There’s a compelling argument to be made that bourbon is America’s most important spirit.
While vodka dominates the entire American whiskey category in terms of volume sales, bourbon is the nation’s only “native spirit,” as declared by Congress in 1964. In the last decade, a surge in demand has seen the number of distilleries in Kentucky (the spirit’s heartland) rise 250 percent. According to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, the bourbon industry adds $8.6 billion to the state’s economy every year, and the number of barrels aging in Kentucky currently outranks the state’s residents by a factor of nearly two to one.
For those looking to buy a bottle of bourbon, the category offers a diverse range of styles to enjoy, from single- barrel offerings to cask-finished expressions to high-ABV barrel-strength bottles. There’s also good old Kentucky Straight, which continues to offer impressive bang for buck. With such diversity, choosing which bourbon to buy can be confusing.
To help you make those decisions, VinePair sampled an extensive range of options to compile the ultimate buyer’s guide. Whether you’re new to the category or a bourbon aficionado looking to add a special bottle to your collection, there’s something for you on this list. We limited inclusion to only one expression per brand and have listed average prices based on data from Wine-Searcher.com.
Here are the 30 best bourbons for every budget to buy right now.
Old Grand-Dad Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Owned by Beam Suntory and marketed as part of its “The Olds” collection, the quality of this bourbon dazzles for the price point. Cinnamon and light caramel lead the nose, followed by baking spices and a hint of charred oak on the palate. Coming in a few bucks higher, but still remarkably well priced, the “Bonded” and “114” expressions from this brand should also be snapped up if spotted on liquor store shelves. Average price: $16.
Early Times Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon
A liter of great bottled-in-bond bourbon for just over $20? It’s possible. Owned and produced by Brown-Forman, this wonderfully concentrated bourbon holds its own in cocktails but is just as enjoyable sipped neat. While its nose is subtle, the palate introduces rich caramel, citrus, and vanilla flavors, before a pepper-spiced lingering finish. Average price: $19 per 750 milliliters (sold in 1-liter bottles with an average price of $25).
Old Forester 86 Proof
It’s hard to pick out a favorite from Old Forester’s lineup — each is thoroughly enjoyable in its own unique way. And while all offer great value for money, it’s the 86 Proof that makes it onto the list for the sheer quality it offers for $20. Lighter on the nose than many bourbons, the palate has great body, a gentle spice, and a well-balanced finish. Average price: $20.
Larceny Small Batch Kentucky Straight
Receiving frequent praise for being an affordable wheated bourbon (a category that includes the likes of W.L. Weller and Pappy Van Winkle), Larceny’s merits extend beyond its mash bill. Produced by Heaven Hill, this approachable bourbon has soft, fruity aromas, a lithe palate that brings sweetness and spice, and a delightful finish that evokes candy apples. Average price: $24.
Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2012
An inexpensive introduction to single-barrel bourbons, this is a quality bottle that offers great bang for buck. At 43.3 percent ABV, the palate is easygoing, if not quite as bold as boozier offerings. A lightly spiced nose makes it inviting, while its well-balanced palate makes this a perfect sipping bourbon. Average price: $29.
1792 Small Batch
Marketed as a “high rye” bourbon (the exact mash bill is not disclosed by the distillery), an attractive spice lingers on the nose mingling with oak and caramel. The palate is lively, with baked blueberry flavors and a crack of black pepper that lead to a charred finish. Average price: $30.
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight
Easygoing and approachable, this bottling proves bourbon can have character without being in your face. The aromas start off floral and slightly fruity, followed by sweet candy notes. The palate is robust and offers a well-rounded mix of dried fruit, baking spices, oak, and black pepper notes. Average price: $30.
Knob Creek Small Batch
Named after a water source that allegedly ran through President Abraham Lincoln’s family farm, rich caramel leads the nose of this small-batch bourbon. Notes of cedar, cacao, and orange peel then liven things up on the palate. Average price: $35.
Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky Straight
Whether you’re a newcomer to bourbon or an aspiring home-bartender looking for a bottle that can handle a range of whiskey cocktails, Distiller’s Select offers a wonderfully versatile option. The nose enjoys the sweetness of dried fruits and toasted nuts, while the palate has a silky smooth caramel profile. Sip it or mix it — you’ll be sure to enjoy. Average price: $35.
Four Roses Small Batch
Four Roses blends four base recipes (comprising a mix of different yeasts and mash bills) to create its small-batch bourbon. The resulting spirit has a light, floral nose and racy palate. Medium in body, it offers generous sweetness balanced by a tingling spicy finish. Not only a bargain for the price, this is great bourbon in general. Average price: $36.
Pinhook Straight Bourbon ‘Bourbon War Aged 4 Years’
A limited-edition, 38,000-bottle release, Pinhook launched this expression in 2019. Featuring a high-rye mash bill (20.5 percent), the spirit spends four years in cask before it’s bottled at 49 percent ABV. Rather than spice, sweet tropical fruit aromas dominate, followed by a luscious mix of banana and mint on the palate. This is an outlier, but an interesting one. Average price: $39.
Legent Kentucky Straight
Owned by Beam Suntory, Legent is the product of a collaboration between Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe and Suntory chief blender Shinji Fukuyo. Its aromas are reserved, but a brief swirling coaxes out notes of toasted almonds and dried fruits. The palate is nicely rounded, with a good concentration of flavor and rich finish. Average price: $41.
Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight
Also notable for its high-rye mash bill (believed to around 30 percent), this bourbon has a subtle nose and light palate. But don’t take that as lacking in flavor; this easy-sipping bourbon serves layers of dried apricot, cedar, and black pepper notes. The finish is fresh and fruity. Average price: $42.
Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey
From Colorado’s Breckenridge Distillery, this bourbon is aged for at least three years before it’s bottled at 43 percent ABV. Despite its relatively light alcohol content, it has a complex, robust flavor profile, marrying rye spice and cinnamon with vanilla and honey. Average price: $42.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed Barrel Proof
For such a high ABV content (58.4 percent), the alcohol is really well integrated on the nose of this bourbon. It smells like new oak, vanilla, black pepper, and caramel, while the palate is incredibly lively. There’s sweetness and spice, charred oak notes, and overall it’s remarkably well balanced. You need to know what you’re getting into here, but if you like overproof spirits, this is where it’s at. Average price: $49.
Heaven’s Door Tennessee Bourbon
“Co-created” by iconic American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, this Tennessee bourbon spends eight years harmonizing in oak before release. Vibrant red fruits lead its nose, followed by spicy cloves and black pepper aromas. The palate is equally fruity and spiced, with dried berry flavors adding sweetness. Average price: $50.
Angel’s Envy Port Wine Finished
Following its initial aging period in charred American new oak, this small- batch bourbon rests for three to six months in port casks prior to release. The finishing process adds an undercurrent of rich red fruit to the nose, which is otherwise sweet and spicy. The palate is impeccably balanced, with a sweet butterscotch core that’s seasoned by black pepper spice and charred oak. Average price: $52.
KOVAL Single Barrel Bourbon
Chicago distiller KOVAL shakes things up with the mash bill for this single-barrel release. On top of the requisite 51 percent corn, the remainder is made up of millet. The left-field recipe creates a unique, fruity bourbon, which has a sweet profile and great concentration of flavor. Average price: $54.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
Arriving at a cask strength 54.4 percent ABV, this expression has a much spicier profile than the rest of the Maker’s Mark lineup. A short time in glass allows some of the headier alcohol notes to blow off, revealing a sweet core of vanilla, caramel, and a hint of leather. The high alcohol content serves a full-bodied mouthfeel, coating the palate with a pleasant spicy sensation. This is a wild but enjoyable ride. Average profile: $57.
Baker’s 7-Year-Old Single Barrel
At seven years old and 53.5 percent ABV, this bourbon is bold and full of character but doesn’t overwhelm. A recent revamp saw its wine-bottle-style packaging ditched and notably transitioned the bourbon to a single- barrel offering. While it’s lost a touch of its fruity character, the overall profile remains concentrated, sweet, and spicy. Average price: $59.
Heaven Hill 7-Year-Old Bottled-in-Bond
Introduced in 2019, this is a reincarnation of Heaven Hill’s previous, six-year-old bottled-in-bond expression. The prior retailed for a fraction of the price of this (more widely available) iteration, and was always considered a bargain among bourbon aficionados. For those willing to make the price jump, the new release offers an interesting nutty nose, with hints of earth and vanilla. The palate has great depth of flavor, with dried fruit notes and caramelized nuts bringing a charming sweetness. Average price: $59.
W.L. Weller Special Reserve
Gone are the days when this bourbon presented affordable insight to the lauded Van Winkle lineup. While this expression is still produced at the same distillery and comprises the same wheated mash bill as Pappy, it’s almost impossible to find Weller Special Reserve at its MSRP of around $20. (Retailer price gouging is not unique to this bourbon, it should be noted, nor can the distillery be blamed.) Regardless, this bottle remains an enjoyable wheated offering, serving apples and cranberries on the nose, mixed with vanilla, caramel, and cedar wood. The palate is lean and fruity, with accents of spice and decent complexity. Average price: $60.
Bulleit Barrel Strength
With its high-rye and even higher alcohol content (62.7 percent), this bourbon delivers a spice bomb on the nose. There’s sweetness too (caramelized pineapple), and a nice seasoning of baking spices. The palate is equally charged, making this a great option for cranking up the ABV in bourbon cocktails. Start with a Boulevardier or sip with a big ice cube. Average price: $60.
Bardstown Bourbon Company Fusion Series #2
The “fusion” of this bourbon’s name references its blend of 60 percent wheated and high-rye bourbons, which Bardstown makes itself, along with 40 percent 12-year-old sourced Kentucky bourbon. The end product has an inviting nose that jumps out of the glass. Rye notes are followed by black pepper and just a kiss of caramel. The palate is complex and spicy; the bite of rye emerges on top and lingers for an age. Average price: $61.
Jefferson’s Reserve Pritchard Hill Cabernet Cask Finished
Another cask-finished bourbon, this release spends an extra 12 months resting in French oak barrels, which once held Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The red wine finish lends sweet berry aromas and an added layer of complexity to the palate. It’s a little on the pricey side, but this is a well-balanced bourbon and an interesting addition to any spirits aficionado’s collection. Average price: $73.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel 10 Years
Another victim of hiked-up retail prices, when this bottle featured on last year’s list, it sold with an average price of $37 — almost identical to its MSRP. Since then, this expression claimed “Best in Show Whiskey” at the 2019 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and average prices have doubled. Nevertheless, this bourbon has a really enticing nose, with aromas of dried fruits, nuts, berry compote, and light caramel. The palate has great character and intensity and tastes quintessentially bourbon. Average price: $73.
Elijah Craig Small Batch Barrel Proof
Don’t be put off by its heady alcohol content (which hovers above 65 percent ABV but varies with batch); the alcohol is incredibly well integrated on this bourbon. If anything, it allows the character of the spirit to shine, rather than competing with it. Caramel, toasted oak, and orange peel lead the nose, followed by butterscotch, cinnamon, and black pepper on the palate. As it lingers for an age, it recalls the old ”iron fist wrapped in a velvet glove” analogy: This is a powerful yet simultaneously delicate bourbon. Average price: $78.
Booker’s Batch 2020-01 ‘Granny’s Batch’
Named in honor of master distiller Fred Noe’s grandmother, the most recent Booker’s release arrives at a barrel- strength 63.2 percent ABV, following almost six and a half years of aging. If ever a bourbon mimicked the profile of a gourmet candy bar it’s this one. The aromas and flavors recall a decadent mix of nuts, dark chocolate, and caramel, while the palate brings subtle spice. Add a few drops of water and enjoy its evolution in glass. Average price: $87.
Barrell Bourbon Cask Strength Batch 23
The latest release from Barrell Craft Spirits, this cask- strength blend features 10-, 12-, and 15-year-old bourbons, distilled and aged in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana. The nose has great character and complexity, while the palate is unexpectedly lively. It’s spiced but not too hot, with an incredibly lengthy finish. This smells and tastes like the product of considered, masterful blending. Average price: $91.
Splurge (Over $100)
Old Fitzgerald 16-Year-Old Bottled-in-Bond (Spring 2020 Release)
Many bourbons succeed by virtue of power, like an American muscle car. This release is all about subtle, elegant grace — a European sports car by comparison. It’s fruity on the nose, with notes of dried apricots and apple peel, followed by nuts and a faint whiff of charred oak. The palate comes through with intense concentration. A butterscotch core is seasoned with dried apples, raisins, vanilla, and black pepper. Each sip lasts an age and is truly special. To grab a bottle and avoid extortionate inflation, the best bet may likely be to head to Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown (closed at the time of publishing because of Covid-19). Average price: $200 (approximately).
The article The 30 Best Bourbon Whiskeys Every Budget (2020) appeared first on VinePair.