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The Best Bottles Of Kentucky Straight Bourbon For Whiskey Novices

Getting into bourbon can be daunting. There are so, so many bottles of the stuff lining the shelves these days. And scores of terms to learn. But even with all the expressions, buzzwords, and brands, finding the best bourbons for novices remains pretty do-able. “Straight” bourbon has a solid baseline of quality — meaning it’s usually at least “pretty good” on the palate and often much better than that.

Today, we’re talking about “Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey” — one of the most classic iterations of whiskey on the market. It’s a style that carries a few minor regulations which allow it to be labeled the way it is:

  1. It has to age at least two years in new, charred American oak.
  2. It must be made from a mash bill (recipe) of at least 51 percent corn.

There are also limits on ABV, but we need don’t need to go too deeply into those specifics today.

The ten bottles below are great entry-points for anyone eager to start sipping bourbon from Kentucky. We’re staying well away from the advanced stuff and just focusing on readily-available bottles that you can try right now to get a sense of what bourbon is (with a couple of special expressions thrown in for good measure). This is a foundation upon which you can build a broader bourbon knowledge down the road.

Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond

ABV: 50%
Distillery: Heaven Hill, Bardstown, KY
Average Price: $17

The Whiskey:

Evan Williams is a great gateway bottle of bourbon. It’s cheap, easy to drink, and readily available nationwide. Their Bottled-in-Bond takes a little extra time (aged four years) and effort, thanks to the U.S. government’s regulations that assure quality across the board.

Tasting Notes:

This is a classic. Christmas spices, bourbon vanilla, and thick caramel greet you. The oak is present but never overpowers the taste of those rich and dark spices alongside a mild sense of roasted almonds and a hint of tart apples. A feather-light sense of brown sugar and bananas arrive very late as the warmth of the spice quickly fades across the senses.

Four Roses Bourbon

ABV: 40%
Distillery: Four Roses Distillery, Lawrenceburg, KY (Kirin Brewery Company)
Average Price: $22

The Whiskey:

This is an interesting entry-level expression for a brand. Four Roses is renowned for their use of varied mash bills for various expressions and this bottle is a blend of their “B” and “E” mash bills. That means there’s a high-rye bourbon mixed with a more corn-heavy bourbon in the final product. This gives an interesting, albeit, very accessible feel to the sip.

Tasting Notes:

The vanilla is the star of the show with support from mild spice and a hint of honey sweetness. That sweetness is what carries on throughout the taste, as whispers of rye spice, sweet corn, and baked apples come to play with a flutter of florals mingling on the palate.

The sip ends fairly abruptly but leaves you with a sense of honey sweetness and oaky warmth.

Jim Beam Bonded

ABV: 50%
Distillery: Jim Beam, Clermont, KY (Beam Suntory)
Average Price: $22

The Whiskey:

Jim Beam is a classic whiskey. Their Bonded expression was often nicknamed “The Good Stuff” for good reason. The bottled-in-bond regulations allow a little extra time for the booze to mellow and then the higher proof means you’re getting more of the barrel; thanks to less mineral water cutting the juice down to 40 percent ABV in the standard bottles.

Tasting Notes:

Spice and oak greet you with a sense of candied cherries and a mild note of toffee. The juice burns brightly with notes of spearmint next to rich and oily vanilla and peppery spice. The dram lingers on the senses and hints at charred oak, dark cacao powder (especially with a little ice involved), and a wisp of pipe tobacco.

Buffalo Trace

ABV: 45%
Distillery: Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY
Average Price: $30

The Whiskey:

Famed master distiller Elmer T. Lee came out of retirement in the late 1990s to create this now iconic bottle of bourbon. Buffalo Trace Distillery has a lot of labels under their shingle but this is the center point of the whole operation.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a soft sense of molasses sweetness next to fresh sprigs of mint and a flourish of vanilla pods. Oak and anise-forward spice mix with rich and buttery toffee next to ripe, sweet cherries. The short finish highlights the sweeter notes, vanilla, and woody spice.

1792 Small Batch

ABV: 46.85%
Distillery: Barton 1792 Distillery, Bardstown, KY (Sazerac Company)
Average Price: $32

The Whiskey:

1792 Bourbon has been winning a lot of awards for its refinement and accessibility. The bottle carries no age statement, but the juice is said to be aged eight years. The mash bill is high in rye and the expression is bottled with a mildly higher ABV, adding some kick.

Tasting Notes:

Christmas spices, a bushel of cherries, and a lot of vanilla lead the way. There’s a mellow bitterness that feels little like dark chocolate next to charred wood. The spices really amp up the warmth of the sip as a hint of worn leather and an echo of campfire smoke fade off into the toasty sunset of the sip.

Woodford Reserve

ABV: 45.2%
Distillery: Woodford Reserve Distillery, Versailles, KY (Brown-Forman)
Average Price: $38

The Whiskey:

This is another stone-cold classic from a distillery that makes a wide array of great whiskeys. The juice is a blend of a high-rye mash billed pot and column stilled bourbon that’s aged between six and seven years. This bourbon is less about fancy bells and whistles and more about deep attention to tried and true methods for making good bourbon.

Tasting Notes:

Vanilla is prominent upfront with a note of spice, tart apple, and a hint of orange zest. The spice carries through as the orange zest really kicks in alongside some dried fruit and caramelized sugars, creating a bit of a Christmas cake feel. The finish is long-winded as you travel back through the spice, fruit, vanilla, and orange and end on a clear billow of tobacco smoke and oaky char.

Wild Turkey Longbranch

ABV: 43%
Distillery: Wild Turkey Distilling, Lawrenceburg, KY (Campari Group)
Average Price: $40

The Whiskey:

This is kind of breaking the rules of this post. But this is a great example of a one-off bourbon that’s just so easy to drink. Matthew McConaughey teamed up with Wild Turkey’s master distiller Eddie Russell to create a Kentucky bourbon that feels very Texan. They do this by taking classic Wild Turkey and filtering it through Texas mesquite charcoal, resulting in a very easy sipping bourbon.

Tasting Notes:

Classic notes of vanilla and dark spice mingle with a clear caramel corn sweetness that’s bolstered by a brisk smokiness. That smoke fades to the background as the taste dances between apple pies full of cinnamon, walnuts, and brown sugar and mild notes of leather and tobacco leaves. The apple, spice, and vanilla really shine through on the slow end as that smokiness reminds you one more time that it’s in play.

Legent Bourbon Whiskey

ABV: 47%
Distillery: Jim Beam, Clermont, KY (Beam Suntory)
Average Price: $42

The Whiskey:

This is another interesting one-off that’s too easy to sip to ignore. This will also help you add a little refinement to your bourbon palate — thanks to the interesting use of barrels in the aging process. The juice is mostly aged in charred new American oak but master distiller Fred Noe also uses red wine casks from California and sherry casks from Spain. Then the juice is blended by legendary master blender Shinji Fukuyo, marrying Kentucky’s Jim Beam and Japan’s Suntory in a single bottle.

Tasting Notes:

This is almost too easy to drink. You can’t get away from the bourbon vanilla and sweet caramel up top (in a good way). But then, there’s a sense of plummy sherry next to vinous grapes. The sip leans from the jammy elements towards a vanilla-rich and very creamy pudding with plenty of crème brûlée burnt sugar goodness. The sip lingers with notes of oaky spice, vinous grapes, and flourish of dried fruits.

Basil Hayden’s

ABV: 40%
Distillery: Jim Beam, Clermont, KY (Beam Suntory)
Average Price: $44

The Whiskey:

Also hailing from Jim Beam, Basil Hayden’s is a specialty creation for their small-batch collection (alongside Booker’s, Baker’s, and Knob Creek). The juice is a refined high-rye mash bill bourbon that spends just the right amount of time in the barrel to make it one of the most sippable bourbons on this list, and a great entry-point to Basil Hayden’s deep range of expressions.

Tasting Notes:

Tart apples, peppery rye, wildflowers, and a little maple syrup lead the way. The sip stays very subtle with blinking highlights popping up of worn leather, distant smoke, more fruity apples, sharp spice, vanilla, and rich toffee. The sweetness leans into a honey feeling as the sip slowly fades away through the spice, vanilla, oak, and leather.

Michter’s US*1 Small Batch Kentucky Bourbon

ABV: 45.7%
Distillery: Michter’s Distillery, Louisville, KY
Average Price: $46

The Whiskey:

This bourbon from Michter’s is a damn fine dram at a very accessible price point. The juice is classic bourbon done right that’s then sourced from no more than 20 barrels per batch. That makes this a refined bottle of juice that highlights what bourbon should be.

Tasting Notes:

Oily vanilla bean pods dance with clear notes of corn-focused caramel and plenty of oak and dark spice. Notes of ripe and sweet stonefruits, especially apricot, lead towards a hint of butterscotch next to more vanilla and spice. A whisper of smoke comes in late to accent the bitterness of the oak char as the sip slowly fades.

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