As of the end of 2014, whiskey — including scotch, rye and, yes, bourbon — was set to overtake vodka as the No. 1 spirit of choice in the US. So if you’re a bourbon novice, now’s a good time to get to know America’s new favourite liquor.
The experts over at FindTheBest determined the best bottles of bourbon that money can buy. They looked at recent expert scores and spirits competition judgings to come up with their Smart Rating scale. We used price to break ties, with a cheaper bottle ranking higher than a more expensive one.
A brand hailing from the famous Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky, Knob Creek is distilled in small batches and features a slight sweetness reminiscent of the oak barrels in which it’s aged, with hints of toasted nuts. This nine-year-aged bourbon won double gold at the 2014 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Aged for 12 years in American white oak barrels, the Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon has a strong caramel presence, with fruity undertones. The deep amber colour is a pleasant addition to your favourite glass tumbler, and the finish, while smooth, lingers like mint.
The Eagle Rare Single Barrel won gold or double gold every year at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition from 2003 to 2013. Rich with toffee, cocoa, and almond flavours, this bourbon is an affordable and delicious way to whet your palate with bourbon.
Distiller Buffalo Trace notes to look for hints of plum, pepper, and new leather in the William Larue Weller bourbon. It may be the most expensive bottle on our list, but this variety of bourbon is barrel proof, meaning it’s not diluted with distilled water after the ageing process; in layman’s terms, it’s a higher percentage of alcohol than other comparable bourbons.
This bourbon pays tribute to master distiller Parker Beam, a veteran distiller with more than 45 years in the industry. Bourbon has to be composed of at least 51% corn, and Parker’s Heritage 10-year is also made with wheat to create this softer, nuttier variety of bourbon whiskey.
Distilling company Sazerac describes the George T. Stagg Kentucky Straight bourbon as “hearty,” with rich, dessert-y notes like dark chocolate, nougat, vanilla, and molasses. Wine Enthusiasts magazine gave this bottle 4.8 out of five stars, and the LA Whisk(e)y Society gave it an A- grade.
Pappy Van Winkle makes some of the most coveted bourbon whiskies the world has ever seen. Aged for 20 years, PVW20 is the No. 1-rated bourbon whiskey in the world, with a score of 99 out of 100 from the Beverage Tasting Institute. Drinkers enjoy a taste of the south with notes of caramelised pecans, fudge, and spices.
Aged for five fewer years than its older cousin, the Pappy Van Winkle 15-year ranks almost as highly (98 from the Beverage Tasting Institute), but is significantly more affordable to the less-seasoned bourbon drinker. Aromatic notes include “sweet corn dripping with butter,” “dark toffee,” and “hazelnuts,” while the taste is a delicious and dark raisin-y sweetness.
True to the name, Black Maple Hill 21 Cask 7 carries a powerful nose of maple syrup and vanilla on the finish. This is a bourbon that usually sells faster than liquor stores can stock it, and rivals Pappy in both quality and scarcity.
With a five-star rating from Wine Enthusiasts magazine and an A grade from the LA Whisk(e)y Society, Black Maple Hill, according to wine and spirits merchant K&L Wines, has “the makings of a cult whiskey.”