There’s no denying that bourbon is having a moment. It’s become the basis for an obscene number of cocktails, and any bar worth its weight in complimentary pretzels is stocking the stuff, often exclusively. Why? The pride of Kentucky wins out over other whiskies because it’s a little sweeter, a little smoother, and a whole lot easier to mix. It’s also relatively affordable — very good bottles are available at very good prices. But thanks to its newfound popularity, some of the top-tier bottles — Pappy Van Winkle’s family reserve, George T. Stagg — are now shockingly expensive and, increasingly, hard to track down. Luckily, there’s still a wide variety to bourbons at accessible prices that are readily available in nearly every state. Which one to choose? Here’s a list to help you out.
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You could buy ’em daily…but that might raise eyebrows
Very Old Barton Bottled in Bond, $14
This bourbon’s long (and alliterative) title means that it was distilled all in the same year and aged in a federally bonded warehouse — in this case, for six years in Bardstown, Kentucky. It also means that the bourbon is strong — 100 proof — with a deep amber color and heavy spices. At $14, it’s a hell of a bargain and one of the best everyday whiskeys money can buy.
Old Forester Classic 86 Proof, $20
Old Forester was first bottled in 1873, making it one of the oldest distilleries in the country (it even survived prohibition by making alcohol for “medicinal purposes”). The bourbon is produced using the same process used back in the 1870s, meaning it’s got more rye than most bourbons, and more character, especially for the price.
Evan Williams Single Barrel, $22
Every year for the past 19 years, Evan Williams has released a special single barrel reserve that gets bourbon enthusiasts drooling with anticipation. Signatures include hand numbering on the bottles and markings that show the exact date the bourbon was placed in the barrel and bottled. The liquid itself is special, too: it’s incredibly smooth and sweet and far more flavorful than you usually get for something under $30.
W.L. Weller 12, $22
Old Weller makes its bourbons with wheat instead of the more traditional rye and ages them longer than other distilleries might. That’s why even their entry-level drink sits for 12 years in oak, giving it dark bronze color and a long, easy finish. Drink this one straight or keep it for sipping. Can’t find it? That’s no surprise, given its popularity. As an alternative, try the Old Weller Antique, a similarly priced (though at 107 proof, much bolder) member of Buffalo Trace’s Weller lineup.
Four Roses Small Batch, $29
A small batch bourbon is what it sounds like: a select offering from a whiskey powerhouse made by mixing the contents of select barrels. This is one of the best. In 2012, Four Roses Small Batch won a World Whiskey Award for Best American Whiskey Under 7 Years Old. It’s also a two-time gold medalist at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. In terms of tasting notes, it’s strong and smoky with a bit of caramel sweetness at the end.
$30 to $60
For you and your drinking buddies
Maker’s 46, $33
Maker’s Mark is the non-bourbon drinker’s bourbon: stocked everywhere, easy to order and easy to drink. Good, if unremarkable. But Maker’s 46 is something special. It’s aged a few months longer than the other stuff, with French oak staves inserted into the barrels to add character and reduce bitterness. You can even taste the woodiness on top of Maker’s signature vanilla.
Blanton’s Original Single Barrel, $47
Don’t let the oddly shaped bottle fool you: this is one hell of a bourbon. Blanton’s was the first distillery to offer single barrel bottles, as it was a habit of Colonel Blanton to choose his favorite cask from the middle of the warehouse and serve only that bourbon to his friends and family. This remains one of the smoothest bourbons on the market, with a hint of pepper and spice to make things interesting.
Russell’s Reserve Small Batch Single Barrel, $48
Russell’s Reserve is something of a bourbon renegade. It isn’t chill filtered, for one thing, meaning that the liquid is slightly hazier and more natural than casual bourbon drinkers might be used to. It’s also aggressively strong, clocking in at an astounding 110 proof. As a result, this bourbon is intense, with every flavor amplified exponentially.
Hancock’s President’s Reserve, $50
Hancock’s is made by Buffalo Trace, a bourbon conglomerate that produces a giant handful of all the bourbons readily available in your local liquor store. But this particular bottle is worthy of its price tag. It’s a single barrel offering with an extremely high rye content, making it light and sweet with a fruity (think exotic fruit — mango and papaya) finish.
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, $58
Let’s ignore all the cool things Woodford does at the beginning of the distilling process — copper pot and column stills, for example — and jump right to the end. That’s when, for an extra nine months of aging, the reserve is put in a second barrel — a barrel that’s been toasted longer and charred a little less — in a process similar to that of cognac. That makes this bourbon smoky, but really, really smooth.
Squirrel it away and booby trap it
Widow Jane Kentucky Bourbon 7 Year, $65
Widow Jane actually owes more to New York than it does to Kentucky. It’s made in Red Hook, Brooklyn with limestone mineral water from Rosendale, New York — the same place they got the limestone to build the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s unfiltered, so it’s dark but has a light finish. Double Gold at the 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Competition doesn’t lie. This is definitely one of the best bourbons ever assembled outside of Kentucky.
Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. Barrel Proof, $75
Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr., who began distilling at the end of the Civil War, might just be the father of modern bourbon. From copper fermentation tanks to a first-of-its-kind steam heating system to certain aging processes (bottled-in-bond was his idea), his various innovations are still in use today. These bottles come straight from the barrel, so they’re not cut in any way. At around 125 proof, they’re not recommended for beginners.
Elijah Craig 18 Year, $77
This bottle claims to be one of the oldest single barrel bourbons available in the world (Elijah Craig now also makes 20- and 21-year-old versions), which means it’s been sitting in oak barrels longer than most other bourbons you’ll find anywhere. That gives it a uniquely smoky, woody flavor — one that’s significantly more complex than comparable bottles.
Black Maple Hill 16 Year, $125
Black Maple Hill 16 is known in whiskey circles for being elusive. People snatch it up by the caseload because, well, it’s slightly harder to come by than other bourbons (in the process driving up the price). No one, save the blenders, knows too many of its specifics, including what it’s made from and how old. All anyone can really say for sure is that it tastes nice and some enthusiasts swear by it. And that works for us.
Jefferson’s Presidential Select 21 Year, $140
Why pay so much for a bourbon from a distillery that’s only been around since 1997 (not quite as long as the stuff in the bottle)? Because it was founded by whiskey historians, and the product is, by all accounts, exceedingly oaky and pretty delicious. If you’re going to invest, though, probably best to know a thing or two about bourbon yourself.