There are few spirits more American than bourbon (although apple jack enthusiasts would beg to differ). Distilled the United States since the 1800s, for a whiskey to be called a ‘bourbon’ it must fit certain criteria. Among the specific parameters it has to follow, it’s got to be made from at least 51 percent corn in the mash bill and barrelled in first-use American oak (it doesn’t, however, need to be made in Kentucky). The corn is where the spirit gets that mellow, corn-honeyed sweetness that every bourbon lover expects when they crack open a new bottle. The oak gives it the mellow, toasty spice.
In the hierarchy of bourbon, there are a handful of names that dominate in both name recognition and production. They include Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace, and — on the elite end — Pappy Van Winkle. But while these brands and their various subsidiaries continue to craft whiskey at high levels, there are a handful of other brands perhaps equally if not more deserving of accolades.
With literally thousands of expressions on the market, every serious drinks writer is going to develop a few favorites. Check out my list of underrated bourbons below.
George Remus Repeal Reserve
From MGP, this high rye bourbon is in its third year of availability. Made from a blend of 11-12-year-old bourbons and two different mash bills, Remus Repeal is named for a bootlegger and crafted to pay homage to the repealing of prohibition in the United States on December 5, 1933. The new Remus Repeal is released on King George’s birthday on November 13 every year.
If you’re able to find a bottle, you’ll be treated to the velvety smooth mouthfeel of the 2019 limited edition bottling. This blended bourbon is created to have a full range of flavors including toffee, baking spices, candied orange peel, rich caramel, and just a hint of pleasing rye spice that builds throughout.
Old Grand-Dad Bonded
You might not know it, but the “Old Grand-Dad” on the bottle is none other than Basil Hayden (yes, that Basil Hayden). That’s because his grandson Raymond Hayden created the brand in the 1800s. Currently, the brand is owned by Beam Suntory (who also own Basil Hayden’s) but that hasn’t changed the overall Old Grand-Dad experience.
The core Old Grand-Dad line comes in three different proofs: 80, 100, and 114.
Old Grand-Dad Bond is inexpensive, 100 proof, and surprisingly easy to drink. Sure, it works well as a mixer for your favorite whiskey-based drinks. But if you sip it neat or on the rocks, you’ll be met with an initial spicy hit of cinnamon followed by dried fruits before gently gliding into sweet caramel and subtle oak.
Four Roses Yellow Label
This high corn (75 percent) whiskey is aged between 4 and 12 years. That range guarantees a fairly high-quality bourbon at a value price. Sure, you can pay a little more to get a bottle of small-batch, single-barrel or small-batch select, but you honestly don’t even need to.
Even at a low sticker price, this bottle if well-suited for sipping neat or mixing into an old fashioned or mint julep.
We hate to keep harping on the low price of this offering, but it should be noted that even though you don’t have to pay a week’s rent to get a bottle, it’s perfectly balanced, soft in mouthfeel, and full of fresh sweet corn, dried fruits, vanilla, and just a hint of pleasing peppery spice at the very end of each sip.
Very Old Barton
Very Old Barton actually isn’t very old at all. The juice inside is somewhere in the 6-year range. But at less than $15 dollars at most retailers, we’ll let someone else worry about the age semantics. For the price, this is a can’t miss bourbon. Made by the Sazerac company, Very Old Barton is bottled in multiple proofs including 80, 86, 90, and 100 and was once given a very surprising score of 90.5 in Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better bottom shelf bourbon on the planet. With a mash bill of 75 percent corn, 15 percent rye, and 10 percent barley, this is a very well-rounded whiskey. Due to the overwhelming amount of corn, this bourbon is sweeter than most, if you dig that sort of thing. It’s full of sticky toffee, honey, and stone fruit flavors as well as just a hint of peppery spice at the end thanks to the rye.
Bib & Tucker
There’s a reason bartenders enjoy this Tennessee-based bourbon. It’s only been available since 2014 but has already gained a cult following for its high quality that starts with 70 percent corn-based mash bill and 6 years of maturation. While the distillery listed for producing it is 35 Maple Street Spirits, it’s rumored that it’s actually produced by George Dickel. This would surprise no one, as it’s the same high level as the beloved Tennessee whiskey brand.
While this 90 proof offering is made up of 70 percent corn, it’s also comprised of 26 percent rye. The result is a highly complex, well-balanced whiskey with smoky cinnamon on the first sip followed by hints of anise, cloves, and dried fruits, all brought together by sweet cream and light peppery spice from the rye.
Baker’s is the sometimes-forgotten member of Jim Beam’s Small Batch Bourbon Collection. Basil Hayden’s, Knob Creek, and Booker’s seem to get all the press. Named for Baker Beam, the grand-nephew of Jim Beam, Baker’s is aged for 7 years and sits at a highly potent 107 proof. This doesn’t stop it from being extremely sippable and bold.
Even though this whiskey is 107 proof, it’s surprisingly mellow — with subtle Christmas spices prevalent on your first sip. This is quickly followed by vanilla, caramelized sugar, and rich dried leather. The heat is long-lasting, but not harsh as it seems to warm you all the way through by the end of your first glass.