The 9 Best Bourbons to Start Your Collection
Bourbon whiskey was declared "America's native spirit" on May 4, 1964. This meant that true bourbon could only be produced in the U.S., and while it can be made anywhere in the country, 95% of it hails from the great state of Kentucky. A lot of the best bourbons these days are predominantly exported to markets such as Japan, the U.K., and Germany, to encourage more international excitement over the spirit.
Some people gripe over the complexity, or lack thereof, of bourbon as compared to Scotch, but that's not always fair. I've been writing and posting about whiskey for years, and I am one of the judges at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SFWSC). In 2019, we awarded the outstanding Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel bourbon the best whiskey of the year, beating out some truly amazing scotches. The majority of the judges felt that this bourbon did indeed have more complex notes than any scotch that year.
Before we get into the list of some of the best bourbons for your home bar, let's define a few things about this American whiskey. For starters, bourbon is a corn-based spirit; the mash bill must be at least 51% corn in order to be considered bourbon whiskey. Next, there is a stark difference between "straight bourbon" and "bourbon." The former must be aged for a minimum of two years to be considered straight bourbon, while the latter has no minimum aging requirements.
A "small-batch bourbon" is a bourbon that's an amalgamation of a number of barrels, anywhere from 10-100. The term "Bottled-In-Bond" means that the liquor must be the product of one distillation season, either January to June or July to December, by one distiller at one distillery. Along with that, the liquor must be aged for at least four years and bottled at exactly 100 proof (50% ABV). This is bourbon's version of single malt scotch whisky with respect to how it must be produced.
In 2020, Kentucky bourbon distilleries filled 2.1 million barrels of bourbon, the highest annual production ever. Now that we have the background, let's move on to the list.
Michter's 10 Year Old ($150)
Perhaps one of the better bourbons at any price range, this is always a staple in my bar. It's extremely versatile, meaning I can drink this with beginners or experts, as it has mass appeal. It can also be hard to find, which makes it all the sweeter when you do get lucky. I fell in love with Michter's after tasting their 20 Year Old Bourbon, a true unicorn in the world of whiskey. However, the 20 Year is highly inaccessible and usually sold via a lottery system done state by state. The 10 Year is much easier to find, and you're bound to have a great time with it. This bourbon starts out sweet, moves into some brilliant heat and baking spices, and mellows out fantastically into a luscious finish.
Blanton's Straight from the Barrel ($150)
Blanton's: the famous gold horsie! Some of my favorite bourbon comes from this absolutely amazing whiskey house. A part of the Buffalo Trace family, Blanton's really stole my heart when I was a part of the launch of the Golden Promise Whisky Bar bottle in Paris, an exclusive release for one of my favorite bars in the world. While most Blanton's ends up selling outside the U.S., this bottle, known as SFTB, was recently released specifically for the American market. Something super cool about Blanton's is that they have eight different toppers, each with a different letter, and you can collect the toppers to spell out B-L-A-N-T-O-N-S. This U.S. edition is bottled at over 120 proof (60% ABV). Beautiful notes of oak and spice linger on the palate with stunning butterscotch. It's sure to be yet another fan favorite from this fantastic producer.
Bardstown Bourbon Collaborative Series ($125)
As one of the most technologically advanced distilleries in the country, Bardstown is changing the way you think about bourbon. Their Kentucky distillery has a Napa Valley feel to the place, and it's becoming a popular tourist attraction. With over a hundred acres of land, a full-service restaurant, multiple tasting rooms, and a whiskey museum, the place offers much more than a traditional Kentucky distillery.
The coolest part? BBCo is not just producing bourbon for their own label, but they are producing custom whiskeys for many other labels around the country. And while they may be giving away a lot of their best stuff, they still manage to produce fantastic bourbon for their own brand. Bardstown brings a focus on artistry into their bourbon making, incorporating flavor profiles that allow for brilliant food pairings. Take for instance their "Collaborative Series" bourbon, a straight bourbon whiskey finished in casks from Napa Valley's The Prisoner winery and Armagnac casks from the famous Chateau De Laubade in France. In this bottling, you get amazing notes of chocolate, baking spices, and stunning fruit that lingers. Absolutely a must try. They will also be expanding to a lot more states this year, so be on the lookout.
Barrell Bourbon Batch 27 ($85)
Barrell Bourbon has a very cool story. For starters, they are not a distillery, but rather a blending house, or blending institution, by this point. Though they are only a mere nine years old, they have achieved more than most brands ever do in triple the time. Barrell recently won big at the 2020 SFWSC for both best bourbon and best small-batch bourbon.
Founder Joe Beatrice was originally in the tech and marketing industry, and had no formal experience in whiskey. He drew inspiration from independent bottlers in Scotland to create Barrell. While you can buy older batches of Barrell, I've listed the newest one (they launch a unique batch at the turn of every new year). Every bottle is both cask strength and limited edition, making it pretty cool to own. Batch 27 is a blend of straight bourbons sourced from Indiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky that are a mix of 5, 6, 8, 9, 13, and 15 years old. This unique form of blending is a game-changing technique. Beautiful oak and cherry notes are prevalent here; you could say it's a cherry bomb of a whiskey.
Four Roses Single Barrel ($40)
I became a huge fan of this stuff a while back, and working with distillery manager Al Young (RIP) at Google back in 2018 was a treat and made me an even bigger Four Roses fan. Every year, they put out their core range, and always have something limited that gets snapped up quickly. And while this is not a limited-edition bottle, it's arguably the best one in the 2020 lineup. The complexity here is superior to the small batch, and slightly more so than the 2020 limited edition. Beautiful notes of maple and vanilla come through on the nose, but it's the palate that really hits you. An incredible amount of flavor comes across your mouth and coats it perfectly. The maple and brown sugar that hits reminds me of a warm bowl of oatmeal. The finish is long, spicy, and has a touch of raisins to it. Easily an everyday drinker. Find it: caskers.com
Willett Single Barrel Family Estate 4 Year Old ($100)
Willett has been gaining popularity for the last 10-plus years, generally for their outstanding ryes. But let's not discount their corn-based spirits, either. This 4 Year Old single barrel is somewhat difficult to find. It's quite intriguing, especially when you need to spend so much more for their 6 Year. This bottle has a really nice pungent nose of oak spice, with some amazing dried fruits. The 103 proof (51.5% ABV) really shines through here. The candy corn palate is fantastic, and the heat comes in waves and compliments the lovely sweetness. There's strong cinnamon here, with perhaps some gingerbread cookies, too.
Woodinville Straight Bourbon Port Cask Finish ($45)
I thoroughly enjoy Woodinville for a couple of reasons. First, it is near my house, and second, they make amazing bourbon. This bottle is available anywhere Woodinville is sold, and if you can't find it, don't worry, their straight bourbon is also great.
This whiskey was originally aged for five years, before being finished in ruby port casks for an additional six months. This type of finish is very common in Scotland and is only now hitting the U.S. as a style of finish for bourbons. The result is a very sweet, rich, deep and dark bourbon that adds complexity to the corn base. The date and fig notes that you'll normally find in scotch whiskies can be tasted here. A bit of Marzipan comes across the palate as well, which I love, and the lingering finish has some chocolate notes to top it off.
Hirsch The Horizon Straight Bourbon ($35)
Bourbon nerds know the name Hirsch is synonymous with an extremely rare and high-quality spirit from 1974. The original 1974 liquid was produced at the now defunct Pennco Distillery, in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania (which would eventually be renamed Michter's). Gordon Hue acquired all the casks from Hirsch, and had Julian Van Winkle III bottle the brand as A.H. Hirsch Reserve. Just let that history sink in for a few minutes.
This new revival of the Hirsch brand, called "The Horizon," is transparent about the bottle, which should appeal to the bourbon heads out there. The juice is sourced from MGP in Indiana, and the mash bill is clearly displayed on the back label. The flavor here is atypical for a bourbon. You'll get a lot of earthy notes, followed by some nice sweetness and good spice, but nothing too overwhelming. I find myself noticing that this is the most versatile whiskey on this list, so it is nice to serve neat, or in a cocktail like an Old Fashioned. Find it: caskers.com
Blue Note 9 Year-Old Premium Small Batch ($46)
If you haven't heard of Blue Note, you're not alone. This innovative Memphis bourbon company is rather new. Founded in 2014, they have expanded rapidly from four to 14 states in just a few short years and are considered to be the oldest distillery in the city.
As for the whiskey, it is awesome. This Tennessee Straight Bourbon Whiskey is at 93 proof (46.5% ABV) and evokes strong notes of maple syrup on the nose along with some butterscotch, which culminates on the palate into a fresh baked blondie bar heaven. Hints of candied orange start to make their way across and become more prevalent as time passes. This is a great whiskey at a great price, and I'm happy to be showcasing a brand that is definitely off the beaten Kentucky path.