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The 13 Absolute Best Bourbons to Drink in 2023

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Bourbon whiskey is no secretive spirit. Just ask any fellow legal-aged drinker and they’ll dispel — either positively or negatively — 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 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. Before we give you the absolute best bourbon whiskeys to drink, let’s dive into some background on the subject.

The Best Bourbons Rundown

Bourbon History

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 Samuelses hadn’t begun to produce commercial bourbon until the mid-19th century. 

Instead, some believe the Evan 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 a Baptist preacher in Kentucky named Elijah Craig broke new ground when he started aging corn whiskey in oak barrels that he decided to char ahead of time. Mr. Craig then proceeded to open a little distillery in Georgetown, KY to capture the new method. A few miles away in Bourbon County, it was Jacob Spears, using the same charring process, who first christened this liquor as “bourbon whiskey.”

What Is Bourbon?

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.

According to the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, bourbon must:

  • Host a grain mashbill that’s at least 51% corn.
  • Be distilled at no more than 160 proof (80% ABV).
  • Enter the aging process at no more than 125 proof (62.5 % ABV).
  • Be aged in new charred oak barrels (no minimum age is required unless it’s billed as “straight” bourbon).
  • Be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40% ABV).
  • Be produced in the United States.

These are the tenets to 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. Within these parameters, there are also different variants to consider, some of which have rules of their own: bottled in bond, straight, cask strength, barrel proof, etcetera. We’ve expanded upon these below.

Bourbon Glossary

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.

Straight Bourbon Whiskey: The de facto standard, these are bourbons that have been aged for at least two years. These can also include blends of other straight bourbons as well. Any straight bourbon matured for under four years must give an age statement.

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. Used for most hard liquor, it’s found by doubling the ABV percentage.

Bottled In Bond: From the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, this was one of the first earnest attempts by the government to set a federal standard for bourbon. It mandates that the whiskey must be the product of a single distillation season 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 coined by Jim Beam master distiller Booker Noe in the ‘80s to denote bourbon that comes from a limited supply, “small batch” has evolved into more of a marketing term than anything else these days, although still has some merit when it comes to distinguishing quality. While there’s no ceiling or floor for small-batch bourbon, the typical batch size is around 20 barrels or less, with some exceptions.

Single Barrel: As the name might suggest, single-barrel bourbons are a series of bottles coming from a single oak barrel. Usually marked by the barrel or batch number on the bottle, this type of bourbon displays a greater range of variations in nose, palate, and finish.

Cask Strength/Barrel Proof: These two terms can be used interchangeably. Most bourbon is cut with water after it leaves the bottles, but a growing trend these days is bottling the liquid right out of the barrel, providing a much higher ABV (usually between 52 and 66%) and a much hotter drinking experience. Barrel-strength whiskey also displays more of the character imparted from the barrel compared to whiskey that’s been cut.

High-Rye: Growing increasingly more popular in recent years, high-rye bourbon bumps the rye content in the mashbill while still keeping that 51% minimum of corn. To go along with the dominant grain, a typical high-rye has anywhere between 20 to 35% rye, leaving the remaining percentage to be either malted barley and/or wheat. The added rye content yields a spicier profile.

Wheated: Less popular than high-rye, a wheated bourbon typically swaps the rye for wheat as the secondary grain in the mashbill. These whiskeys are lighter and sometimes sweeter, depending on the corn content (which still must be at least 51% of the mashbill).

Larceny Small Batch

Larceny Very Small Batch

Best Cheap Bourbon: A wheated bourbon with a budget-friendly price tag, Larceny might be the antithesis to the grail status of Pappy’s, but that doesn’t mean it’s not just as fantastic. Plus, you can throw this whiskey into a cocktail without feeling like you’re burning your money away. Just over a decade old, the Kentucky-based distillery is racking up quite the fanbase as well, but time will tell if the legend holds up to its expensive contemporary. With a four-grain mashbill containing rye and malted barley as well, the Very Special Small Batch gets by with notes of butterscotch, honey, and caramel.

Style: Wheated
ABV: 46%
Tasting Notes: Butterscotch, honey, caramel

Redemption High-Rye Bourbon

Redemption High Rye

Best Cheap High-Rye: A benchmark for the high-rye style, Redemption’s flagship bourbon isn’t just a magnificent budget pick but a great option no matter what your wallet looks like. Using a mashbill with 36% rye grain, which is among the highest available, this spirit displays an assertive profile, to say the least. Great for making a high-rye Manhattan cocktail, the Indiana-made whiskey can also be fully appreciated when sipped neat, where you’ll experience its potent notes of cinnamon, spearmint, nutmeg, and noticeable rye spice on the palate.

Style: High-rye
ABV: 46%
Tasting Notes: Cinnamon, spearmint, nutmeg, rye spice

Broken Barrel Cask Strength Bourbon

Broken Barrel Cask Strength Bourbon

Best Non-Kentucky Bourbon: On top of the array of medals earned thus far, the World Whiskey Awards just named Broken Barrel’s Cask Strength the “Best Kentucky Finished Bourbon” on the planet, and after one sip you’ll understand why. Based in California, the distillery has strong ties to Kentucky, where it ages its moonshine for a minimum of two years before implementing the brand’s signature finishing process that uses broken barrels (hence the name). After maturation, the high-rye bourbon is then put into steel tanks along with a combination of French oak staves, ex-bourbon staves, and ex-sherry staves. Because of the increased surface area on the broken barrel pieces, the bourbon possesses a more aggressive profile, including raspberry, vanilla, white chocolate, and toffee notes.

Style: Cask-strength high-rye
ABV: 57.5%
Tasting Notes: Raspberry, vanilla, white chocolate, toffee, rye spice

Four Roses Small Batch Select

Four Roses Small Batch Select

Best Overall: Arguably the most affable bourbon whiskey around, Four Roses Small Batch Select is a notch above the Kentucky-based distillery’s cheaper options. However, it’s worth the upgrade considering it’s one of the finest top-shelf offerings you can find. Combining six different 6-year-old bourbon barrels with different mashbills — each delineated on the brand’s website — the end result is as smooth and assertive as can be, with bold sweetness on the tongue, along with notes of baking spice, dark fruit, spearmint, giving way to a long finish. Bottled at an above-average 52% ABV, this bourbon has some versatility in how you choose to imbibe.

Style: Small-batch high-rye
ABV: 52%
Tasting Notes: Baking spice, dark fruit, spearmint

Kentucky Owl Confiscated

Runner-Up: Not just another vintage-inspired distillery, Kentucky Owl has a legacy that was born in the past. Owned by C.M. Dedman, the original distillery had its entire 250,000-gallon inventory confiscated by the U.S. government in 1916, only to be rebuilt 98 years later by Dedman’s great-great-grandson. In that time, Kentucky Owl has become one of the most coveted cult favorites in the game, with its Confiscated expression doing its part to honor its past. This top-shelf straight bourbon is free of frills and abundant qualifiers, offering classic, warm notes of cinnamon, bananas foster, vanilla, and cardamom to go along with its buttery profile.

Style: Small-batch straight bourbon
ABV: 48.2%
Tasting Notes: Cinnamon, bananas foster, vanilla, cardamom

Bulleit Barrel Strength Bourbon

Bulleit Bourbon Barrel Strength

Best for Cocktails: Although debuting relatively recently in 1987, Bulleit sports an old-school, pre-Prohibition-style label that may have you guessing otherwise. The company was launched by Tom Bulleit, whose great-great-grandfather was a bourbon maker in the 19th century. He uses his ancestor’s original mashbill recipe as well, which contains 68% corn, 28% rye, and 4% malted barley. Bottled at an incendiary 61.7% ABV, the high-rye expression is and should be behind every bartender in America, but just make sure you take it easy with the pours. Fantastic whether you’re sipping neat or mixing into a cocktail, this Barrel Strength Bourbon offers a palate of vanilla, orange peel, maple, and nutmeg, with a long, spice-filled finish.

Style: Cask-strength high-rye
ABV: 61.7%
Tasting Notes: Vanilla, orange peel, maple, nutmeg, rye spice

Barrell Vantage

Barrell Vantage

Best Cask-Finished: Despite what purists have to say, cask finishing is here to stay. Named Whiskey Advocate’s Best Bourbon of 2022 (its 3rd-best whiskey overall), the Vantage expression from the elusive Barrell blends straight bourbons from Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee, but gets even more layers from individually finishing the liquid in a combination of Japanese mizunara, French, and toasted American oak barrels before being bottled at cask strength (57.22% ABV). Hot yet surprisingly smooth, the palate soars with dynamic notes of espresso, maple, baking spice, and strawberry, giving way to a long, spice-filled finish.

Style: Cask-strength, cask-finished blended straight bourbon
ABV: 57.22%
Tasting Notes: Espresso, maple, baking spice, strawberry

Kings County Bottled-In-Bond Straight Bourbon

Kings County Bonded

Best Bonded: For the most part, the bottled-in-bond denotation is a sign of trust between the distiller and the consumer, that everything you see before you took place in a single location and distilled in a single 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. As for the bourbon itself, this is the best bonded example around, with a smooth, savory, and classic profile of vanilla, caramel, molasses, and cinnamon.

Style: Bottled-in-bond
ABV: 50%
Tasting Notes: Vanilla, caramel, molasses, cinnamon

Blanton’s Single Barrel

Blantons Single Barrel 1

Best for Sipping Neat: As far as elegant displays are concerned, few affordable (or semi-affordable) bourbons out there can top what Blanton’s has going for it. Plus, it also doesn’t hurt that the bourbon itself matches the tasteful vessel in which it’s displayed: the iconic grenade-shaped bottle topped with a metal horse and jockey figure. Here, we have a single-barrel bourbon from the distillery that first marketed its whiskey as such. Previously reserved for friends and family of the brand’s namesake and former Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Abert Blanton, this liquid from the famous Warehouse H set a standard upon its debut in 1984. Now, the whiskey is a legend around the globe, with a recognizable citrusy and sweet profile to go along with notes of oak, vanilla, and an array of baking spices.

Style: Single-barrel high-rye
ABV: 46.5%
Tasting Notes: Citrus, vanilla, oak, baking spices

Knob Creek 18 Year

Best Age Statement: Booker Noe and Jim Beam launched Knob Creek in 1992, thus helping to redefine the idea of top-shelf bourbon for years to come. It was accessible but looked and tasted premium, harkening back to the bolder profiles of pre-Prohibition. Last year, Knob Creek celebrated its 30th anniversary with its oldest age statement yet — an 18-year-old straight bourbon among the best it’s ever produced. Aged for double the amount of its flagship expression, the Kentucky-based distillery’s new 100-proof bourbon is best sipped neat, striking the palate with notes of brown sugar, peanut brittle, vanilla, and baking spices.

Style: Straight bourbon
ABV: 50%
Tasting Notes: Brown sugar, peanut brittle, vanilla, baking spices

Garrison Brothers Guadalupe

Garrison Brothers Guadalupe

Best Texas Bourbon: Producing everything in-house since launching in 2006, the Garrison Brothers has not only brought awareness to Texas bourbon but become synonymous with the whiskey region. Debuting in 2021, its annual Guadalupe expression takes the distillery’s four-year Straight Bourbon and finishes it for an additional two years in port wine casks from Portugal before being bottled at 107 proof. At its base, the expression bears some of Garrison Brothers’ signature char, butter, and leather notes, but with some added sweetness. Its exploratory palate ranges from chocolate to cinnamon to strawberry to even lavender honey. 

Style: Cask-finished
ABV: 53.5%
Tasting Notes: Char, butter, leather, chocolate, cinnamon, strawberry, lavender honey

Russell’s Reserve 13 Year

Best Top-Shelf Bourbon: Russell’s Reserve was started 25 years ago in order to showcase the pristine barrel selection of the legendary Jimmy Russell and his son Eddie, both of whom served as master distillers for Wild Turkey — in fact, prior to Jimmy’s passing last year, he was the longest-tenured master distiller in the history of the industry, with over six decades in the position. At the top of the brand’s line-up is the highly-coveted Russell’s Reserve 13 Year, a small-batch bourbon bottled at barrel strength (57.4% ABV) with a palate of dark fruit, honey, brown sugar, and chocolate.

Style: Cask-strength small batch
ABV: 57.4%
Tasting Notes: Dark fruit, honey, brown sugar, chocolate

Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Family Reserve

Best Grail Bourbon: No “Best Bourbons” guide is complete without one of the most legendary liquids on the planet. This 20 Year Family Reserve from Kentucky staple Pappy Van Winkle is towards the top of its quintet of annual bourbon releases — second only to the 23 Year expression. For two decades, this wheated whiskey has been so expensive because it sees a fraction of the production of its competitors. For this bourbon, the wheat replaces the rye in the mashbill, yielding a much smoother profile that can handle a few extra years of aging, with a palate filled with classic notes of leather, tobacco, coffee, vanilla, and orange peel.

Style: Wheated
ABV: 45.2%
Tasting Notes: Leather, tobacco, coffee, vanilla, orange peel

The Complete Guide to Bourbon Styles

Photo: Buffalo Trace

Want to dive deeper into bourbon whiskey? Head over to our complete guide to bourbon styles for a more extensive breakdown.