What is bourbon, and how is different to whiskey? Which are the best?
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Historically, like gin, bourbon has been a drink that the working classes can afford, and today you get top quality bottles from vast distilleries for remarkably low prices.
But there’s also a burgeoning craft industry, making bourbons in small batches that are unique and distinctive, appealing to those who seek something a little different with every sip.
There are bourbons to be savoured neat, and bourbons that are ideally suited to some of the most popular cocktails around.
You’ll find bourbons that are sweet, smooth and soothingly warm, and there are also bourbons that are loaded with spice and fire that explode on the palate with flavour. In short, there’s a bourbon for everyone.
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What exactly is Bourbon?
To be labelled a Bourbon, the whiskey must be distilled from a minimum of 51% corn and aged in American oak barrels.
This means there’s 49% of grains for the distiller to play with, giving them a huge flexibility of flavours, from the spicy character of rye to the increased sweetness of extra corn (you can take this up to 80%), to the more commonly used malted barley or rarer grains oats, wheat and millet.
To show you some of the variations in Bourbon styles, and how they might be enjoyed at their best, this list takes you on a whiskey tour from the biggest, most popular brands to some of the more distinctive bottles produced by newer entrants to the market.
We hope that among them there’s at least one Bourbon for you.
Kings County Peated Bourbon, 45%
Although Kentucky is undoubtedly the home of bourbon, production of the spirit isn’t confined to the county and, perhaps without the pressure to operate along traditional Kentucky lines, many of the new distilleries from elsewhere seem more inclined to do things differently.
Kings County is a Brooklyn based distillery founded in 2010 (the first in New York City since prohibition) that has branched out into new territory, successfully dabbling with a peated bourbon.
Give it a sniff and it has the instant smell of sweet vanilla familiar to many bourbons, with the peat practically undetectable. Get your taste buds in on the action and that sweetness becomes more subdued, revealing dry leathery flavours and some bitter fruits among the toasted spices.
This is clearly a very different kind of bourbon, but without reading peat on the label you might be hard pressed to fathom why: instead of the briney smoke associated with Scottish peated whisky, in this instance the peat seems to have provided some depth you normally associate with more aged spirits.
A very enjoyable departure from the Kentucky norm.
Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon, 45%
As this list demonstrates, there are plenty of bargain bottles of bourbon to be had that still offer great quality.
And even if you want to upgrade to something with more of a hand-crafted approach to production you can still do so without breaking the bank, as evidenced by Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon.
Each bottling is produced from a blend of just four of the distillery’s bourbon casks, and the result is a creamy dessert of a bourbon, laced with caramel and studded with soft fruits and spices.
It appears a simple spirit at first, but keep sipping and the flavours will fill out and the finish will lengthen.
Maker’s Mark Bourbon, 45%
Distinguished by the wax seal on every bottle, Maker’s Mark is also a little different to other bourbons in that it contains no rye. Joining the 70% corn is barley and red winter wheat, a combination that makes this bourbon lighter and sweeter than most, and lends it a smooth character.
There are still some spicy notes, thanks largely to it resting in charred oak barrels for three years, which give it some depth and warmth to compliment the sweet buttery vanilla and grain flavours.
It’s the gentler touches of this bourbon that make it a great choice for those looking to explore bourbon for the first time, along with regular bourbon drinkers who occasionally want to tone down the dial for some easy sipping action. Serve with a cube of ice, put your feet up and relax to its mellow charms
New Riff Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 50%
If you like a kick of spice to your bourbons then look for one that has a high content of rye in the ingredients, a grain that is very much in vogue.
New Riff has loaded this release with 30% rye (along with 65% corn and 5% barley) which gives lots of cinnamon and clove notes that punch through the sweet vanilla flavours and linger for a while, dancing on the tongue with some peppery extras.
If you’re looking for cocktail suggestions then this will work well in those designed for both bourbon or rye whiskey, such as the Manhattan and New York Sour.
The distillery’s “new riff on Kentucky’s most hallowed whiskey traditions” also extends to the bottle – a sleek, modern design with a nod to history in the raised lettering on the glass which, along with the high amount of rye, should help it appeal to modern tastes.
Peerless DistillingSmall Batch Bourbon, 54.5%
Kentucky is very much Bourbon’s home county, with around 70 distilleries producing over 95% of the world’s Bourbon.
So to take the crown of ‘Best Kentucky Bourbon’ at the World Whiskies Awards takes some doing, and that’s just what Peerless Distilling achieved last year with their Small Batch Bourbon.
There’s an instant orange aroma which, on sipping, is sweet and juicy before the deeper, sweet flavours of corn come through.
Those sweet flavours are offset by dark chocolate and drier, toasty oak, while you should also detect a few floral notes throughout. And despite its high strength, this spirit is perfectly sippable neat.
Jeptha Creed Straight Four Grain Bourbon, 49%
The Jeptha Creed Distillery was founded by a Kentucky farming family, the Netherys, as a way of diversifying the business to enable the farm to survive.
They grow their own grains and fruits (and have their own beehives for honey) that go into a range of spirits including brandy, vodka and moonshine.
The four grains used to distil this Bourbon, first released in 2019, are 70% corn, 15% rye, 10% wheat and 5% barley. The corn is an heirloom variety called ‘Bloody Butcher’ on account of its blood-red kernels, and with such a high percentage used it’s very much this grain that is responsible for its unique flavours.
It’s a delicious sip, instantly sweet and juicy, with vibrant fruity and floral notes balanced by drier spices and nuts along with a herbal, minty tingle. Sweet vanilla runs throughout while a light touch of leathery oak emerges at the finish.
Sip and savour.
Wild Turkey 101, 50.5%
101 is an upgrade on Wild Turkey’s 81 proof bourbon: it’s stronger, bolder and has a much greater whack of peppery spice.
Aged for at least 6 years, it has a sweetness that has been caramelised into rich toffee – butter-smooth and flecked with toasted nuts and winter-warming spices.
Some fresher notes peek through – perhaps citrus or herbs – but this is the kind of Bourbon you turn to when you want to banish anything else lingering on your palate and fill your mouth with big hitting bourbon flavours.
Pull up a tall stool, lean on the bar, breathe deeply and blow the cobwebs away.
Woodford Reserve, 43.2%
Bottles of Woodford Reserve are a common site on British drinks shelves and is another Bourbon that offers great value – a full flavoured whiskey that is both approachable for the newcomer and complex enough for repeat purchases.
We think it’s one of the most consistent performers in cocktails and is our first choice for the classic Old Fashioned.
The spirit has enough of an oaky kick to force its way through other flavours but without overwhelming, while the warming spices and sweet caramel notes help with the smooth, sophisticated feel of the Old Fashioned.
There’s also a touch of orange zestiness that not only gives the whole drink a freshness but also gets picked up by the Old Fashioned’s orange peel garnish, making it as complete a cocktail as you. could wish for
Bulleit Bourbon, 45%
Bulleit’s distinctively minimal Frontier-style, flask-shaped bottle has helped the brand become one of the Bourbon success stories of recent times.
With a high content of spicy rye it became a staple in the type of trendy cocktail bars throughout the US and the UK that not only serve great drinks but also act as influencers for the younger generation. Now, it’s hard to avoid it, being sold pretty much anywhere.
You’ll notice the rye hitting the senses from the outset with an invigorating sharp, spicy kick, before mellower sweet, aromatic toasted spices and dried fruit flavours emerge.
Just the ticket for modern cocktails.
Jim Beam White Label, 40%
Jim Beam is by quite some distance the world’s biggest selling Bourbon brand (Jack Daniel’s is classified as a Tennessee Whisky, in case you’re wondering).
They’ve been making their White Label Bourbon in the same way for well over 200 years and evidently the punters aren’t tired of it yet (the incredibly cheap price also helps).
Some may scoff, but it’s hard to find fault with a bottle of White Label – it’s smooth and fresh tasting with the requisite sweet, toasty and vanilla flavours and enough of a kick of spice to show you it means business. Goes down a treat with a good helping of cola.