10 Bourbons to Add to Your Liquor Cabinet

Woodford Reserve bourbon
Photo: Courtesy of Wine.com

What's not to love about the quintessential American whiskey? Bourbon is an enduring favorite, a spirit that survived the years of Prohibition; survived the decades when most drinkers opted for Cosmos and Cuervo over classic whiskey; and has recently exploded in popularity, to such an extent that many distillers can't keep up with the demand. We all associate bourbon with Kentucky, but it's a common misconception that all bourbon is from Kentucky. Not so. While there are many requirements for true bourbon — like that it must be made from at least 50 percent corn, and aged in charred new American oak barrels — it can be made anywhere in America. All bourbons share a certain character, the comforting scent of vanilla and caramel and wood, the pleasant heft of an aged spirit. But moving beyond that, they're all over the map: some are distinctly sweet, others have a bit of spice; some are so smooth they drink like a cocktail, others so powerful they'll send a shiver down your spine. While there are dozens of bourbons we could recommend, here are 10 to know and to drink — from low-end to high — well-known to a little less so.

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01 of 10

Maker's Mark

Maker's Mark
Courtesy of Maker's Mark

Maker's Mark is iconic — even those who aren't whiskey fans will recognize their red wax-sealed bottle. It's a great gateway bourbon for the whiskey-curious, as it's quite sweet, and deliberately so. The distillery calls it a "front-of-palate bourbon," meaning it lands on the front of your tongue, where the sweetness receptors are, rather than the back. Maker's use of wheat alongside corn and malted barley (rather than rye), their production methods, and their proprietary yeast all contribute to its distinctive sweet caramel-vanilla taste. Try it in: Juleps, sipping neat

02 of 10

Knob Creek

Knob creek bourbon
Courtesy of Wine.com

Now in its 29th year of production, Knob Creek is an unapologetic, full-flavored bourbon — long-aged and barreled up at 100 proof. As a result, it's robust and woody, ideal for those who want a whiskey with power, but still pleasantly sweet, with notes of maple and caramel. Try it in: Stiff drinks like a Boulevardier.

03 of 10

Woodford Reserve

Woodford Reserve bourbon
Courtesy of Wine.com

There are hundreds of bourbons out there, and while many of the more esoteric bottles are great, it's also good to have a widely available go-to — a bourbon you're sure to find at just about every liquor store and just about every sizable bar. If you're not a Maker's or a Knob Creek person, you might be a Woodford person. It's an elegant whiskey on the lighter side and almost creamy in texture, fruity and lively and as smooth as they come. Try it in: Bright, lively drinks like a whiskey sour or Seelbach.

04 of 10

Old Forester

old forester 86 proof bourbon
Courtesy of ReserveBar

When I think of an absolute classic Kentucky bourbon, I think of Old Forester. In its fifth generation of family production, Old Forester was the first bourbon in Kentucky to be bottled — a huge step toward guaranteeing quality and boosting bourbon's reputation. Today, Forester releases a line of "Whiskey Row" bourbons that each emulate a style of the past; the 1870 aims to recreate their first batch, while the 1897 and 1920 recall later styles. But I'm a fan of their classic 86-proof, bright and balanced and mixable. Try it in: Classic cocktails, starting with an Old Fashioned.

05 of 10

Buffalo Trace

Buffalo Trace
Courtesy of Buffalo Trace Distillery

While Buffalo Trace, the distillery, has been in operation for more than 200 years, its flagship bourbon, Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon whiskey, only dates back to 1999. Intended for mixed drinks, it's a beautifully balanced whiskey, vanilla and spice on the nose, smooth and less sweet than many of its counterparts. A Maker's Mark Old Fashioned is too sweet for me; a Buffalo Trace Manhattan, not at all. Try it in: Classic cocktails, starting with an Old Fashioned.

06 of 10

Evan Williams Black Label

Evan Williams
Courtesy of Heaven Hill Distillery

Bourbon is an everyman's spirit, and as such it's still possible to get a solid bottle for under $20. And you can find a liter of Evan Williams Black Label at that price point. Up at 86 proof, it's got just enough muscle to it, a smooth spirit with classic oak and caramel notes. It's not the world's most sophisticated bourbon, but it's one of the best values out there. Try it in: Anything simple — mixing with ginger ale or Coke.

07 of 10

Old Grand-Dad 100-Proof

Old Grand-Dad 100 proof bourbon
Courtesy of Wine.com

Another excellent value, Old Grand-Dad has a higher rye content than many bourbons out there, giving it a definitive spice; I'm partial to the 100-proof, whose extra heat makes it more powerful still. Another great party bottle. Try it: Drinking straight with a beer alongside.

08 of 10

Four Roses Small Batch

Four Roses
Courtesy of Four Roses Distillery

While I'll never say anything against the classic Four Roses Yellow Label (another fantastic value) I'm partial to their Small Batch. At a respectable 90 proof, it hits the right note between spicy and fruity, with a long, smooth finish; it's one of those spirits that keeps evolving as you drink it. A perfect gift bottle. (Just make sure you get to taste some.) Try it: Sipping on the rocks, letting it evolve with the ice melt.

09 of 10

Elijah Craig Small Batch

Elijah Craig
Courtesy of Heaven Hill Distillery

While Elijah Craig 12-Year was a favorite among many bourbon aficionados, the Heaven Hill distillery recently replaced it with Elijah Craig Small Batch. Though it no longer carries an age statement, it's bottled from bourbon between 8 and 12 years old, so there's some real longevity; and the whiskey remains an intriguing balance of caramel-vanilla on the nose, fruit and spice on the palate. Try it: Sipping neat.

10 of 10


Courtesy of Beam Suntory

Most bourbons (and most whiskeys generally for that matter), are brought down to proof when they come out of the barrel, ending up at 40-50 percent ABV. Not so with barrel-strength bourbons. While many brands have barrel-strength releases, Booker's does nothing but; every batch is a unique release, bottled at barrel proof (often north of 60 percent) and unfiltered. The results vary with every batch, but are always intense, interesting, and for true bourbon fans, worth seeking out. Try it: Sipping neat.

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