Finding a great bottle of bourbon is an adventure with no end. There are over 1,400 distilleries making bourbon across America. That, folks, is a whole lotta booze. This proliferation of the spirit means there are endless places to get lost in the deep, dark, oaky woods. Finding “the best” out of 1,400 variables (each making more than one expression of bourbon) is a lifelong journey.
And, as with so much in life, the journey itself is the only destination. Are you and your liver up for it?
To help you along your bourbon quest, we decided to name some of our favorite lesser-known, lesser-hyped, harder-to-find bottles of bourbon for fall. There are only two real rules here: The bottle has to be phenomenal (in flavor or value) and on the fringe of the mainstream. That all means, you’re going to have to put a little work in. These bottles won’t necessarily be at the local Safeway or even bottle shop. You’ll have to talk to your local liquor store clerk, maybe special order a few, and, sometimes, drop a fair amount of coin.
Still, we’re convinced that these bottles deserve a spot on your shelf as the leaves change and your bourbon sipping needs shift along with them.
W.L. WELLER SPECIAL RESERVE
Story: William Larue Weller is the grandpappy of all the best bourbon you’ve heard about. Weller helped create the Pappy Van Winkle revolution by swapping out most of the rye in the mash bill for wheat, adding a whole new dimension to the bourbon. This Reserve (from Buffalo Trace) is an entry-level introduction to the label. After you get a taste for it, level up to the 12-year-old expression, which is a perfect analog for Pappy (at about a tenth the price).
Tasting Notes: Sweet notes of ripe apple dripping with fresh honey open this one with a hint of library leather. Fatty nuts, rich bourbon caramel and vanilla, butterscotch, tart apples, and another dose of that leather lead towards a rich, sweet finish with a hint of bourbon oak warmth and wildflowers. – Zach Johnston
RABBIT HOLE KENTUCKY STRAIGHT BOURBON WHISKEY
Story: Rabbit Hole is a young Kentucky distillery that consistently hits it out of the park with each bottling. Their multiple award-winning Straight Bourbon has a four-grain mash bill comprised of 70 percent corn, 10 percent malted wheat, 10 percent honey malted barley, and 10 percent malted barley. The spirit is then expertly mellowed in charred oak until it’s just right.
Tasting Notes: This is a straight-up classic. Honey-soaked cornbread, bright apples, caramel, and oak greet you. Hints of buttery spice cake sit next to whispers of herbal mint and darkness from the oak that leads back to a spicy, warming vanilla next to more caramel, wildflowers, and honey. – Zach Johnston
COLONEL E.H. TAYLOR SMALL BATCH
Story: This is a throwback bourbon of sorts. The name refers to the former owner of Buffalo Trace from the 1800s. It also takes the inspiration for its four-grain mash bill from the grains that were used by the Colonel back then. Corn, rye, wheat, and malted barley are fermented and then distilled before going into charred oak for 12 long years to mellow. It’s then bottled in bond at 100 proof (50 percent ABV) to add extra depth.
Tasting Notes: Caramel and vanilla greet you with a clear sense of that charred oak. Rich butterscotch comes into play with an almost marzipan level of almond. Spicy rye notes kick in alongside the vanilla and floral edge. Finally, that spice, oaky char, and caramel lead towards a warming embrace at the finish. – Zach Johnston
BELLE MEADE SINGLE BARREL
Story: A single barrel whiskey is a treasure. Each small-batch bottling is going to have a nuance to it to the point that no two will ever be the same. Belle Meade’s Single Barrel — from Nelson’s Green Brier out in Tennesee — is one of the bottles that you need to get on your shelf ASAP. Each barrel is hand-selected for its flavor profile. The whiskey is never cut with water to bring it down to a specific proof.
This is a bourbon straight from the barrel to you.
Tasting Notes: Since each bottling is unique to a barrel, the taste really depends on which one you’re uncorking at any given time. We can tell you that there’s usually a high rye content. So you can expect classic notes of honey, apple, caramel, oaky vanilla, and leathery tobacco backed up with a nice dose of rye spiciness. The ebb and flow of the taste from there is going to be dependent on which barrel you’re drinking from. It’s a true adventure. – Zach Johnston
BALCONES TEXAS BLUE CORN BOURBON
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The bourbons are almost here! Only a few tickets left for the First Taste event on Thursday night! Grab a ticket at the link in our bio while you can so you can be sure to grab a bottle (or two!). #bourbon #highryebourbon #balcones #balconesdistillery #balconesdistilling #balconeswhisky #whiskydistillery #texaswhisky #whisky #whiskey #texaswhiskey #americanwhisky #americanwhiskey #tastingroom #thingstodinwaco #explorewaco
Story: Texan bourbon is on the rise. Balcones is a big reason the region is making waves in the industry right now. Their Texas Blue Corn Bourbon is a high ABV bourbon that straight kicks ass. The blue corn is sourced from Indigenous sources in deep west Texas. The mash is ground and fermented in-house. After distillation, the spirit goes into new American oak to mellow into a perfect sip of spicy, earthy bourbon that bleeds Texas.
Tasting Notes: The sip greets you with notes of rich, buttery cornbread with notes of herbal mint, fresh tobacco, and hints of white pepper spice. Tart marmalade leads to pure Texas sweet tea earthen notes. Next, a rush of burnt sugar and cinnamon spice comes into play. Finally, oaky vanilla, cardamon, peppery spice, and charred sweet corn combine for a nice bit of warmth at the finale. – Zach Johnston
OLD GRAND-DAD 114 PROOF
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I’ve never had a bottle of OGD 114, only the BiB. I was happy to pick up a bottle to keep in Colorado for my regular travel there moving forward. At the price, I don’t think there’s a better value in high proof bourbon, and I don’t even think that can be debated. ________________________________________ #whiskey #whisky #whiskeygram #whiskygram #instawhisky #instawhiskey #bourbon #scotch #scotland #kentucky #distillery #🥃 #alcohol #drinks #spirits #a5100 #sony #sonyalpha #dram #finedrams #happy #ogd #oldgranddad #oldgranddad114 #saturday #saturdayvibes
Story: Old Grand-Dad is like your actual grandpa. It’s been around forever and always seems to be judging you from the comfort of a leather chair. But this brand doesn’t really get the credit it deserves. Regular Old Grand-Dad is a great, bargain bourbon while the 114 proof expression is a very solid high-rye bourbon that’s perfect for sipping or mixing into Old Fashioneds and whiskey sours.
Tasting Notes: Although, this expression’s popularity among the bartending community is gaining, in general, it remains underrated. Due to the higher-than-normal rye content, this bourbon is full of peppery spice to go along with the usual rich, vanilla, and an added kick of tropical fruit notes that will remind you of a well-aged rum. – Christopher Osburn
KOVAL SINGLE BARREL BOURBON
Story: Bourbon purists would tell you that nothing good comes from outside the borders of “The Bluegrass State.” Well, they’re really limiting their choices with this kind of one-sided thinking. Pretty much everything Chicago’s Koval distills is excellent and this is especially true for its single barrel bourbon.
Tasting Notes: This 94-proof whiskey fits the criteria for bourbon because it’s made up of at least 51 percent corn. It sets itself apart by using millet instead of the usual wheat or rye. The addition of this grain gives the whiskey an almost nutty sweetness to go along with the usual sweet corn. The result of this mingling of flavors is a whiskey full of custard sweetness, rich caramel, as well as tobacco and subtle spice at the finish. – Christopher Osburn
KING’S COUNTY BOURBON
Story: This bourbon doesn’t even try to hide that fact that it’s not from Kentucky. In fact, it seems to revel in the fact that its made in New York State using New York-grown corn. Then King’s County doubles up on its un-Kentucky-ness by using malted barley from the United Kingdom.
Price: $49.99 (375ml bottle)
Tasting Notes: This award-winning bourbon will test the limits of even the most intense Kentucky bourbon fans. It’s full of corn sweetness bourbon lovers crave, as well as hit of caramelized sugar and toffee that progresses into rich, robust oak, and finally cinnamon and vanilla, before ending in a hint of subtle peppery spices.
This is the kind of whiskey that will finally convince your friends that bourbon can be made anywhere in the US. – Christopher Osburn
WHISTLING ANDY STRAIGHT BOURBON WHISKEY
Story: I stumbled upon Whistling Andy’s unassuming storefront in Big Fork, Montana not expecting much (but still wanting to drink some bourbon) and ended up thoroughly impressed with what I found. Their straight bourbon is a beautiful, amber-colored, four-grain whiskey (barley, wheat, corn, and rye) distilled from 100% Montana-grown grain.
They’ve only been around since 2010, but this is definitely one to follow.
Tasting Notes: Mellow, sweet corn body and strong toffee notes in the nose and flavor with a smooth, lingering finish. It’s easy to drink, and fun. Just a solid, approachable bourbon that appeals to snobs and noobs alike. – Vince Mancini
HORSE SOLDIER SMALL BATCH BOURBON
Story: Oh, you want a story? Horse Soldier has a freaking story. Did you see that Chris Hemsworth movie about the Green Berets who rode horses into Afghanistan after September 11th? Well, this bourbon is made by those bad-asses. Pretty cool, right?
The mash bill here is a straightforward 70/20/10 corn/wheat/barley breakdown. That means you’re going to get some nice, sweet notes without a ton of spice. Perfect for an old fashioned for those who don’t want a huge rye kick.
Tasting Notes: You get alcohol burn on the nose here, especially if you drink it without a few drops of water or an ice cube. When you do add water (recommended), that burn (which is dangerously close to veering into acetone territory when left alone) turns into winter spice cake (along with all the dried fruit notes that entails). The finish is browned butter and molasses. Almost rummy in nature.
That’s the Manhattan, Sazerac, old fashioned stuff of dreams for non-rye enthusiasts like me. – Steve Bramucci
PENELOPE BOURBON BARREL STRENGTH
Story: It seems like every other bourbon (and beer! and pizza joint!) out there has a “two best buds decided to craft a superb…” story. No matter, this one is still touching: the company is named for co-owner Mike Paladini’s daughter because he found out that he and his wife were expecting just as the idea to launch a bourbon label with his best friend was hatched.
Whether it’s influenced by the name or not, there is something inherently delicate to this company and its various expressions (a good thing!) — from the bottle shape to the online branding. I mean that as a compliment. Too often in food and alcohol, chefs, distillers, and brewers want to knock everyone on their asses with huge flavors. This more balanced take is a proprietary blend of four grains (corn, wheat, rye, barley), sourced via three different mash bills and delivered at barrel strength.
Tasting Notes: Not to drive the “delicate” trope into the ground here, but dammit I dare you to find an easier 116.6 proof bourbon on the nose. There’s a teeny bit of alcohol burn (as would be expected with only 2-3 years spent in the barrel) but that’s immediately superseded by a lovely Southern farm in fall — tobacco, sun tea, orchard fruit, you get the idea.
From there, this is an easy sipper. The first taste of autumn with just-dried stone fruits and… more of a “honey” note, rather than your traditional bourbon “brown sugar.” With a few drops of water, this one gets even easier to sip. It’s almost as if… let’s say you were on a Southern farm and you made a bubble gum flavor in a giant vat with all the tobacco and tea leaves, apricots, and maybe some honeycomb. And that it was really soft and lovely and embodied the word “blended” in a very nice way. This is like that. – Steve Bramucci
VALUE PICK — HILLBILLY AMERICAN BOURBON 101
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Since winning Double Gold @sfwspiritscomp we have seen some people going to extreme lengths to protect their 101 Proof! 😂 Get yours today!!! #whiskeywednesday #bourbon #hillbillybourbon #whiskey #americanmade #americanowned #borncountry #raisedoutdoors #awards #medals #sfwsc #sfwsc2019
Story: The joy of bourbon is that it can be so many things at once. It’s similar to beer in that way. Whereas vodka is mostly always and only “vodka,” bourbon can be “special occasion sipper,” “day at the lake party bottle,” and everything in between. Hill Billy, bottled out of South Carolina, seems to innately understand this. Their website gives off some very serious Southern spraaaaaaang breakkkkkk vibes — pairing outdoor antics with recipes and bar pics.
Price: The branding element here is clear — booze, bbq, maybe a brawl or two — but none of that precludes this from being a fun bourbon and a great pick at the price ($29.99) and proof (101).
Tasting Notes: Like the 86 proof, this opens with vanilla and banana on the front end. Sipped without water, you get a little alcohol bite next paired with a little rye spice (there’s 18% in the mash bill). Taken straight, the sip finishes with oak and cherries. With water, the oak is still forward but a little less woody, with a nice return of the banana notes and some brown sugar.
For the cash, this bourbon is a nice one to start your bourbon learnings with or to kick off a bourbon fueled party in style. – Steve Bramucci