It’s hard not to think of Kentucky when you think “bourbon.” The American whiskey was born in shady Kentucky hollers and is inextricably linked to that state’s culture. Still, bourbon doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky to be called bourbon. There are a lot of great bottles of bourbon out there (all meeting strict requirements to actually be called bourbon) worth celebrating … and drinking.
Before we dive into our ten favorite bottles of bourbon (not from Kentucky), let’s review what it takes to be a bourbon whiskey. For a whiskey to be designated a bourbon it has to meet five basic requirements according to the American Bourbon Association:
- The Mash Bill (recipe of cereals and grains for fermentation) has to be at least 51 percent Maize (corn).
- The whiskey has to be distilled within the borders of the United States (this is more of a U.S. trade rule and less a universal one).
- The initial distillate can be no higher than 160 proof (80 percent ABV).
- The whiskey has to be aged in newly charred American oak barrels at no more than 125 proof (62.5 percent ABV).
- The bourbon has to be at least 80 proof (40 percent ABV) when bottled.
So, that’s what makes bourbon bourbon. One small phrase to add to that list is “Straight.” If bourbon is labeled “Straight Bourbon,” that means zero additives have been added to the whiskey. It’s, essentially, pure. Another phrase you’ll run into is “Bottled-In-Bond.” This refers to a government regulation that requires the bourbon to come from a single distillery and single distillation season and then aged for at least four years to 100 proof (50 percent ABV) in a federally “bonded” warehouse. In short, it’s a specific whiskey from a specific time and place with government oversight at the storage facility.
The ten bottles of bourbon whiskey below are some of your favorite bourbons being distilled and bottled across the United States (but outside of the Bluegrass State) right now. A few of them you’re going to have to travel for, as they’re still smalltime, local operators. The rest might take a little hunting to track down at specialty liquor stores and online. Either way, these are the best bottles of bourbon not from Kentucky to drink right now.
Belle Meade Bourbon Cask Strength Reserve — Nashville, TN
Story: The Nelson brothers reanimated the Belle Meade and Nelson’s Green Brier family brand after about 100 years of inactivity thanks to American Prohibition. The young brothers started out by bringing Belle Meade whiskey back to the public with recipes adhering closely to originals from the 1800s. Today, Belle Meade’s bourbon (distilled by MGP in Indiana and aged and bottled in Nashville) is some of the best non-Kentucky bourbon on the market with their Cask Strength Reserve leading the pack in taste and awards.
Tasting Notes: There’s a lot to take in here. The opening of this sip ambushes your olfactory senses with candied apples, musty barns, roasted peanuts, rich caramel, and ginger snaps. Then the liquid hits your tongue and explodes with spicy Red Hots, dark chocolate, buttery caramel, candied blackberries, roasted corn ears, oaky vanilla, and a peppery-by-way-of-Cherry-Coke backend.