Bourbon whiskey is America’s national spirit, and enthusiasts have hundreds of labels to choose from. These five brands are great for any bourbon buyer.
Named after the Kentucky county to which it owes much of its storied history, bourbon whiskey is the definitive American spirit. Associated with both outlaws and aristocrats, bourbon’s intricate identity is matched by its complex character. United States law requires that “straight bourbon whisky” be made from at least 51 percent corn and aged for a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels. This production process gives bourbon its signature sweetness and famous fiery kick.
The abundance of brands makes an arduous task of choosing just the right bourbon–especially for those who rarely look beyond Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s (not a bourbon, by the way!) to get their whiskey fix. While many top shelf bourbons–especially those above 100 proof–are difficult to enjoy for anyone other than connoisseurs, there are a number of premium brands that are pretty much foolproof. These five amber artisanals, readily available and pleasurable to a wide range of palates, are smart buys for any drinker and/or occasion.
Made by the Corner Creek Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, Corner Creek Reserve Bourbon Whiskey is an indie favorite–aged eight years and packaged in a bottle that, upon first glance, looks to contain wine.
But wine this is not. At 88 proof, Corner Creek is strong enough to produce the notorious bourbon belly burn, yet balanced and smooth enough to please novices and aficionados alike. The oak barrels make a strong appearance in the sweet, smoky flavor profile, and overall, Corner Creek is smooth and warmly delicious. Reasonably priced, Corner Creek might be the most difficult to find among the five bourbons on this list, but it’s worth searching for.
The flagship bourbon of the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky, Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey has only been around since 1999, but it has already garnered a wealth of awards and critical acclaim.
A highly regarded product from one of America’s finest distilleries, Buffalo Trace is a bold, flavor-rich whiskey. Sweet, spicy, and oaky, Buffalo Trace has all the usual bourbon characteristics, and hints of fruit and anise give it a nice complexity. Aggressive, yet refined, Buffalo Trace is a great bourbon and a great value–suitable for everything from casual sipping to sophisticated soirees.
W.L. Weller 12 Year Old
Another bronze beauty from the Buffalo Trace Distillery, W.L. Weller 12 Year Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a “wheated” bourbon, meaning it features wheat as the main secondary ingredient to corn. This process replaces much of the rye-derived spiciness with mellow sweetness.
W.L. Weller 12 Year Old’s pleasant smoothness makes it ideal for bourbon beginners, while its surprising complexity will delight the choosier palates. Notes of vanilla and oak combine nicely with the wheat, resulting in a well-balanced, versatile choice for any liquor cabinet or bar.
Undoubtedly the pride of Loretto, Kentucky, Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Handmade Whisky is another “wheated” whiskey, 90 proof and sealed with the hallmark red wax. Maker’s Mark is the rock star of premium bourbons, and like any rock star that gets too big, it has suffered backlash from critics who refuse to say anything good about mainstream success.
Liquor snobs aside, though, Maker’s Mark is just plain good. Bourbon enthusiasts often denounce Maker’s as boring and unremarkable, somehow dismissing its smooth, yet complex character. Like Weller 12 Year Old, Maker’s Mark serves beginners and buffs equally well, tempering its spicy boldness with an overall mellow profile. Love it or (pretend to) hate it, Maker’s Mark is one of the best bourbons out there.
“There’s more than one Versailles,” proclaims the official website of Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and this perfect small-batch bourbon is making sure that at least two of them are famous.
Woodford, the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, epitomizes the small-batch craftwork that has spurred worldwide bourbon appreciation. Each elegant Woodford bottle is numbered, making even an obscure number like 1,326 seem special. And speaking of special, the bottles’ contents are distinguished and delicious. Rich, spicy, fruity, sweet, complex–a number of adjectives are appropriate for Woodford, and Woodford is appropriate for any and all whiskey connoisseurs. A sinfully good spirit, Woodford Reserve is a testament to the style and elegance of premium bourbon.
What Makes a Great Bourbon
A staple in bars, restaurants, and liquor cabinets around the world, bourbon whiskey is a distinctly American spirit that has won legions of dedicated drinkers. Hundreds of bourbon brands–each one bearing a distinct character and flavor–are available for the drinking delight of anyone with adventurous tastes.
While every brand and variety is unique, a great bourbon will always be complex and piquant, giving the drinker a sweet and satisfying tongue tingle.
The most spirited of spirits, bourbon is appropriate for both casual enjoyment and luxurious celebration. These five brands are among the best of the American classic.
Theodore (T.C.) Sprencel
Theodore Cullen Sprencel is a graduate student in the Mass Communication program at Texas State University-San Marcos.
Follow Theodore of Twitter: @tcsprencel