Recently, I wrote an article where I blindly tasted and ranked popular gins. The results were so surprising and I had such a good time doing it, that I figured I’d try it again. But this time it’s going to be much more difficult — I’m taking on some of the most well-known, popular, easy-to-find bottles of bourbon on the market.
It’s a bourbon throw down. And I truly hope to be surprised.
While the last blind taste test featured gin and had us comparing juniper and other herbal and botanical flavors, bourbon’s flavor profile is palate is significantly more nuanced. At this price point, I’m looking for balance, bold flavors, and a ton of caramel, vanilla, oak, and wintry spices. But to truly stand out, the bourbon needs to conjure flavors beyond those prominent notes as well.
- Maker’s Mark
- Jim Beam White Label
- Bulleit Bourbon
- Woodford Reserve
- Wild Turkey 101
- Elijah Craig Small Batch
- Buffalo Trace
- Evan Williams
Part 1: The Taste
Cinnamon, cracked black pepper, charred oak, and vanilla are prevalent on the nose. That’s about it though. Taking a sip revealed more toasted vanilla beans, raisins, sticky toffee, and a dollop of peppery rye at the finish. It ends with a dry, warming, slightly sweet, slightly spicy finish.
All in all a decent whiskey, but none of the flavors really had the punch I would hope for.
The nose is filled with caramel corn, cracked black pepper, cinnamon, vanilla, and light wintry spices. It’s definitely a welcoming nose that made me want to dive in and taste it. The palate starts with a nutty sweetness, toasted vanilla beans, charred oak, raisins, candied orange peels, and just a hint of warming cracked black pepper.
The nose is fairly bland with some vanilla, sweet corn, and maybe light caramel candy. But not much else. It definitely didn’t get me excited to take a sip. The palate didn’t add much to the experience with more overly sweet vanilla, some toffee, and maybe some oak.
It all tasted very generic.
A complex nose of dried cherries, toasted vanilla beans, caramel apples, honey, and slight herbal aromas greeted me before my first sip. One sip revealed notes of raisins, vanilla cookies, and charred oak. But that was about it. Surprisingly, as inviting as the nose was, the palate was much more on the bland side.
While warming and smooth, the overall flavor was really lackluster.
A symphony of sticky toffee, cinnamon sugar, peppery spice, toasted vanilla beans, and rich, woody oak greeted my nostrils before my first sip. The palate is loaded with notable flavors of butterscotch, toasted oak, vanilla cookies, raisins, and just a hint of warming spice at the finish to tie everything together nicely.
It’s warming, sweet, and slightly spicy.
A fairly generic nose of oak, vanilla, and raisins set the stage for what was ahead. While the nose wasn’t bad in any particular way, it was just fairly muted. The palate continued the trend. While there is no doubt this is an easy-to-drink, mellow, soft bourbon.
Its simple flavors of vanilla, oak, and toffee aren’t enough to excite anyone who has been drinking whiskey for very long.
Butterscotch, charred oak, candied orange peels, spicy cinnamon, slight cracked black pepper, almond cookies, and sweet vanilla were notable on the nose. The palate follows suit with hints of peppery rye, brown sugar, clover honey, more candied orange peels, toasted wood, and creamy caramel.
Overall, a very well-balanced, multi-dimensional whiskey.
Aromas of clover honey, dried cherries, toasted oak, toffee, slight winter spices, and vanilla beans are highlighted on the nose. The palate is littered with flavors of almond cookies, woody oak, butterscotch candy, vanilla cookies, and a nice kick of cracked black pepper. The finish is a warming mix of spice, oak, and caramel sweetness.
Part 2: The Rankings
8) Jim Beam White Label (Taste 3)
Average Price: $19
There are few bourbon brands more well-known than Jim Beam. And while the brand has many iconic expressions, there are few more beloved than the classic, bargain bottle of Jim Beam White Label. The world’s number one selling bourbon has been made the same way for over 200 years. It’s known for its bold oak and vanilla-centric flavor profile.
Sure, Jim Beam White Label is cheap. But I think you can do better. It tasted like vanilla candy with some fake wood flavor added.
7) Maker’s Mark (Taste 6)
Average Price: $28
Like all the brands on this list, Maker’s Mark is a big name. Known for its mellow flavor profile thanks to the addition of soft red winter wheat instead of the usual spicy, peppery rye, it comes in the iconic red wax-covered bottle.
Like Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark is a beginner whiskey that lacks the complex flavor profile to make it anything else. While smooth and easy to drink, the flavor (or lack thereof) and price tag don’t fully align, in my opinion.
6) Bulleit Bourbon (Taste 1)
Average Price: $29.99
Bulleit Bourbon touts itself as “Frontier Whiskey” and comes in a pretty cool bottle. That and a ton of advertising exposure have made this a fairly popular bourbon. But is it really all that great? Made from rye, corn, and malted barley, along with special yeast strains and Kentucky limestone-filtered water, this high-rye bourbon is known for its peppery, spicy, bold flavor profile.
Bulleit Bourbon, like Maker’s Mark, isn’t a bad whiskey. It’s just probably not as good as its popularity would suggest.
5) Elijah Craig Small Batch (Taste 4)
Average Price: $29.99
According to legend, Elijah Craig, a former minister turned distiller, invented bourbon when he aged his corn whiskey in charred oak barrels. Whether or not that story is true doesn’t change the fact that this popular small-batch bourbon bears his name. This award-winning whiskey is known for its complex, mellow flavor profile.
Elijah Craig Small Batch lands in the slightly overrated realm for me — simply because its nose is so inviting and then when you sip it, it’s surprisingly thin.
4) Woodford Reserve (Taste 8)
Average Price: $35
Woodford Reserve makes a wide array of expressions, but before you try any of the more complex bottles, you should try its flagship Kentucky Straight Bourbon. A mash bill of 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malt, and is matured in charred oak barrels for a minimum of six years.
Woodford Reserve is a little pricier than some of the other bottles on this list and for good reason. It’s complex and flavorful. It’s the kind of bourbon where you find a few new flavors every time you sip it.
3) Wild Turkey 101 (Taste 7)
Average Price: $26
Bartenders and drinkers alike consistently list Wild Turkey 101 as one of the best value bourbons on the market. Aged for a minimum of six years in new, charred American oak barrels this 101-proof whiskey is known for its bold, spicy and sweet flavor profile.
Wild Turkey 101 certainly isn’t over-hyped in my book. It’s cheap, surprisingly well-balanced, and filled with nuanced, interesting flavors that work well together. It helps that it’s 101-proof.
2) Buffalo Trace (Taste 5)
Average Price: $25
When it comes to bargain bourbon bottles, few get more acclaim than Buffalo Trace’s flagship expression. This corn, rye, and malted barley-based bourbon is aged in new, charred American oak barrels and batched at no more than 40 barrels at a time. It’s known for its mellow mix of vanilla and baking spices.
For the price, it’s difficult to beat the complexity of Buffalo Trace. It’s a great mix of butterscotch sweetness and wintry spices.
1) Evan Williams (Taste 2)
Average Price: $15
Evan Williams Black Label is constantly listed as one of the best bargain bottles on the market. Also known as “Extra Aged”, this bold, rich, value bottle is matured for at least seven years in new, charred American oak barrels. Smooth, oaky, and filled with vanilla sweetness, it’s hard to beat.
Proving that price doesn’t necessarily dictate quality, Evan Williams Black Label is consistently under $20. Yet it’s well-balanced and loaded with myriad complementary flavors.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Even though I selected eight of the most popular, best-selling bottles, they all varied in price between $15 and $35. That’s a pretty big price difference and, besides Jim Beam White, the blind taste test showed that price doesn’t guarantee nuance — as some of the more expensive bottles didn’t fare as well. Complexity, balanced, and unique flavors were the name of the game and our winner today nailed all three.
The fact that it’s one of the cheaper bottles is a great bonus.