Some devotees may wax philosophically over the notion that if you want the best, go with the original. Now, this vague phrase can be attributed in many ways; from foods to style, products to booze. Here, we’re sticking with the booze. And not just any booze. We’re talking classic Kentucky bourbon distilled the original way, by distilleries with family recipes that date back to the early days of the US in some cases. Here, you’re not just sipping bourbon, you’re sipping American history.
That’s why we fancied putting together a list of 15 fantastic Kentucky bourbons from the Bluegrass state. For it’s not just the mandatory 51 percent corn mash that makes this bourbon so special, but everything from the water used in its distillation, to the combination of various grain bills used in the mash, to the sheer southern pride that goes into each and every bottle that eventually makes it way to the home bar. From affordable small batches to top shelf rarities, what we have here is the best of the best. Imparting not only those classic Kentucky bourbon notes but the notion that there really is nothing that can compete with the American spirit.
Dating back to 1796, Basil Hayden’s is one of those original recipes you just don’t change. Why? Because why mess with tradition? What makes this bourbon unique is that at its core lies a hefty amount of rye making it a spicy option no doubt. However, such spice is balanced nicely with both herbal notes and a touch of fruit for good measure.
Four Roses Single Barrel
From the famed Four Roses brand comes a small batch option that really kicks this bourbon into high gear. It’s both plummy and fruity complete with lots of character including toffee, vanilla, Morello cherries, cocoa, and vanilla. Smooth, flavorful bourbon; certainly a must have.
Barton’s 1792 Small Batch
Named after the year in which Kentucky officially became a state, this rye-forward bourbon is a fantastically spicy offering perfect over a couple ice cubes on a warm summer’s eve. It’s full of notes of butterscotch and oak and is enticingly smooth and refined to boot.
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
Beginning its fruitful life aged in the same manner as classic Woodford Reserve, this special batch was then matured further in heavily toasted and lightly charred barrels. The result? A sweeter – almost caramelized – oaky character in addition to its fruity, vanilla and caramel notes. Certainly a standout among the crowd.
Straight from Kentucky Bourbon Distillers Co comes a small batch bourbon certainly worth your time. Here, many have compared it to the quite popular Elijah Craig 12 year – particularly for its smooth nature. It’s full of vanilla, caramel and layered with floral notes while finishing nicely with more subtle oak notes and a lingering spiciness that keeps you coming back for more.
Housed in a unique glass container shaped like the classic pot still used to distill whiskey, Willet’s Pot is a tribute to the time-honored tradition of backcountry distillation of the spirit. Not only is it unbelievably smooth and satisfying, but is complemented with notes of honey, caramel, hazelnut, and nutmeg. Keep it on hand for special occasions, or for sipping casually after a long day.
As a rare option, Noah’s Mill is bottled at a quite high 57.2% ABV so adding a drop of water is definitely recommended here to really bring out the unique flavor profile here. On the nose, expect a heavy dose of cinnamon and vanilla; ginger, black pepper, and honey on the palate; along with green apples, honey and pepper for the finish.
Colonel EH Taylor Small Batch
Named after none other than Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor – known as the father of the bourbon industry, this small batch option is a medium bodied wonderment of flavor. We’re talking, notes of caramelized apples and cloves on the nose, rye and cinnamon on the palate, and creamy vanilla to finish things off. Truly a fantastic small batch offering.
Jefferson’s Groth Reserve
Nothing says refined like a well-crafted Kentucky bourbon held for 9 months in Cabernet Sauvignon wine barrels from Napa Valley. The result is a finish unlike any other whiskey out there – full of oak and light maple. Think full-bodied and chewy, like a holiday cookie wrapped in burnt sugar.
Angel’s Envy Cask Strength
Know for its highly unique flavor profile and aging process, Angel’s Envy is finished in port barrels and bottles at an unrelenting 126 proof. It’s an amazing complex spirit as well, boasting a palate full of caramel coffee, fig, and tobacco, along with a finish that’s both rich and buttery despite its high ABV.
Wild Turkey Tradition 14
We all know Wild Turkey from their ubiquitous bar presence, but this iteration honestly threw us for a loop. Here, we have a seriously refined and rich bourbon from the famed distillery, full of chewy toffee, molasses, and clementine notes combined with subtle mint and herbs. Amazing what you can find with a little digging.
Blade & Bow 22 Year
It’s no secret that with age comes wisdom and a sort of refined nature. And that’s exactly what you can expect with this fine 22-year bourbon that boasts plenty of charred oak and vanilla on the nose, smooth notes of honey butterscotch and caramel on the palate, and a lingering finish complete with peppery spice, cloves, and cinnamon.
Willett Family Estate Bottled Bourbon
Straight from the Willett family’s private barrel selection, their Estate Bottled Bourbon is an un-chill-filtered, barrel proof straight bourbon whiskey that should be seriously cherished and enjoyed for its unmatched depth and complexity.
A.H. Hirsh Reserve
Espouse upon in Chuck Cowdery’s book entitled The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste, this mythical dram is a rare find to see the least. However, rumor has it that if you do get your hands on a bottle – or even just a glass – you’ll find yourself enjoying what Cowdery explains was one of the “best whiskeys I’ve ever tasted.”
Pappy Van Wrinkle 20 Year
Even non-bourbon drinkers know this iconic offering that needs no introduction. Ask around and you’ll most certainly hear varied options on good old Pappy Van Winkle 20 year. One thing’s for certain though, the legacy and reputation that precedes Pappy will certainly continue to live on as long as there is a craving for high-quality Kentucky bourbon.
Time To Taste
Believe it or not, there is a proper way to taste these delightful spirits. So if you’re into sips instead of shots, have a look at this primer on how to drink whiskey.