Best Bourbon for the Money
- Best Overall Bourbon: Knob Creek Small Batch 9-Year Bourbon
- Best Cheap Bourbon: Evan Williams Black Label
- Best Bourbon for Cocktails: Four Roses Bourbon
- Best Craft Bourbon: New Riff Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Best Affordable Bourbons
- Best Kept Secret: Old Grand-Dad 114
- Best Budget Sipper: Larceny Bourbon
- Best Bourbon to Pair with Food: Maker's Mark
- Smoothest Bourbon: Elijah Craig Small Batch
- Best Bourbon for a Party: Early Times Bottled-in-Bond
- Best Gateway Bourbon: Four Roses Small Batch
Best High-End Bourbon
- Most Nuanced Bourbon: Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style
- Best Bourbon to Drink Neat: Four Roses Single Barrel
- Most Underrated Bourbon: Russell's Reserve 10-Year Bourbon
- Best Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon: Henry McKenna Bottled-in-Bond
- Best High-End Craft Bourbon: Stellum Bourbon
- Best Deep-Cut Bourbon: Old Ezra 7-Year
- Best High Proof Bourbon: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
- Best Blended Bourbon: Barrell Craft Spirits Bourbon
- Grail Bourbon: Buffalo Trace William Larue Weller
Bourbon, the Great American Spirit, is not as simple as one might think. Yes, its definition is writ in but a few sentences on the holy stone of Federal Decree: It must be made in the United States; its grain bill must include at least 51 percent corn; it must be produced at not more than 80 percent alcohol (160 proof) and stored in charred new oak containers at no more than 62.5 percent (125 proof). And yes, it is a blue-collar spirit, made by thirsty farmers, for thirsty farmers. But underneath these fundamentals swims a deep sea of factors — additional rules and regulations, hype machines and deceptive marketing, false myths and a boom that began in 2008 and is still going strong today — that make bourbon more complex than it seems. Sour mash and Bottled-in-Bond, non-distiller-producers and high-ryes. Where’s the thirsty modern man, farmer or otherwise, to begin?
What is the Best Bourbon? We don't believe there is one "best" bourbon, but there are bottles that are best for certain moments. If you're making drinks, we prefer the light and spicy Four Roses bourbon. If you want craft bourbon, we love New Riff's dedication to Bottled-in-Bond whiskey-making and rich flavor profiles. Looking for something on the cheap? Evan William's Black Label is hard to beat for the money. For our money, the best do-it-all bourbon is Knob Creek's 9-year-old Small Batch offering. Here's the rub.
Best Bourbons for the Money
These bourbons represent the absolute best values the bourbon whiskey world has to offer. They're not all cheap and they're not all expensive, but they are all reliably excellent.
In a whiskey market that's become increasingly fragmented and allocated, Knob Creek's classic small batch bourbon distinguishes itself. It's our best overall bourbon not by way of life-altering tasting notes, but by stuff the stat sheet in a way no other bourbon can. It is available everywhere and thus resistant to the price gouging associated with brands like Buffalo Trace. Its 100 proof retains a fully body and mixing bonafides without lighting your mouth on fire. And this year the brand got its 9-year age guarantee back, too. If you're looking for the best value in bourbon, just get this.
Average Price: $30 – $40
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“If Evan Williams were to sell this whiskey to someone else, that brand would mark it up to $40, and people would be happy buying it,” whiskey personality and author Fred Minnick says. But Evan Williams is a value brand. So its whiskey, at a great proof point of 86 and an age that Minnick says is roughly five-and-a-half years old, goes for less than $20. “It’s a fantastic bourbon, especially for the money,” he says. “You can get a lot of satisfaction out of that.”
Average Price: $20
Read More: Best Cheap Bourbon Whiskey You Can Buy
“This is such a dynamic whiskey,” Minnick says. “And it’s the best cocktail bourbon out there.” Four Roses is a highly regarded distillery, with a high-rye mash bill that produces an extra spiciness and a concentration on yeast that has been “eye-opening” for the bourbon world. They’ve also led the way in transparency. “They’ll tell you everything there is to know about their whiskey — they don’t hide the mash bill, the distillation proof. I presume you could ask ’em how much their CEO makes and they’d tell you,” Minnick says.
Average Price: $12 – $20
New Riff Distilling was founded in 2014. “Relative to Kentucky, they’ve been around for a few days. The rest of the nation is just kinda getting to know ’em,” Minnick says. The mash bill here, made entirely of non-GMO grains, is 65 percent corn, 30 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley.
Average Price: $40
Read More: 6 Bourbons to Buy Before They Become Way More Expensive
Best Budget Bourbons
These bourbons are all under $35 and represent some of the best low-dollar values in bourbon. They have some of the same flavors found in the world’s best, most sought-after whiskeys. They just don’t carry the same level of complexity; the flavors tend to come and go more quickly.
“A more expensive whiskey might have this rich note that lasts for ten to twelve seconds,” Minnick says, “whereas a cheaper bottle has that note just for one to two seconds.” Still, this price range has the best value of the entire market, and it also provides opportunities for bourbon to be used in cocktails — or as gifts.
In 2017, Jim Beam’s Old Grand-Dad line of whiskeys was nearly axed. Now, thanks to rising whiskey prices and a consistently strong product, the brand — shortened to OGD by fans — has a cult following. Because it’s not a “hype” whiskey, doesn’t have a famous name and isn’t a limited release, it doesn’t get talked about — but I challenge you to find a bourbon with this much firepower at the price point. Its relatively low-corn mashbill (only 63 percent) is also unique, utilizing a staggering amount of rye and malted barley, creating a spicy bourbon ideal for drinking on the rocks or in a cocktail.
Average Price: $25 – $35
Read More: Jim Beam's Trojan Horse Bourbon Is One of the Best Values in Whiskey
“This has an incredible sweetness to it,” Minnick says. “It’s not complex, but the sweetness is really nice — the way it hits the palate. It’s a good, inexpensive, wheated everyday sipper.”
Average Price: $20 – $25
Read More: Known as Poor Man's Pappy, This Bourbon Just Got More Interesting
Minnick has a unique use for one of bourbon’s classic names. “I drink so much Makers with BBQ,” he says. Its mellow balance — helped by the prominent caramel notes of its wheated mash bill — doesn’t overpower meaty flavors.
Average Price: $30 – $35
Read More: What the Hell Is Small Batch Whiskey?
Though it shares DNA with other Heaven Hill bourbons like Evan Williams and Henry McKenna, Elijah Craig Small Batch is balanced, with extra maltiness. “It’s got so much caramel, and a beautiful nutmeg note,” Minnick says. “This is all about the sweetness.”
Average Price: $25 – $35
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No one cared about Early Times until Sazerac (Buffalo Trace Distillery) bought it from Brown-Forman (Jack Daniel's, Old Forester, Woodford Reserve). The whiskey inside Early Times' wicked affordable Bottled-in-Bond expression is Brown-Forman-made, though, and it has that sweet-and-smooth Basil Hayden's thing going on, just more a more solid boozey backbone. Oh, and it's sold in liters.
Average Price: $25
Read More: A Whiskey Brand You've Never Heard of Is Making a Wicked Everyday Mixer
Four Roses’s upgrade over its standard offering blends 180 barrels of four different recipes per bottling. “If you love cinnamon notes, you’ll love this,” Minnick says. It’s more complex than regular FR, but still drinks easy. “It’s what I want to sip at a ballgame.”
Average Price: $30 – $35
Best High-End Bourbons
These run north of $50, all the way up to a month’s paycheck. Buying in this range is high risk, high reward. “Sometimes you’re gonna be disappointed,” Minnick says. “Just because a bourbon is 90 bucks doesn’t mean it’s good.” The benchmark bourbons at this range have upwards of 100 flavor notes to pick out, often happening at the same time and lingering on the tongue for ages. Or, as Minnick put it, the best should make you think, “If god gave birth to his bourbon child, this is what it would taste like.”
It’s bottled at 115 proof — “for this distillery, that’s the perfect proof,” Minnick says. “I’m going through a bottle a month. The notes kind of just linger. You can have five different notes hitting at once. I believe that to be the definition of nuance.”
Average Price: $60 – $70
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Made using a single recipe and barrel per bottle, it’s between 7 and 8 years old and has more complexity than the Small Batch. “For being the same brand as the Small Batch, they taste very different. This one is more of a sipper. I want to really sit there and think about it when I’m drinking it,” Minnick says.
Average Price: $40 – $50
Don't tell your bourbon-drinking friends, but Russell's Reserve 10-year-old bourbon is one of the best values in the bourbon world. Age statement in the double digits for $40 or less? Yes. Produced by a respected distiller (Wild Turkey)? Yes. Nice, easy-drinking proof? Yes. This is what you drink when you need a break from barrel-proof juice.
Average Price: $40
Read More: Wild Turkey's Best Bourbon Isn't Called Wild Turkey
The McKenna distillery was established in 1855, founded by the noted Irish immigrant distiller. Seagrams closed the business in the 1970s, and Heaven Hill purchased the brand name in 1994, but no longer uses the original recipe; as Minnick notes in his book, “The original yeast, mashbill, and flavor profile are gone, lost with time.” But one thing the new bottle does have is time: its 10 year age statement makes it one of the older bourbons at this price range. Take heed, though, since it somewhat controversially took home “Best in Show, Whiskey” at a recent San Francisco World Spirits Competition it’s been harder to come by, and more expensive than it used to be.
Average Price: $50 – $75 (price varies store-to-store)
Read More: Should This Affordable Bourbon Really Have Won Whiskey of the Year?
One of the best new whiskeys of 2021, Stellum is a more affordable Barrell Bourbon. It's a cask strength blend created by the blending masters at Barrell Craft Spirits and it is a doozy. It's made up of whiskeys from Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky, with ages ranging from 4 to 16 years old. It's dynamic and well worth the $55 sticker price.
Proof: 115 (varies by bottling)
Average Price: $55
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Luxco’s Old Ezra line could is one of the best kept secrets in whiskey. Bourbon with an age statement and available at barrel strength for a good price? That’s nuts in today’s whiskey world.
Average Price: ~$50
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This bourbon won Whisky Advocate’s whiskey of the year, and Minnick was on the tasting panel. “It was very, very nice bourbon,” he says, wistfully. It has none of the harshness you’d expect from a 133.2 proof bourbon, and doesn’t undergo chill filtering — instead just using light filtration to remove barrel char flakes.
Average Price: $65
You might notice there isn’t a price, tasting notes or distillery information listed on this pick. That’s because Barrell is, at this moment, the best blended of American whiskey there is (they have the trophy case to prove it). Each of its releases makes clear what went into it — distillery location, whiskey age, proof, etc. — and all are worth seeking out. Barrell is a blender, not a distiller, and the flavor mastery of founder Joe Beatrice and master distiller Tripp Stimson have won the old bourbon guard over. “It won my American Whiskey of the Year award [in 2018] in a blind tasting,” Minnick says. “It’s got so much flavor to it, so much complexity — it’s just brilliant whiskey.”
“Are we including bottles that are impossible to find?” Minnick asks. Sure. This treasure from Buffalo Trace’s Antique collection does its namesake a service, representing some of the world’s best wheated bourbon, a style Weller himself pioneered. “If God gave birth to a bourbon child, this is what it would taste like,” Minnick says. “It’s so fucking amazing.”
Average Price: $800+
Bourbon Terms to Know
Bourbon Whiskey: Whiskey produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80 percent alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent of corn and stored at not more than 62.5 percent alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.”
Straight Bourbon Whiskey: “Bourbon whiskey stored in charred new oak containers for two years or more. ‘Straight bourbon whiskey’ may include mixtures of two or more straight bourbon whiskeys provided all the whiskeys are produced in the same state.”
Bottled in Bond: “The spirit must be the product of one distillation season by one distiller at one distillery. It must have been stored in a federally bonded warehouse for at least four years and be bottled at 100 proof. The bottled product’s label must identify the distillery where it was distilled and bottled.”
Sour Mash: A fermentation technique used by almost all bourbon distillers that employs pre-fermented mash from a previous distilling in a new mash. The sour mash prevents wild yeast from entering the mash and causing infections.
Proof: The percentage of alcohol, displayed as double that of the alcohol percentage.
High Rye: A bourbon with a higher than normal percentage of mash bill made up of rye (as opposed to using more corn, wheat, or barley, the other main grains used in bourbon mash). This tends to produce spicier flavors in the bourbon.
Wheated: A bourbon with a higher than normal percentage of mash bill made up of wheat (the main grain remains corn). This tends to produce a softer, less spicy whiskey.
Small Batch: A subjective term signaling a bourbon made using a select number of barrels or recipes in a blended bottling.
Single Barrel: A bourbon made using single barrels, providing a higher range of variation in flavor, and the chance at specific, unique characteristics.
Non-Distiller Producers (NDP): Companies that purchase their whiskey from someone else rather than making it themselves. This is not a new phenomenon and it plays a large role in blended bourbons.
How bourbon is made