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The Best Bourbon Whiskeys To Drink On The Rocks

Whiskey purists will likely try and demean you if you drink anything on the rocks or with a little water. They want you to sip it straight, unchilled. That’s patently ridiculous. Yes, some whiskeys are crafted to be taken neat. But even the super svelte whiskeys out there will likely bloom in the glass with a few drops of water or a single rock.

Moreover, a good bourbon on ice can actually lead to a whole new set of flavors. Which is some cool chemistry, when you think about it.

What happens is twofold. One, the bourbon materially changes when you add water. Bourbon doesn’t come out of the barrel at 40 or 50 percent ABVs. Blenders add water to find the proof and flavor profile they’re looking for. So when you add more water, you’re proofing the whiskey down even further. The water isn’t adding flavors — it’s just allowing more of the chemical compounds that are already present in the dram to bloom or reveal themselves (while possibly muting others).

Next, you have the cooling effect of ice. Which effects you, not the whiskey. Our senses of taste and smell tend to mute flavors of things that are very hot or very cold. So as the whiskey cools, we’re going to taste less of what’s in there while, at the same time, fixating on certian notes — because our senses have to find something to… sense. In some cases, those notes could be things you didn’t even notice in the room temperature dram, simply because they were hidden by something sweet or woody or anything really, because, as mentioned above, adding water lets other chemical compounds (flavors) come to the surface.

All this to say, bourbon whiskey on the rocks is different. That’s not to say better or worse, we’re not here to be rigid. As always, “you do you.”

The ten bourbon whiskeys below are drams we like to drink with a little ice. While a fair few of these bottles are cask-strength expressions and very hot to begin with, that’s not the only criteria for choosing them. It really just comes down to which expressions we believe benefit from a rock or two.

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

Heaven Hill

ABV: 61.8% (varies by release)

Average Price: $75

The Whiskey:

This expression is all about finding the best barrels in the Heaven Hill warehouses and letting that whiskey shine on its own. These are released three times a year (we’re tasting the January 2021 release below) and have been winning award after award. The whiskey in the bottle is generally at least 12 years old and bottled with no cutting down to proof or filtration whatsoever.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a real throughline of sunny berry brambles (blueberry, raspberry, and blackberry) next to orange oils and a touch of oakiness on the nose. That fruit and oak will carry through on the palate as hints of buttery toffee, rich vanilla, and peppery spice mingle on the tongue and set your lips abuzz. The end tends to be slow and velvety with the spice, fruit, oak, and vanilla all blending nicely until the last drop.

On The Rocks:

This is really high-proof whiskey that’s not necessarily hot but will certainly feel very bold to the uninitiated. The taste of this one on the rocks will really zero in on the vanilla and berry with a pure silken texture. The oakiness will get a little mustier (think a root cellar must) and the sip tends to get a little more buttery while holding onto the sweeter edges.

Barrell Dovetail

Barrell Bourbon

ABV: 62.17% (varies by release)

Average Price: $90

The Whiskey:

This is a complex whiskey from one of the country’s best blenderies. Barrell sources a ten-year-old Indiana whiskey that was finished in Dunn Vineyards Cabernet barrels and marries that juice to eleven-year-old Tennessee bourbon that was finished in both blackstrap rum casks and port pipes. That blend is then bottled as is.

Tasting Notes:

You’re greeted with the port notes of dried raisins and plums that lead towards a touch of licorice next to a really rummy sweetness. There’s a sense of spicy stewed cherries (think clove and anise) that supports a touch of charred marshmallow with a bit of soft oak. The end holds onto the fruit and sweeter notes while going all-in on the warmness of the ABVs with a black pepper spiciness and long yet subtle tobacco buzz.

On The Rocks:

On ice, you’re going to get a laser focus on the dark bark spices with an almost woody bitterness. The tobacco gets both spicy and chewy and marries that cherry, creating a very cherry tobacco vibe. What’s extraordinary is how rounded this sip gets. It’s like velvet in a glass but doesn’t lose any depth of character (though that character definitely shifts from sweeter to spicier).

Stagg, Jr.

Sazerac Company

ABV: 63.2% (varies by release)

Average Price: $90

The Whiskey:

This barrel-proof expression from Buffalo Trace is one of their most-beloved bottles. The juice spends around ten years maturing and is made from the same (very low rye) mash bill as their entry-point bottle, Buffalo Trace Bourbon. The whiskey then goes into the bottles from hand-selected barrels that hit just the right mark without any proofing or filtration.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a clear sense of sweetness next to spice from the nose to the finish. There’s a sticky treacle syrup loaded with vanilla, walnuts, and pecans with a light dusting of Christmas spices leading towards a very ripe red cherry and a good dose of old oak. The finish is very long and hints at spicy cherry tobacco, oak, and more of those nuts, vanilla, and syrup.

On The Rocks:

This really dials into an old-school pecan pie with a buttery AF crust with the addition of ice. The cherry sticks around but it becomes more like a dark chocolate-covered cherry than a fresh one. The spices tone down a tad as the whole sip becomes just … soft and slightly bitter.

Wilderness Trail Small Batch Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon

Wilderness Trail

ABV: 50%

Average Price: $50

The Whiskey:

This expression from Wilderness Trail is a hell of a dram on its own. The juice in the bottle is a high rye bourbon (64 percent corn, 24 percent rye, and 12 percent malted barley). The grains are all locally sourced from around Kentucky. The whiskey is then small-batched from no more than 12 barrels at a time. It’s then proofed down to bottled-in-bond 100 proof with that famously soft Kentucky limestone water and bottled.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a sense of grade A maple syrup spiked with orange rinds and a touch of clove on the nose. The palate holds onto those notes, while adding a hint of worn leather next to cherrywood and hints of wet brown sugar, white pepper, and a mild tobacco chewiness. The end is just the right length and holds onto the pepperiness and tobacco as it leaves you buzzing.

On The Rocks:

Interestingly, more pepper pops with ice. It’s not “spicy” per se, but holds a clear black and white pepper vibe. It also leans more into orange rinds but more towards the bitter pith of those peels. Overall, this dram becomes sharper and very exacting.

Old Grand-Dad 114

Beam Suntory

ABV: 57%

Average Price: $30

The Whiskey:

Hailing from the Jim Beam stills and warehouses, this “Old” whiskey is a fan favorite. The whiskey is another high rye mash bill (63 percent corn, 27 percent rye, and ten percent malted barley). The juice is then matured until it’s just right. The barrels are blended, the whiskey is just touched with water to bring the proof down, and it’s bottled.

Tasting Notes:

Vanilla tobacco meets hints of rye spiciness with a dose of caramel and old oak on the nose. The palate holds onto that rye spice as notes of cherry and oak dominate the vanilla and toffee sweetness. The end returns to the spice with a chewy tobacco edge that lingers for a short time but leaves you wanting more.

Bottom Line:

This is a classic “on the rocks” whiskey (or mixer). The cold and ice really bring about a smoothness that’s just not there in the room temp dram while holding onto that chewy vanilla nature, a touch of cherry, and mild spice.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed Barrel Proof

Campari Group

ABV: 58.4%

Average Price: $50

The Whiskey:

This is a classic bourbon from a classic distillery. Rare Breed is comprised of hand-selected barrels that hit just the right marks, according to master distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell. The barrels are then married and bottled as is, allowing the beauty of the barrel to shine through in every sip.

Tasting Notes:

This really leans into the vanilla pudding, burnt sugars, Christmas spices, and tobacco chew but keeps it amazingly balanced through and through. The palate touches on notes of pine resin, fresh mint sprigs, and pine resin as the more classic vanilla and spice notes maintain a solid foundation. The end is long and satisfying, leaving you with a soft sense of that spicy tobacco, toffee, and that creamy vanilla.

On The Rocks:

Ice helps this lean into a full-on Christmas cake packed with dark spices, candied fruits, nuts, and an almost molasses maltiness. The pine resin turns a bit towards softer cedar with a slight touch of woody bitterness. The mouthfeel becomes pure silk and so damn welcoming.

Eagle Rare 10

Sazerac Company

ABV: 45%

Average Price: $40

The Whiskey:

This might be one of the most beloved (and still accessible) bottles from Buffalo Trace. This juice is made from their very low rye mash bill. The whiskey is then matured for at least ten years in various parts of the warehouse. The final mix comes down to barrels that hit just the right notes to make them “Eagle Rare.” Finally, this one is proofed down to a fairly low 90 proof.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a lot happening on the nose here, with worn leather mingling with dried orange, fresh sage, butter toffee, and cellared oak. The taste turns towards marzipan covered in dark chocolate with a touch of honey and a sprinkling of dark spices. The finish isn’t too long and touches back on that marzipan, toffee, and oak — while ending short and sweet.

On The Rocks:

That cellar oak really comes through with water with a mix of old wooden beams and rocky cellar walls. The nuttiness remains but becomes almost creamed with the toffee. A hint of dried florals pops in and ties back to the rose water in the marzipan.

This is really a f*cking great dram on the rocks and one of my personal go-to’s when I’m at a good whiskey bar.

Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve

Beam Suntory

ABV: 60%

Average Price: $50

The Whiskey:

This is classic nine-year-old Knob Creek from a single barrel. There’s no blending since each barrel is hand-selected for its exactness. There’s hardly any proofing either. The 120 proof means this is barely touched with water before it goes into the bottle.

Tasting Notes:

This is classic bourbon with a nose of caramel apples touched with a dusting of brown spices next to rich vanilla pods and a hint of that oak. The sip is pretty warm but is tempered by the almost cream soda vibes next to hints of pecan and soft oakiness. The end is long-ish and hits back on the brown spices, fruit, and vanilla the clearest while leaving you warmed to your soul.

On The Rocks:

This really benefits from a touch of water or ice. The spices dial into their woody, barky natures. The vanilla remains light but still well-rounded. The biggest change was a note of chocolate-covered cherries that arrived and clearly reminded you that you were drinking something very good from Jim Beam.

Larceny Barrel Proof

Heaven Hill

ABV: 57.4% (varies by release)

Average Price: $70

The Whiskey:

This is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after wheated bourbons on the market. The mash amps up the wheat with 68 percent corn supported by 20 percent wheat and 12 percent malted barley. The juice then spends six to eight years maturing in Heaven Hill’s vast warehouses. It’s then small-batch blended and bottled with zero fussing at barrel proof (we’re reviewing the January 2021 batch below).

Tasting Notes:

There’s a sense of light savory fruit, almost pumpkin, generously dusted in cinnamon sugar next to river water, Red Hots, and lush vanilla. The taste holds onto the vanilla and savory fruit as it creates an almost pecan waffle vibe with a little butter and maple syrup. That sweetness is cut as the sip veers into a light spicy/fruity tobacco chew on the slow-ish end that leads back to that mineral-rich river water.

On The Rocks:

With ice, cedar and cherry notes pop immediately. The tobacco and oak also heighten with a mouthfeel that leans toward the woodier aspects of cinnamon. The sip holds onto its boldness while still warming your senses through and through, leaving you with a little vanilla and cedar.

Balcones Texas Blue Corn Bourbon

Balcones

ABV: 64.5%

Average Price: $58

The Whiskey:

This is very much a go big or go home whiskey. The mash is centered on Texas blue corn. The juice is then aged under the intense Texas sun in the Balcones’ warehouse in Waco. Finally, the barrels are painstakingly selected to represent the spirit of that blue corn, small batched, and bottled as is.

Tasting Notes:

Imagine a dense cornbread dripping with butter and honey and a touch of savory lard in the crips crust and you’ll be on the right path on the nose. The palate comes in hot with touches of zest orange and Red Hots counterpointed by a sweet yet slight bitter Texas sweet tea and a touch of burnt marshmallow. The end touches back on that corn sweetness while bringing a white pepper powder and a whisper of nutmeg.

On The Rocks:

This is another “on the rocks” favorite. The corn really amps up into masa territory — becoming both sweeter and more savory or grainy. The cinnamon from the Red Hots really losses the candy aspect and gets intense and maybe a little bitter. Then as this mellows in the glass and water continues to proof it down, the bourbon takes on this minty fresh edge that bridges menthol tobacco and mint julep sweetness. It’s a wild and delicious ride.

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