The availability of bourbon — or any spirit for that matter — can sometimes be a fickle beast. There are bottles of bourbon (sometimes amazing stuff) that sit on every shelf around the country. Then there are bottles of bourbon that you’ll just never see on liquor store shelves. That doesn’t mean that those bottles aren’t “available,” strictly speaking. They’re out there, just not in the first places you’d think to look.
Today, we’re pivoting away from the rare and high-end and toward the “easy to find.” For this blind tasting, I’m focusing on bottles that are on shelves nationwide for a fair retail price. To be very clear, this isn’t necessarily about cheap or “affordable” bourbon either. This is about what’s actually available on the shelf (pretty much) universally. That means that I’m grabbing a mix of small-batch bourbons, bottled in bonds, and single barrels. And since we’re talking about nationally available bourbons, we’re talking about whiskeys made in Kentucky and Tennessee, since the lion’s share of American whiskeys (especially the widely-distributed expressions) are made in those two states.
Our lineup today stars the following bottles of liquor store bourbons:
- Michter’s US*1 Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Elijah Craig Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Knob Creek Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 9 Years
- Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Evan Williams Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Jim Beam Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- George Dickel Bourbon Whisky Handcrafted Small Batch Aged 8 Years
- Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey
- Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Single Barrel
After the blind tasting (poured by my ever-patient lady), I’m going to rank these bourbons based on taste alone. This is simply about what tastes the best so let’s dive right in and find the best bourbon for you to buy.
Part 1 — The Bourbon Blind Tasting
Nose: The nose on this is very fruity with a mix of bruised peach, red berries (almost like in a cream soda), and apple wood next to a plate of waffles with brown butter and a good pour of maple syrup that leads to a hint of cotton candy.
Palate: The sweetness ebbs on the palate as vanilla frosting leads to grilled peaches with a crack of black pepper next to singed marshmallows.
Finish: The end is plummy and full of rich toffee next to a dash of cedar bark and vanilla tobacco.
This is great bourbon. I can see sipping this easily. It’s deep, nuanced, and has a nice warmth at the end.
Nose: There’s a light sense of rickhouse wood beams next to that mild taco seasoning on the nose with caramel apples, vanilla ice cream scoops, and a hint of fresh mint with a sweet/spicy edge.
Palate: The palate opens with a seriously smooth vanilla base with some winter spice (especially cinnamon and allspice) next to a hint of grain and apple pie filling.
Finish: The end leans towards the woodiness with a hint of broom bristle and minty tobacco lead undercut by that smooth vanilla.
This is another really nice bourbon pour. I love the depth and feel of walking through an old rickhouse with a glass of whiskey in my hand.
Nose: The nose on this feels classic with a bold sense of rich vanilla pods, cinnamon sharpness, buttered and salted popcorn, and a good dose of cherry syrup with a hint of cotton candy.
Palate: The palate mixes almond, orange, and vanilla into cinnamon sticky buns with a hint of sour cherry soda that leads to a nice Kentucky hug on the mid-palate.
Finish: That warm hug fades toward black cherry root beer, old leather boots, porch wicker, and a sense of dried cherry/cinnamon tobacco packed into an old pine box.
This is pretty good too but a little all over the place. This feels like it was made for cocktails. It’s just an innate sense.
Nose: There’s a welcoming aroma of butterscotch, blackberry, toffee, and fresh honey next to a real sense of pitchy, dry firewood.
Palate: The taste drills down on those notes as the sweet marzipan becomes more choco-hazelnut, the berries become increasingly dried and apple-y, the toffee becomes almost burnt, and the wood softens to a cedar bark.
Finish: A rich spicy and chewy tobacco arrives late as the vanilla gets super creamy and the fruit and honey combine on the slow fade.
This is deep and pretty delicious overall. The butterscotch note with a berry vibe is prominent and very enticing.
Nose: Soft and sweet apple and cherry woods greet with a good dose of sour red berries dusted with brown winter spices, especially clove and nutmeg.
Palate: The palate leans into soft and salted caramel with a hint of those berries underneath while the spices get woodier and a thin line of green sweetgrass sneaks in.
Finish: The finish is silky and boils down to blackberry jam with a good dose of winter spice, old wood, and a hint of vanilla tobacco.
The nose is very light but this finished strong. If I was being super critical, I’d call that slightly unbalanced. That said, this ended so strongly, I can forgive the light nose.
Nose: There’s a lovely nose at play with soft taco mix spice next to creamy vanilla, caramel-dipped cherries, a hint of pear skins, and plenty of nutmeg.
Palate: The palate has a minor note of cornbread muffins next to cherry-vanilla tobacco with a dash of leather and toffee.
Finish: The end leans into some fresh gingerbread with a vanilla frosting next to hints of pear candy cut with cinnamon and nutmeg.
This is really good classic bourbon. It’s not overdone or overpowering but it gets the job done.
Nose: The nose opens with classic notes of vanilla sheet cake, salted caramel, wintry mulled wine spices, and a sense of cherry pie in a lard crust next to a hint of dried corn husk, old broom bristle, and dark chocolate pipe tobacco.
Palate: The palate layers in floral honey and orange zest next to sticky toffee pudding, old leather, and cherry tobacco layered with the dark chocolate with this lingering sense of coconut cream pie lurking somewhere in the background.
Finish: The finish leans into more woody winter spices (especially cinnamon bark and nutmeg) with rich toffee and cherry-chocolate tobacco braided with dry sweetgrass and cedar bark.
Damn, this is excellent too. The beginning, middle, and end are all bold yet refined.
Nose: The nose opens with creamy vanilla next to spiced tobacco with plenty of apple pie vibe and winter spices with a butter underbelly.
Palate: The palate has a light bran muffin with a molasses vibe next to vanilla/nougat wafers that then lead to peach skins and gingerbread.
Finish: The end leans into the nutty chocolate and vanilla wafer with a touch of orange zest, marzipan, and mint tobacco with a hint of garden-store earthiness.
This was fine. It’s clearly something from Tennessee thanks to the vanilla wafers (think Necco Wafers) and the earthy close.
Nose: Buttery banana bread with walnuts and raisins (with a hint of the cardboard box they came in) next to bright red cherry and fresh tart apples dominate the nose with a light hint of old cinnamon powder next to the faintest hint of chewing tobacco.
Palate: The palate is thin, there’s no getting around that thanks to the proofing water. But it also presents as a lush banana milkshake cut with fresh vanilla and dusted with nutmeg and plenty of apple and cherry pie with very mild oakiness.
Finish: The proofing water amps up on the finish as the flavor washes out, leaving you with a sense of an empty apple pin tin, hints of banana bread, and an echo of cherry pipe tobacco.
This starts so strong but then sort of peters out by the end. That leads me to believe it’s a mixing bourbon. Oh, and it’s also very obviously Jack Daniel’s thanks to that bold fruitiness from top to bottom.
Nose: Vanilla cream spiked with orange oils and sprinkled with toasted coconut mingle with spicy oak and buttery cake on the nose with an underpinning of winter spices by way of a sour mulled wine.
Palate: The palate opens with easy notes of marzipan, subtle dried roses, vanilla pods, more winter spices, and singed cherry bark.
Finish: The end arrives with a sense of Almond Joy next to cherry tobacco dipped in chili-infused dark chocolate with a flake of salt and a pinch of cedar dust and old leather saddles.
This has an excellent nose that carries the profile to a wonderful finish. This is a prime sipper.
Part 2 — The Bourbon Ranking
10. George Dickel Bourbon Whisky Handcrafted Small Batch Aged 8 Years — Taste 8
Average Price: $31
The whisky in the bottle is the same Dickel Tennessee whiskey but pulled from barrels that leaned more into classic bourbon flavor notes instead of Dickel’s iconic Tennessee whisky notes. The barrels are a minimum of eight years old before they’re vatted. The whiskey is then cut down to a manageable 90-proof and bottled.
This is perfectly fine bourbon. That earthiness on the finish is going to be an acquired taste for some (and may even remind some drinkers of a rye). In the end, I’d mix this into cocktails.
9. Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey — Taste 9
Average Price: $21
This is classic Jack Daniel’s made with their iconic mash bill of 80% corn, 8% rye, and 12% malted barley. That mashed juice is then sent through massive column stills before it’s slowly dripped through 10 feet of pebbly sugar maple charcoal, which is also made on-site at Lynchburg, from local lumber. After that, the whiskey is left alone for up to five or six years across Jack Daniel’s vast warehouses before batching, proofing, and bottling.
This starts with such boldness and then just kind of disappears by the end. That’s too bad because it’s pretty damn good up to that end. You can easily mix cocktails with this one. Use it as a building block.
8. Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 5
Average Price: $28
Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon is a blend of four whiskeys. The blend is split evenly between the high and mid-ryes with a focus on “slight spice” and “rich fruit” yeasts. The whiskey is then blended, cut with soft Kentucky water, and bottled.
This was the opposite — the nose was so light and faint and then built toward a great finish. Again, use this as a building block for cocktails.
7. Knob Creek Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 9 Years — Taste 3
Average Price: $44 (one-liter)
This is Jim Beam’s small batch entry point into the wider world of Knob Creek. The juice is the low-rye mash aged for nine years in new oak in Beam’s vast warehouses. The right barrels are then mingled and cut down to 100 proof before being bottled in new, wavy bottles.
This was even-keeled (if a little warm). This is a great candidate for whiskey-forward cocktails where the bourbon is the star of the show.
6. Evan Williams Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 6
Average Price: $18
Heaven Hill makes great whiskey, especially inexpensive bottled in bonds. This “b-i-b” is tailored for the Evan Williams flavor profile. Still, this is Heaven Hill, so we’re talking about the same mash bill, same warehouses, and same blending team as beloved bourbons like Elijah Craig and Heaven Hill releases. This is simply built to match a higher-end Evan Williams vibe.
This is another really good bourbon (with an amazing price tag). I would still lean toward using this for whiskey-forward cocktails, but 100% would drink this over a glass full of ice.
5. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 4
Average Price: $49
This expression takes standard Woodford Bourbon and gives it a finishing touch. The six to eight-year-old bourbon is blended and moved into new barrels that have been double-toasted but only lightly charred. The whiskey spends a final nine months resting in those barrels before proofing and bottling.
This is where we get into the true sippers. This is deeply hewn and has a diverse and fun flavor profile. Pour it over a big rock and enjoy a slow sip.
4. Jim Beam Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 7
Average Price: $20
Each of these Jim Beam bottlings is pulled from single barrels that hit just the right spot of taste, texture, and drinkability, according to the master distillers at Beam. That means this juice is pulled from less than one percent of all barrels in Beam’s warehouses, making this a very special bottle at a bafflingly affordable price.
This is so good for what it is (especially price-wise). This is Jim Beam at its best for $20. Drink it however you like to drink your whiskey.
3. Elijah Craig Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 2
Average Price: $25
This is Elijah Craig’s entry-point bottle. The mash is corn-focused, with more malted barley than rye. The whiskey is then rendered from “small batches” of barrels to create this proofed-down version of the iconic brand.
This always surprises me in blinds. It’s just good f*cking bourbon and I kind of forget that in my day-to-day. Buy a bottle and drink it in every application.
2. Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Single Barrel — Taste 10
Average Price: $83
This is a high water mark of what standard Wild Turkey can achieve. The Russells select the “honey barrels” (those special barrels that are as much magic as craft) from their rickhouses for single barrel bottling. The resulting whiskey is non-chill filtered but is cut down slightly to proof with that soft Kentucky water.
This is another whiskey that’s just f*cking delicious. It’s bold and warm and spicy and sweet. It’s BOURBON in all caps! I love this stuff over a big rock when I can sip it slowly.
1. Michter’s US*1 Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 1
Average Price: $43
Michter’s really means the phrase “small batch” here. The tank they use to marry their hand-selected eight-year-old bourbons can only hold 20 barrels, so that’s how many go into each small-batch bottling. The blended juice is then proofed with Kentucky’s famously soft limestone water and bottled.
I’ve been pretty effusive about the last few bottles of bourbon on this list. So it’s fair to ask what makes this bottle stand out. It’s refinement. This is big and bold and delicious like the rest of them but this has a refinement and nuance that helps it stand above the crowd — in a very clear way.
Yes, I’d sip this neat or on the rocks. But this will also make a killer cocktail. That’s versatility.
Part 3 — Final Thoughts on the Bourbons
Honestly, there wasn’t a bad bourbon on this list. And you can get every single one of them. It’s a good time to be a whiskey drinker, folks.
In the end, the top six are all winners. The top three are stellar. The Michter’s is the one to get, especially if you’re looking for the perfect bottle to up your sipping game while also upping your cocktail game.