Is there a “smoothest” bourbon? Is that a thing? These are murky waters to tread, in part because people like spirits that taste good, and “smoothness” helps the good parts of an aged spirit shine a little brighter. But smoothness as an adjective for bourbon is often unclear. A thin bourbon with a super low proof would certainly go down easily, but is that smooth?
To help parse some of this, I’m blind tasting 10 “smooth” bourbons to see which is the smoothest in the land. Before I dive in, let’s erect some guardrails. “Smooth” means “free from projections or unevenness of surface; not rough” in the ol’ dictionary. There are a lot of synonyms for “smooth” as well: Creamy, fluid, gentle, glossy, polished, silky, sleek, and velvety pop out in the ol’ thesaurus. So do flat, mild, and soft. Because of that latter bit, people often scoff away at “smooth” as a whiskey descriptor because they think it means thin or mild or without any depth. That’s not what we’re seeking today.
Instead, I’m using “smooth” as something that’s A) “not rough,” B) “creamy, silky, velvety, and sleek,” and C) does have depth … that you can access because of A and B. Real smoothness is balanced, you know, like the definition “free from … unevenness.”
For this blind taste test, I grabbed bottles that I would recommend if someone asked me for a “smooth bourbon.” I did keep it pretty narrow though. I’m not putting in any ringers. This is straight bourbon from Kentucky that’s all well-aged, not overly proofed, none of them are wheated, and there is no special barrel finishing. Here’s the lineup:
- Woodford Reserve Double Oak Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 10 Years Old
- Evan Williams Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Henry Mckenna 10-Year-Old Single Barrel Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 10 Years
- Michter’s Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 10 Years Old
- Bulleit Bourbon 10 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 12 Years Old
- E. H. Taylor, Jr. Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Bottled In Bond
- Kirkland Signature Single Barrel By Barton 1792 Master Distillers Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
My wife was kind enough to shuffle and pour these whiskeys for me. Then I blindly tasted away and started ranking — with an eye on overall “smoothness” with real depth alongside deliciousness being the goal. Sound good? Let’s dive in!
Part 1 — The “Smooth” Bourbon Tasting
Nose: There’s a welcoming aroma of marzipan, 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 very smooth whiskey. It’s also really tasty. This is a contender!
Nose: This is just a straight-up classic with depth on the nose leading to rich vanilla, salted caramel, sour cherry, wintry spices, and a touch of old oak.
Palate: The palate opens with orange-oil-infused marzipan covered in dark chocolate next to bolder holiday spices, moist spiced cake, and a very distant whisper of barrel smoke.
Finish: The end has a mix of orange, vanilla, chocolate, and sharp spice leading to an old leather pouch full of sticky maple syrup tobacco.
That sharp spice and leather on the end add a little roughness. It’s not bad by any stretch. It’s just not as creamy as the last pour.
Nose: This has a really nice nose full of woody cherry and salted caramel with a tart apple edge and a soft leatheriness.
Palate: The palate feels and tastes “classic” with notes of wintry spices (eggnog especially) with a lush creaminess supported by soft vanilla, a hint of orange zest, and plenty of spicy cherry tobacco.
Finish: The end is supple with a hint of tart apple tobacco with a light caramel candy finish.
This is a tad woody with a hard candy vibe. I don’t really consider “hard candy” a “smooth” descriptor.
Nose: The nose opens slightly tannic with rich orange zest and vanilla cream next to woody winter spice, fresh mint, and wet cedar with a hint of gingerbread and burnt cherry.
Palate: The palate hits on soft vanilla white cake with a salted caramel drizzle and burnt orange zest vibe next to apple/pear tobacco leaves dipped in toffee and almond.
Finish: The end has a sour cherry sensation that leads to wintery woody spices, cedar bark, and old cellar beams with a lush vanilla pod and cherry stem finish.
This was woody and earthy, which didn’t scream “smooth” to me at all. It was tasty and funky though, which I dig.
Nose: Old leather boots, orange pudding, oily sage, old oak staves, and rich buttery toffee pop on the nose with a sense of mulled wine spices and soft plum pudding.
Palate: Marzipan covered in dark chocolate opens the palate as floral honey and ripe cherry lead to a winter cake vibe full of raisins, dark spices, and toffee sauce.
Finish: The end has a balance of all things winter treats as the marzipan returns and the winter spice amp up alongside a hint of spicy cherry tobacco and old cedar.
This is smooth AF. The moist marzipan, creamy toffee, and winter puddings create a very velvety experience. It’s also pretty goddamn tasty.
Nose: There’s a peppery sense of cedar bark and burnt orange next to salted caramel and tart red berries with a moist and spicy sticky toffee pudding with some brandy butter dancing on the nose.
Palate: The palate blends vanilla tobacco with salted dark chocolate-covered marzipan while espresso cream leads to new porch wicker and black peppercorns.
Finish: The end has a pecan waffle vibe with chocolate chips, maple syrup, blackberry jam, and minced meat pies next to old tobacco and cedar with a sweet yet toasted marshmallow on the very end.
This was insanely deep and delicious but I’d call it more sharp than smooth.
Nose: There’s a lot going on with butter and spicy stewed apples, kindling, Christmas cakes full of nuts and dried fruit, and a hint of savory herbs all pinging through your nose.
Palate: The palate brings about soft vanilla with plenty of butter toffee, sourdough crust, more winter spice, cedar bark, and a hint of dried roses.
Finish: The finish is short and hits on the barkier aspects of the woody spice and vanilla with a hint of sharp orange zest and old oak.
This is on the thinner side by the end and is more woody than smooth.
Nose: This opens with clear notes of dark rum-soaked cherry, bitter yet creamy dark chocolate, winter spices, a twinge of a sourdough sugar doughnut, and a hint of menthol.
Palate: The palate leans into a red berry crumble — brown sugar, butter, and spice — with a hint of dried chili flake, salted caramels covered in dark chocolate, and a spicy/sweet note that leads toward a wet cattail stem and soft brandied cherries dipped in silky dark chocolate sauce.
Finish: The very end holds onto that sweetness and layers in a final note of pecan shells and maple candy.
This is beautifully deep, darkly fruity, and spicy while offering a truly silky sipping experience. This is some smooth whiskey.
Nose: Dried dark fruits and a hint of vanilla wafers mingle with fig fruit leather, a touch of orchard wood, and a deep caramel on the nose.
Palate: The palate holds onto those notes while layering in dark berry tobacco with sharp winter spices, new leather, and a singed cotton candy next to a cedar box filled with that tobacco.
Finish: The finish lingers on your senses for a while and leaves the spice behind for that dark, almost savory fruit note with an echo of blackberry Hostess pies next to soft leather pouches that have held chewy tobacco for decades and a final hint of old porch wicker in the middle of summer.
This has the most depth by far and is insanely velvety. It’s luscious, engaging, and darkly enticing.
Nose: This is a deep nose with salted caramel cut with dried red chili flakes, Mounds bar, sour mulled wine full of star anise, clove, and allspice, and creamy malted vanilla ice cream cut with candies cherry and tobacco crumbles.
Palate: The palate lets those cherries sour toward cranberry as a woody sense of huckleberry arrives with brown sugar and butter next to dark chocolate-covered espresso beans dusted with cinnamon and orange zest.
Finish: The end arrives with burnt orange, marzipan, and woody clove edge as fir firewood bark with a twinge of black soil in it arrives next to cherry-apple tobacco with a buttery and rummy feel.
There’s a lot going on and it all makes sense. It’s smooth on the nose and finish but a little sharp on the mid palate with all that woody spice.
Part 2 — The “Smooth” Bourbon Ranking
10. Bulleit Bourbon 10 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 7
Average Price: $45
This is classic (sourced) Bulleit Bourbon that’s aged up to 10 years before it’s blended and bottled. The barrels are hand-selected to really amplify those classic “Bulleit” flavors that make this brand so damn accessible (and beloved) in the first place.
This was more thin than smooth by the end. It was perfectly tasty but I wouldn’t call it smooth.
9. Russell’s Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 10 Years Old — Taste 2
Average Price: $29
Master Distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell go barrel hunting in their Wild Turkey rickhouses to find this expression. The whiskey is a marrying of bourbons Jimmy and Eddie Russell handpicked with a minimum age of 10 years old. They then cut it down to a very accessible 90-proof for bottling.
This had a touch of roughness around the finish — largely tied to woody sharp spice. The rest of the profile is dialed though and very enjoyable.
8. Evan Williams Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 3
Average Price: $38
This is Heaven Hill’s hand-selected single barrel Evan Williams expression. The whiskey is from a single barrel, labeled with its distillation year, proofed just above 86, and bottled as is.
This was a twinge soft and thin on the end but really that’s me reaching to rank these. Still, I’m not sure I’d recommend this as a “smooth” bourbon. It’s a really good and inexpensive single barrel though.
7. Henry Mckenna 10-Year-Old Single Barrel Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 4
Average Price: $99
This classic offering from Heaven Hill is actually getting easier to find again (after years of being nearly impossible to find thanks to hype). The juice utilizes a touch of rye in the mash bill and is then aged for 10 long years in a bonded rickhouse. The best barrels are chosen by hand and the whiskey is bottled with just a touch of water to bring it down to bottled-in-bond proof.
This was really good and had a smoothness to it. Ultimately, it wasn’t as lush as the next few pours. There was a great favor profile though.
6. Michter’s Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 10 Years Old — Taste 6
Average Price: $185
The whiskey barrels sourced for these single-barrel expressions tend to be at least 10 years old with some rumored to be closer to 15 years old (depending on the barrel’s quality, naturally). Either way, the whiskey goes through Michter’s bespoke filtration process before a touch of Kentucky’s iconic soft limestone water is added, bringing the bourbon down to a very crushable 94.4 proof.
This was so bold compared to all the other pours. I’d call this sharp way before I’d call it smooth. It’s delicious and sharp.
5. Kirkland Signature Single Barrel By Barton 1792 Master Distillers Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 10
Average Price: $32 (1-liter bottle)
This Costco release is sourced from Sazerac’s other Kentucky distillery, Barton 1792 Distillery down in Bardstown, Kentucky. The bottle’s whiskey is likely the same distillate/barrels as 1792 Full Proof. However, this is proofed down a tiny bit below that at 120 proof instead of 125 proof, adding some nuance to this release.
This was getting into the very smooth pours that delivered real depth. This went down very easily, especially for a relatively high-proof bourbon (which I didn’t know when I tasted and ranked these). Still, this went down really easily and delivered a good and deep flavor profile.
4. Woodford Reserve Double Oak Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 1
Average Price: $49
This expression takes standard Woodford Bourbon and gives it a finishing touch. The bourbon is blended and moved into new barrels that have been double-toasted but only lightly charred. The juice spends a final nine months resting in those barrels before proofing and bottling.
This was maybe the smoothest overall but didn’t have the same depth as the next three. So, if you’re looking for a super easy-going slow-sipper, this is the play.
3. Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 12 Years Old — Taste 8
Average Price: $69
This is the classic Beam whiskey. The juice is left alone in the Beam warehouses in Clermont, Kentucky, for 12 long years. The barrels are chosen according to a specific taste and mingled to create this aged expression with a drop or two of that soft Kentucky limestone water.
Here we go. This is smooth AF and very deep. It’s a warmer pour though, so I’d be reticent to not mention that this is smooth with a little punchiness.
2. Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 10 Years — Taste 5
Buy Here: $51
This might be one of the most beloved (and still accessible) bottles from Buffalo Trace. This whiskey is made from their very low rye mash bill. The hot juice is then matured for at least 10 years in various parts of the warehouse. The final mix comes down to barrels that hit just the right notes to make them “Eagle Rare.” Finally, this one is proofed down to a fairly low 90 proof.
This is pure silk. The only reason it’s not first is that it is pure silk but didn’t quite have as much depth as the next pour.
1. E. H. Taylor, Jr. Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Bottled In Bond — Taste 9
Average Price: $172
This whiskey is aged in the famed Warehouse C at Buffalo Trace from their Mash Bill No. 1. In this case, single barrels are picked for their perfect Taylor flavor profile and bottled one at a time with a slight touch of water to bring them down to bottled-in-bond proof.
This is the one. This is smooth as silk while offering an intensely deep flavor profile that just keeps layering beautifully rendered flavors over beautiful flavors. This is a great pour.
Part 3 — Final Thoughts on the “Smooth” Bourbons
E.H. Taylor Single Barrel basically ran away with this one. It’s just so smooth while being truly deep and interesting. It runs deep and really feels supple on the senses.
And look, the top six really are all winners and smooth in one way or another. So if you’re looking for a “smooth” and delicious bourbon, grab any of the top five. They all deliver.