As whiskey fans, we certainly enjoy a fine libation from time to time but nothing makes us cringe more than heading out after a long day at the office only to witness uninformed bar patrons slugging down shots of subpar, imitation bourbon. Just thinking about it actually gives us a pounding headache. Unfortunately one of the reasons for this common mistake comes from the misconception that good bourbon is expensive and pretentious. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Bourbon is an American pastime, dating back to the mid 19th Century, and tradition mandates an appreciation of the spirit, not a pickle back.
Now this doesn’t mean a purchase of Pappy Van Wrinkle and a maxed-out credit card is needed to act in accordance with the American tradition of whiskey sippin’, there are a plethora of amazing options out there that more than satiate the pangs for a sweet and smooth bourbon that works well neat, on-the-rocks, or as a foundational element for a favorite cocktail. They range from single barrel to blends to Kentucky distilled to nuanced takes on an old recipe. The options are abundant, as are the experiences and stories that inevitably follow each pour. Yarns are spun, friends acquired, history made; this is the magic of a good bourbon.
Clearly, there’s more to this whiskey than the whiskey itself. “You are what you drink” is an honest idiom. Good bourbon simply serves as a conduit for good people. We meet, greet, gather together in celebration and in memoriam of friends and family past, present, and future; a worthy ritual far-forgotten at the bottom of a shot glass. So, in this tradition, ditch the chasers, give your stomach a break, and check out these best bourbons under $100. Time to break away from the house whiskey.
W.L. Weller Special Reserve
Pouring burnt orange and offering aromas of caramel that pair quite well with the honey, butterscotch and a touch of oak, W.L. Weller substitutes wheat for rye in this special reserve series. These smooth characteristics make it ideal for sipping or mixing into a favorite cocktail. On the backend of the palate and the finish, smooth honeysuckle comes forward alluding to warm southern nights; the way bourbon is supposed to taste.
Four Roses Single Barrel
A highly-regard bourbon for the taking, Four Roses Single Barrel is distinctly fruity thanks to aromas of honey and maple syrup, peppered with baking spices to boot. Drinkers have described the first sip as a ‘flavor burst’ thanks to a heavy rye forward palate followed by honey, peaches, and brown sugar, all wrapped up in a nice oaky blanket. It only makes sense then that Four Roses delivers a lingering finish each and every time.
Elijah Craig Small Batch 12 Year
The story of Elijah Craig is one of accidental discovery when his Virginia warehouse caught fire. He decided to continue using the burned, charred oak casks and found that they left an interesting profile on the aged whiskey. This 12-year bourbon follows suit with a toasty oak nose and spiced apple profile. The finish is a decent length as well with more toasty oak flavors followed by a smooth sweetness.
Eagle Rare 10 Year
Eagle Rare is a formidable single barrel bourbon from Buffalo Trace, known for their quality variants and clean distillation processes. This 10-year bourbon provides tasters with everything they’d come to expect from a straight Kentucky bourbon. Toasted oak, a bit of citrus, and maple make up the nose while honey, nuts, and dark fruits continue to linger a bit on the palate. It’s a solid choice for interested parties looking to get their feet wet in the bourbon world.
John J. Bowman Straight Bourbon
John Bowman’s family settled the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and parts of Kentucky. This straight, single barrel bourbon pays homage to the pioneering spirit of John J. Bowman. As for the whiskey itself, smooth is thy name. It’s fairly mellow thanks to Virginia’s ever-changing climate that pulls various elements out of the oak and features hints of leather and toffee on the nose, and figs, almonds, and vanilla on the palate.
Noah’s Mill is distilled in the hills of Kentucky and is aged for 15 years, considered one of the best and oldest small batch bourbons around. It’s mashed with corn and bottled by hand as well. The nose initially comes through quite strong leading first- timers to assume the harshness of the bourbon. However, it’s surprisingly smooth with strong brown sugar and caramel flavors alongside leathery wood and a warm finish.
Blanton’s Single Barrel
There’s nothing like an original. Distilled by Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s was the first official single barrel bourbon. Each bottle is marked with the specific barrel from which the bourbon is drawn so you know each bottle is unique. It’s a smooth oaky bourbon that finishes well with notes of vanilla and molasses thanks to the legendary Warehouse H aging process.
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
The only thing more enjoyable than a Woodford Reserve is a double oaked Woodford Reserve. It’s a straight Kentucky bourbon whiskey that follows all the rules of distilling a proper batch. However, it hits a second round of aging in lightly toasted and charred barrels that leaves each dram with a smooth oak character, exemplifying the bourbon’s fruit and vanilla notes.
Smooth Ambler Old Scout
The name Old Scout pays tribute to Scottish and Irish traditions of independent bottlings. This particular straight bourbon comes from a corn, rye, and malt mash bill and hosts sweet cinnamon and ginger notes on the nose, with smooth caramel, cane sugar and vanilla making their way across the palate. Coffee, rye and a bit of cinnamon finish everything off in a well-balanced, well-crafted bourbon.
EH Taylor Single Barrel
Yet another tribute to one of the bourbon greats, Colonel E.H. Taylor bourbon takes its name from the owner of a slew of different distilleries in the 1800s, and who innovated some production methods still in play today. On the palate drinkers experience a bit of a corn sweetness and spiciness from the rye and cinnamon as well, finishing strong with creamy vanilla notes.
The Baker variant comes from the Beam Suntory as part of the Original Small Batch Bourbon Collection with the likes of Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, and Knob Creek. It pours a smooth amber color and hosts aromas of charred oak, cinnamon, and caramel. On the palate there’s more vanilla than caramel thanks to the oak barrels, offering a silky mouth feel and enjoyable burn any bourbon drinker will enjoy.
Dark Horse Reserve Bourbon
The particular bourbon won Gold at the Beverage Testing Institute Competition in 2013 and since then Dark Horse has been going strong with their quality batches. It’s made from an 80 percent corn and 20 percent rye mash sourced from small Midwestern farms. The result is an aroma of maple and roasted nuts followed by full-bodied caramel, honey and smoke on the palate.
Belle Meade Bourbon Sherry Cask Finish
With a name like Belle Meade, you know this bourbon is going to be smooth. Aged in new, charred American oak casks and finished in Ex-sherry casks from Europe, this bourbon offers something truly special. Plenty of dark fruit inhabit the nose of this bourbon, followed by a velvety and smooth mix of vanilla and caramel along with hints of spice, plums, molasses and brown sugar. Enjoy it neat or over a couple ice cubes. Need we say more?
Each barrel of Widow Jane is aged for seven years, the average age for American whiskeys. Spending this time in a White Oak barrel, it’s considered a great option for casual whiskey drinkers looking for a toffee, cherry, and woody-forward palate finished off by burnt orange and spice. It’s also worth noting that each batch is distilled from pure limestone mineral water from the Widow Jane mine in New York, obvious where the whiskey receives its namesake.
Aged for 13 years, each 136 proof bottle of Parker’s Heritage offers a serious bourbon for interested parties. It hosts aromas of creamy caramel, vanilla and baking spices such as clove. Through the sip, caramel, honey and the oak notes make their way forward and compliment the almost 70 percent ABV burn, though for such a high alcohol bourbon is surprisingly smooth.