Best Bourbons To Drink Now

Food & Wine: W.L. Weller Special Reserve Bourbon
W.L. Weller Special Reserve Bourbon Photo Courtesy of Buffalo Trace Distillery
By Ray Isle Posted October 16, 2013

This fall got me thinking about an elderly fellow I once knew, a friend of my father’s father and a veteran of World War One. He was 85 at the time, and blind as a bat—used to watch TV from the couch through a pair of binoculars perched on a stick, sipping what he referred to as “bourbon and branch.” That simply means bourbon and water (technically water from a small stream; it’s an old Southern term), as opposed to bourbon and soda, but it has an antique resonance to it that’s awfully appealing, I think.

Anyway, he’s gone now—has been for years—but there’s still plenty of good bourbon out there, and since it’s officially “a distinctive product of the United States” (by a 1964 Congressional resolution, no less), why not pour a glass? 

W.L. Weller Special Reserve ($19) The rye in the mash bill for this is replaced by wheat, making this a less spicy bourbon with more caramel notes to it, and a soft, forgiving character. It’s a fine example of the wheated bourbon style, not to mention a great value.

Maker’s 46 ($32) It flies in the face of the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” adage, but in this case successfully. The Maker’s folks tweaked their barrel regimen when they decided to make this addition to the Maker’s Mark portfolio (the first in five decades), adding heavily charred French oak staves in addition to the regular American white oak barrels. The result is a spicier, more intense version of the classic Maker’s style.

Jefferson’s Chef’s Collaboration Whiskey ($40) I’m throwing this in even though technically it isn’t a bourbon—it’s a blend of 14-year-old rye whiskey with two different bourbons. But it’s also a terrific collaborative effort between Jefferson’s founder Trey Zoeller and acclaimed Kentucky-based chef Edward Lee. Lee’s been holding bourbon-pairing dinners at his restaurant 610 Magnolia for years, and wanted to create a bourbon specifically designed to work with food. He went at it, he says, “The same way I’d compose a dish, layering different flavors; that’s the way it was with the barrel samples we tasted for the blend.” Spicy, with a light dry wood note, it rides on its rye character till the bourbon fruit notes slink in at the end.

Baker’s Bourbon ($45) One of a collection of small batch bourbons from Jim Beam, Baker’s for some reason seems to live in the shadow of its jet-powered big brother, Booker’s. Booker’s, at roughly 127 proof, will take the top of your head off if you don’t dilute it; Baker’s, at 107 proof, is powerful but balanced, with a Cognac-like elegance and spicy oak notes.

2013 Old Forester Birthday Bourbon ($55) This is the 12th release of this limited-edition bourbon; this year’s version has a distinctively strong vanilla finish, and a lightly nutty aroma. It’s potent, but not too potent—97 proof. Definitely a sipping whiskey, and a fine one at that.

Related: Best New Spirits
Whiskey Lexicon
Terrific Bourbon Cocktails

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