There’s a lot of Bourbon out there.
Which is actually a good thing. If you’re new to Bourbon, you may not be aware of the nuances between different producers, product lines and finishes (which isn’t technically Bourbon anymore, but we’ll include it since it’s so close). But while this gives us a lot of options, it makes the world of this delicious spirit a bit difficult to navigate. It’s tough to know where to get started.
If you want to know a bit more about Bourbon in general, be sure to read our Whiskey 101: American Whiskeys guide. This is a great place to get a basic understanding of the differences between the main categories of whiskey produced in the United States. Otherwise, read on to get our beginner bottle recommendations.
It’s important that we make mention of how we decided to approach this list. As there are hundreds (if not thousands) of incredible bourbons out there, it’s difficult to recommend to our readers without whittling the possibilities down. We used the following criteria to select these bottles:
- They have to be widely available. Sure, we could put Weller Antique on the list because it’s incredible and relatively cheap (MSRP-wise), but it’s allocated – so chances are it’s gonna be way harder to find than others. And potentially expensive, given the rarity.
- They have to be $100 or under. Could we suggest expensive bottles? Sure…but the best way to appreciate the really high end products is to get a basic understanding of profiles. The last thing we want is for someone to burn hundreds of dollars on a premium bottle and not see how much character it might have opposed to others. We feel those fancy bottles should wait til later, when you have a more seasoned palate.
- They should vary a bit. While we like both Wild Turkey 101 and Evan Williams Bottled-In-Bond, we have to choose one winner in that lineup – and then move onto the next category. These levels should help showcase distinct flavors and varieties (and sometimes price range). We will provide alternates for each category, in the event that the bottles are not available in your area.
The Flagship Category: Buffalo Trace
What’s a ‘flagship’ bottle? It’s an iconic bottle that a distillery is known for– and there are a good number of distilleries that have a flagship bottle. They’re mass-produced and usually give an indicator of a base recipe or flavor profile. Starting here makes sense, because they’re typically easy to find. Additionally, they can give hints to a distillery’s base flavor profile – at least for one of their mash bills (mash bills are the grain ingredients used to make a whiskey). Often, large-scale producers don’t have more than five or so mash bills, so this is a great way to introduce yourself to their taste and brand.
For the flagship bottle we would recommend Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon. It’s the quintessential balance between sweet and spicy. And those sweet notes won’t disappoint; caramel, vanilla, apple and a touch of honey. Pick this bottle up to get started.
Though we believe this is the best flagship bottle you can get, here are some others that will do just fine:
Note: we cheated a bit on Evan Williams here…the actual flagship bottle is called Evan Williams Black Label. Which is okay…but for the price, you’re better off getting Bottled-in-Bond. Because it’s just that much better.
Four Roses Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond and Wild Turkey 101 are all excellent options if Buffalo Trace is unavailable near you. It’s widely distributed, but in some select markets it’s actually allocated. At least one of these alternatives should be available.
All of these bottles should run less than $30, some of which are sub $20, which is a tremendous value.
The Wheated Category: Maker’s Mark
You may be thinking “this is a low-shelf bottle, right? I’ve seen this one before” and you’d be right. Maker’s Mark is actually another flagship bottle, but we decided to separate this one out. Why? Because it’s what’s called a “wheated” Bourbon. Let’s talk about that for a minute.
The majority of Bourbons are made with rye in their mash bill (remember, mash bill is just the grain ingredients used to make a whiskey). All the bottles in our flagship bottle category are made with rye. This bottle is part of the minority…it replaces the rye with wheat instead. Why is that important? Because it imparts a lot of different flavors to the Bourbon and kind of smooths out the ‘bite’ or ‘spice’ of the rye profile.
But you like rye Bourbons. Why jump into this category? Well, let’s use this analogy: If rye Bourbon is a Camaro, then wheated Bourbon is a Mustang. They’re both really cool and fast Muscle Cars, and are incredible in their own right. So if you could try out both cars…you might as well! Some of the most sought-after Bourbon bottles are wheaters (ever heard of Pappy Van Winkle? If you haven’t – you will eventually).
We chose Maker’s Mark because it’s a great introduction to the wheated Bourbon category. It’s smooth, it’s sweet and very well balanced. As I mentioned, some great wheaters are out there, but they are usually expensive because people are buying them up – which makes them allocated. So start here, and then see if you are ready to take it to the next level.
You should have no problem at all finding this bottle, basically in any state. But we’ll list some alternative wheaters here:
Larceny Small Batch, Redemption Wheated Bourbon and Old Elk Wheated Bourbon are all excellent alternatives. Most of these will also be simple to find, but Redemption and Old Elk may only be distributed in certain states, so go to their websites and see if you can grab it locally. Most should run less than $50, with Old Elk being the only one in the $60 range.
The ‘Deep Notes’ Category: Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
This category is going to bring a little bit more ‘oomph’ in the flavor category (and for some, in the proof). What do we mean by deep notes? Well, the Bourbon categories we’ve mentioned before are just fine, but they’re not going to impart a whole lot of what we might consider ‘deep notes’ – cherry, chocolate, pecan, coffee, etc. Further, these bottles have a bit more aging with some of them being ‘double oaked’. This just means that they have spent time aging in a new, charred oak barrel and then were transferred to a new charred oak barrel to age for a bit longer. This basically is like ‘double dipping’ the new make spirit into the freshest char possible. Which, as you can imagine, can really up that flavor profile.
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked is rich in flavors like oak, cherry, toffee – with hints of chocolate and baking spice all around. If you’re just starting out and want to taste something that will really ‘wow’ the palate, this should be a standard bottle for your home bar. Taste this one side-by-side with one of the flagship bottles. We’re certain you’ll notice some pretty big differences between the two. After all, this is the fun in drinking Bourbons – pulling out nuances and finding out what makes each particular bottle unique and special. This bottle should be a bit more expensive, but nowhere near breaking the bank in the $50-$60 range. It’s an excellent value and a great one to sip on from time to time.
This bottle is widely available as well, but let’s talk alternatives for the ‘deep notes’ category. If you can’t find Double Oaked in your local store or if you’d like to try something else, keep an eye out for one of these:
For the alternatives on this category, we have Old Forester 1920, 1792 Full Proof and Elijah Craig Barrel Proof. Mind you, these are going to go up in proof – all of them. That means that they’re going to have a bit more heat, so be ready for that. But of course this isn’t a bad thing! It just means that you’re getting a less watered down version of them. In all of these, you should be able to detect a bit deeper notes. Take the first sip and let it coat your mouth before swallowing it down. That first sip won’t tell you too much, so focus on the second sip (this is after your palate is accustomed to the proof). It will reveal so much more. And don’t forget to try a few drops of water in these high proof options to see how it changes the profile – it can make a big difference!
These bottles should run you anywhere from the $50-$75 range and are easily the most expensive category we’ve covered here. But these are still a great value for the amount of flavor and character you’re going to get. It will definitely help illustrate the range that Bourbon has as a whiskey category, which will help you understand the entire playing field a bit more.
Go forth and learn – responsibly.
For these purposes, we want to sip on the bottles to understand the nuance. Trust us, you’ll end up understanding what makes each so special and unique if you savor all the bottles we mentioned–even if they’re considered bottom shelf. Take one from each category and see if you can detect differences from bottle to bottle. What notes are you getting in Woodford Reserve Double Oaked that you just don’t get in Buffalo Trace? What’s similar about them? It may be hard to detect the difference of Buffalo Trace vs. Maker’s Mark at first, but as you get to tasting, they’ll reveal themselves. Be patient!
But most importantly, have fun and drink responsibly. Cheers, friends!