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Right around the holiday season is when bourbon enthusiasts begin to realize just how much the scene has exploded with new members.
The newcomers are easy to recognize because they’re usually loitering more than usual in whiskey aisles across the nation.
Sometimes they will flag down a person who looks like they know what they’re doing to help guide them on what to look for.
Seasoned drinkers are sometimes loathe to help these people out because that would require an hours-long conversation that requires equal parts finding out what the person likes and what bottles the person has experienced. I know because I’ve been in both person’s shoes.
I often look back at my budding days as an enthusiast when I was trying to experience it all by buying it all. Only later would I find out that the whiskey I had selected was not good.
All that money went literally down the drain. So in order to prevent you from falling into the same trap that I did, I sat down to create a list of 10 bourbons that I personally would choose to buy if I had to start all over again.
Bourbon is the exact opposite of craft beer scene
These whiskies are not the cheapest bottles on the shelves nor are they the most expensive. I know that many people do equate the pricetag they see with quality, but I’m here to say that this isn’t how bourbon works.
Many of the biggest distilleries give you a more better, more matured whiskey at a higher proof for a lower price.
Meanwhile, many craft distillery bottles will be the exact opposite. Just remember this key tidbit: Bourbon is the exact opposite of craft beer scene.
So without further ado, here is my list for you. Ironically, the total price if you were to find all of these bottles at their suggested retail price would be around $500.
That may seem high for many and low for some, but in the bourbon world, these are fair prices that represent excellent quality across the board.
1. Knob Creek Single Barrel
Knob Creek Single Barrels are probably the best value on this entire list. They meet at the intersection of having a high proof (120), are well aged (at least 9 years old) and can be found at an extremely reasonable price (around $50). But what also sets it apart from others on the list is just how easy they are to find as store picks.
Just look for the bottom label to see if your bottle has been picked by a store because there will be plenty of extra identifying information.
While 120 proof may seem high to most, these bottles do not drink hot and could be characterized more like tasting a liquid candy bar.
Each bottle just packs so much intensity and flavor that it’s hard for even the most snobby of bourbon drinkers to turn down a pour.
2. Woodford Double Oaked (or Old Forester 1910)
Woodford Reserve is so well known because they have such a great marketing team. Ever since Brown Forman revived this brand in the 1990’s, it has seen growth that almost every other brand can’t match.
But marketing can only go so far if the products you’re trying to sell aren’t good. And while regular Woodford Reserve is a good recommendation for anyone getting into bourbon, their Double Oaked version is even better.
The secret behind Double Oaked is simple: Woodford takes their existing bourbon and puts it back into new heavily toasted, lightly charred barrel for an extra year of aging.
This makes the final product one that adds extra notes of wood, vanilla and caramelized sugars. For the small upcharge (usually it’s $10 more per bottle than standard Woodford), it’s absolutely worth the price.
The low proof may seem like there will be an absence of flavor but the extra barrel amplifies the flavors and mouthfeel to a point where even seasoned bourbon drinkers can appreciate how much better it is.
Out of all of the whiskies on this list, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked may be the one bourbon that could satisfy the widest swath of bourbon drinkers.
*Old Forester 1910 is extremely similar to Woodford Reserve Double Oaked in the fact it also gets re-barreled into a second barrel, but the barrel is way more charred than the Double Oaked and therefore produces more chocolate and smoky notes*
3. Willett 4 Year Old Small Batch Rye Whiskey
Rye whiskey for a new bourbon drinker is tough to recommend. This isn’t because rye whiskey is bad, it’s just not something that inexperienced whiskey drinkers immediately enjoy.
Even when I was new to the scene, I did not enjoy it. On top of that, the selection of rye whiskey is nowhere near as vast as bourbon.
You mainly have the choice of the spicy, rye whiskey mashbills of MGP (commonly found in Bulleit, George Dickel, Templeton, Bone Snapper and so on) or the “barely legal” rye whiskies of Kentucky (commonly referred to as such because they have the bare minimum of rye grain in the mashbill to be called a rye whiskey).
Rye whiskey makers try to hit the sweet spot by providing complex spicy notes, herbal and botanical notes and enough sweetness to lure in bourbon drinkers. Willett found the middle ground though and produced a rye that has the best of both worlds: Willett Family Estates 4 year old Small Batch Rye Whiskey .
They take two different ryes whiskey mashbill (a low rye and a high rye mashbill), blend them together and bottle them at barrel proof (usually around 109 proof).
For about $55, Willett’s rye whiskey is an incredible deal for the flavor it packs. The other lure is the bottle and name recognition itself easily make the bottle look twice as expensive as you can buy it for. Availability is not guaranteed, but if you can find it, buy it.
4. Four Roses Small Batch Select
Four Roses has a bottle for every price point. When you get all the way up to the $75 mark, their Private Selection Single Barrels can’t be beat.
But those are almost impossible to find on the shelves anymore. Instead, Small Batch Select gets you close to the proof and age of those Private Selects while being less in price.
Bottled at 104 proof, this is a blend of 6 out of the 10 recipes that Four Roses is known for and is bottled without chill filtration (so it has a wonderfully thick and oily mouthfeel).
It also has a great mix of fruit sweetness along with plenty of spices to keep things interesting. The bottle may not look too exciting, but this is one where the contents definitely speak for themselves.
Try to pay retail for this ($55) as many stores try to mark it up to around $70.
5. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
New bourbon drinkers may be enamored by the signature red wax dipped bottled of Maker’s Mark setting on shelves, but bourbon drinkers who have a little bit more experience seem to walk by them.
Why is that? Maker’s Mark actually has a lot of things going for it that experienced bourbon drinker’s value.
The first is the low barrel entry proof. Nowadays, low barrel entry proof is a big deal for producers to brag about.
Bourbon made before the 1962 was required by law to go into the barrel at a proof no greater than 110. Then it was changed to 125 proof and most producers switched to that to cut costs.
But Maker’s Mark stayed the same and puts their bourbon into the barrels at 110 proof still to this day.
This extra water content helps dissolved wood sugars more readily which may also explain why their products can be so sweet. But being sweet does not a good bourbon make.
Luckily, Maker’s Mark has a nice amount of cinnamon spice and fruit flavors that really show off its wheated mashbill.
The number one thing that is being talked about more and more among enthusiasts is the history that Bill Samuels, the founder of Maker’s Mark, had with Pappy Van Winkle.
The story goes that Pappy actually gave Bill the recipe and the yeast to his wheated bourbon and told him to recreate it and “charge people an arm and a leg for it.”
It wasn’t until the distillery that Van Winkle had his signature bourbon made closed (Stitzel-Weller) that people started to look for an alternative only to find out that Maker’s Mark is probably the closest thing we have.
This means that Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is probably the closest bourbon we have to a modern day Stitzel-Weller product.
6. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
Elijah Craig Small Batch is a shelf staple that is a simple, easy sipper. But three times every year they release a Barrel Proof version that uses barrels that were aged for 12 years (or more) and puts them together for a new batch.
The proof is usually high (sometimes reaching into the mid 130’s) but because it’s spent 12 years in a barrel means that it doesn’t attack your tongue with fire and heat.
Instead, the oak influence is sublime while the sweet sugars and vanillas make every sip delicious and packed with flavor.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof may be the only allocated bottle on this list, but it is one worth hunting for. I also wouldn’t put it on here if it wasn’t something that you could obtain with a little bit of hunting and schmoozing.
This product may be harder to find than most due to the current strike at Heaven Hill, but that could correlate with the release date getting pushed back in time for you to be able to find it during your holiday shopping.
Simply put, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is consistently the best value in bourbon if you can find it.
7. Eagle Rare
Either you live in an area that has easy access to Buffalo Trace products or you don’t. There doesn’t seem to be an in-between anymore.
And even though I struggled mightily with putting a Buffalo Trace product in here, the one you should get for your home bar is definitely Eagle Rare. It’s bottled at a somewhat low 90 proof, but for the 10 years it spent aging and the flavor it has, it’s hard to go wrong.
The thing that makes me recommend Eagle Rare over Buffalo Trace is because Eagle Rare seems to be a bolder sip with extra notes of oak and spice compared to the sweet and fruity Buffalo Trace Bourbon. Also, if you can find Eagle Rare at retail, it’s even more of a treat.
I took a break from buying Eagle Rare for a year because it was getting harder to find and I didn’t think it was worth it anymore until a friend sent me a sample of a store pick (yes, those exist!) in an unmarked bottle.
I rated it very highly before he revealed what I had just drank. Needless to say, I’m back on the bandwagon of being an Eagle Rare fan and I think it’s a bottle that everyone should have on their shelves.
8. Old Forester 1920
There are many good Old Forester products out on the market today as a result of improving their quality across the board after launching the Whiskey Row series.
It’s tough to pick between the two top contenders which would be the 115 proof 1920 Prohibition Style and the 93 proof 1910 Old Fine Whisky.
But since Woodford Reserve’s Double Oaked is on the list and it’s basically the same as Old Forester 1910, then I would go with the 1920 Prohibition Style. 115 Proof makes it the second highest proofed bottle on this list after the Knob Creek Single Barrel, but it’s surprisingly tame.
In fact, you’ll find the heat low enough to pick out the flavors of oak, maple syrup and toffee easily. It’s a delicious, flavor-packed punch in every glass and one that experienced drinkers and new drinkers alike can get behind.
And for $55, it is one of the better values in bourbon out there today.
9. Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel
While I was thinking about putting Rare Breed in as my Wild Turkey bottle of choice, it still makes sense to me to recommend the Russell’s Reserve Single Barrels over it. I’m not even talking about a store pick (although those are great too if you can find them).
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrels are aged for at least 8.5 years, bottled at 110 proof and have not been chill filtered.
This will allow you to taste Wild Turkey in its most pure form (albeit, slightly proofed down). You’ll get to experience all of the nutty sweetness accompanied by fruit like baked apples and the occasional cherry.
Best of all, Russell’s Reserve has a lot of underlying spice that is such a trademark of the Wild Turkey brand.
If sticking the Russell’s own name on this bottle isn’t proof enough for you that they care about which barrels get selected for this, then nothing will.
10. Barrell Bourbon
Barrell Craft Spirits has a line of products that would take dozens of pages to explain. So let me just skip to the point. Every bottle they put out is cask strength.
They all hover around the $80 to $100 price point, which makes them the most expensive bottle at retail that I have on this list.
But the bottom line is that they’re worth this price. The people at Barrell have thousands of barrels from different distilleries at their disposal.
They take those barrels and blend them together to get wildly different flavor profiles every time. To date, they’ve created 32 different batches of bourbon and counting. Each one is different and downright fun to taste.
I have rarely, if ever, been disappointed in a single batch. If you’re new to the bourbon scene though, stick with the bourbon line as their other lines like Infinite Barrel, Vatted Malt or Private Release Whiskey may come off as too strange for beginners.
Unable to find one or more of these bottles at your local retail store? It happens! Just look out for some of these instead:
- Belle Meade Reserve – 108 proof bourbon from MGP in Indiana delivers fantastic flavor notes of oak, brown sugar and baking spices that never tastes too hot.
- Smoke Wagon Uncut and Unfiltered – This is also MGP Bourbon that has been expertly blended and comes in at barrel proof when all is said and done. There’s never been a bad batch produced
- Redemption 10 Year High Rye Bourbon or 10 Year Rye Whiskey – Also MGP bourbon (or rye whiskey) that sets on the shelves because of the ugly bottle. Don’t be fooled though, this is some of the best value for the age you can get in a whiskey today.
As a final note, I also want to make a few craft whiskey suggestions if you really want to support a local (or local-ish) small distiller. Most craft whiskey makers aren’t producing anything good yet, but these guys seem like they’ve figured things out.
- New Riff – At 4 years old and either 100 proof or barrel proof, these guys know what they’ve been doing since inception and they’re only getting better
- Frey Ranch – Producers of whiskey who are located West of the Rockies are rarely good, however Frey Ranch seems to have cracked the formula on how to make a tasty bourbon and rye whiskey. Stick with their lower proofed options first.
- Chattanooga Whiskey – An upcoming powerhouse in the Tennessee whiskey scene and nationwide, the folks at Chattanooga made jaws drop at just how good a 2 year old bourbon (and rye whiskey) could be. Now that they’re starting to release bottled-in-bond whiskies, they seem to only be getting better. I have yet to have any whiskey from them that didn’t make me instantly happy while sipping it.
- Mayor Pingree – This is about the only company north (or close to) the Ohio River that makes a bourbon that I genuinely like. Partly because they do blend in some MGP with it and partly because their bourbon is so good. Mayor Pingree delivers fantastic oaky and fruity bourbon with every batch they put out.
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