Though the water cooler talk and workplace hype surrounding March Madness is a bit different this year, at least it exists. Last year's dance was canceled as COVID-19 spread.
This year, March Madness, and the bracket mudslinging that comes with it, are back. But you know what's more fun than watching a bunch of 18- to 22-year-old superhumans shoot threes for a few weeks? Arguing about bourbon.
In case you've missed it, readers following our Instagram voted through a seeded 16-bottle bracket last week, culminating in a final matchup bourbon bracketologists may have guessed before the voting began: Buffalo Trace vs. Pappy Van Winkle 23-Year. Buffalo Trace, our number one overall seed, won with 66% of the vote.
No disrespect to super-premium bourbons of the world, but bourbon whiskey is at its everyman best when it can be found, purchased and sipped by the masses. And while Buffalo Trace Distillery's arsenal of historic whiskey labels is unrivaled in the spirits world (Pappy and otherwise), it is the distillery's namesake bourbon that best captures that magic.
The number one seed in our inaugural Bourbon Bracket, we tipped Buffalo Trace as the most likely winner, and it didn't disappoint, eliminating Old Grand-Dad 114, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked and finally Pappy on its way to the title.
For $35, you get a bottle of 6- to 9-year-old bourbon cut to an even 90 proof. It gets the fundamental bourbon flavors right — vanilla, oak and honey — but it isn't beholden to them. Buffalo Trace has a fruity, bright quality not easily found in a classic bourbon profile. It's also made with the same mash as more premium whiskeys like Eagle Rare, E.H. Taylor Jr., George T. Stagg and others, so it's got expensive DNA. In the end, it's not difficult to understand why the king of the middle shelf knocked out its $2,000-plus brandmate for the crown: Buffalo Trace is one of the best values in all of spirits.
Miss the voting? Check out the original 16 bottles below.
This is our inaugural Bourbon Bracket, but it's safe to say Buffalo Trace was a lock for the #1 seed. The explosion of this whiskey's popularity (and its parent distillery's) goes hand-in-hand with the modern Bourbon Boom.
2. Knob Creek 9-Year-Old Small Batch
Well-priced? Check. Available everywhere? Check. Knob Creek's 9-year-old Small Batch, which got its age statement back in 2020, is the quintessential go-to bourbon. And while its stats are impressive, it might be even better once poured.
3. Maker's Mark
While Pappy introduced many in the bourbon world to the concept of wheated bourbon — bourbon whose mash replaces rye with wheat — Maker's Mark had been serving it to them for decades. Classic Maker's remains one of the best "gateway" whiskeys money can buy.
4. Evan William's Black Label
One of the most popular bourbons in the world, Evan Williams' Black Label belongs to a rare group of whiskeys loved by college kids and bourbon veterans alike. Its low proof, wallet-friendly price and wide availability have made it a staple of bar backs and home bars for years.
5. Wild Turkey 101
A wildly good value buy that seems to only get the credit its due by whiskey geeks and communities of bourbon enthusiasts, Turkey 101 is an unapologetic taste bud punch priced like whiskeys that prioritize smoothness over flavor.
6. Four Roses Single Barrel
Whereas most distilleries keep mashbills, yeast strains and other whiskeymaking specifics close to the vest, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky's Four Roses wants to share its secrets (most of them, anyway). Its single barrel product, which is one of the single barrel whiskey community's favorites, is made with one of five different yeast strains, one of two mashbills and at various ages and proofs. In short: no bottle is the same.
7. Blanton's Bourbon
One of the casualties of bourbon's hype phase, Blanton's is harder to come by (and more expensive) than ever. But whiskey doesn't blow up for nothing; Blanton's high-rye flavor burst, single barrel status and highly giftable bottle design earned the bottle its popularity.
8. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
The definition of an "if you know, you know" bourbon. On the shelf, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof looks nearly identical to its lower-proof, standard Elijah Craig kin, but once opened, they couldn't be further apart. Where regular Elijah Craig is welcoming and easy-drinking, Barrel Proof asks for your ID at the door. It's whiskey at its most powerful.
9. Booker's Bourbon
In the 1980s, Booker Noe and a number of bourbon soothsayers rejected the idea that Americans wouldn't buy good bourbon, only good scotch. Booker's was one of the first high-proof, ultra-premium bourbons to hit shelves in the U.S., effectively laying the groundwork for the bourbon world of today. You can enjoy its history or just shut up and drink it on the rocks.
10. Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23-Year
If we're obligated to include a bottle of Pappy, it's going to be the most extravagant one and it's going to be a double-digit seed. It's terrible and not worth the effort if you don't have it; it's liquid gold if you dropped a few grand on it; and it's probably somewhere in-between if you managed to snake a bottle at a cut price. One thing is certain: no whiskey stokes heated arguments like Pappy.
11. Jim Beam
Jim Beam White is the Tim Duncan of bourbon. It is the king of fundamentals: available everywhere, cheap everywhere, mixes well and isn't too shabby on the rocks. Like Duncan, there's nothing sexy about it, but it gets the job done.
12. W.L. Weller 12-Year
It's only natural that Weller 12 lags a few spots behind Pappy; Buffalo Trace's other line of wheated bourbon rode the Pappy wave until it was nearly as hard to find as its more illustrious cousin. Like Blanton's, Weller 12 was once readily available for less than $50 — today it's bought and sold for four-times that.
13. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
Woodford Reserve is known as a great gateway bourbon, which means it's rarely involved in discussions among whiskey nerds. Double Oaked is the exception. It's evidence that lower proof bourbon can be truly excellent, and a great example of experimentation paying off in a big way. The double-barreling process and lower proof create a vanilla-heavy whiskey that tastes like a toasted marshmallow.
14. George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond
Technically Tennessee Whiskey, effectively bourbon. George Dickel's Bottled-in-Bond whiskeys, now in their third year, have already earned more awards than most whiskeys earn in a decade (one of which was Whisky Advocate's No. 1 Whiskey of the Year). Take that away and you have well-aged bourbon available under $50, which is good enough reason to buy on its own.
15. 1792 Full Proof
Another darling of reviewers and award shows that doesn't get the respect (read: sales) it deserves. And just like a true 15 seed, it's likely most casual whiskey fans won't have ever heard of it.
16. Old Grand-Dad 114
Like an athletic program with budget problems, Old Grand-Dad was closer to being chopped liver than a little-known whiskey going up against Goliath (Buffalo Trace). The brand owner, Beam-Suntory, were considering taking it off life support but, for whatever reason, did not. Thank goodness. We've dubbed it our "Best Kept Secret" bourbon for a reason — its unabashedly high in proof, packed with flavor and affordable as hell. Can it upset a 1 seed? Crazier things have happened.