Bourbon whiskey is no secretive spirit. Just ask any fellow legal-aged drinker and they’ll dispel — either positive or negative — on how college-aged shot-for-shot evenings at the local watering hole eventually transpired into sipping sessions by a warm fire because “you don’t shoot fine bourbon.” Conversely, non-believer “I don’t touch the stuff” statements are just as common from those who never quite made the shot-to-sip transition. These are the folks who associate the spirit with more of a revengeful hangover than a refined and delicate warming embrace. A tragic reality, but hey, we’re not here to judge. Just enlighten.
And enlighten we shall. For the time has come to say so long to what’s in the well and start exploring what’s on-call directly in front of your nose. Or, dare we say, what lies above on the top shelf. That’s because bourbon, like a fine single malt or wine, is a journey worth exploring. Opening with the nose and closing out with the back palate, the entire process may only take a few seconds. But for those few savory moments, we’re transported back in time to when the expression was first distilled, then aged, matured, and cut prior to arriving at its journey’s end — your glass. The American spirit has come a long way and passed through judgment, testing, and in some cases up to two decades or more of maturation. And perhaps that very characteristic is what’s cherished most about the spirit. In a world of on-demand convenience, fine bourbon is in absolutely no rush at all. Maybe there’s something we can take away from that reality.
History And Federal Regulations
Let’s start with the basics. And the basics begin here: All bourbon is whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon. Meaning, bourbon is the one variant that’s uniquely American through and through, with production dating back centuries to the very foundation of America — before Prohibition-era speakeasy lounges, organized crime, and Tommy-Gun-fueled police pursuits. From here, we saw the production of American whiskey take full advantage of our nation’s climate, agriculture, and entrepreneurial sense of adventure. Unofficially, it’s believed the first bourbon whiskey was distilled in the late 18th century by the Samuels family (whose youngest heir now runs Maker’s Mark) but skeptics have voiced their concern since the Samuels Family hadn’t begun to produce commercially sold bourbon until the mid 19th century. Unofficially, it’s believed the first bourbon whiskey was distilled in the late 18th century.
Instead, some believe the Even Williams distillery, established along the banks of the Ohio River in the late 18th century, led the way for more modern takes on the spirit. It was just a few years later when Bourbon Country, Kentucky was officiated and then Mister Elijah Craig himself broke new ground when he started aging corn whiskey in oak barrels. Mr. Craig then proceeded to open a little distillery in Georgetown, KY to capture the new method. Now, Heaven Hill distillery is one of the few titans of the bourbon industry — standing alongside Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey, and Brown-Forman among others today.
So, what is bourbon if not standard American whiskey? Well, thanks to a federal decree passed in 1964, we can summarize the legal definition of bourbon whiskey in a few short sentences.
What Is Bourbon?
According to the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, bourbon must:
- Host a grain bill that’s at least 51% corn.
- Be produced at no more than 160 proof (80% ABV).
- Be stored in new charred oak barrels for at least four years at no more than 125 proof (62.5 % ABV).
- Be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40% ABV).
- Be made in the United States.
These are the tenets by which all bourbon distillers must adhere. For any deviation from the aforementioned mandates results in a spirit that shall not be labeled as bourbon. We’ve also seen more specific rules come into play over the years as well. Namely, that bourbon cannot be artificially flavored or enhanced with coloring — a key reason why Jack Daniels is labeled as a Tennessee whiskey and not a proper bourbon. Also, some bourbon devotees suggest if the spirit doesn’t come from Bourbon County, KY and utilize Kentucky limestone water in the distilling process then it isn’t bourbon. The federal government doesn’t recognize such strict standards so we’ll leave that tidbit to float in the realm of subjectivity for the time being. Bourbon cannot be artificially flavored or enhanced with coloring — a key reason why Jack Daniels is labeled as a Tennessee whiskey and not a proper bourbon.
What is worth noting, however, is understanding where your bourbon originates. Meaning, from which distiller is the raw spirit first distilled prior to shipment. It’s a key characteristic to understand because odds are that small boutique bourbon brand is selling you a label that’s been well-designed and printed on a bottle of bourbon they sourced from one of the big players mentioned above. There’s also the different variants to consider: bottled in bond, straight, cask strength, barrel proof, etcetera. More which is expanded upon below.
Know The Industry
Knowing how to read a whiskey label is almost, if not more important, than knowing how to enjoy the spirit. That’s because, for novices or even apathetic drinkers out there, it’s easy to be fooled by what’s outlined on the label. Seeing how there’s a certain lexicon to consider, we’ve gone ahead and outlined some key terms to reference when either ordering or purchasing a bottle at the package store.
Bourbon Glossary: Key Terms To Know
Straight Bourbon Whiskey: Bourbon that’s stored in charred new oak barrels for at least two years. These can also include blends of other straight bourbons as well (much like the rules for what constitutes a single malt) as long as each batch comes from same-state distilleries.
Sour Mash: An industry technique that pulls mash bills from previous distillations into the new mash to prevent unwanted yeast strains from infecting the new batch.
Proof: A number used to reference the amount of alcohol present in the whiskey. Found by doubling the ABV percentage.
Bottled In Bond: An old federal regulation that mandated bourbon must be the product of a single distillation by a single distiller at a single distillery. The whiskey must then be stored at a federally-bonded warehouse (hence the name) for at least four years and bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV). From here, the label must also identify the distillery where the distillation process took place.
Small Batch: A term used to specify the bourbon was made via an exclusive number of barrels and/or recipes in a blended bottling. Typically reserved for special variations of larger brands.
Non-Distiller Producers: Referenced earlier, these are the companies that purchase the whiskey from actual distillers and blend accordingly for individual branding.
Single Barrel: As the name might suggest, single barrel bourbons are aged using single barrels that work to impart a greater range of variations in nose, palate, and finish.
These days, the words “small batch” and “single barrel” are growing more and more common across new players in the whiskey industry as well as iconic legacy brands. That’s partially due to the surge in bourbon’s popularity throughout the mid-aughts when hip whiskey bars, mid-century-theme cocktail lounges, and storied whiskey cocktails — here’s to you Old Fashioned — resurfaced into the millennial and Gen Z nightlife scene like a bad meme. And frankly, we’ve only just begun. Whiskey, like beer, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Likewise, we should continue to embrace what the market delivers for our enjoyment. Because there’s no real relaxation quite like an American bourbon-based cocktail after a hard day’s work.
Not including one of the most iconic bourbons of all time in any whiskey list is downright blasphemous in our opinion. Buffalo Trace, the powerhouse distillery of the modern era, knows bourbon. And with their flagship product available in just about every package store under the sun, it’s impossible to ignore. Each batch is made with healthy proportions of rye, barley, and corn in a magnificent manner that imparts notes of caramel, honey, citrus, and mint on the nose with mellow toffee, brown sugar, and rye on the palate. It leaves you with an oaky finish that’s quintessentially on-brand.
Tasting Notes: Toffee, Brown Sugar, Rye
WL Weller 12 Year
One trait you don’t typically find with bourbon is a wheated grain bill. Typically, corn and rye reign supreme with variations leaning one way or another between those two variables. Not with W.L. Weller, however. In fact, they were the first to offer a bourbon with wheat as the flavor grain in the bill as opposed to rye. And we’ll be honest, the result is fantastic. This small batch bourbon hosts a taste that’s dry, complex, and toasty — imparting notes of cocoa dust and delicate spices followed by the obvious touch of wheat, cedar, and a nutty finish that work in harmony to take the edge off after a long day.
Style: Small Batch
Tasting Notes: Cocoa Dust, Soft Spices, Wheat, Cedar, Nuts
Four Roses Single Barrel
Straight from Lawrenceburg, KY comes one of the smoothest yet full-bodied bourbons around for the “under $50” price point. Odds are you’re already familiar with Four Roses in some regards, so it would certainly behoove you to give their single barrel try. Again, all the blending we know and love about Four Roses is still intact, the distillery just opted for a more refined model this go-around. Here, enjoy complex notes ripe plum and cherry that give way to fruity and spicy aromas, yielding a discoverable palate full of rich vanilla, more spice, and floral notes.
Style: Single Barrel
Tasting Notes: Ripe Plum, Cherry, Spices, Herbs, Cocoa
King’s County Bottled in Bond Straight Bourbon
For the most part, Bottled-In-Bond is a sign of trust between the distiller and the consumer that everything you see before you took place on a single location during one season. A merit-badge if you will, this certification of sorts ensures that you’re consuming exactly what’s outlined on the bottle. Gimmick-free in this regard, King’s County is just that, aged for four years, bottled at 100 proof, and distilled and aged on-site. So, if purity is your preference for bourbon, there’s not a whole lot out there that can match the aesthetics and composition of this particular expression.
Style: Straight, Bottled in Bond
Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Caramel, Deep Molasses, Cinnamon
Balcones Baby Blue Whiskey
What some would consider sacrilegious, we consider audacious. That’s because Balcones not only operates outside of the Kentucky “bourbon belt” in the Lone Star State but they use roasted blue corn in their mash bill. Now, while that might have purists up in arms, we suggest giving Baby Blue a try as we’re betting you’ll find the expression pleasantly surprising. We’re talking a palate full of tropical fruit, brown sugar, sweet tea, smoked chilis, and cotton candy of all things. Yes, you read that correctly. A true award-winning original from the Texas backcountry, what’s more American than that?
Style: Small Batch
Tasting Notes: Dark Caramel, Baked Apple, Spices, Salted Butter
1792 Full Proof Bourbon
As the 2018 winner of the World’s Best Bourbon at the World Whiskies Awards, 1792 Full Proof is a force to be reckoned with. It’s a small batch bourbon hailing from Kentucky and is both curiously strong and full of flavor. Incredibly deep tasting notes peppered with just the right amount of smoky elements yield a little something special for everyone to enjoy. Additionally, we can’t neglect the fact that this expression offers up delicately balanced notes of sweet vanilla and caramel to help level out the 125 entry proof. Not the most prevalent bourbon around, but right on the money price-wise. If you see it, best make the small investment.
Style: Small Batch
Tasting Notes: Sweet Vanilla, Caramel, Smoke
Colonel E.H Taylor Bottled In Bond
From the respected and formidable Buffalo Trace distillery comes a two-for-one small batch and bottled-in-bond special. Doesn’t hurt that it’s a Colonel E.H. Taylor either. Typically, we see bottled in bond whiskeys found on the lower end of the totem poll mainly due to the cost and regulation involved to produce them. Not here, for this fine expression hosts the prized tasting notes of caramel, sweet corn, butterscotch, and just the right amount of licorice. As for the finish, how about some subtle pepper and tobacco to help bring out your inner southern aristocrat at the next garden party.
Style: Straight, Bottled in Bond
Tasting Notes: Caramel Corn, Butterscotch, Licorice, Pepper, Tobacco
Wild Turkey Rare Breed
Take everything you thought you knew about Wild Turkey and chuck it by the wayside. In true “shot to sip” transition, Wild Turkey Rare Breed is a prized fowl of a bourbon, to say the least. Perhaps it’s their attempt to break into the more refined market, or it’s the result of sheer experimentation by the Russell family. Whatever the case may be, this is a damn fine small batch features blends of six, eight, and 12-year expressions that work to impart notes of oranges, mint, and tobacco with a respectable nutty finish for good measure. Not your college bar’s bourbon that’s for sure.
Style: Small Batch
Tasting Notes: Orange, Mint, Tobacco
Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style
Prohibition was a tough era for bourbon but we don’t have to tell you that. What is notable about the time period, however, is how the methods of distribution via American mobsters and corrupt politicians actually paved the way for modern — and legal — distribution logistics once alcohol was legalized once again in 1933. A bit of a history lesson, yes, but we hope that sheds some light on Old Forester’s intentions with this Prohibition Style bourbon. Here, we have a 155 proof expression that pays homage to the era and hosts a flavorful palate complete with notes of caramel, cinnamon, toffee, dark chocolate, and cherry. It’s probably being enjoyed at a speakeasy-influenced bar near you.
Tasting Notes: Cinnamon, Caramel, Dark Chocolate, Toffee, Cherry
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
Yet another notable brand that’s worthy of the home bar, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof hosts just the right balance of fury and tranquility in its profile to keep things interesting without overpowering the senses. It’s all thanks to notes of caramel, vanilla, and butterscotch in conjunction with black pepper and cinnamon making their presence known on the back of the palate. And to wrap things up, welcome notes of spearmint linger through the very end. Certainly a bourbon worth getting your hands on.
Style: Small Batch
Tasting Notes: Caramel, Vanilla, Butterscotch, Black Pepper, Cinnamon
As far as elegant displays are concerned, few affordable bourbons out there can top what Blanton’s has going for them. Plus, it also doesn’t hurt that the bourbon itself matches the tasteful vessel in which it’s displayed. Here, we have a small batch version of their standard seller — distilled from a mash bill of corn, rye, and malted barley that is properly aged to help impart a complex palate with pleasant top notes, chewy oak, stone fruits, and deep spices prior to a finish characterized by toffee and more spice. Best enjoyed both neat and on the rocks.
Style: Single Barrel
Tasting Notes: Chewy Oak, Dark Fruit, Spices, Pepper
George T. Stagg
If you can find it and have the funds to support the impulse buy, George T. Stagg is one of those accessible yet bucket-list bourbons to keep at home and slowly enjoy when the time is right. In fact, we’d be fooling ourselves if we didn’t categorize this fine spirit under a borderline celebratory status. Be careful though, cause Mr. Stagg doesn’t mess around. Underneath the notable ABV, however, rests the pleasant undertones of caramel, tobacco, and vanilla that, dare we say, make Mr. Stagg a complementary element to a fine cigar. Best served with a few drops of distilled water to help bring everything together.
Tasting Notes: Caramel, Tobacco, Vanilla
The Bucket List
Every bourbon list deserves a few high-ticket items. Lofty aspirational goals to help motivate and keep us honed-in on what’s possible. Call them status symbols, merits of hard work and sacrifice, or just damn-fine and well-respected bourbons. One thing’s for certain though, they’re rare as can be and will cost a pretty penny. As if it wasn’t already rare enough to find bourbon aged more than 15 years, these players had to go and up the ante per small batch release. A 16 and two 20-year expressions from Black Maple Hill, Michter’s and Old Rip Van Winkle act as harbingers of the limited supply yet heightened demand for a bourbon aged to perfection — the story of Pappy Van Winkle is a premier example of such. Regardless, if there’s a special occasion bourbon out there for momentous lifetime occurrences, these are it. Enjoy sparingly you may, but enjoy you most certainly will.
The 15 Best American Whiskey Distilleries
Need to take a road trip to see the entire process for yourself? Be sure to start prospecting with on one of the best American whiskey distilleries to help narrow down your search.