Your typical liquor store bourbon selection can be a bit unwieldy. While publications like Gear Patrol will certainly help you narrow it down to the best bottles of bourbon to buy, it's spirits competitions like the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, or SFWSC, that can truly push bottles off the shelves.
Earlier this year, the world's largest spirits judging competition gathered nearly 70 judges to taste almost 5,000 spirits. Now, we have the finalists for the best bottles of bourbon, each in their respective categories — whether it's for straight bourbon or special barrel-finished expressions.
As finalists, these bourbons will be going head to head again to determine Best of Class and Best in Show winners, which will be revealed in June. For the bourbon category, these are the bottles that have earned Double Gold — and will compete next month for the competition's highest honors. In the meantime, if you have a hard time finding any of the top SFWSC bottles, we've also broken down some of the best expensive bourbon alternatives.
15 Stars 14-Year-Old Timeless Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
The "15" in 15 Stars is an ode to Kentucky being the 15th state to join the US, and its bourbon whiskey is an apt tribute to the state. The whiskey exhibits notes of dark chocolate, as well as cream and vanilla.
Clyde May’s Special Reserve Bourbon
This 110-proof bourbon is aged for six years, and despite its high ABV, it won't burn going down thanks to its balanced flavor profile, which Clyde May's describes as "orchard fruits on the nose and clove and spice on the palate."
1792 Full Proof Straight Bourbon
This Full Proof Straight Bourbon from 1792 has been taking home awards year after year. It's a full-bodied spirit that tastes of sweet vanilla and caramel with a hint of smoke.
Small Batch Bourbon – Up to 5 years
Penelope Private Select Bourbon
Penelope's Private Select Bourbon is a blend of a three of the brand's traditional bourbon mash bills, with each barrel being used having been hand selected. It's aged anywhere between four and five years, before being bottled at barrel strength.
Small Batch Bourbon – 6 to 10 Years
Laws Whiskey Bonded Four Grain Bourbon
Laws makes its bourbon in Colorado, using a combination of the four major American grains: corn, wheat, barley and rye — a rare feat and one that makes for an exceptional whiskey.
Ezra Brooks Old Ezra 7 Year Old Barrel Strength
The Old Ezra 7-year-old is a 101 proof bourbon featuring a mash of corn, rye and barley. Aged for seven years, it has floral notes with accents of typical bourbon flavors like vanilla and wood.
Single Barrel Bourbon – Up to 10 Years
Doc Whiskey Single Barrel Cask Strength Bourbon
Doc Whiskey's Single Barrel comprises 51 percent corn, 45 percent wheat and 9 percent rye, making for a balanced whiskey with a semi-sweet flavor profile complementing its long dried fruit finish.
Nashville Barrel Company Single Barrel Bourbon
Because of its scarcity (there are only about 175 bottles available), you probably won't get a chance to try this bourbon. Regardless, it's still a winner this year thanks to its caramel and dried fruit flavors, which dissipate to its sweet peppery and fruity finish.
Special Barrel-Finished Bourbon
TX Bourbon Cognac Finish
TX's cognac barrel-finished bourbon features a grape sweetness that's complemented by a slight bitterness, dried fruit and cinnamon.
Barrell Craft Spirits Barrell Dovetail Whiskey
Barrell isn't a distillery, but it is one of the country's best blenders. For Dovetail, Barrell blends a 10-year-old Indiana whiskey that was finished in cabernet casks and an 11-year-old Tennessee bourbon that's been double finished in rum and late bottled vintage port pipes. This extra-high proof whiskey is rich in flavor and brings sweet heat and dried stone fruit notes.
Doc Swinson's Exploratory Series Kiona Cask
Only two casks of this Kiona Cask bourbon were available, so if you manage to find a bottle, you better get it. The bourbon is aged in cabernet casks that once held Kiona Vineyard's Old Block cabernet wine. The result is, as Doc Swinson's describes, "dark chocolate-covered brandied cherries, baking spice, apple pie filling and toasted almonds."
W.L. Weller 12 Year
Weller 12 is one of the fabled whiskeys that costs very little at retail ($40), but you'll probably never be able to find it at retail and will end up paying way too much (say $400) on the resale market. Sad as it is, this wheated bourbon is still exceptional, with its sweet almond and vanilla flavors and long, smooth finish.