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Samuel Langhorne Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, famously said, “If I cannot drink bourbon and smoke cigars in heaven, then I shall not go.” Of course, it would be nearly impossible to argue with the late writer on this or any other subject, and why would you want to? Bourbon is liquid sunshine, and like Twain, the spirit is an American classic.
In fact, to be called bourbon, it has to be made in the United States. There are a few other rules as well—distilled from at least 51 percent corn, aged in new oak barrels, and bottled at no less than 80 proof. While Americans have been drinking whiskey aged in charred barrels since the 1820s (give or take), demand for the brown spirit has recently rocketed.
To keep pace, bourbon production has jumped over 360 percent since 2000, according to the Kentucky Distillers Association. In fact, there’s so much new juice on the shelves of your local shop, it can be hard to keep up with new producers and bottlings. Certainly, some of the old stalwarts can be hard to find or are sold at a hefty markup, but whiskey drinkers still enjoy an embarrassment of riches. So, if you’re looking for a fantastic bourbon to enjoy, here are eight bottles that won’t disappoint. Because too much good bourbon is barely enough.
The folks at Jim Beam recently re-imagined the Baker’s label as a single barrel offering, and while the original 107 proof was excellent, the new version is simply fabulous. Named for distiller Baker Beam, the whiskey is still aged for seven years. The proof remains the same, but now every batch varies from barrel to barrel, and the label lets you know not just which cask you’re drinking but also where the spirit aged in the warehouse—down to the floor and rack. This makes for a cool sensory experience if you can grab two different bottlings to sip side by side and suss out the differences.
Whether you can’t or just don’t want to spend a lot on bourbon, but still prefer not to drink “rotgut” whiskey, Four Roses Bourbon is a sure-fire winner. Previously known as Four Roses Yellow Label, it’s a whiskey that you won’t find on the top shelf at your liquor store, but you will see on the rail at a bar where the tender knows his or her game. Master distiller Brent Elliott and company use two different mash bills and five strains of yeast to create spirits which, in the case of this bourbon, are then aged at least five years. The result is a quite approachable drink that's soft and smooth in the mouth and ready for its close-up in a fussy cocktail.
It’s a common misconception, but it does not have to be made in Kentucky to be called bourbon. Evanston, Illinois-based FEW Spirits makes a righteous one. Named for the initials of a local teetotaler Frances Elizabeth Willard, who did her best to keep booze out of her Chicago ’burb in the middle-to-late 19th century, the company does the utmost to source its ingredients locally.
FEW uses a good portion of rye in its mash bill, which gives every glass tangy and lingering spicy notes as well as a herbaceous undercurrent that swirls around an ambrosial butterscotch sweetness.
The aging process is how bourbon is imbued with much of its flavor, and by definition, bourbon must be aged in new charred American oak. As its name would suggest, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked is aged in two different barrels, first in one seasoned outdoors for nine months and totally toasted and charred.
The whiskey then does another stint in a new barrel lightly charred and toasted twice as long as the first. Of course, Woodford wouldn’t go to this level of fuss if the results weren’t a deeply flavorful whiskey. Caramel, succulent apple, nuts, and spice lead the mouth to a finish that saunters up and around the tastebuds for at least twice as long.
In the early '90s, legendary Jim Beam master distiller Booker Noe created and introduced Knob Creek, one of the first “small batch” bourbons to make it to market. Now a juggernaut, the label is an icon easily found behind most bars. Accessible and consistent, it’s great for sipping but also stands out as an anchor in a classic bourbon old fashioned.
Aged nine years in American oak, Knob Creek Bourbon is bottled at 100 proof, so its flavor can withstand a healthy portion of ice. It’s a robust whiskey teeming with big notes of vanilla and caramel sweetness that works off the bitterness of the Angostura and pairs perfectly with the syrupy sweetness of the Luxardo maraschino cherry.
Every drinker is different. So why one falls in love with a particular spirit is a unique and individual experience. That said, for a newbie who wants to experiment with bourbon, Buffalo Trace is a good, strong introduction. It’s produced at one of the oldest distilleries in the country and is a classic expression full of archetypical and pronounced flavors—fruit, caramel, vanilla, and wood. Versatile and flavorful, it’s rich enough for sipping and bold enough to showcase in cocktails, but it still marries well with other ingredients.
If you’re the kind of whiskey drinker who wants to feel a glass not just on the taste buds but deep in the liver, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof is your called shot. This bourbon is delicious and, depending on the barrel, registers between 128 and 140 proof. That’s not just high-octane, that’s rocket fuel. So obviously, this whiskey can run a bit hot. While some may take it neat, there’s no shame in adding a small ice cube or a healthy splash of water so you can appreciate the robust caramel, vanilla, cinnamon spice, and chocolate that make this a truly excellent bourbon without melting your palate.
There are quite a few “top-shelf” bourbons that are incredibly hard to find and not worth the seven figures over the retail price that collectors are shelling out for them. But thankfully, you can still get your hands on Michter’s 10 Year Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon. There’s just so much to love about this yearly release. It’s always a stunner! Toffee, maple, and vanilla buttressed by a substantial dose of char and wood make it a gorgeous mouthful with nuances to discover as you savor each glass.
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Nicholas McClelland is a passionate whisk(e)y drinker who has written about spirits for Men’s Journal, Fatherly, and Inside Hook. His bar is deep with rare single malts, hard-to-find bourbons, and ryes, but he doesn't believe there's anything too precious to share with friends.