What Are the Best Bourbons on the Market?
Bourbon is a uniquely American whiskey, with a look and flavor that suggests refinement and gracefulness. Congress even declared bourbon a "distinctive product of the United States" in a 1964 resolution. Legally, the name bourbon can only refer to a type of whiskey that originates in the United States and that is made with certain specifications, much in the same way true champagne only comes from the Champagne region in France.
When you’re looking to try different varieties of bourbon, you’ll find various brands at multiple price points. But no matter what your budget is, you can find a bourbon that will suit your taste buds. Use this primer to learn what bourbon is and take a look at the best bourbons for your wallet.
What Exactly Is Bourbon?
Bourbon isn’t just any American whiskey. Manufacturers can make bourbon anywhere in the United States, but most consumers associate bourbon with the South, and especially Kentucky. There are specific legal requirements that a whiskey needs to adhere to to be considered bourbon. Bourbon must be made in the United States and have at least 51% corn in its grain mixture. It must be aged in new containers made of charred oak.
You'll notice that many bourbons are labeled "bottled in bond." This means that the liquor has been aged and bottled according to provisions and standards set forth in the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. Essentially, this means bourbons bearing this label were produced during one distilling season by one distiller at one distillery — they're not made of blends of whiskies from different distilleries or seasons. This originally was a guarantee of the bourbon's authenticity and quality.
The alcohol content of bourbon has its own specifications. When it’s distilled, bourbon must contain no more than 80% alcohol, meaning 160 proof, and when the liquid goes into the container for aging, it must be no more than 125 proof, which is 62.5% alcohol by volume. Finally, when it goes into the bottle, the bourbon must contain at least 40% alcohol by volume, meaning it's 80 proof.
Best Bargain Bourbon: Early Times Bottled-in-Bond
If you’re new to bourbon or you’re on a tighter budget, you can’t go wrong with a bottle of Early Times Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon, which retails for around $25 for a liter bottle. This affordable bourbon blends hints of vanilla, caramel and citrus flavor with a peppery heat at the finish.
Early Times Bottled-in-Bond adds something special to cocktails, but it also tastes nice if you drink it neat (by itself). It’s a smooth, classic bourbon, and at this price, you can buy it for your own enjoyment or for gifting. This is also a great entry-level option if you're looking to start refining your bourbon palate but don't know much about the drink.
Best Budget Bourbon: Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight
Buffalo Trace is a nice straight bourbon that sells at an affordable price of around $30 for a liter. A straight bourbon doesn’t have any other spirits added to it, and Buffalo Trace provides that unmistakable bourbon flavor with every swallow. Buffalo Trace is hearty yet smooth, and both new and seasoned bourbon drinkers will enjoy the subtleties of its aroma and flavor.
You’ll notice notes of dried fruit and black pepper, as well as spiciness, in this liquor. It also boasts a buttery, caramel-like flavor, and you might also pick up some notes of mint. Fans of this bourbon report that it's a great "daily drinker" because it's affordable but still has a robust flavor they don't tire of.
Best Mid-Range Bourbon: Elijah Craig Small Batch Barrel Proof
One of the legends about the invention of bourbon tells the story of Elijah Craig, a Baptist pastor who supposedly was the first distiller to age his whiskey in charred oak barrels. Craig’s story is probably a myth, but the bourbon that bears his name is a worthy addition if you're in the market for something on the higher end of the bourbon price scale.
At around $78 for a bottle, Elijah Craig is higher in price, but it’s also higher in alcohol content — although the proof fluctuates depending on the batch. Sweet caramel and butterscotch notes give this bourbon smoothness, while the spices pack a punch. If you’re willing to spring for a more expensive bourbon, Elijah Craig is worth the money.
Best Higher-End Bourbon: Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond
If you’re willing to spend $200 for a bottle of bourbon, chances are you’ll find it with Old Fitzgerald 16-Year-Old Bottled in Bond. This is a special bourbon with a complex flavor profile that’s subtle and smooth. It’s also on the higher end of the scale of alcohol by volume at 100 proof, so remember to take care when you consume it.
Whether you consider an expensive bourbon a status symbol or an investment, you can’t go wrong with Old Fitzgerald 16-Year-Old Bottled in Bond. Its complex flavors will delight even the most serious bourbon drinkers, and the 1950s-style "diamond" decanter will look great on the shelf of any home bar.