There’s no drink so ripe with history and so rich with flavour quite like Bourbon.
And there’s no ‘right’ way to enjoy Bourbon, but there are certainly ways of drinking the liquor that make for a more enjoyable experience.
You don’t have to spend hundreds on fancy bottles to drink excellent Bourbon. In fact, there are some fantastic lesser known bottles hiding in price points that you wouldn’t expect.
Bourbon sales across the world have been steadily on the rise in recent years. A growing appreciation for whiskey amongst millennials has pushed the spirit to the forefront of cocktail culture. And, of course, there are those who’ve known all along how to get the most from America’s favourite spirit.
But it can be difficult to know which brand and bottle are for you. How do you decide between the most popular Bourbons or, ultimately, find the best Bourbon of the year?
The huge variety of brands, distilleries, proofs and ages has made the world of whiskey a fascinating one; albeit slightly challenging if you’re not sure where to start.
No time to go through our entire list? Here are our absolute favourite Bourbons of 2021:
- The overall best Bourbon of 2021: Pappy Van Winkle’s 23 Year Family Reserve (95.6 proof)
- The best value Bourbon of 2021: Old Forester Signature Bourbon (100 proof).
Here’s everything you need to know when buying your next bottle, from the best budget Bourbon to the smoothest Bourbon to drink neat and everything between.
The best Bourbon brands of 2021
- Evan Williams – Best budget Bourbon
- Old Forester – Best value Bourbon
- Four Roses – Best Bourbon under $50
- Woodford Reserve – Best Kentucky Bourbon
- 1792 – Best tasting Bourbon
- Wild Turkey – Best sipping Bourbon
- Blanton’s – Best small batch Bourbon
- Jefferson’s Ocean Bourbon – Best Bourbon to drink neat
- Maker’s Mark – Best Bourbon for an Old Fashioned
- Old Grand Dad – Best Bourbon to mix in a cocktail
- Jim Beam – Best Bourbon to pair with a beer
- Widow Jane – Best Bourbon for the money
- William Larue Weller – Top shelf Bourbon to try at least once
- Michter’s – The most expensive Bourbon
- Pappy Van Winkle – The overall best Bourbon of 2021
If you prefer to read about Bourbon before opening the bottle, jump to our sections below to learn more about Bourbon. Read more about the terms to know when talking about Bourbon or our methodology to select and rank the best Bourbon brands of the year.
The Bourbons chosen for the 2021 guide make up a combination of flavours, ages and proofs to suit every palate.
You’ll find a list of Bourbons including the best Kentucky Bourbon, the best tasting Bourbon and the best small batch Bourbon.
Based on expert knowledge, distillery history, popular opinion and a variety of other factors, you may discover your new favourite Bourbon below.
1. Evan Williams
A solid, unpretentious brand of Bourbon that pleases whiskey novices and experts alike, Evan Williams manages to hit the right spots with a price point accessible for all. The Bourbon was named after Evan Williams who, in 1783, opened Kentucky’s first commercial distillery along the Ohio River.
The brand is widely renowned as one of the world’s best selling and offers well-rounded, medium-bodied spirits with an ABV of 43%.
Despite its budget price, this Bourbon offers a range of aromas and flavours throughout the tasting journey. Expect initial hints of vanilla and mint followed by caramel and brown sugar notes.
Best budget Bourbon: Evan Williams Black Label (86 Proof)
2. Old Forester
The Old Forester brand is more than 150 years old and its signature Bourbon is proof that with time comes expertise. A favourite among bartenders, this Bourbon is made up of 70 percent corn, 18 percent rye and 10 percent malted barley.
With a rich and complex flavour far superior to its price point, Old Forester’s Signature Bourbon has a light finish with hints of apple.
Best value Bourbon: Old Forester Signature Bourbon (100 proof)
3. Four Roses
Four Roses has been around since 1888, making it through the prohibition period before disappearing from shelves for 40 years. Nowadays, the brand is a staple for Bourbon-loving Americans who enjoy it neat or on the rocks for the ultimate experience. It won several taste competitions over the past decade and works well as a versatile spirit.
It comes in at $47.99, narrowly skimming the $50 bracket with no satisfaction spared. It’s just one of Four Roses’ many successful bottles.
With notes of caramel, vanilla, raisins and a hint of charred oak, it’s safe to say that Four Roses’ Single Barrel Bourbon is a crowd-pleaser. This whiskey covers a lot of ground with a floral, spicy, woody and fruity aroma, a medium colour and a lingering finish.
The best Bourbon under $50: Four Roses: Single Barrel Bourbon (100 proof)
4. Woodford Reserve
Woodford Reserve can be bought at various price points but it’s worth paying the extra dollars for an unrivalled taste. Smooth, woody and with quality, it’s made up of a wonderful mellow spice flavour.
The double oak Bourbon brings out vanilla and caramel notes with a smooth start and a slightly sweet finish. As the name suggests, Woodford Reserve distils its Bourbon in Woodford County, Kentucky, in small batches for optimal taste. It’s a sophisticated brand that’s won awards and acclaims internationally.
This innovative approach to ageing whiskey pays off, with a rich and powerful flavour from start to finish. It’s mostly a sweet and aromatic liquor, with notes of chocolate, marzipan, honey and brown sugar. Expect a long-bodied finish with a lingering hint of apple.
Best Kentucky Bourbon: Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (90.4 proof)
Formerly known as “Ridgewood Reserve 1792” and “1792 Ridgemont Reserve”, 1792 is another brand that offers taste beyond its value. This small-batch Bourbon follows an old-school Kentucky recipe with a high rye content. It uses hand-selected barrels for the ageing process and has a smooth flavour to match.
This is a superior Bourbon well worth its money. A winner of many international awards, it features rich butterscotch and caramel flavours with hints of fruit and toffee.
Best tasting Bourbon: 1792 Single Barrel Reserve (93.7 proof)
6. Wild Turkey
Wild Turkey is another premium brand that’s been distilling whiskey for more than 100 years. It’s a brand that knows exactly what’s what when it comes to distilling: its master distiller is Jimmy Russell, the world’s longest-tenured active distiller.
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Revival is the third release in the Master’s Keep series and is a tribute to Jimmy Russell’s years at Wild Turkey.
The higher prices come from the specially-selected Sherry barrels used for finishing and the extra handling during the ageing process. It’s a Bourbon that matches style and complexity.
Master’s Keep Revival is the longest-aged whiskey released by Wild Turkey in the United States. Though subtle on the nose, it’s an enticing Bourbon with a variety of characteristics making it perfect for sipping.
Enjoying this Bourbon is on a par with embarking on a liquid journey; starting with a hint of spice that develops into a sweeter flavour.
It features tastes of cherry pie, raisins and nuts, with an intense finish of tropical fruit. With a 101 proof, it finishes nicely with a subtle aftertaste of spice.
Best sipping Bourbon: Wild Turkey Master’s Keep Revival (101 proof)
Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee released Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon in 1984, at a time when the Bourbon industry appeared to be on a downward slope. But Blanton’s higher-rye mash bill proved a success and the brand has risen from strength to strength over the years.
But while this small-batch Bourbon has changed a few things over time, it’s kept its ‘super premium’ holding and taste. Blanton’s claims that it’s “the original single barrel Bourbon whiskey” and is known for its unique bottle shape.
Keep an eye out for the collector’s set of eight different bottle stoppers, featuring a horse and jockey.
Blanton’s is nothing if not a satisfying whiskey and the Single Barrel Bourbon is an excellent example of just that. It features powerful vanilla notes combined with hints of honey and a nose of spices and nutmeg. It’s another winner of various national competitions.
Best small batch Bourbon: Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon (93 proof)
8. Jefferson’s Ocean Bourbon
Not many Bourbons can say they’ve crossed the seas during the ageing process. What might sound like little more than a marketing gimmick has proven to pave the way for a great tasting whiskey in the form of Jefferson’s Ocean Bourbon.
Each voyage of Jefferson’s Ocean typically crosses the equator four times. Drink it neat while wondering exactly how far your bottle has travelled before it reached you.
This experiment resulted in a thick, dark Bourbon with complex flavours. Jefferson’s believes that temperature fluctuations, salt air and the gentle rocking of the ship all work together to weather a truly fine Bourbon.
Jefferson’s rich amber Bourbon is known for its red apple aroma and dried fruit flavour. But it’s not just fruity flavours that’ll come through: alongside its sea air saltiness comes milky coffee, strong dark chocolate and a hint of bitterness.
Best Bourbon to drink neat: Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea Bourbon (90 proof)
9. Maker’s Mark
An Old Fashioned is traditionally made with Bourbon or rye. But which Bourbon should you choose for the perfect, whiskey-based cocktail? A wheated Bourbon combined with a large dash of bitters will result in a well rounded, spice-heavy Old Fashioned. While a corn-heavy version will balance well with citrus.
Add one sugar cube or ½ tsp. sugar, two dashes of Angostura bitters and garnish with a lemon or orange twist in a sturdy Old Fashioned glass to complete.
Maker’s Mark isn’t as spicy as rye-influenced whiskeys, making it a great Bourbon for a pairing. And don’t be put off by the ‘whisky’ spelling: it uses a process similar to that of Scotch, but that’s where the similarities end.
A rising star in the Bourbon market, Maker’s Mark prides itself on being neither bitter nor sharp, but somewhere comfortably in the middle. It’s a smooth and subtle whiskey with fruity essences throughout.
Best Bourbon for an Old Fashioned: Maker’s Mark Bourbon Whisky (90 proof)
10. Old Grand Dad
A cult Bourbon, Old Grand Dad is not for the faint-hearted. This liquor features an unusually high rye content in the mash, producing a spicy kick. Many enjoy it straight, but its variety of flavours also makes it an ideal Bourbon for cocktails or those dipping their toe into the world of whiskey.
The 114 proof has a complex nose, a velvety sip and a burst of flavour on the tongue. Try it with a traditional Old Fashioned or branch out with a Bourbon Sour or Manhattan for a sensational drink.
Best Bourbon for cocktail: Old Grand Dad 114 Proof Bourbon Whiskey (114 proof)
11. Jim Beam
The Jim Beam distillery has been producing excellent Bourbon since the late 18th Century and has more than a few tricks up its sleeve for creating a range of delicious whiskeys.
A classic and much-loved choice for Bourbon fans, Jim Beam offers the best option for those who want the best of both: whiskey and beer. It’s full-flavoured and one-of-a-kind, with a reliable, easy to drink taste and a smooth and satisfying finish.
Jim Beam was awarded the International Wine & Spirits Competition’s Bourbon Trophy back in 2016 and little has changed since. The Extra Black is an elegant Bourbon with a heavy caramel flavour and a strong nose of oak, cinnamon and vanilla. A crowd-pleaser, it’s a popular choice to pair with a beer.
Best Bourbon to drink with a beer: Jim Beam Black Extra Aged Bourbon Whiskey (86 proof)
12. Widow Jane
A relative newbie on the Bourbon scene, Widow Jane distillery opened in 2012 and is a firm favourite amongst bartenders. Expect a range of delicious liquors aged for 10 years with a taste reminiscent of double that.
Widow Jane gets its name from the water that comes from the Widow Jane Mines in Rosendale, New York. Its 10 year Straight Bourbon has classic Bourbon traits including oak, corn, char and vanilla. A quick nose reveals a traditional, very drinkable Bourbon. It’s a single barrel Bourbon, aged to perfection.
A Bourbon that’s smooth on the tongue with a light numbing on the lips. Widow Jane’s 10 year Straight Bourbon is known for its dry flavour notes; particularly cinnamon, caramel and oak. The barrel ageing also offers a brilliantly smoky feel.
Best Bourbon for the money: Widow Jane 10 year Straight Bourbon (91 proof)
13. William Larue Weller
William Larue Weller annual releases come with a hefty price tag and there’s a reason for that: it’s only a slight exaggeration to call the bottles one-of-a-kind. William Larue Weller (2017 release) was crowned the 2019 World Whisky of the Year as part of Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection. It’s matured for a maximum of 14 years, but don’t let that put you off.
These bottles regularly sell out as soon as they hit the market. “Spicy” and “Caramel” are the two most prominent notes you’ll enjoy from a bottle of William Larue Weller.
Don’t let the price tag scare you; this is a Bourbon to be enjoyed as a one-off and it’ll likely take a place of pride in your house once you’ve sampled it. This whiskey is hard to come by, so aim to get your hands on the 2015, 2016 or 2017 release.
Top shelf Bourbon you need to try at least once in your life: William Larue Weller (121.9 proof)
Good things come to those who wait and a perfect example of that is Michter’s Bourbon. Michter’s has been distilling whiskey since 1753 and offers some of the finest small-batch and single barrel Bourbons around.
Its Celebration Sour Mash retails (when it can be found) for anything between $3,690 -$5,000 per bottle. This Bourbon is nothing short of a collector’s item and the 2019 release consisted of only 277 bottles.
The ultra-premium Kentucky Bourbon features a cascade of flavours ranging from dark chocolate truffle to cloves and pineapple. The 2019 Release of Michter’s Celebration was blended by Dan McKee’s, the latest Master Distiller of Michter’s.
Some of the blended elements featured are aged for more than 30 years, resulting in a truly premium, yet lesser-spotted drink. To finish, the mixture is hand-bottled and comes with an 18 karat gold lettering labelled boxed.
The most expensive Bourbon: Michter’s Celebration Sour Mash (115.6 proof)
15. Pappy Van Winkle
Considered by many to be the world’s finest Bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle’s Bourbons are so rare and so popular that there’s even a term for finding a bottle: “Pappy hunting”. But the challenge of sourcing a bottle – or paying around $100 for a pour in a bar – is worth the hype.
The sweetness and finish of this Bourbon is often regarded as being superior to any other Bourbon on the market. With an average price of around $2500 a bottle, it’s certainly not cheap, but the range of (mostly dark) flavours and aromas means you’ll want to savour its uniqueness.
The overall best Bourbon of 2021: Pappy Van Winkle’s 23 Year Family Reserve (95.6 proof)
What’s special about Bourbon?
This much-loved spirit has a distinct flavour profile and a history to match. The time, care, dedication and craftsmanship that goes into Bourbon makes it quite unlike anything else you’ll spot in the liquor cupboard. In 1964, Congress even declared Bourbon “America’s Native Spirit”.
Kentucky, the birthplace of Bourbon, produces 95 percent of the world’s Bourbon supply. Unlike other spirits, a company can’t just call their liquor “Bourbon” unless it fulfils every one of the requirements. Its strict production process ensures a smooth and successful drink.
How Bourbon is made
Before the process is started, a distiller must first determine the mash bill: the exact makeup of grains from which the whiskey is made. To qualify as Bourbon, the grains must feature at least 51% corn. Then, a combination of rye, wheat and malted barley can also be added.
The grains are coarsely ground and added to water. The mixture is then heated, to break down the structure of the grains, which produces fermentable sugars.
The next step differentiates Bourbon from whiskey. The mixture is pumped into a fermentation vat with yeast and, commonly, a sour mash mix. The mash is then distilled – mostly twice – to remove impurities and increase the strength of the liquid.
Arguably, the most crucial step of the Bourbon production process comes next: the ageing. Whiskey must be aged for at least two years before it can be called “straight whiskey”. A spirit distilled for a shorter period of time is known as “white dog” and has a paler, almost clear colouring and a sharp flavour.
And let’s not forget the oak casks: the oak used is first stripped and left to weather for six months. This process removes the bitter tannins, allowing for a smoother flavour once the mixture has been added.
Then, the barrels are charred, offering a smoky environment that almost caramelises the liquid. The standard barrel size is 263 litres and weighs 225 kilos when full.
What’s the difference between Bourbon and Whiskey?
As the saying goes, “All Bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is Bourbon.” But there’s more to it than just semantics. If you’re a whiskey (and especially Bourbon) drinker, you need to know the differences.
Whiskey is a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash (wheat, rye, barley, and corn) and then aged in wooden barrels.
However, to be called a Bourbon, it must also be produced in the United States and be made from 51 percent corn. The liquid needs to be distilled to no more than 160 proof and entered into the barrel at 125 proof. It must not contain any added flavouring, colouring or other additives and must be aged in new, oak-charred barrels.
It’s easy to get lost down the rabbit hole of Bourbon technicalities and terminologies. For the sake of focusing on the important bits – which Bourbon we recommend buying or drinking for every occasion – you’ll find the common terminology further down.
Terminology: The terms to know when talking about Bourbon
There are different types of bourbon on the market, depending on how they’re made. Single barrel bourbon, sweet or rare. Learn more about the terms and distillery processes to understand what goes into making a delicious bottle.
Age/Age Statement: Though not required, many distilleries display their whiskey offerings with the amount of time they’ve spent ageing. Generally, the more years the liquor has spent in its barrels, the better – although there are some exceptions.
Barrel: Whiskey is distilled in oak barrels or casks in order to impart the most flavour into the liquid. These barrels are charred on the inside for maximum flavour and smokey notes.
Blend: Some whiskey experts may disregard blended whiskey while many others consider it an art. Blended whiskey combines multiple other whiskeys alongside neutral grains, flavourings and colourings.
Bottled-In-Bond: The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 identifies one class of spirits based upon a specific set of requirements. They must be distilled in their entirety by a single distiller in a single American distillery within the course of a year. After that, they must age for four years in a state-owned warehouse and be bottled at 100% proof/50 ABV.
Distillation: A process where liquid is heated and cooled for purity. For whiskey specifically, this is the part of the process where any existing alcohol created during fermentation is removed.
Mash/Mash Bill: The ratio and mixture of grains used to produce whiskey. This differs between distillers and many distillers stick to one specific ratio to produce their offerings.
Proof: Another term for measuring the alcoholic content of a beverage. The proof is double the alcohol by volume (ABV) measurement.
Small-Batch: There are no legally-defined parameters as to what “small-batch” actually means. However, it’s the term used for whiskey that’s been produced in select numbers, on a limited basis.
Sour Mash: The most common mixture of crushed malt and grain meal, “sour mash” means adding some of the already used mash into a fresh batch for fermentation.
Our methodology to select and rank the best Bourbon brands in the world
To help us rank the best Bourbons in the world, we looked at a number of different factors including the proof, age and price.
The proof: While the general consensus is that a higher proof (or ABV) number results in a “better” whiskey, this isn’t always the case. A lower proof may be more successful in cocktails while a higher proof could be enjoyed more on the rocks.
The ageing process: Similar to the above, many will assume that the longer the ageing process, the better the Bourbon. But some brands have thrown caution to the wind and either removed their age banner from their bottles or have reduced the length of time their Bourbon matures for.
The price: It’s understandable that you’d rather spend more money on a whiskey to sip rather than one to mix into cocktails or an Old Fashioned. So, while it wasn’t as important a factor as the above, cost was something taken into account when putting together this list.
Frequently asked questions about Bourbon
With a rich, caramel mouthful, Angel’s Envy Bourbon could be considered the smoothest Bourbon all round. Expect a hint of velvety port combined with notes of vanilla, spices and rye. These subtle characteristics leave a pleasant flavour and aroma with a delicately smooth taste.
Elijah Craig’s 23-Year-Old Single Barrel is a firm favourite among Bourbon lovers thanks to its toasty, buttery flavour. Elijah Craig 23-Year is crafted using local Kentucky corn and grains and offers a sophisticated experience for the tastebuds. It might be a little more expensive, but the cost is justified.
With an easy-to-sip flavour and trademark spicy finish, Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is nothing if not artfully aged. This Bourbon comes with rich hints of peppermint, notes of pepper, hints of a citrus overtone and warming finish. It’s a small-batch Bourbon designed to be enjoyed straight.
Coming in at around $30.99 for a 750ml bottle, Bulleit Bourbon is nothing if not price savvy. Its high rye content offers a premium feel matched with hints of maple, oak and nutmeg. Expect an oaky aroma, a clean finish and a flavour profile that’ll linger long after your final sip.
The most expensive bourbon in the world today is a bottle of Michter’s Sour Mash Whiskey Celebration. It costs over $5,150 per bottle. The ultra-premium Kentucky Bourbon features a cascade of flavours ranging from dark chocolate truffle to cloves and pineapple. The 2019 Release of Michter’s Celebration was blended by Dan McKee’s, the latest Master Distiller of Michter’s.