Best bourbon - taste tested

Looking for the best whiskey out there? Read our review of the top American bourbons to find the right bottle for you. 

Bourbon, and indeed American whiskey in general – for not every American whiskey is a bourbon – is presently riding a wave of popularity that has been building over the past decade. Here we've picked 10 top bottles, plus you'll find buyer's advice on distinguishing a bourbon from other whiskies at the bottom of the page...

A note on buying American bourbon in the UK: With the exception of Birthday Bourbon, all of the below are available via UK distributors from nationwide supermarkets, online drinks specialists or global marketplace sites - a quick web search will bring up multiple options. All prices below for 70cl. 


Maker's Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon (45% ABV)

Maker's Mark
We’ve kicked off with Maker’s Mark as it’s a great bourbon for new whiskey drinkers. It has a mellow character, brought about by the high proportion of corn and winter wheat in its 'mash bill' (the mix of grains used to make a bourbon) of 70% corn, 16% wheat and 14% malted barley. The mash bill adds a perception of sweetness making this an approachable, easy-drinking but satisfying bourbon.

From around £22. Visit the Maker's Mark website


Wild Turkey 101 Kentucky Straight Bourbon (50.5% ABV)

Wild Turkey 101
Wild Turkey’s mash bill is high in corn, which softens its high strength. Soften it even more by adding a splash of water to appreciate the buttery chocolate, gingerbread, tobacco leaf and toffee flavours. Wild Turkey 101 makes a great old fashioned and this is best appreciated when stirred down with a touch of demerara as well as white sugar. 

From around £30. Read more on the Wild Turkey website
 

Wild Turkey Rare Breed Kentucky Straight Bourbon (56.4% ABV)

Wild Turkey Rare Breed
As if Wild Turkey wasn’t strong enough, Wild Turkey Rare Breed was upped from its already premium strength to 56.4% in 2015. Thankfully this particular native Kentucky bird is not as endangered as its ‘Rare' branding might suggest and a quick internet search will reveal stocks held captive that can be delivered to your door. You'll find it a very tasty, full-bodied bird with walnut and brazil nuttiness along with distinctive salty caramel.  

From around £50. Read more on the Wild Turkey website
 

Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon (43.2% ABV)

Woodford Reserve
The ‘reserved’ gentleman of the bourbon world, Woodford also has a high corn mash bill (72% corn, 18% rye and 10% malted barley) but with plenty of rye to give this Kentucky gent some spicy backbone. Woodford has flavours of barbecued corn-on-the cob, blackened fruitcake, gingerbread and dark bitter chocolate.

From around £30. Read more on the Woodford Reserve website
 

Blanton's Original Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon (46.5% ABV)

Blantons
I love this bourbon and its packaging - not for the elegant decanter-style style bottle with its parchment label, but for its stopper. There are in fact eight different stoppers sealing these bottles - each design of stopper topped by a racing horse, rider and small letter, which when lined up spells out 'Blantons'. The bourbon itself is equally satisfying with chargrilled corn-on-the-cob, nubuck leather, vanilla, marzipan and cacao notes.

From around £45. Read more on the Blanton's website
 

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Straight Bourbon (43.3% ABV)

Evan Williams
Each year, the Evan Williams master distiller selects barrels for that year's vintage bottling, with each bottle marked with the date it was put into barrel, along with the year it was bottled. Naturally, every year, and indeed every barrel, is slightly different but this full-bodied bourbon tends to have flavours of toasty maple, vanilla and chargrilled sweetcorn with roasted almonds, earthy apple and enlivening spice.

From around £35. Read more on the Evan Williams website
 

Elijah Craig Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon (47% ABV)

Elijah Craig
This is named after Baptist minister Elijah Craig, the man credited with inventing the charring process that US law decrees every barrel to be used to make bourbon must undergo. The minister, along with 177 of his neighbours, was found guilty of distilling without a license on 26th September 1798 and fined $140, his flock obviously drawn by a spirit other than Holy. With its toasty sweet maple, rich corn, dried fruit and spice notes, they would have doubtlessly been attracted by this whiskey.

From around £48. Read more on the Elijah Craig website
 

Four Roses Kentucky Small Batch Straight Bourbon (45% ABV)

Four Roses

Blended from less than 35 barrels, there's a tale to this bourbon’s name. In 1884, Paul Jones Jr. transported his grocery business from Atlanta, Georgia to Louisville, Kentucky. Four years later, now a whiskey maker, he trademarked the name Four Roses – according to legend – after sending a proposal of marriage to a beautiful Southern belle. She is said to have replied saying that if the answer was yes then she'd wear a corsage of roses in her dress to the coming ball, although she ended up saying no. While he may have been bitter, this bourbon is rich, buttery and honeyed with popcorn, Christmas spice, blackened fruitcake and vanilla.

From around £26. Read more on the Four Roses website
 

Old Forester Birthday (Kentucky Straight) Bourbon (48.5% ABV)

Old Forester
First introduced in 2002, each year a new edition of Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon is bottled to celebrate the work of George Garvin Brown, the man who in 1870 founded Old Forester, America’s first bottled bourbon (it was previously only sold by the barrel or dispensed from source). Fittingly, each year’s Birthday Bourbon is released on 2nd September, Brown’s own birthday. This can be a tricky bourbon to find in the UK but frequently graces the shelves of the best liquor stores in the US. Every year the bourbon is different from the last, but whatever vintage you manage to score you’re in for a real birthday treat.

$79.99 in the US - expect to pay extra duty if imported. Read more on the Old Forester website


Jack Daniel’s Old No.7 Tennessee Whiskey

Jack Daniels
This last choice is a tad controversial as even the folk at Jack Daniel’s would say they make a 'Tennessee whiskey' and not a bourbon. However, the fact is Jack complies with all seven ‘ABC’ criteria below. The Lincoln County Process that sets all Tennessee whiskies apart from bourbon whiskies is also known as 'charcoal mellowing'. This involves dripping the clear distillate which emerges after distillation through vats filled with densely-packed hard sugar maple charcoal. This process removes the spirit’s bitter edge, achieving in days what barrel aging takes years to do. After undergoing the Lincoln County Process, the spirit is then aged in virgin oak barrels in the same manner as bourbon.

Jack, and indeed all the bourbons above, are great served over ice with cola, but please also try them with just a splash of water at room temperature. In the case of Jack Daniel’s, try serving over ice with soda water in place of cola – the reduction in sugar will be good for your teeth and diet, and you’ll appreciate the popcorn flavours in the whiskey that the soda water reveals.

From around £20. Read more on the Jack Daniels website

What distinguishes a bourbon from other American whiskies?

To be labelled a bourbon, the whiskey must be produced according to a strict set of rules. The following 'ABC' is a handy way of remembering the seven key criteria that set bourbons apart:

A = American: Must be made in the USA (not just Kentucky – bourbon can be made in any US state but only Kentucky bourbon can be made in Kentucky).

B = Barrels: Must be aged in virgin, charred oak barrels at 62.5% ABV or less. The fact that only new casks are used in bourbon production keeps the Scotch whisky industry supplied with second hand barrels, plus it gives the drink its rich flavour.

C = Corn: Must have a mash bill formed from at least 51% corn (but not more than 79%) plus a flavouring grain – either wheat or rye – and a little malted barley.

D = Distillation: Must be distilled to a strength of not more than 80% ABV. Most bourbon is distilled to between 62.5% and 70% ABV.

E = Entry: Must go into the barrel at no more than 62.5% ABV.

F = Filling: Must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.

G = Genuine: Must not contain any artificial flavours, colours or other alcohols. Beware of bourbon that omits the term ‘straight’ on the label and instead has the words 'blend' or 'blended'. These may contain added colouring and also be diluted with un-aged neutral spirits. 

Warning: There is no minimum age requirement for bourbon. However, to be termed a 'straight’ bourbon, the whiskey must be aged for a minimum of two years in virgin, charred oak casks. And, any whiskey which has been aged for less than four years must state its age on the label so those in the know can avoid immature bourbon. Thanks to European laws regarding what constitutes a ‘whiskey' this is not such an issue in the UK, but beware souvenir hunting when holidaying in America.

Simon Difford is the founder of Difford's Guide.

More on spirits... 

The best artisan gins
The best traditional gins
10 spirits to buy to stay on-trend

This review was last updated in February 2017. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability please get in touch at goodfoodwebsite@bbc.com. 

Which bourbon do you drink? We'd love to hear your product suggestions. 

Comments, questions and tips

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danclex
14th Mar, 2017
I have been drinking bourbon for 40 years. The Four Roses small batch is a great bourbon, esp. for the price, it is my goto bourbon. I actually like the newer Marker's Mark 46 over the original. The charcoal filtering is what keeps Jacks Daniels from being a bourbon, its adding something extra to the mix.
BobF
13th Mar, 2017
These look like the usual suspects. I know that Kentucky, and to a lesser extent, Tennessee bourbon get most of the press, but after living in the South for over two decades now, I would like to put in a good word for Virginia bourbon. In particular John J. Bowman and Bowman Brothers. There may be bourbons that are as smooth, but not at the price these offerings sell for. They compare favorably with the better French brandies. The bourbons mentioned in this article are all quite good, but they all have a bit of a bite that I find off-putting. If you can find a bottle of Bowman where you live I say give it a try. You won't be disappointed.
foremand
12th Mar, 2017
I say dump Jack as it is not Bourbon , then there will be room for Jim Beam @ the top of the list.
foremand
12th Mar, 2017
Not sure why you would forget Jim Beam? Worlds Finest Bourbon Whiskey!
EricBoll
12th Mar, 2017
Took a break from writing a report for a client while sipping my Elijah Craig and saw the article on American Bourbons. Had to register so I could comment. I am tickled pink to see Elijah Craig in your list. It's really good. I am a regular reader of the BBC news. An excellent list of bourbons, have sampled about half of them. I'm a Canadian/American from Montreal who has lived in Toulouse France and loves good food and drink. My father was from Manchester. Currently living in Herndon, VA where I run a small business. What a wonderful article on Bourbons! There is a small distillery in Culpeper, VA about 1-1/2 hours drive from Herndon that is a farm based bourbon maker. If you have never tried a moonshine clear corn whisky go visit the Belmont Distillery in Culpeper, VA. You need to do an article on Tequilas. That's my second favorite libation. The Mexicans do not export their best product and I can not fault them for that. Eric Boll
Truthsayer
11th Mar, 2017
As a bar owner in the US, I have to tell you that, while all on this list are serviceable, the only top-shelf bourbons listed are Blantons, Woodford Res, & Makers Mark. The rest are just filler & aren't considered top quality liquors o'er here. The speciality label Wild Turkey and Old Forester are nicer than their cheaper versions, but it's quite like buying the nicest Austin Allegro in the world... its still an Austin Allegro, (my friends tell me it wasnt Britain's finest auto). If you want a top knotch accessible bourbon your best bets are Basil Hayden, Knob Creek, Bulleit, Bulleit Rye. If you have the funds, Pappy Van Winkle is the tops of bourbon, with local establishments able to procure a bottle selling single 2 oz servings for $250.
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