The best bourbon whiskies taste tested
Looking for the best American whiskey? Read our review of the finest bourbon brands to find the right bottle for you.
Bourbon, and indeed American whiskey in general (for not every American whiskey is a bourbon), is riding a wave of popularity that’s been building over the past decade. Bourbon is a barrel-aged liquor made from corn and hailing from the American South. Considered to be sweeter than traditional whiskey, it has bitter notes but an overall flavour profile of vanilla, caramel and oak. We've tested bourbons with a mellow nature (best for beginners), high-corn filled varieties with deeper spicy notes and sweeter, lighter options. So whether you like to serve it on the rocks, neat or lightened up with water or cola, we've got a bourbon for everyone.
Bourbon is also the star of many of our recipes, including our summer favourite sticky bourbon BBQ wings with blue cheese dip, where the coolness of the dip cuts the heat of the wings, our sticky-sweet bourbon-glazed pork belly chunks, and slow-cooked bourbon & honey-glazed brisket. Plus there is our bourbon, black cherry & bacon brownies for dessert, filled with all-American favourites.
Browse through our top 10 bottles, and read up on our advice for buyers on how to distinguish a bourbon from other whiskeys.
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- Best bourbon whiskey for novices: Maker's Mark Kentucky straight bourbon, £24.50
- Best bourbon for an old fashioned: Wild Turkey 101 Kentucky straight bourbon, £32.95
- Best bourbon whisky with caramel notes: Wild Turkey Rare Breed Kentucky straight bourbon, £53.95
- Best spicy bourbon: Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky straight bourbon, £35.95
- Best vintage bourbon: Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage straight bourbon, £47.49
- Best toasty bourbon: Elijah Craig Small Batch Kentucky straight bourbon, £52
- Best buttery bourbon: Four Roses Kentucky Small Batch straight bourbon, £31.95
- Best popular bourbon: Jack Daniel’s Old No.7 Tennessee whiskey, £30
- Best oaky bourbon: Yellowstone Select bourbon whiskey, £39.95
- Best sweet bourbon: Sonoma Distilling Co. cherrywood smoked bourbon, £54.85
Maker's Mark Kentucky straight bourbon
Best whiskey for novices
We’ve kicked off with Maker’s Mark as it’s a great bourbon for new whiskey drinkers. It has a mellow character due to 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 hint of sweetness, making this an approachable, easy-drinking but satisfying bourbon.
Wild Turkey 101 Kentucky straight bourbon
Best for an old fashioned
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 help appreciate the buttery chocolate, gingerbread, tobacco leaf and toffee flavours. Wild Turkey 101 makes a great old fashioned, best appreciated when stirred down with a touch of demerara as well as white sugar.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed Kentucky straight bourbon
Best whisky with caramel notes
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.
Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky straight bourbon
Best spicy bourbon
- Available from The Whisky Exchange (£35.95)
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.
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Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage straight bourbon
Best vintage bourbon
- Available from Amazon (£47.49)
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.
Elijah Craig Small Batch Kentucky straight bourbon
Best toasty bourbon
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 licence 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.
Four Roses Kentucky Small Batch straight bourbon
Best buttery bourbon
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 up-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.
Jack Daniel’s Old No.7 Tennessee whiskey
Best popular bourbon
This last choice is a tad controversial – 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 whiskeys apart from bourbon whiskeys 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 Daniel’s, and indeed all the bourbons mentioned, 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.
Simon Difford is the founder of Difford's Guide.
Yellowstone Select bourbon whiskey
Best oaky bourbon
Produced by distillers with a proud heritage in the whiskey game, Yellowstone Select is named after the famous National Park and $1 from each bottle goes to a charity that helps conserve it. That adds a feel-good factor to the purchase before you even begin to enjoy the smoky, peppery and caramel-laced goodness from the Limestone Branch distillery. Read our full review of the Yellowstone Select bourbon here.
Sonoma Distilling Co. cherrywood smoked bourbon
Best sweet bourbon
- Available from Master of Malt (£54.85)
This small-batch bourbon is made using cherrywood smoked barley, giving the bottle a sweet and light profile. Citrus fruits meet roasted peanuts and peppery rye in this complex expression from California. Read our full review of the Sonoma Distilling Co. bourbon here.
Master of Malt (£54.85)
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. (Bourbon can be made in any US state, but Kentucky bourbon can only 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, and it also 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 no 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 may also be diluted with unaged neutral spirits.
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.
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.
Bourbon cocktail recipes
This review was last updated in June 2022. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability, please get in touch at email@example.com.
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