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. Here we’ve picked our top 10 bottles, as well as sharing some advice for buyers on distinguishing a bourbon from other whiskeys.
What is bourbon?
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 per cent corn (but not more than 79 per cent), 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 un-aged 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.
The best bourbon whiskey to buy
Read on to discover our pick of the 10 best bourbons to try. For more like this, visit our reviews section and find taste tests of the best Japanese whisky, Scotch, Irish whiskey and whisky from around the world.
Maker’s Mark Kentucky straight bourbon (45% ABV)
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.
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, best appreciated when stirred down with a touch of demerara as well as white sugar.
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.
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.
Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage straight bourbon (43.3% ABV)
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 (47% ABV)
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.
Four Roses Kentucky Small Batch straight bourbon (45% ABV)
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.
Jack Daniel’s Old No.7 Tennessee whiskey
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 above.
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 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.
Simon Difford is the founder of Difford’s Guide.
Bourbon cocktail recipes
This review was last updated in July 2020. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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