6 Best Bourbons, According to a Spirits Expert

Including the best for an Old Fashioned, Manhattan or Whiskey Sour!

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April 13, 2023

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Man pouring whiskey in glasses of whisky drink alcoholic beverage with friends at bar counter in the pub.


Man pouring whiskey in glasses of whisky drink alcoholic beverage with friends at bar counter in the pub.

Photo by: ipopba/Getty Images

ipopba/Getty Images

Our Top Bourbon Picks

Whiskey is one of the most sprawling and complex spirits categories out there. While I’ve written about a few good entry points to the world before, once you’ve gotten your bearings, it’s helpful to start drilling down into specific sub-categories in order to determine your favorites for any given situation. Bourbon is easily one of the most widely known whiskey categories containing a diverse array of spirits that can suit most applications, from sipping neat to mixing in your favorite cocktail.

What Exactly Is Bourbon? And How Is It Made?

Legally, Bourbon must be made in the United States from a grain mixture, or “mash” that’s at least 51% corn, with rye, wheat and malted barley making up the remaining percentage. It must be aged in new charred oak containers — usually barrels. There are some other technical requirements, but the key elements are the recipe: mostly corn; location: United States; and aging vessel: new, charred oak. It’s common to find Bourbons that are produced in Kentucky, but it is more a matter of tradition rather than legal requirement. Bourbon is made all over the country, from Hawai’i to Maine.

In general, I find Bourbons to be toasty, somewhat sweet and with prominent notes of caramel, vanilla and spice. They’re extremely useful in cocktails — perhaps the most versatile of the dark spirits, next to rum. Bourbon producers must abide by the rule that 51% of their recipe must be corn, but they can play around quite liberally with the remaining grains, most include a significant percentage of rye, which can give the spirit a green grassy note, but others incorporate healthy servings of wheat, which imparts a soft mellowness, crafting a more approachable spirit. (Maker’s Mark is a notable example of a wheated Bourbon.)

Bourbons can also vary as a result of where they’re aged and for how long. Those produced in Kentucky experience a drastic shift in climate between summer and winter, which ensures that the wood and whiskey have a chance to really integrate. Barrel aging accomplishes a few things: one, from the charred oak, the incinerated wood acts as a filter (think activated charcoal) which draws out undesirable elements from the spirit; two, the toasted wood infuses the raw spirit with woody, caramel, vanilla and sometimes coconut aromas; and, lastly, because the barrel is not airtight, the controlled oxidization helps to mature and mellow some of the harsher notes in the spirit.

To help you explore this fascinating American spirit, here’s quick guide to show you the ropes.

This article has been reviewed since its original publish date for accuracy, pricing and availability. We stand by our list of top bourbon picks.

In whiskey parlance, "single barrel" refers to whiskey that’s poured into bottles from one particular barrel that’s been chosen by the distiller for exceptional quality. This is in contrast to most whiskeys where many barrels are blended together to make an even, consistent product. Four Roses is an iconic Kentucky-based producer, and this bottle, while slightly on the pricier side, will do well in any situation.

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Bourbon purists might scoff at my choice of a New York State-produced Bourbon here, but this whiskey is unique and delicious. First, it’s aged in a, "solera" method, which is most commonly used by sherry producers where newly produced liquid is added to longer-aged stuff in order to create a finished product that has a mixture of very old and relatively new whiskey. This creates a complex character which is further enhanced by the time this Bourbon spends in spent in ex-Oloroso sherry casks, giving it a fruity-yet-spicy character.

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In general, spirits are bottled at 80 proof or 40% alcohol by volume (ABV). For whiskies, it’s not unheard of for that percentage to be higher (closer to 45-50% ABV). Wild Turkey has been nurtured by master distiller Jimmy Russel for more than 50 years with his son joining as master distiller in 2015. The bourbon’s 50.5% ABV — or 101 proof — packs enough punch so when mixed with lemon juice, egg white and sugar in a classic whiskey sour recipe, the spicy citrus notes still shine through.

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This Colorado-based distiller claims to be the highest distillery in the world at 9,600 feet above sea level. As a former bartender, my default spirit for a Manhattan would absolutely be rye, which has a hotter, grassier vibe than its softer, sweeter cousin Bourbon. This bottle, however, is made with a recipe that includes 40% rye (most producers use less than half that in their mash). This lets you have the best of both worlds if you’re one of those people who prefers to make their Manhattans with bourbon. No judgement here, just as long as you don’t skip the bitters, you’re okay in my book!

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The Baptist minister Elijah Craig is said to be the "inventor" of Bourbon when he "accidentally" charred oak barrels before storing his whiskey in them. The veracity of this claim notwithstanding, this Bourbon is an excellent choice all-around, and it’s high ABV of 47% gives it enough oomph to stand up to the dilution that comes when making an old fashioned.

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While not much cheaper than the Wild Turkey 101 mentioned above, Old Grand Dad has more of a reputation as being "bottom shelf," and I’m not entirely sure why. My first introduction to it was in a cocktail I created during my time at Please Don’t Tell, a cocktail bar in New York City, and it’s held a special place in my heart ever since. Maybe not my first choice for sipping, this bottle would do well in many drinks: highballs, juleps and old pals, to name a few.

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John deBary is the author of Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails; CEO and Founder of Proteau, a zero-proof drinks company; and is also the Co-Founder and Board President of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation.

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