated bourbon rests in the warehouse for 12 long years in the same barrels and warehouses as Pappy. The difference between this and Pappy 12 — good ol’ “Lot B” — is pretty simple actually. If the barrel doesn’t hit the exact flavor profile needed for a Pappy, it’s sent to the blending house to become a Weller (as long as it hits Weller’s flavor profile, of course). So, yes, this could have been a Pappy 12 had the flavor profile been slightly different in the barrel.
This is a cracking bourbon. You can feel the age but it never overpowers. This is a great pour to sip any old day or night any time of year. You can’t go wrong here.
1. Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey 12 Years Old — Taste 2
Average Price: $537
The mash at the base of this whiskey is a mix of 80% corn, 12% barley, and 8% rye. Those grains are milled in-house and mixed with cave water pulled from an on-site spring and Jack Daniel’s own yeast and lactobacillus that they also make/cultivate on-site. Once fermented, the mash is distilled twice in huge column stills. The hot spirit is then filtered through 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal that’s also made at the distillery. Finally, the filtered juice is loaded into charred new American oak barrels and left alone in the warehouse. After 12 years, a handful of barrels were ready; so they were batched, barely proofed, and bottled.
This is phenomenal whiskey. It’s aged but then goes so much further into beautifully rendered bourbon notes that all shine succinctly and build to a bigger whole. This is far and away the best pour of the panel and it’s not even close. This is a “holy shit!” pour of whiskey.
Part 3 — Final Thoughts on the 12-Year-Old Bourbons
Look, if you want the best 12-year-old bourbon, then buy Jack Daniel’s 12-Year. It’s far and away the best pour at that age statement. That’s it. Period. End of story. Good night, Tennessee. There will be no encores.