12 Best Types of Bourbons to Drink in 2023 [Way to Nirvana]
Diving into the world of whiskey can be both exciting and intimidating, but one category that stands out in terms of flavor, variety, and American heritage is bourbon. As a passionately revered spirit by enthusiasts and a growing interest among those new to the whiskey scene, exploring the best types of bourbon is an enriching journey for the palate.
With an array of styles, expressions, and distilleries to discover, there's no doubt that delving into the dazzling universe of bourbon will leave you with a profound appreciation for this timeless art form. So join me as we embark on this fascinating expedition through the amber-hued landscape of America's native spirit.
Also Read: Best Bourbons For Manhattan
12 Best Types of Bourbons To Drink In 2023
Tantalizing the taste buds with a stunning array of flavors, bourbons have garnered a special place in the hearts of whiskey connoisseurs. As America's beloved native spirit, bourbon has flourished through the decades, resulting in a diverse landscape of rich and complex expressions. Let's delve into the liquid gold that awaits as we explore the 12 best types of bourbons you need to try.
1. Standard Bourbon Whiskey: A Taste of Tradition
To appreciate the rich history and classic flavors of bourbon, one must begin with the Standard Bourbon Whiskey. This timeless expression adheres to a specific set of production standards, ensuring an authentic and consistent experience for whiskey enthusiasts. By law, standard bourbon whiskey must meet the following requirements:
- Distilled from a mash bill consisting of at least 51% corn
- Aged in new, charred oak barrels
- Distilled to no more than 160 proofs (80% ABV)
- Bottled at no less than 80 proofs (40% ABV)
These regulations contribute to a distinctive flavor profile often characterized by notes of caramel, vanilla, oak, and spice. Among the classic brands worth trying are Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey. They have earned their reputations through time-tested recipes and the skilled craftsmanship of their master distillers.
Standard bourbon whiskey truly shines in its versatility. Whether enjoyed neat, as a key ingredient in whiskey-forward cocktails like Old Fashioneds and Mint Juleps, or as part of a more experimental concoction, these bourbons are a reliable foundation for both sipping and mixing.
2. Blended Bourbon Whiskey: Mastering the Blend
For a unique fusion of flavors, bourbon enthusiasts should turn their attention to Blended Bourbon Whiskey. Distinct from standard bourbon, this expression combines whiskeys from multiple distilleries and recipes. The blended approach allows for an expanded range of possibilities, often leading to innovative and novel taste profiles.
A noteworthy example of blended bourbon comes in the form of Barrell Bourbon, a brand that sources whiskey barrels from various distilleries and then skillfully marries them to create one-of-a-kind batches. This limited-edition, high-proof expressions showcase the harmonious blending of diverse components to form a compelling and unique bourbon experience.
Delving into the field of blended bourbon is an adventure of its own, challenging the perception of what defines bourbon and inviting whiskey lovers to redefine their expectations.
3. Straight Bourbon Whiskey: Purity in a Glass
Straight Bourbon Whiskey takes a stringent approach to maintaining the authenticity and tradition of bourbon production. Respected by purists, straight bourbon holds itself to an even higher standard than regular bourbon. To be considered a straight bourbon whiskey, the spirit must meet these criteria:
- No coloring, flavoring, or blending of additional spirits allowed
- Aged for a minimum of two years
- Labeled with the age if aged fewer than four years
The dedication to traditional production results in remarkably pure, unadulterated expressions of bourbon flavor. Some must-try straight bourbon brands include Knob Creek, with its rich and full-bodied character, and Elijah Craig, offering complex layers of flavor that captivate the senses.
Embracing straight bourbon whiskey opens the door to experiencing bourbon in its most unblemished form – an opportunity for whiskey aficionados to truly appreciate the mastery behind this celebrated spirit.
4. Tennessee Whiskey: The Southern Charm
Venturing beyond bourbon, we arrive at a unique, yet closely related spirit: Tennessee Whiskey. While sharing many similarities with bourbon, Tennessee whiskey differentiates itself through the Lincoln County Process. This method involves filtering the freshly distilled spirit through sugar maple charcoal before aging in barrels, bestowing a smooth and distinctive flavor.
Well-known Tennessee whiskey brands include Jack Daniel's and George Dickel. These iconic distilleries anchor the rich American whiskey heritage and showcase the beauty inherent in the Tennessee whiskey style. Although not strictly classified as bourbon, the flavor profile of Tennessee whiskey may still appeal to bourbon fans seeking to broaden their horizons.
5. Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon: Seal of Assurance
The Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon holds a unique place in bourbon history. Established with the passage of the Bottled-in-Bond Act in 1897, this type of bourbon came about as a response to the rampant adulteration of whiskey at the time. To earn the "bottled-in-bond" label, the whiskey must adhere to the following strict rules:
- Produced by one distiller at one distillery in a single distillation season
- Aged for at least four years in a federally bonded warehouse
- Bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV)
- Label must include the distillery's name and location
Bottled-in-bond bourbons, such as Old Grand-Dad Bonded and Henry McKenna Single Barrel, have garnered considerable acclaim for their quality. These whiskeys offer a reliable and authentic bourbon experience steeped in tradition and regulation.
Also Read: Best Rare Bourbons
6. Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: A True Classic
Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey is undeniably synonymous with the heritage of bourbon, as Kentucky is the birthplace of this quintessentially American spirit. While bourbon can be produced anywhere in the United States, approximately 95% of all bourbon on the market originates from Kentucky. The state's limestone-filtered water, ideal climate, and fertile soil are key factors that contribute to the exceptional quality of its bourbon.
Notable Kentucky bourbon whiskey brands include Maker's Mark, Woodford Reserve, and Buffalo Trace. These distinguished distilleries produce highly sought-after expressions that showcase the time-honored techniques and centuries of expertise that have made Kentucky bourbon a celebrated spirit worldwide.
7. Sour Mash Bourbon: Sour Sensations
An intriguing facet of bourbon production, Sour Mash Bourbon employs an ingenious technique that helps ensure consistency and enhance flavor. The sour mash process involves incorporating a portion of the previously used, fermented mash into the fresh mixture to kick-start the fermentation process. In essence, the sour mash acts as a sort of starter or catalyst.
Ushering in an impressive array of flavors, sour mash bourbons include iconic brands like Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Four Roses. Delivering a consistent and delightful drinking experience, these bourbons showcase the skillful technique that transforms the unique sour mash blend into truly remarkable spirits.
8. Corn Bourbon: Savoring the Sweetness
An essential requirement for bourbon is the use of at least 51% corn in its mash bill. However, some brands opt to use a significantly higher corn content, resulting in a Corn Bourbon. These expressions feature a sweeter and more approachable flavor profile, making them especially palatable for those new to the world of whiskey.
Leading corn bourbons brands, such as Mellow Corn and Baby Blue, highlight the delightful influence of a high-corn mash bill on whiskey's taste. Offering a soft, easy-drinking experience, corn bourbons are perfect for sipping neat or mixing into cocktails that call for a more delicate whiskey base.
9. Wheated Bourbon: Smooth Operators
Another distinctive subcategory of bourbon, Wheated Bourbon sets itself apart by substituting wheat for rye in its mash bill. This creative change results in a softer, smoother, and more approachable spirit that still manages to pack a flavorful punch.
Esteemed wheated bourbon brands include W.L. Weller, Maker's Mark and Larceny. These expressions boast a velvety texture and a gentle, refined character, making them a delightful option for those who appreciate an elegant and polished drinking experience.
10. Single Barrel Bourbon: Exclusive Sips
Celebrating the individuality and uniqueness of each cask, Single Barrel Bourbon showcases the one-of-a-kind flavor profile that emerges from just one barrel. These limited production releases highlight the nuanced variations imparted by the barrel itself, and each bottle can be considered a one-off masterpiece.
Some exceptional single-barrel bourbon options include Four Roses Single Barrel and Blanton's Original Single Barrel. As collectors' items and rare sipping experiences, single-barrel bourbons intrigue whiskey aficionados around the globe.
11. Small Batch Bourbon: A Celebration of Craftsmanship
Small Batch Bourbon is a testament to the artistry and skill of master blenders. Handpicking a select number of barrels, blenders create small-scale expressions that showcase their knowledge and expertise. These artisanal creations strike a harmonious balance between diverse barrel characteristics and the key elements of the distillery's distinctive flavor profile.
Notable small batch bourbons worth trying are Booker’s and Elijah Craig Small Batch. Revel in the masterful fusion of wood, grain, and time with these handcrafted gems that elevate the bourbon experience to new heights.
12. High-Rye Bourbon: Spicing Things Up
Putting a bolder spin on things, High-Rye Bourbon turns up the heat by incorporating a higher proportion of rye into the mash bill. This style is characterized by its spicy, assertive, and robust flavors that entice those who crave a more adventurous bourbon experience.
Top high-rye bourbon recommendations include Bulleit Bourbon and Old Forester. Brace yourself for a lively dance of flavors tingling across your palate as you savor these spirited expressions of classic bourbon with a high-rye twist.
Also Read: Best Gold Rums
The Origin Story: A Brief History of Bourbon Whiskey
Bourbon whiskey holds a deeply rooted history in the United States, with tales dating back to the late 18th century. To truly appreciate this iconic spirit, it's essential to begin with its humble beginnings and uncover the story behind its evolution.
The Early Settlers and the Birth of a Spirit
As European settlers arrived in North America, they brought along their knowledge of distillation. When English, Irish, and Scottish immigrants settled in what is now known as Kentucky, the abundance of corn and fertile land laid the foundation for the creation of an authentic American spirit. Reportedly, it was a Baptist minister and distiller by the name of Elijah Craig who first aged corn whiskey in charred oak barrels.
The Role of Politics and the Emergence of a Name
In 1780, the area that now encompasses modern-day Kentucky was Bourbon County, part of Virginia. In an attempt to boost corn production, the government offered incentives for farmers to grow corn, which led many to turn their excess crops into whiskey. This signature beverage eventually earned its name from the county, becoming widely referred to as bourbon whiskey.
Geography Matters: The Impact of Kentucky's Landscape
Kentucky's unique landscape played a significant role in shaping the distinct profile of bourbon. The state's limestone-rich soil naturally filters impurities from the water, producing a sweeter, cleaner taste. Moreover, Kentucky's climate - characterized by humid summers and cold winters - greatly impacts the aging process, as it promotes the expansion and contraction of barrels, allowing the spirit to interact with the charred oak.
A Turning Point: The Bottled-in-Bond Act
The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 served as a crucial milestone, aiming to protect consumers and establish quality standards. This act required bourbon to be distilled, aged, and bottled at the same distillery under the watchful eye of the federal government. This ensured the authenticity and purity of the spirit, shaping the industry as we know it today.
As the centuries have passed, bourbon whiskey has solidified its place as a true American classic, embodying a rich and storied past. Its captivating history offers an insight into the heart and soul of the spirit and deepens our admiration for the beverage that now graces our glasses.
Quality Matters: Bourbon Whiskey Regulations and Standards
When it comes to bourbon whiskey, understanding the regulations and quality standards is essential in appreciating the complex nature of this spirit. The United States has established legal requirements that must be met for a whiskey to be classified as bourbon.
Defining Bourbon Whiskey
To be labeled and sold as bourbon, a whiskey must possess the following characteristics:
- Produced in the United States: Contrary to popular belief, bourbon doesn't have to be solely produced in Kentucky, but it must be made within the country.
- Mash Bill Composition: Bourbon's mash bill—the combination of grains that make up the spirit—must be at least 51% corn. The remaining grains typically include rye, barley, and sometimes wheat.
- Distillation Limit: The distillation proof must be no higher than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume).
- Aging and Proofing: Bourbon must be aged in newly charred oak containers, most commonly American white oak barrels. The whiskey can't be barreled at more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume) and has no minimum aging requirement, but for a bourbon to be labeled "straight," it must be aged for a minimum of two years.
- No Additives Allowed: Straight bourbon cannot contain any added flavors, coloring, or other spirit additives. This ensures that the flavor comes purely from the grains, fermentation, and aging process.
Understanding Bourbon Categories
Various subcategories and additional terms are used to describe bourbon whiskey further. Familiarizing yourself with these classifications can help you make informed choices when selecting a bottle to purchase:
- Straight Bourbon Whiskey: As mentioned earlier, straight bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years without any additives. If aged for less than four years, the label must include its age statement.
- Bottled In Bond Bourbon Whiskey: A bourbon classified as "bottled in bond" must adhere to the Bottled-in-Bond Act regulations, including being the product of a single distillation season, from a single distillery, aged for a minimum of four years in a federally bonded warehouse, and bottled at 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume).
- Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey: Each bottle of single-barrel bourbon is sourced from a single barrel rather than being a blend of multiple barrels. This provides a unique flavor profile and individually nuanced characteristics that vary from one barrel to another.
By comprehending the bourbon whiskey regulations and standards, you'll be better equipped to make the most of your bourbon-tasting experiences. Furthermore, learning about the various categories and classifications will help you understand what makes bourbon such a highly regarded spirit.
Perfect Pairings: Bourbon Whiskey and Food Combinations
Finding the right food pairing for your chosen bourbon can elevate the tasting experience to a whole new level and reveal previously unnoticed flavors and nuances. Here are some classic pairings to try with various bourbon styles:
- Appetizers and small bites: Bold-flavored cheeses, such as blue cheese or smoked gouda, go well with high-rye bourbons, as the spices in the spirit complement the intense taste of the cheese. Similarly, charcuterie boards with a mix of salty and savory meats can help bring forth the rich sweetness in wheated bourbons.
- Barbecue and grilled meats: With its smoky and sweet character, bourbon is a natural partner for the rich, bold, and sometimes spicy flavors of barbecued and grilled meats. Succulent dishes like pulled pork and smoked brisket find their match with bourbons possessing a moderate rye content, as their spiciness cuts through the fat and enhances the smokiness.
- Seafood dishes: Lighter seafood fare, such as grilled shrimp or seared scallops, pairs well with corn bourbons due to their sweeter and milder profile, which doesn't overshadow the delicate flavors of the seafood.
- Desserts: The caramel and vanilla notes in most bourbons make them an excellent companion to desserts. Treat yourself to a slice of pecan pie, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or a piece of dark chocolate to indulge in the perfect marriage of bourbon and dessert.
Mastering the Pour: Tips to Enjoying Bourbon Whiskey in 2023
To fully appreciate the symphony of flavors and aromas bourbon whiskey has to offer, here are some expert tips to make the most of your tasting experience:
- Take it slow: Pour a small amount of bourbon into a glass, preferably a whiskey-specific nosing glass, such as a Glencairn or Tulip-shaped glass. These glasses are designed to concentrate the aromas towards the top, allowing for a more immersive olfactory experience.
- Examine the color: Observe the bourbon's color, ranging from light amber to deep mahogany, which can indicate the whiskey's age and barrel type. A darker color often suggests a longer barrel-aging process or an increased level of char.
- Swirl and sniff: Swirl the bourbon gently in the glass to release its distinctive aromas. By nosing the whiskey, you can detect various scents such as caramel, vanilla, oak, or fruit. Take your time to inhale deeply and appreciate its intricate character.
- Take a sip: Start by taking a small, slow sip of the whiskey and hold it in your mouth for a moment. Allow the liquid to coat your tongue and then swallow. Pay attention to the flavors that unfold in your mouth, and notice the subsequent finish as it evolves from initial sweetness to a lingering spiciness, warmth, or smoothness.
- Add a drop of water: A few drops of water can sometimes open up new flavors and aromas, revealing hidden depths in the bourbon. Experiment with and without water to find your personal preference and explore the complexities of your chosen whiskey.
By honing your bourbon-tasting skills and exploring food pairings, you can unlock the true potential of this diverse and captivating spirit, paving the way for countless memorable experiences.
Aging Gracefully: The Influence of Time on Bourbon Whiskey
The aging process is a crucial aspect of crafting bourbon whiskey, greatly influencing its flavor, color, and overall character. As bourbon whiskey rests in oak barrels over time, it undergoes remarkable transformations that ultimately define its unique profile.
The Role of Time in Bourbon Maturation
Unlike some spirits with regulated minimum aging periods, bourbon whiskey does not have a specific timeframe attached to its production. However, it's important to note that bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years to be classified as straight bourbon. In general, the whiskey's maturity can range from two years to several decades, with each age bracket yielding distinct characteristics:
- Young Bourbon (2-4 years): Bourbon in this age range typically exhibits a bolder, grain-forward flavor. These whiskeys tend to have a sharp and robust character, making them ideal for cocktail mixing.
- Middle-Aged Bourbon (5-9 years): As bourbon crosses the five-year mark, it begins to reveal a more balanced and refined profile. The flavors from the oak barrels start to meld with the grain, giving a smoother, rounder mouthfeel.
- Aged Bourbon (10-20 years): Bourbons in this age range typically exhibit a perfect harmony between the wood and grain flavors. They develop rich, complex notes, and their smoothness becomes more pronounced.
- Very Old Bourbon (20+ years): While considered a rarity, bourbons aged for over two decades can develop intense, deep flavors. However, there is a risk of the whiskey becoming overly oaky, potentially overpowering its subtler nuances.
Barrel Selection: The Impact of Wood and Charring on Bourbon Flavor
The type of wood and its charring process significantly impact bourbon whiskey's flavor, as well as its distinct amber color. In accordance with bourbon production regulations, the spirit must be aged in new charred oak containers, predominantly using American white oak.
The Comfort of Oak: White Oak's Influence on Bourbon Flavor
American white oak imparts several flavors and characteristics to bourbon whiskey:
- Vanillin: The oak wood contains high levels of vanillin, which contributes to bourbon's distinct vanilla notes.
- Tannins: Tannins derived from oak wood help create the spirit's astringency and contribute to its mouth-drying effect.
- Lactones: These compounds naturally occur in oak and impart the characteristic woody, coconut-like aromas to bourbon.
- Color: The interaction between the whiskey and oak wood helps develop bourbon's rich, amber hue.
Charred to Perfection: The Significance of Charring in Bourbon Production
Before filling a barrel with raw distillate, bourbon producers carefully char the inside of the oak container. The intensity of the charring—or "toast"—varies from light to heavy, each level impacting the whiskey's flavor and color differently:
- Light Toast: This level of charring brings forth caramel and butterscotch flavors from the oak's natural sugars.
- Medium Toast: A deeper charring amplifies the vanillin extraction, intensifying the vanilla notes in bourbon.
- Heavy Toast: The most intense level of charring results in a robust, smoky character, along with enhanced tannins and darker color.
The aging process and barrel selection are pivotal factors in developing bourbon whiskey's sensory experience. The delicate interplay between time, wood, and charring helps define bourbon's unmistakable charm and reveals the masterful craftsmanship behind America's beloved spirit.
Also Read: Best Tequilas For Shots
Frequently Asked Questions
What differentiates bourbon whiskey from other types of whiskey?
Bourbon whiskey must adhere to specific production guidelines, such as a minimum of 51% corn content in the mash bill, aging in new charred oak barrels, and meeting particular alcohol content standards.
Can bourbon whiskey be produced outside the United States?
While bourbon whiskey is predominantly associated with the United States, specifically Kentucky, it can be produced anywhere as long as it meets the legal requirements defining bourbon.
What is the ideal way to store bourbon whiskey?
Bourbon whiskey should be stored in a cool, dark place and kept upright to prevent alcohol from coming into contact with the cork, which may lead to evaporation or cork contamination.
What is the main flavor difference between bourbon and Tennessee whiskey?
Tennessee whiskey undergoes a unique step called the Lincoln County Process, in which the spirit is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before aging, imparting a smoother, less oaky taste compared to traditional bourbon.
How do I choose the right bourbon whiskey for my taste preferences?
Sampling different styles, brands, or expressions can help you determine your personal preference, whether you enjoy sweet, spicy, or smooth bourbons. Joining whiskey clubs, attending tastings, and learning from experts can also facilitate the process.
What does "proof" mean on a bourbon whiskey label?
Proof is a measure of alcohol content, with one degree of proof equal to 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV). For example, a 100-proof bourbon contains 50% ABV.
How long does bourbon whiskey last once the bottle is opened?
Although bourbon whiskey does not spoil, its flavor may change over time due to oxidation. To maintain its quality, it is recommended to consume an opened bottle within 1-2 years.
What is the difference between small batch and single barrel bourbons?
Small batch bourbon is typically produced by blending a select number of barrels to create a balanced, higher-quality whiskey. Single barrel bourbon is bottled from just one barrel, offering an exclusive, non-replicable taste profile.
Is older bourbon whiskey always better?
Older bourbon whiskeys tend to have more intense flavors due to the longer aging process. However, personal preferences and individual barrel quality may influence whether an older bourbon is considered "better" than a younger one.
How does the percentage of rye in a bourbon's mash bill affect its flavor?
Rye content impacts the flavor profile of bourbon, with higher rye percentages yielding a spicier, more robust taste, while lower rye contents result in a mellower, sweeter flavor.
As we come to the end of this captivating voyage through the different types of bourbon, it's clear that the world of bourbon whiskey offers a rich tapestry of flavors, aromas, and experiences waiting to be uncovered. From the smooth elegance of wheated bourbon to the bold spice of high-rye expressions, each style boasts a unique personality and charm.
By embracing the diverse landscape of bourbons, both novice tasters and seasoned connoisseurs alike will be able to deepen their appreciation for this remarkable spirit. So, raise a glass, and toast to a lifelong passion and adventure through the enchanting realm of bourbon whiskey.