Bourbon is as American as baseball, apple pie, and Jazz—and it might even be more delicious!
And like many American products, bourbon whiskey has found its way around the world and into the restaurants, bars, and homes of millions of people. Our pick for the best bourbon whiskey is Old Forester 1920. Harkening back to the whiskeys produced before Prohibition in the 1920s, this spirit is rich in aroma and taste—making it perfect for a cocktail or served neat!
Bourbon whiskey is distinctly American, even if the name references the great dynasty that ruled France from the 13th to the 18th century. Most likely born in Kentucky (see below for more information on that), this drink has risen to become a part of American culture. It has made numerous appearances in American film, music, and literature, and even the United States Senate has weighed in on the importance of bourbon for American culture.
In 1964, they declared bourbon America’s “native spirit,” and in 2007 named September 2007 “National Bourbon Heritage Month” following an already established celebration that had been going on in Kentucky for over a decade. And you thought it was good just because it gives you that nice buzz!
Like most good things though, there are many varieties, and so figuring out which one is the best isn’t always easy. That’s where we come in. To find the best bourbons America has to offer, we have conducted extensive research, including reading and listening to industry experts, distillers, mixologists, and whiskey lovers all over the world. And, yes—we definitely tried the products ourselves! We got out our tumblers and served up drinks neat, on the rocks, and in some of our favorite cocktails all so we could figure out which bourbon whiskey is the best! Cheers!
The Bourbons We RAVE About
Things aren’t always what they seem. And nowhere does this adage hold more truth than when encountering the story of bourbon whiskey! Sure, we can say some things that are pretty much beyond dispute: bourbon whiskey is a distilled spirit, aged in a barrel, and made primarily from corn. And bourbon is a distinctly American type of whiskey that tastes great on the rocks, neat, or in a variety of cocktails.
But some of the most interesting parts of the story of bourbon whiskey are a mixture of lore and legend, with a splash of history to bring out the flavor.
What’s in a Name?
Take, for instance, the name of this fabulous spirit: bourbon. Where did that come from? Well, I can tell you that is was not adopted because the spirit was first made by the Bourbons—the famous French dynasty. No, we have to look elsewhere to find out where the name comes from. And, as is often the case with alcohol, there are competing stories—two stories, to be precise.
The first explanation is that this name refers to one of the major counties in eastern Kentucky where bourbon was probably first made and distributed. As the story goes, Scots, Scots Irish, and others began to move west over the Allegheny mountains where they settled in parts of what we know today as eastern Kentucky.
One of the largest counties in that region was eventually named Bourbon County, and when the spirit began to be made in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the bottles and barrels were marked with “Bourbon County” or “Old Bourbon County” to indicate their origin. These were then shipped down to New Orleans, where the spirit was celebrated and received its name. Supposedly folks said: “Send us some more of that old bourbon whiskey!”
Another story suggests that bourbon whiskey was actually named after Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where a lot of Kentucky whiskey was sold.
Either way, folks in New Orleans recognized the spirit for what it was—delicious!
A Joint Venture
And precisely who is responsible for crafting this delicious drink is also disputed. Several legendary names like Elijah Craig, Jacob Spears, Jacob Beam, and Evan Williams have been put forward with really great legends and traditions to back them up. Most likely, it was local farmers who had leftover grains and corn and decided to see what they could do with it.
And, what’s more, there were also women and African Americans who were intimately involved in the development bourbon whiskey.
For instance, Catherine Spears Frye Carpenter is credited with developing the first recipe for sour mash in 1818. And many people now know that Nearest Green, an African American master distiller, was the one who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey—yes, that Jack Daniel.
These new findings add to the larger story of bourbon, which is already littered with interesting twists and turns.
It’s in the Water!
So men and women from various backgrounds helped to create the whiskey we now know as bourbon. But what makes bourbon unique? Well, it comes down to provenance, raw materials, and process.
At least in terms of official declarations, bourbon is a term that should only be used to describe a specific type of whiskey produced in the United States. For many, there is an even tighter geographical locale—bourbon is a product of Kentucky.
Here is where the question of raw materials comes in. Eastern Kentucky sits on a limestone shelf, which means the water there has less iron in it—and iron is a component many argue is essential to making good bourbon.
This limestone shelf is found throughout eastern Kentucky and extends down into Tennessee. Given the geographical presence of this key ingredient, it isn’t surprising that about 95% of all bourbon is produced in Kentucky, with an additional 5% coming from Tennessee.
The other key ingredient in bourbon is corn. When the first settlers came into the region, they didn’t have as much access to grains (the traditional raw materials used in making whiskey), but they did have access to corn. Today, a whiskey is classified as bourbon if 51% of it comes from corn. The use of other raw materials for fermentation then contribute to the flavor and aroma profiles of different bourbons.
Then there is the process. Without getting into the process of sour mash, which is a subset of bourbon whiskey, the key component necessary for creating bourbon whiskey is a fresh, white oak barrel—the interior of which has been charred. The charring of the barrel provides the unique color of bourbon and also contributes to the flavor.
Supposedly, it was Elijah Craig who first discovered the easiest way to clean out a fish barrel so that it could be used to store whiskey was to burn the inside of it.
Straight bourbons are required to be aged for at least 2 years and, according to modern standards, bourbon whiskey should be distilled to no more than 160 proof, barreled at no more than 125 proof, and then diluted and bottled at 80 proof or more.
Tennessee whiskey (a close relative of bourbon) follows the same basic guidelines in terms of production, and then adds an additional step of filtering the whiskey through maple charcoal before barreling—leading to its sweeter taste.
This ranking was developed through careful study and meticulous research, which included the analysis of meta-data from several trusted review sites, hours of online research, reading and listening to reviews by mixologists, industry experts, and bourbon lovers the world over. And from testing the products ourselves! After accumulating this information, we developed a list of the best bourbon whiskey.
In our research, we were led to the following categories as essential for determining our rankings:
- Price: Some whiskey is worth the price, and some isn’t; it’s good to know which is which.
- Flavor: Complex and simple flavor profiles can both be good, though in different ways.
- Finish: Smooth is best, long and smooth is better!
- Aroma: A pleasant aroma means a pleasant drinking experience.
- Packaging: Though whiskey is still good without the stories, they sure do make it that much more enjoyable!
- Production process and mash bill: Length of aging and the mash bill can make a difference in the final product.
So check out our recommendations as you consider your next bottle of hooch!
The Best Bourbons
Old Forester 1920
Our top choice for best bourbon comes from a distillery steeped in history and tradition. The Old Forester distillery was established in 1870 on Whiskey Row in Louisville, Kentucky under the name J.T.S. Brown and Bro. It was the first distillery to sell its whiskey in sealed glass bottles to ensure quality.
Old Forester 1920 is part of the Whiskey Row series that Old Forester produces. It celebrates the fact that the Old Forester distillery was given a permit to continue producing whiskey during the Prohibition era.
It is bottled at 115 proof, which harkens directly back to the era. It features a pleasing aroma with dark cherry, chocolate, brown sugar, and banana notes, though the higher proof means you get a good whiff of ethanol. The flavor palate includes delicious sweet caramel and crème brulee, with black pepper and malted nuts, and a creamy seasoned oak finish. The color is a deep amber, and it comes packaged in a beautifully crafted glass bottle. This is an outstanding whiskey at a reasonable price and deserves to be on your shelf—or better yet, in your glass!
- Great flavor profile
- Good mixability
- Reasonable price
- Aroma can get strong
George T. Stagg
Produced and distributed by Buffalo Trace, George T. Stagg is our second choice for best bourbon. This whiskey is part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, a highly regarded, and even more highly sought after, series of American whiskeys. With multiple awards, George T. Stagg has also garnered industry attention for its flavor and aroma.
Unique to this whiskey is that it is aged for no less than 15 years and is not diluted when bottled. It is big and bold and definitely deserves the description of “cask strength.” Since this is a limited release, with fewer than 500 bottles produced each year, the price tag can get quite high.
The color is an orange amber, and the nose definitely has a strong ethanol smell—but that’s to be expected, given its higher proof. There are also hints of vanilla, caramel, and oak. The flavor is definitely spicy, and includes bright fruity notes initially, which give way to chocolate, tobacco, and leather. The finish features pepper and dark fruits with bits of vanilla. This is an absolutely outstanding sipping whiskey that you should try—even though it will cost you!
- Good packaging
- Strong and bold taste
- Excellent neat
Four Roses Single Barrel
Our next bourbon is another award-winning spirit, Four Roses Single Barrel. The Four Roses name reaches back into the late 19th century and Louisville’s “Whiskey Row,” and according to the company, the name derives from a great love that the founder Paul Jones, Jr. had when a young man.
Single Barrel is among the 10 different whiskeys offered by Four Roses. This bourbon is bottled at 100 proof. However, the aroma is light and airy with hints of vanilla, raisins, fresh cut flowers, and honey, and without an overpowering ethanol smell. The palate greets you with an explosion of flavors, including peaches and honey, and some dark fruits. On the back end you catch oak, leather, and even a hint of mint. The finish is long and smooth, with a slight bite at the end.
Four Roses Single Barrel is surprisingly light, given its high alcohol content. It works very well in cocktails and is delicious when sipped neat. And the price point will also make you very, very happy!
- Excellent price
- Great nose
- Complex flavors
- Some may not like the lightness
Old Ezra Brooks 7 Year
Our next bourbon is the Old Ezra Brooks 7 Year, which is bottled by the Luxco company. The company recently completed construction of their own distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, which means they will no longer be sourcing their spirits from elsewhere. Old Ezra Brooks is one of five bourbons produced by Luxco.
The aroma of this bourbon includes vanilla, oak, brown sugar, and caramel, with some dried cherry. This is definitely a complex bourbon, as the palate includes dark cherries and spice, as well as delicious, rich caramel and oak. On the back end there is a hint of vanilla and sweet fruits. The finish includes some spice and heat, and it ends on the dry side.
Old Ezra Brooks is bottled at 100 proof, but the higher alcohol content doesn’t manage to overwhelm either the flavor or smell of the spirit. The price point on this bourbon is excellent, making it an outstanding option that won’t ruin your budget!
- Good flavors
- Outstanding price
- Good mixability
- Finish is a bit dry
- Dull packaging
Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch
Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch is part of the E.H. Taylor Collection produced by Buffalo Trace. Small Batch is one of several offerings in this line. It’s bottled at 100 proof and comes in very impressive packaging, making it a great gift option.
The nose on E.H. Taylor includes caramel and butterscotch, with chocolate, corn, vanilla, and dried raisins. However, there is also a very strong alcohol smell when first poured into the glass (which can dissipate over time). The palate offers notes of oak and vanilla, with tobacco, leather, and pepper in the finish. Though the finish isn’t long, it’s still smooth.
This is a great bourbon for sipping or for mixing in an Old Fashioned. And while the price point may be a bit high for a bourbon of this quality, it is still a very good value and a great option for an everyday table bourbon.
- Great packaging
- Good flavor palate
- Very mixable
- Slightly overpriced
- Too much ethanol in the nose
Elijah Craig Small Batch
Anyone familiar with the storied history of bourbon will recognize the name Elijah Craig. According to one lovely apocryphal story, it was Elijah Craig, a Baptist minister, who first developed bourbon. It’s a great story, even if overblown. Elijah Craig Small Batch is produced by the folks at Heaven Hill Distillery.
Elijah Craig Small Batch used to come with a 12-year age statement, but this was dropped in 2016. The nose on this spirit is sweet with hints of vanilla, cherry, apple, and caramel, with some nut and oak as well. The taste includes a bright fruitiness with caramel and butter. The finish is smooth and offers a mild cinnamon with some spice, which ends dry.
Several mixologists have noted that the new NAS (no age statement) bottles don’t offer the same quality of flavor as the earlier 12-year bottles. Nevertheless, for around $30 this is still a quality bourbon that can be enjoyed in a variety of ways.
- Good aromas
- Decent price
- Quality finish
- Flavor quality is not as complex
Pappy Van Winkle’s 23 Year Family Reserve
Ah, Pappy Van Winkle. This whiskey is the stuff of legend and extremely difficult to find, which means it is very, very expensive. This is the fifth iteration of the Van Winkle line—and the longest aged. Though it is now produced at the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, the Van Winkle name has a long history in bourbon production, going all the way back to 1893.
The 23 Year Family Reserve is bottled at around 95 proof, depending on the year. The nose is simply outstanding. With dark earth tones, chocolate, tobacco, and dark fruits, it is lush and pleasant. A splash of water will bring out vanilla, pine, and cherry.
The palate includes caramel, maple syrup, coffee, and toffee. The finish is remarkably smooth and sweet, with some spices, vanilla, and honey rounding it out. Though the price tag on this bourbon makes it out of reach for many whiskey maniacs, its legendary status is still deserved given how exceptionally smooth and pleasant it is to experience.
- Great nose
- Complex flavors
- Excellent finish
- Very, very expensive
Joseph Mangus is the product of an attempt to recreate an 1890s recipe for bourbon, by descendants of the original Joseph A. Magnus—whose distillery was located in Cincinnati, Ohio. That distillery was closed in 1918. However, a bottle from “back in the day” was discovered, which led to the journey of attempting to recreate that original whiskey. The packaging is also inspired by the original bottles used by Mangus.
This is a triple-aged bourbon that is aged first in traditional white oak, and then finished in Oloroso Sherry, Pedro Ximenez Sherry, and Cognac barrels. The whiskey is then bottled at 100 proof. It is a beautiful, dark amber color. The nose provides hints of chocolate and cherry, with some fruity notes, as well as caramel and brown sugar.
The flavor includes chocolate and caramel, with spices mid-palate. The finish is smooth and dry, with oak and other wood notes coming in. The story attached to this spirit adds to the pleasure of enjoying it, though some may scoff at the price.
- Good aromas
- Complex flavors
- Great packaging and story
- A little pricey
- Sturdy without lots of flair
WL Weller 12 Year
Also produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, WL Weller 12 Year is another excellent sipping bourbon. It is named after William Larue Weller, who supposedly invented a recipe for bourbon that used wheat (as opposed to rye) as the primary grain, alongside corn. As would be expected, unique to this whiskey is precisely that—wheat replaces rye as the second grain on the “mash bill.” Generally, the use of wheat is meant to help smooth out the spirit.
The color of this spirit is bronze, and it’s bottled at 90 proof. The aroma of this “wheated whiskey” includes caramel, almonds, and some vanilla notes, with hints of orange peel and chocolate. The flavor profile includes caramel and toffee, with some oak.
In the finish, there is a good bit of dark fruits (like cherry) and some bitter or charred chocolate. The finish itself is long and smooth. Though this whiskey is listed at under $100, it is very difficult to find it today for less than $300, though that does seem to be changing as output appears to be on the increase. So, as the price comes down, get a bottle and enjoy its smooth, finish neat or with a splash of water!
- Exceptionally smooth
- Good flavor profile
- Nice aromas
- Somewhat pricey
Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel
Named after one of the great master distillers at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, the Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel rounds out our rankings. Lee was responsible for bringing Blanton’s to market, initiating the single barrel phenomenon, which means that one bottle of whiskey may be different from another since each barrel is bottled without mixing all the barrels together.
The color is caramel, and the spirit is bottled at 90 proof. The nose on this bottle offers honey and some mild vanilla sweetness, with hints of wheat. The flavor palate is rich and includes the initial sweetness of maple, peach, and raisins. Mid-palate features pronounced spices and oak.
The finish of this 12-year aged whiskey is long and dry, and features leather, oak, and tobacco. This is another great sipping whiskey that can also work well in your favorite cocktail. So, if you have the money and the time, then raise a glass to Mr. Lee!
- Good flavors
- Nice aroma
- Good mixability
- Getting to be expensive
- Finish is a bit dry
- Uneven quality bottle to bottle
How Is Bourbon Whiskey Made?
There are several steps in the process for making the delicious honey gold that is bourbon whiskey. The first step is to determine the grains or raw materials to be used. According to United States law, bourbon requires at least 51% corn, though often the percentage is in the 60% to 80% range. Other materials include wheat, rye, and barley.
Next, you need a good source of fresh spring water. Most of the distilleries in the U.S. that make bourbon are located near natural springs—the majority of which are located on a limestone shelf, which ensures that the water is lower in iron. The water is added to the ground grains and corn.
The mash is then heated so that the starches begin to break down into sugars. Barley is particularly effective at releasing the specific enzyme that breaks down the starches and, thus, is used in many bourbons. The cooked material is then cooled and put into a fermentation vat with yeast—and often with mash from previous batches of whiskey (we will discuss sour mash below). Different distillers use different strains of yeast, and these are often a closely guarded secret.
After fermentation, the material is a beer-like mixture—and now begins the distillation process. Distillers will now either use a pot still, column still, or some combination of both, and begin to turn the “whiskey beer” into a clear substance often called “white dog.”
Key in the production of whiskey is the ageing of the spirit in new wooden barrels, which are almost always white oak. These barrels have also been toasted or charred on the inside, and the charcoal layer is a major contributor to bourbon’s golden color and many of its flavors and aromas.
American straight whiskey must be aged for at least two years, though there is no definitive timetable required. As long as the spirit goes into the barrel, it can then considered bourbon whiskey.
What Is the Difference Between Bourbon and Sour Mash?
Sour mash refers to the process of adding mash from a former batch of whiskey during the fermentation process. All bourbon distilleries use some form of a sour mash process. The reason has to do with the pH levels needed for proper fermentation to occur.
After the corn and grains have been ground and water has been added, the “mash” is chemically neutral. This presents a problem, because yeast needs a certain pH environment to work properly for the fermentation process. Without the proper pH environment, the yeast could produce bacteria that would ruin the bourbon.
In the 19th century, distillers discovered that one of the best ways to provide a proper environment for the fermentation process was to add some of the stillage from a previous batch of whiskey. This stillage was called “sour mash.” To be clear, the term has absolutely nothing whatever to do with the actual taste of the bourbon.
Thus, all distillers use the sour mash process. But only some distillers actually label their whiskey “sour mash.” Why? Well, because it sounds cool. Seriously, it is literally marketing and the industry-wide penchant for a good story. So the next time you enjoy a Jack Daniel’s, just know that though the Lincoln County process that makes their whiskey much sweeter is indeed unique, the sour mash process is not!
What Is the American Whiskey Trail?
The celebration of local, regional, and national history has been a major component of tourism for some time. The American Whiskey Trail was developed to promote and celebrate “America’s Native Spirit” as well as other types of whiskey and American produced spirits. It is a promotional program created by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, and was established in 2004.
Though American whiskey encompasses more than bourbon whiskey, the heart of the American Whiskey Trail is found in bourbon country—better known as Kentucky. Beginning in Virginia with the George Washington Distillery (that’s right, our first president was a distiller and purveyor of whiskey!), there are several distilleries in western Pennsylvania, with a few located in New York, Maryland, Utah, and West Virginia.
The vast majority are located in Kentucky and Tennessee, the heart of whiskey production in the United States. Many of the iconic names in American whiskey production are associated with the Trail, including Buffalo Trace, Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Old Forester, Woodford Reserve, and Bulleit.
Interestingly, there are two rum distilleries that have become associated with the Whiskey Trail as well—Bacardi and Cruzan, both of which are located in the Caribbean region.
Each of the participating distilleries offers tours, tastings, and of course, the ability to purchase products on-site.
What Is the Best Bourbon Whiskey?
Bourbon whiskey is an American classic. It is versatile and can be enjoyed in any number of ways. But there are many different bourbons on the market produced by several different distilleries, so how do you choose which one is best? Answering this question certainly depends on personal taste and need. To help you decide which bourbon whiskey is the best for you, we have created a ranking based on careful research.
Our ranking is based on serious research and includes an assessment of the following categories:
- Aroma: What flavors do you detect on the nose?
- Taste and finish: What kinds of flavor notes hit the palate and how does the spirit finish?
- Color: Unlike some other spirits, whiskey has beautiful coloring that makes it aesthetically pleasing.
- Price: How much is the bottle of hooch gonna cost?
- Packaging and history: Whiskey is steeped in legends and myths (many of which are untrue), but if you get a bottle and they don’t take the time to tell you a story, maybe this isn’t the right one for you!
- Variability: Though drinking whiskey straight is always a good choice, sometimes you may want to mix things up, so make sure your bourbon works well in your favorite cocktails.
These and other factors led us to choose Old Forester 1920 as the best overall bourbon whiskey.
So before you have your next party, or just want to get a bottle to enjoy at home, be sure to check out our list so you can make an informed decision!
Here are some other recommended products that will complement your favorite bourbon:
- Diamond Cut Pattern Premium Whiskey Crystal Decanter & Glass Stopper: To up your whiskey display game.
- Whiskey Stones Set: If you want to cool down your whiskey but not dilute it, check out these chilling rocks.
- Double Old Fashioned Whiskey Glass (Set of 4): For enjoying your next Old Fashioned!
- Oak Bottle”Aged” Cocktail Recipe Book: If you want to try some new (and some variations on old) cocktails, check out this great book of recipes.
- “Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey”: Here’s a great introduction to the story of America’s “native spirit.”