Two decades into America’s historic bourbon boom and the category continues to evolve with no signs of slowing.
As heritage distilleries experiment with enjoyable new expressions, the number and quality of craft producers only continue to grow. While there’s no disputing Kentucky’s status as the spirit’s heartland, with production taking place in all 50 states, it’s by no means the only source of fine bourbon.
This tasting for VinePair’s annual roundup of America’s native spirit included dozens of bottles and offered no shortage of pleasant surprises. For the final list, we limited inclusion to one bottle per brand and have shared average prices based on online data (because price gouging, unfortunately, is alive and well).
With impressive examples from Colorado, Nevada, Illinois, Virginia, and — of course — Kentucky, and a range of proofs, age statements, and innovative aging techniques, this list promises something for every drinker.
Here are the 30 best bourbons for every budget to buy right now.
Old Forester 86 Proof
While others in Old Forester’s impressive lineup claim the hearts of bourbon geeks (such as the 1920 Prohibition Style) this bottle stands head and shoulders above everything at this proof and price point. It oozes aromatic charm and follows with a palate that is lithe but in no way lacking flavor. Average price: $19.
Larceny Small Batch Kentucky Straight
The entry-level offering of Heaven Hill’s wheated mash-bill bourbons, Larceny invites you in with characteristic sweet aromas and a hint of vanilla custard. The palate adds subtle spice and deals out even more vanilla. This bourbon over-delivers for its price and continues to be one of the best value picks on the market. If you come across its charged, barrel-proof older sibling, be sure to pick up a bottle, too. Average price: $24.
Old Grand-Dad 114 Barrel Proof
It could be easy to take a pass on this quirky-looking, historic Beam Suntory bourbon that’s often found knocking around the lower shelves at liquor stores. And this is exactly what whiskey geeks want you to do. Known to insiders simply as OGD 114, this is a characterful if slightly brash high-rye bourbon that’s full of flavor and not afraid to serve some spice. We keep a bottle on our shelves at all times. Average price: $29
Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2013
Every encounter with this Heaven Hill release leaves us shocked at how much of a steal it is. Maybe it has something to do with its unfashionable and relatively low 86.6 proof, but don’t be tricked by the numbers: The alcohol content only adds to its approachability and by no means does it fall short on flavor. If it’s digits that concern you, consider that this release is 7 years old, was drawn from a single barrel, and costs little more than $30. Add this to your list of shelf staples. Average price: $33.
Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel
The Russell’s Reserve line is named in honor of Wild Turkey’s father-and-son master-distiller team Jimmy and Eddie Russell. There really is no wrong choice between the 10-year-old and single-barrel bottlings. But where the former boasts a double-digit age statement and clocks in $10 cheaper, the latter delivers 20 extra proof points (110 versus 90), which gives it the edge from a flavor concentration standpoint. Expect dark chocolate, vanilla, and caramel aromas, and vibrant berries on the palate. Average price: $55.
Bowman Brothers Small Batch Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Virginia’s A. Smith Bowman distillery is owned by Sazerac Company. For years, it was believed that the distillery sourced new-make distillate from Sazerac’s Buffalo Trace distillery, before running it two more times through its proprietary copper still. That no longer appears to be the case — but regardless, this small- batch bourbon has its own unique profile. Spicy but not hot, and fruity without being sweet, this is an intriguing dram. Average price: $37.
Legent Kentucky Straight
Beam Suntory’s Legent represents the collaboration between Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe and Suntory chief blender Shinji Fukuyo. Touted as a celebration of “Kentucky Tradition and Japanese Detail,” the 47 percent ABV bourbon succeeds by way of subtle charm. Light wafts of coffee and vanilla precede sips of toasted oak and spicy rye. Drink neat at room temperature to enjoy all it has to offer. Average price: $39.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength (Batch 20-01)
Sweet wheat notes shine throughout this batch of Maker’s Mark Cask Strength. Its ABV is comparatively low for a barrel-proof offering, making it one of the most approachable examples in that realm. The palate delivers more complexity than its sweet, oaky nose, serving licorice and herbal notes before a charred finish that lingers but never verges on being too hot. A recent packaging change saw its national SRP drop by around $10, making this a bona fide bargain. Average price: $40.
Chattanooga Whiskey 111
This Tennessee high-malt bourbon challenges the notion of the importance of aging. With an age statement floating somewhere just above 2 years old, it is surprisingly complex, rich, and full bodied. Dried raisins and sweet honey set the tone, followed by the unmistakable character of malt. At this age, it would be easy to talk in terms of potential but Chattanooga 111 is already delivering. Average price: $47.
KOVAL Single Barrel
From Chicago’s KOVAL distillery, this bourbon bounds off the beaten track with the inclusion of millet in its mash bill. The left-field grain translates to vibrant potpourri aromas, and a juniper-like quality. With rich berries throughout its core, the profile will appeal to fans of red-wine-barrel-finished whiskeys, or those simply looking to try something new. Average price: $49.
Eagle Rare 10 Year
From the Buffalo Trace distillery, Eagle Rare 10 Year lives somewhat in the shadow of its 17-year-old elder sibling. But it would be a shame to talk of this whiskey in terms of what it’s not, especially when the other bottling in question retails for around 20 times more. This is a sweet and mellow bourbon with definite signs of maturity. Its orange peel and toffee aromas are a little shy but the palate serves sturdy sweet and spice notes and a toasty finish. Few core offerings of this age remain so readily available — especially at this price point. Average price: $51.
New Riff Single Barrel
From Newport, Ky., craft distillery New Riff has built a reputation for offering outstanding single-barrel whiskeys. Aged at least four years, this high-rye bourbon delivers around 10 extra proof points than New Riff’s standard Kentucky Straight. It is complex and nuanced from start to finish, serving caramel, oak, and black pepper on the nose and cloves, tobacco, and a faint menthol note on the palate. This producer should be on your radar if it isn’t already. Average price: $51.
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
As you might expect from the name, this twice-barreled bourbon is a straight-up oak bomb. The high toast and light charring of its second maturation barrel lend inviting sweet oak notes, present in the form of vanilla and toffee popcorn aromas, and toasty caramel on the palate. Bold but versatile, this bourbon can be sipped neat, mixed, or enjoyed over a big cube of ice. Average price: $55.
Nevada’s Frey Ranch has a hand in all aspects of this bourbon’s production, including growing the corn, wheat, rye, and barley that make up its mash bill. (The barley is also malted on site.) The character from those grains shines throughout, with the influence of oak aging taking a back seat. This bourbon shows great depth and complexity for its 45 percent ABV and is a true grain-to-glass gem. Average price: $55.
Pinhook ‘Bourbon War’ Vertical Series 5 Years
Pinhook’s Vertical Series is an experiment in tracking the evolution of 1,350 barrels of sourced MGP bourbon. Every year, the brand pulls 150 barrels from that lot, with this being the second of nine planned releases. While the 2019 4-Year release had a distinct tropical character, 12 extra months in barrel have brought the bourbon’s rye spice to the fore and added rich, caramel notes. Average price: $55.
Bulleit Blenders’ Select (Batch 001)
Introduced in 2020 and crafted by Bulleit’s master blender Eboni Major, this limited-edition bourbon incorporates three distillates each aged a minimum of nine years. A bold, flavorful whiskey, the nose offers dark fruits and nuts, while the palate delivers dark chocolate, black pepper, and oak. This inaugural release is a resounding success and has us excited for what’s to come. Average price: $57.
Rabbit Hole Cavehill
This four-grain Kentucky bourbon includes three malted secondary grains in its mash bill. Batched in lots of no more than 15 barrels, it has a rich, vibrant, fruity character. Banana and caramel aromas give way to a black pepper- and toffee-rich palate, with a stream of golden honey woven throughout. Average price: $60.
Four Roses Small Batch Select
Four Roses utilizes six of its 10 proprietary recipes for this flagship offering. It is classically bourbon in character, with no shortage of vanilla, caramel, and rich oak notes. There are layers and nuance too, with a scent of jasmine tea on the nose, and ripe berries and rich spice on the palate. The 52 percent ABV is barely noticeable and its profile continues to evolve with time in the glass. Average price: $61.
Baker’s 7-Year-Old Single Barrel
One of the four bourbons that comprise Jim Beam’s Small Batch collection, this single-barrel release arrives at 107 proof and at least 7 years old. The profile has a distinct nutty character — a hallmark of Beam distillates — and a rich dark chocolate and cherry pie core. The high proof emerges on the palate but only serves to highlight and intensify its flavors. Average price: $62.
Laws Four Grain (Batch 21)
The four heirloom grains included in this small batch Colorado bourbon are milled, cooked, fermented, distilled, and aged on site — resting a minimum of three years in oak before release. The vibrant character of the grains is complemented by an undercurrent of toasted oak and ripe berries. This is an enjoyable departure from traditional styles of bourbon and a must-try for those looking to expand their horizons. Average price: $65.
Heaven Hill 7-Year-Old Bottled-in-Bond
Revamped in 2019, Heaven Hill’s eponymous release is one of many that display the distillery’s proficiency at the 100-proof mark. It is well rounded and places on the lighter end of the spectrum without lacking concentration. There are surprising signs of maturity given its age, with leather and savory tobacco notes intertwining with sweet oak and butterscotch. Average price: $67.
Knob Creek 12 Year
This small-batch Beam Suntory release turns to age over proof in the numerical race. At 50 percent ABV and 12 years old, it is a great reminder that bourbon needn’t arrive at cask strength to deliver power and intensity. Dark chocolate, peanuts, orange peel, and toasted oak comprise just a fraction of the notes present in its generous profile. This is the definition of a must-buy bottle. Average price: $68.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (A121)
The standout offering from Heaven Hill’s impressive Elijah Craig line continually delivers. The first of the three iterations for 2021 has a perfumed nose that’s loaded with cloves, vanilla, licorice, and toasted oak. There’s no avoiding the 120-plus proof on the palate, but it’s a wild enjoyable ride. This is high-octane bourbon and about as big as it gets on the ABV front. Average price: $78.
Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea
The intriguing aging process for this bourbon sees it cross the equator four times and visit five continents during a lengthy ocean voyage. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact influence of this “hyper-aging” technique, but the quality of the spirit is undeniable. This bourbon is fruit-forward and floral with a warm, lingering finish. Average price: $82.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel 10 Years
This lauded Heaven Hill release delivers everything you want from a single barrel, bottled-in-bond bourbon. The lively nose offers fruit, oak, and light spice. It’s a similar story on the palate, only with each component dialed up. At 10 years old and 50 percent ABV, this occupies a fabulous sweet spot between age and proof and exhibits exceptional balance all round. Average price: $86.
Basil Hayden’s 10 Year
In a sea of cask-strength offerings, Basil Hayden’s stays true to its 80 proof roots. The high rye content of its mash bill charges the nose and palate with notes of caraway and spice, while 10 years in the barrel have added leather and an attractive nuttiness. If you aren’t looking for high proof, this is a remarkable bourbon — just don’t add ice. Average price: $87.
Barrell Bourbon (Batch 26)
This cask-strength blend features 9-, 10-, 11-, 13-, and 15-year-old bourbons, sourced from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana. Intensely flavorful yet harmoniously balanced, it offers a spectrum of fresh and dried fruits and a rich, sweet core. Despite the complex blend, it delivers a quintessential bourbon profile. This is simply fantastic. Average price: $90.
Splurge (Over $100)
Booker’s Pigskin Batch (2020-03)
Booker’s third and final release of 2020 is sure to please cask-strength fans with its 63.65 percent ABV content. As with every release in the series, it packs an intense punch and delivers immense concentration of flavors. There’s a distinct cinnamon note to this iteration backed up by mocha, chocolate, and baked apples. It’s equally impressive as a dessert or night cap, and adding an ice cube or two doesn’t hurt. Average price: $100.
Bardstown Discovery Series #4
Combining three sourced Kentucky bourbons aged between 10 and 15 years old, the fourth installment of Bardstown’s Discovery Series is a wonderful exhibition of age. Each sip is rich in dried fruits and lightly toasted nuts, with hints of leather, tobacco, and licorice. This is nuanced, high-proof sipping bourbon with an exceedingly lengthy finish. Average price: $139.
Old Fitzgerald 14-Year-Old Bottled-in-Bond (Fall 2020 Release)
Heaven Hill’s flagship bourbon delights with its subtle grace. The wheated mash bill forms a pleasant sweet core, with accents of bright berries, vanilla, caramel, and gentle oak. The slender mouthfeel glides across the palate, followed by a gentle but persistent finish. Like death and taxes, you can expect to pay above the MSRP for this coveted release, but don’t think twice about it. Average price: $140 (MSRP).
Published: February 18, 2021