In America, bourbon is big business. While it can technically be made anywhere in the US (as long as the regulations are met), 95% of all bourbon is produced in Kentucky, where the big brands are centered. In 2020 alone, bourbon distilleries in the Blue Grass State filled more than 2.1 million barrels, with production increasing by more than 350% since the dawn of the 2000s.
To say that bourbon whiskey is a popular style is an understatement. And a pretty massive one at that.
America’s native spirit (as declared by congress in 1964) is crafted by countless distilleries, but there’s a handful that sell better than all the others. We definitely love (and root for) the upstarts, but today I want to give the big boys their due. I’m highlighting my one absolute favorite bourbon whiskey expression from each of the best-selling brands. This can get a little confusing, as some of the brands are owned by the same distilleries, but if you’re going by name alone the top-selling bourbons brands are Bulleit, Old Forester, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and Buffalo Trace.
I based this on my tastes alone without taking into account price or how sought-after a particular bottle is. Sometimes I chose the most expensive bottle. Sometimes it was somewhere in the middle. My palate, which is pretty thoroughly developed and tuned to bourbon, was the only barometer. Click the linked prices to have these picks delivered to your doorstep.
Average Price: $50
This award-winning whiskey has a mash bill of 68% corn, 28% rye, and 4% malted barley. It’s aged in charred, American oak casks for ten years. The result is a rich, warming, spicy bourbon well-suited for mixing into an old fashioned or slow sipping on its own.
On the nose, you’ll find scents of charred oak, dried cherries, citrus zest, and toasted vanilla beans. On the palate, you’ll notice notes of fresh leather, buttery caramel, raisins, butterscotch, and subtle spicy rye. The finish is long, dry, warming, and ends with a nice hit of cracked black pepper.
While this bourbon is well-suited for drinking neat or on the rocks, its high-rye content is the perfect base for your favorite whiskey cocktails. I picked it as my favorite from Bulleit because I believe 10 years is the perfect amount of time for the various flavors to meld perfectly and because it’s probably my favorite mixer on earth.
Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit
Brand: Wild Turkey
Average Price: $60
This award-winning bourbon is the same 101-proof as the brand’s iconic 101 offerings. But this expression is produced from single barrels that are hand-picked by Master Distiller Jimmy Russell. The most unique aspect is that on top of being a single-barrel bourbon, the bottle details the date it was bottled, the barrel number, and even which storehouse (and where in that storehouse) it came from.
Take a moment to breathe in the aromas of pipe tobacco, buttercream, and subtle spice. On the sip, you’ll taste hints of spicy cinnamon, charred oak, butterscotch, and dried fruits. It all ends with a long, warming hit of almond cookies and raisins.
For the dedication to detail, the high-quality, and the equally high-proof, this bottle is an absolute bargain at $60. Snatch it up and savor it. This is my favorite Wild Turkey expression because of the combination of high-proof and rich, complex flavors.
I know we’re not talking price, but as a lover of value I appreciate how much this bottle outkicks its coverage.
Four Roses Single Barrel
Brand: Four Roses
Average Price: $50
This high-rye (60% corn, 35% rye, 5% malted barley), 100-proof bourbon is produced from hand-picked single barrels that are aged between 7 and 9 years in charred, American oak barrels. It’s complex, well-rounded, and carries a great sweet to spicy ratio perfect for sipping.
On the nose, you’ll be greeted with notes of vanilla essence, treacle, wood char, and spicy rye. The palate is swirling with flavors of buttery caramel, sweet cocoa, dried apricots, and cracked black pepper. The ending is long, lingering, and finishes with a nice combination of dried fruits and spicy rye.
If you only buy one bottle from this brand, make it Four Roses Single Barrel. It’s bargain-priced and belongs on your home bar cart or in your liquor cabinet at all times. The proof and the various flavors are complex enough to stand up in your favorite cocktail but I truly love this as a slow sipper.
George T. Stagg
Brand: Buffalo Trace
Average Price: $549
Part of the appeal of this highly sought-after whiskey is the fact that it’s only available in limited quantities, it’s uncut, unfiltered, and as mellow as humanly possible (in my opinion). Aged in a new, charred, American oak cask for a minimum of 15 years, this is the shining star of Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection.
Before sipping, make sure to fill your nostrils with the aromas of a musty rickhouse, charred oak, bitter chocolate, and vanilla. Take a sip and you’ll enjoy flavors of creamy chocolate fudge, caramelized sugar, dried fruits, smoky pipe tobacco, and sticky toffee. It all ends with a warming finish of tobacco, brown sugar, and raisins.
Unless you’re friends with a liquor store owner, you’re likely going to have to pay above-market prices to get your hands on a bottle. Give it the respect it deserves by never mixing this bourbon. Instead, sip it slowly with a dash of water or a single ice cube. It beats out other Buffalo Trace staples like Pappy and the various Weller offerings because of its uncut, unfiltered recipe and its caramel-filled flavor notes.
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
Brand: Woodford Reserve
Average Price: $60
Woodford Reserve is located in the middle of horse racing country. Its campus is picturesque and Instagram-worthy. Its whiskeys are equally note-worthy. You can’t go wrong with its classic Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. But my favorite is its Double Oaked bourbon. It’s matured in a charred, American oak barrel as well as a deeply toasted and lightly charred barrel.
On the nose, you’ll find aromas of dried fruits, rich chocolate, toasted marshmallows, and butterscotch. The palate is full of flavors of toasted vanilla beans, caramel apples, cooking spices, and a nutty sweetness. The finish is long, lingering, and ends with a great combination of sweet honey and subtle spice.
This is one of the most beloved expressions from the Versailles, Kentucky distillery for good reason. Its release is eagerly awaited each year and definitely lives up to the hype. I picked it because, while sought-after, the hype is worthwhile. The double casking give this a unique, memorable flavor that you’ll want to sip every single day.
Elijah Craig 18-Year-Old Single Barrel
Brand: Elijah Craig
Average Price: $250
This award-winning whiskey is made using one single barrel (hence the name). It’s released annually and made up of 78% Corn, 12% Malted Barley, and 10% Rye. It’s aged for 18 years in new, charred American oak casks.
The nose is brimming with scents of buttercream, candied orange peels, and charred oak. Take a sip and you’ll find yourself immersed in a world of creamy vanilla, rich oak, dates, caramelized sugar, and subtle spice. It ends with a nice combination of fruit and oak.
If you’re looking for a bourbon that leans heavy on the charred oak flavor, this is the bourbon for you. 18 years of maturation tends to do that. This attention to detail and patience is the main reason this is my favorite expression from Elijah Craig.
Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series 2021
Brand: Maker’s Mark
Average Price: $70
2021 was the third limited release from the Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series. The goal isn’t to change the brand’s bourbon drastically but to amplify the flavors. They do this by “wood finishing” the expression by adding fully matured cask strength whiskey to barrels that contain specifically designed wooden staves for additional aging.
On the nose, you’ll be greeted with scents of salted caramel, charred wood, and toasted vanilla beans. On the palate, you’ll find flavors of brown sugar, buttery caramel, toffee, and candied pecans. The finish is long, filled with warming heat, and ends with a final kick of butterscotch and cinnamon.
If you’re already a fan of Maker’s Mark and you’ve tried Maker’s Mark 46, it’s time to work your way up to the brand’s Wood Finishing Series. This is my go-to expression because it’s the pinnacle of the Maker’s Mark brand.
Evan Williams Single Barrel
Brand: Evan Williams
Average Price: $30
The best thing about this whiskey is its price. It’s way cheaper than it needs to be. Just don’t tell the folks at Evan Williams. The only vintage-dated single barrel bourbon available, it’s made up from hand-picked barrels. Aged for 7-8 years, Evan Williams adds its “vintage date” to every bottle.
Give this bourbon a proper nosing and you’ll find aromas of charred oak, vanilla beans, treacle, and rich almonds. Take a sip and lock in on subtle baking spices, caramel apples, candied orange peel, and buttery caramel. The ending is long, warming, and finishes with a nice mix of vanilla and spice.
This bottle is a crazy bargain at around $30 — not a deciding factor but a valid perk. It’s my favorite expression from Evan Williams because of its rich flavor and high mixability. Buy a few bottles and keep them on your bar cart at all times for mixing into a whiskey sour or mint julep.
Brand: Jim Beam
Average Price: $250
When it comes to Jim Beam’s Small Batch Bourbon Series, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, and Booker’s get a ton of fanfare. But the real winner of the group is Baker’s, especially the 13-year-old. Made from 77% corn, 13% rye, and 10% malted barley, and aged for 13 years in charred oak barrels, it’s rich, well-balanced, and highly memorable.
Give this whiskey a nice, long, luxuriant nosing and you’ll find scents of a musty barrelhouse, vanilla cream, candied almonds, and charred oak. The flavor is swirling with notes of brown sugar, buttery caramel, sticky toffee, and subtle cinnamon spice. The end is filled with spicy cinnamon and butterscotch candy.
This expression isn’t always easy to find. So, if you ever spot a bottle in the wild (and it’s reasonably priced): buy it. You definitely won’t regret it. When it comes to Jim Beam, this bottle is the absolute most complex, sippable bottle available.
Old Forester 1920
Brand: Old Forester
Average Price: $60
Old Forester makes nothing but high-quality whiskeys. It honestly doesn’t matter which expression you buy; you’ll be completely happy with your decision. But its best is Old Forester 1920. This bourbon touts itself as a “prohibition style” whiskey due to its high proof. It sits at 115 to pay tribute to the whiskeys produced in Kentucky over 100 years ago.
Before drinking, give this bourbon a good nosing. You’ll notice aromas of maple candy, dried fruits, freshly brewed coffee, and wood char. The palate reveals flavors of spicy cinnamon, cloves, buttery caramel candy, and subtle black pepper. The ending is long, subtly smoky, and ends with a nice kick sweet chocolate and toffee finish.
Drinkers of high-proof bourbons will love this 115 proof bold, rich whiskey. The high alcohol content makes it a great choice for cocktails, as the other ingredients won’t temper the whiskey flavor. I love it because drinking it feels like a throwback to a bygone era.
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