Seeking the best bourbon — or best anything for that matter — ends up being, at least in part, an exercise in futility. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder (or the sipper, in this case). Yes, we all have a unique palate and certain things speak to our sensibilities more than others. But there really is no universally agreed-upon “best” of anything.
There are things we like and things we don’t. Pretending it’s more than that is a lie.
AND YET! We have to admit that just like some people cultivate really good taste in music — Rick Rubin, Pharell, our own Aaron Williams and Steven Hyden — others cultivate really good taste in whiskey. That’s why we asked some bona fide whiskey experts to reveal what is speaking to their palates with regards to bourbon at the moment.
The six bourbons below are bottles that wow people who work with whiskey every single day of their lives (yes, that includes me). Are these “the best?” Who knows? All we know is that they’re certainly worth tracking down and giving a try because some people who care about this stuff an awful lot believe that they’re goddamn delicious.
Treaty Oak Ghost Hill Texas Bourbon — Jared Himstedt, Head Distiller and co-founder Balcones Distilling
Distillery: Treaty Oak Distilling, Dripping Springs, Texas
Average Price: $50
There’s something about the Texas climate that you can’t get away from, and Treaty Oak is achieving a better mix than anyone else in the state. It has just enough familiar characteristics that speak to the Texas flavor that melds together nicely. Treaty Oak rides a line that helps transition people who are more skeptical about buying local bourbon.
The body is really tight. It’s not washed out at all. It’s dry and lends an air of maturity to it. It’s a nice refresher to what you can typically find in Texas. You get notes of caramelized sugar, vanilla, cream soda with hints of cinnamon Red Hots. Herbal flavors like cola or bitters round this one out.
Russell’s Reserve 10 — Adam Levy, founder International Spirit Competitions
Distillery: Wild Turkey Distilling, Lawrenceburg, KY (Campari)
Average Price: $38
Russell’s Reserve 10 Year has become my go-to bourbon when I am visiting a friend or want to introduce someone to bourbon. The Wild Turkey Reserve selection has been a consistent overall great value from their portfolio. A sip of Jimmy Russell’s whiskey always brings me back to all the smiles and laughter when I am with him or his son Eddie sharing a bourbon.
It’s a small batch bourbon from bourbon barrels that are at least ten years old. Based upon their current shelf price of $38, it’s a terrific value. It also won a Double Gold in our 2020 New York International Spirits Competition.
Bottled at 45 percent ABV, you still do not lose the fullness of the nose to alcohol. Wafts of vanilla that you expect from Wild Turkey fills your nose along with hints of leather and oak. It’s a solid bourbon with a hint of rye on the top of the tongue. The vanilla from the nose is still present in the mouth. The finish is not a long syrupy finish but a concise light medley of spice as it slowly enters into your chest with the warmth you desire.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel 10-Year-Old Bottled-in-Bond — Fawn Weaver, founder Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey
Distillery: Heaven Hill, Louisville, KY
Average Price: $50
There are two bourbons I’ve had this year that I think are truly extraordinary. The first is a straight bourbon whiskey by definition, but also a Tennessee Whiskey, so I hope that’s okay.
Nicole Austin, the master distiller and general manager of George Dickel, is doing something truly special with her Bottled-in-Bond. Her first BiB was greatly lauded, but ironically, I prefer her newest bottle. For obvious reasons, I am biased to stellar Tennessee Whiskeys so you’d be hard-pressed to get me to choose a bourbon as my definitive “best.”
That said, a couple of weeks ago my husband picked up a bottle of the new Henry McKenna Single Barrel 10-Year-Old Bottled-in-Bond, and I must say, it may be the single best straight bourbon whiskey I’ve ever tasted.
The nose was pure caramel and vanilla, and the palate was a perfect match to the nose. I may be late to the party with trying this award-winning bourbon (it’s won some of the most prestigious awards our industry has to offer), but I sure as hell am happy I finally made it to the celebration.
All the hype was well deserved.
Knob Creek Small Batch — Bobby Childs, founder of Adventures in Whiskey
Distillery: Jim Beam, Clermont, KY (Beam Suntory)
Average Price: $35
Choosing a ‘best’ bourbon is a colossal task, but Knob Creek Small Batch edges to the top of my 2020 list for several reasons. The first reason is more symbolic. 2020 marked the return of the age statement to the popular whiskey after being absent for several years. At an age where a lot of age statements are going the way of the dodo, Knob Creek is doubling down on them with the re-introduction of this 9-year-old bourbon as well as a new 12-year-old expression.
It’s also easy to find on shelves for a very affordable price. That’s a massive plus in my eyes (and to my wallet).
At 100 proof, Knob Creek Small Batch from Jim Beam is the perfect sipping proof. No ice or water required. The nose carries lovely hints of honey roasted nuts, caramel, oak spice, dried apricot, and sweet tobacco leaves. Taste-wise, candied fruit and caramel kick things off. Orange peel, salted peanuts, and oak spice soon develop. There’s not a lot of the slightly young-ish roasted corn found in some younger bourbons, making this release a bit more refined. The finish is long and somewhat sweet.
You can see why I reach for this all the time.
Willett Family Reserve Barrel No. C22D — Charles Nelson, co-founder Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery
Distillery: Willett Distillery, Bardstown, KY
Average Price: Varies
When I first started working to resurrect my family’s distillery in 2006, my first “Industry Event” was WhiskyFest in New York. Meeting some of the legends of the whiskey world was an unforgettable experience. It was even more meaningful to meet a couple of rising stars closer to my age: Preston Van Winkle and Drew Kulsveen. They couldn’t have been nicer and more helpful. It’s folks like Drew and Preston — and all of the legends — who help ensure that the whiskey community feels like family.
So when I think about the best bourbon I have drunk in 2020 — other than any Belle Meade or Nelson’s Green Brier product, of course — my mind goes straight to Willett Barrel No. C22D, coming in at 137.4 proof.
It’s a beast of a bourbon, packing an enormous amount of flavor. I think of it as a hot fudge sundae. The base is built with scoops of dark chocolate and creamy vanilla with black cherry chunks inside, then topped with toffee, hazelnut, cinnamon sugar, graham cracker, toasted marshmallow, a hint of coffee, and malted milk balls crumbled on top alongside dried apricot chunks.
Michter’s Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 10-Years-Old — Zach Johnston, Deputy Editor UPROXX Life and host of Expression Session
Distillery: Michter’s Distillery, Louisville, KY
Average Price: $180
A barrel of this juice sold for $200,000 at auction this year. It’s also being lauded as a damn-near perfect bourbon. I was lucky enough to get to drink this stuff recently and it 100 percent stands up to the hype. It’s also fairly straight forward. The juice spends ten years in white oak. The barrels are hand-selected for their exactness.
This is a clear example of what bourbon can be when treated with utmost precision and care.
Maple syrup and oak greet you on the nose. A rush of creamy toffee mingles with charred oak bitterness as the signature bourbon vanilla lurks in the background. It’s shockingly light for an old bourbon with a whisper of orchard fruit. The sip lingers for just the right amount of time as it retraces its steps through the oak, vanilla, and syrup with a hint of spicy warmth.