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If you’re in the market for the best bourbon you can find, there are some factors to consider—even though the category is rigidly defined, there are differences in style, cask finishes, alcohol content and even mashbill to take into account. The good news is that there are so many excellent choices of bourbon brands out there for you, so we’ve put together this list to help steer you towards some of the best bourbons to buy in different categories. Happy hunting, and cheers.
Our Best Bourbon Picks
- Best Overall Bourbon: Knob Creek 12
- Best Wheated Bourbon: Garrison Brothers Small Batch
- Best Barrel-Proof Bourbon: Larceny Barrel Proof
- Best Cask-Finished Bourbon: Bardstown Bourbon Company Phifer Pavitt Reserve
- Best Bourbon Under $100: WL Weller Special Reserve
- Best Bourbon Under $50: Wild Turkey 101
- Best Bourbon for Cocktails: Michter’s US1 Small Batch
- Best Craft Bourbon: Frey Ranch Straight Bourbon
- Best High-Rye Bourbon: Basil Hayden Aged 10 Years
- Best Single-Barrel Bourbon: Four Roses Single Barrel
- Best Blended Bourbon: Barrell Bourbon
- Best Splurge Bourbon: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon
Best Overall Bourbon
Original Knob Creek, part of the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection, is a truly excellent nine-year-old bourbon. But the limited-edition 12-year-old, first released a few years ago, is even better. It’s made from the same mashbill, bottled at the same 100 proof and has the same complex flavor full of vanilla, caramel and spicy notes. But those extra three years in barrels have given it some more complexity. The 15 and the new 18-year-old Knob Creek bourbons are tasty as well, but the 12 occupies a middle zone that makes it one of the best out there.
Best Wheated Bourbon
“Wheated” bourbon means that wheat is used as the secondary flavoring grain instead of the usual rye. Some more famous examples include Maker’s Mark and the legendary Pappy Van Winkle. But this small distillery in Texas makes wheated bourbon that stands with the best. Garrison Brothers Small Batch is an annual release, and the 2022 edition shines. It’s a deep reddish-brown color with notes of chocolate, oak and caramel for days, along with just a hint of wood smoke. Sorry, Kentucky, but Texas is truly a whiskey state now, and this bourbon is one of the best.
Best Barrel-Proof Bourbon
This Heaven Hill product also happens to be a wheated bourbon, but it’s bottled at barrel proof meaning that no water has been added to reduce the ABV after it comes out of the cask. This is an underrated but delicious bourbon that comes out in three installments every year. Of course, there will be differences in flavor and proof with each, which generally ranges somewhere between 118 and 125. There are better known barrel proof bourbons out there like Booker’s (also very good), but give Larceny a try if you haven’t before.
Best Cask-Finished Bourbon
This whiskey came out a few years back, but it is still available to purchase online. Bardstown Bourbon Company contract distills for other brands, but it also sources and blends some excellent whiskeys like this one to release under its own name. This is a 10-year-old Tennessee bourbon that was finished in barrels from the Phifer Pavitt winery in Napa, California. The nutty bourbon has been improved with long notes of dried fruit, fig and spice, turning this into a sipping whiskey you won’t soon forget.
Best Bourbon Under $100
Buffalo Trace’s WL Weller bourbon exploded in popularity a few years ago when people released that it was close enough to Pappy (this is also a wheated bourbon and the two share a mashbill), but unlike Pappy you can still find a bottle of Weller Special Reserve for less than $100 in most places. “The Original Wheated Bourbon,” as it says on the label, is bottled at 90 proof and has a pleasant fruitiness on the palate, along with some vanilla cream and just a touch of spice even without the use of rye in the recipe.
Best Bourbon Under $50
Not only is Wild Turkey 101 one of the best bourbons you can find for under 50 bucks; it’s just one of the best bourbons, period. The higher than average proof, the hint of spice from the healthy dose of rye in the mashbill and the signature Wild Turkey nuttiness on the palate all make this a fantastic affordable whiskey. By all means use this in any cocktail you can think of, but please consider sipping it as well for an unpretentious and entirely dependable whiskey experience.
Best Bourbon for Cocktails
Michter’s produces most of its whiskey at the large Shively Distillery in Louisville, but if you have a chance to visit the smaller Fort Nelson location on Whiskey Row you are in for a good time (and hopefully can hand fill your own bottle of barrel-proof whiskey at the end). The core US1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon is, of course, an excellent sipping whiskey, but it also happens to elevate any cocktail you use it in, from an Old Fashioned to a Manhattan (if you decide not to use rye) to a Boulevardier.
Best Craft Bourbon
Not every craft distillery is making good whiskey, although most should be commended for their creativity and innovation. Nevada’s Frey Ranch checks all of these boxes, however, and this five-year-old, grain-to-glass bourbon stands with the best of the old guard. This whiskey is made from a four-grain mashbill of corn, rye, wheat and barley, and at 90 proof has all of the complexity and flavor you are looking for in high-quality bourbon.
Best High-Rye Bourbon
Basil Hayden is another member of the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection, and differs in that it’s known for its high-rye mashbill, meaning more rye is used in the recipe than in most bourbon. The 10-year-old expression surpasses the core whiskey by leaps and bounds, with those extra years in barrels turning this cocktail-friendly bourbon into something worth sipping and savoring. And that high rye mashbill means there’s a nice hit of spice to complement the vanilla, caramel and signature Beam nuttiness.
Best Single-Barrel Bourbon
By its very nature, single barrel bourbon varies in flavor depending on which cask it came from. But that’s also the joy of drinking whiskey that literally comes from one individual barrel instead of the blend of many barrels that go into a distillery’s core expressions. Kentucky’s Four Roses is unique in that it makes ten different recipes using two mashbills and five yeast strains. For its single barrel release, just one recipe is selected, usually aged between seven and nine years, and bottled at 100 proof. This is a bourbon that is consistently good no matter which barrel you get.
Best Blended Bourbon
Gone are the days when “blended” was a bad word in bourbon, with producers like Barrell Craft Spirits sourcing and blending whiskey from various sources and making the sum better than its parts. BCS releases its Barrell Bourbon in batches throughout the year, with the latest being Batch 33. This blend of straight bourbon whiskeys comes from Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky (as do virtually all of the batches), consisting of five, six, seven and nine-year-old barrels. It’s bottled at cask strength of 116.6 proof, and is one of the best bourbons out there overall.
Best Splurge Bourbon
This annual release from Old Forester is meant to celebrate distillery founder George Garvin Brown’s birthday, and the 22nd expression came out this past fall with all the expected buzz that always surrounds it. Yes, you are going to pay a lot for this whiskey—upwards of $1,000 in most cases. However, it’s generally very good, even though it differs every year as far as proof and age of the liquid. The 2022 release was an 11-year-old bourbon bottled at 96 proof that is worth the splurge if you can find it.
What is bourbon?
There are some key requirements for a whiskey to be called bourbon. It must be made in the USA from at least 51 percent corn and aged in new charred oak containers (virtually always barrels). No color or flavor may be added. It cannot be distilled to more than 160 proof, cannot go into a barrel at more than 125 proof and must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. If there’s an age statement, it must list the youngest whiskey in the bottle. Straight bourbon means it’s been aged for at least two years, and if it’s less than four years old the age must be on the label.
How should you drink bourbon?
The short answer is however you like it. There is no wrong or right way to enjoy bourbon. If you prefer cocktails, there are plenty of options and bourbon goes well with other ingredients. But consider trying bourbon on its own as well to explore the flavors. A Glencairn glass is a good way to nose and taste bourbon neat, and some people like to add a splash of water. A tumbler works just fine if you’d like to add some ice. Just remember to drink it in the way that you like best.
How did we choose the bourbon on this list?
We considered different factors when picking these bourbons, with the emphasis being on taste. Because after all, despite a bottle’s availability or the hype surrounding it, that is the most important thing. Tasting bourbon involves a combination of sensations, including the nose, palate, mouthfeel and finish. And each category has different characteristics, so part of the process is to consider how an individual pick fits into its style overall. The bottles on this list represent the best bourbons based on all of these options, providing a good overview of selections you can easily purchase in person or online that are good examples of each individual category.
Why should you trust us?
Jonah Flicker has been writing about whiskey and other spirits for nearly a decade, visiting distilleries around the world to meet the people behind the bottles and find out more about their stories. He is a judge for the John Barleycorn Awards, and his work has appeared in many national other lifestyle outlets besides Robb Report, including Esquire, Food & Wine, CNN, USA Today and more.