Everything you ever wanted to know about America’s favorite brown spirit, including, of course, the best bottles you can actually buy.
Best Bourbon for the Money
- Best Overall Bourbon: Knob Creek Small Batch 9-Year Bourbon
- Best Cheap Bourbon: Evan Williams Black Label
- Best Bourbon for Cocktails: Four Roses Bourbon
- Best Craft Bourbon: New Riff Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Best Affordable Bourbons
- Best Kept Secret: Old Grand-Dad 114
- Best Budget Sipper: Larceny Bourbon
- Best Bourbon to Pair with Food: Maker’s Mark
- Smoothest Bourbon: Elijah Craig Small Batch
- Best Bourbon for a Party: Early Times Bottled-in-Bond
- Best Gateway Bourbon: Four Roses Small Batch
Best High-End Bourbon
- Most Nuanced Bourbon: Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style
- Best Bourbon to Drink Neat: Four Roses Single Barrel
- Most Underrated Bourbon: Russell’s Reserve 10-Year Bourbon
- Best Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon: Henry McKenna Bottled-in-Bond
- Best High-End Craft Bourbon: Stellum Bourbon
- Best Deep-Cut Bourbon: Old Ezra 7-Year
- Best High Proof Bourbon: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
- Best Blended Bourbon: Barrell Craft Spirits Bourbon
- Grail Bourbon: Buffalo Trace William Larue Weller
Bourbon, the Great American Spirit, is not as simple as one might think. Yes, its definition is writ in but a few sentences on the holy stone of Federal Decree: It must be made in the United States; its grain bill must include at least 51 percent corn; it must be produced at not more than 80 percent alcohol (160 proof) and stored in charred new oak containers at no more than 62.5 percent (125 proof). And yes, it is a blue-collar spirit, made by thirsty farmers, for thirsty farmers. But underneath these fundamentals swims a deep sea of factors — additional rules and regulations, hype machines and deceptive marketing, false myths and a boom that began in 2008 and is still going strong today — that make bourbon more complex than it seems. Sour mash and Bottled-in-Bond, non-distiller-producers and high-ryes. Where’s the thirsty modern man, farmer or otherwise, to begin?
What is the Best Bourbon? We don’t believe there is one “best” bourbon, but there are bottles that are best for certain moments. If you’re making drinks, we prefer the light and spicy Four Roses bourbon. If you want craft bourbon, we love New Riff’s dedication to Bottled-in-Bond whiskey-making and rich flavor profiles. Looking for something on the cheap? Evan William’s Black Label is hard to beat for the money. For our money, the best do-it-all bourbon is Knob Creek’s 9-year-old Small Batch offering. Here’s the rub.
Best Bourbons for the Money
These bourbons represent the absolute best values the bourbon whiskey world has to offer. They’re not all cheap and they’re not all expensive, but they are all reliably excellent.
In a whiskey market that’s become increasingly fragmented and allocated, Knob Creek’s classic small batch bourbon distinguishes itself. It’s our best overall bourbon not by way of life-altering tasting notes, but by stuff the stat sheet in a way no other bourbon can. It is available everywhere and thus resistant to the price gouging associated with brands like Buffalo Trace. Its 100 proof retains a fully body and mixing bonafides without lighting your mouth on fire. And this year the brand got its 9-year age guarantee back, too. If you’re looking for the best value in bourbon, just get this.
Average Price: $30 – $40
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“If Evan Williams were to sell this whiskey to someone else, that brand would mark it up to $40, and people would be happy buying it,” whiskey personality and author Fred Minnick says. But Evan Williams is a value brand. So its whiskey, at a great proof point of 86 and an age that Minnick says is roughly five-and-a-half years old, goes for less than $20. “It’s a fantastic bourbon, especially for the money,” he says. “You can get a lot of satisfaction out of that.”
Average Price: $20
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“This is such a dynamic whiskey,” Minnick says. “And it’s the best cocktail bourbon out there.” Four Roses is a highly regarded distillery, with a high-rye mash bill that produces an extra spiciness and a concentration on yeast that has been “eye-opening” for the bourbon world. They’ve also led the way in transparency. “They’ll tell you everything there is to know about their whiskey — they don’t hide the mash bill, the distillation proof. I presume you could ask ’em how much their CEO makes and they’d tell you,” Minnick says.
Average Price: $12 – $20
New Riff Distilling was founded in 2014. “Relative to Kentucky, they’ve been around for a few days. The rest of the nation is just kinda getting to know ’em,” Minnick says. The mash bill here, made entirely of non-GMO grains, is 65 percent corn, 30 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley.
Average Price: $40
Read More: 6 Bourbons to Buy Before They Become Way More Expensive
Best Budget Bourbons
These bourbons are all under $35 and represent some of the best low-dollar values in bourbon. They have some of the same flavors found in the world’s best, most sought-after whiskeys. They just don’t carry the same level of complexity; the flavors tend to come and go more quickly.
“A more expensive whiskey might have this rich note that lasts for ten to twelve seconds,” Minnick says, “whereas a cheaper bottle has that note just for one to two seconds.” Still, this price range has the best value of the entire market, and it also provides opportunities for bourbon to be used in cocktails — or as gifts.
In 2017, Jim Beam’s Old Grand-Dad line of whiskeys was nearly axed. Now, thanks to rising whiskey prices and a consistently strong product, the brand — shortened to OGD by fans — has a cult following. Because it’s not a “hype” whiskey, doesn’t have a famous name and isn’t a limited release, it doesn’t get talked about — but I challenge you to find a bourbon with this much firepower at the price point. Its relatively low-corn mashbill (only 63 percent) is also unique, utilizing a staggering amount of rye and malted barley, creating a spicy bourbon ideal for drinking on the rocks or in a cocktail.
Average Price: $25 – $35
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“This has an incredible sweetness to it,” Minnick says. “It’s not complex, but the sweetness is really nice — the way it hits the palate. It’s a good, inexpensive, wheated everyday sipper.”
Average Price: $20 – $25
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Minnick has a unique use for one of bourbon’s classic names. “I drink so much Makers with BBQ,” he says. Its mellow balance — helped by the prominent caramel notes of its wheated mash bill — doesn’t overpower meaty flavors.
Average Price: $30 – $35
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Though it shares DNA with other Heaven Hill bourbons like Evan Williams and Henry McKenna, Elijah Craig Small Batch is balanced, with extra maltiness. “It’s got so much caramel, and a beautiful nutmeg note,” Minnick says. “This is all about the sweetness.”
Average Price: $25 – $35
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