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10 best bourbon whiskeys you need in your drinks cabinet

American whiskey is on the rise and these bottles celebrate its new popularity in the UK and beyond

Nick Moyle
Tuesday 12 October 2021 17:12
<p>The spirit must be made in the US from a minimum of 51 per cent corn and aged in charred new oak to qualify as a bourbon</p>

The spirit must be made in the US from a minimum of 51 per cent corn and aged in charred new oak to qualify as a bourbon

Bourbon used to have a poor reputation in the UK: it was cheap, it was often portrayed as a rough drink in films and, of course, it wasn’t Scotch.

But now times have changed and we’re lapping the stuff up. That’s thanks in part to the revival of bourbon-based cocktails such as the Old Fashioned and Manhattan, along with slick TV shows such as Mad Men that show them off in a kinder light.

There’s now a vast choice of bourbons to be had, with new products being imported at an ever increasing rate. Which is great news for keen bourbon drinkers but does mean deciding on your next purchase is now much harder than it has ever been.

To help you on your way we’ve put together this list of old favourites and new arrivals, with enough choice for those looking to either expand their collection or discover a winning brand for a first foray into bourbon territory.

Many of them compare very favourably for price with Scotch whisky, but that doesn’t mean they’re lacking in quality – much of the cheapest whiskey, from the biggest American brands, is produced to an exceptionally high standard.

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How we tested

To select our favourites, we were looking for depth of flavour, sippability and value for money. So whether you’re buying to mix up some cocktails or are looking for a neat-sipping treat, these ten bourbons won’t let you down.

The best bourbon whiskeys for 2021 are:

  • Best overall – Four Roses small batch Kentucky straight bourbon, 45%: £31.20,
  • Best hand-crafted bourbon – Peerless small batch bourbon, 54.9%: £72,
  • Best for easy sipping – FEW bourbon, 46.5%: £55.95,
  • Best for bourbon beginners – Michter’s US*1 small batch Kentucky straight bourbon, 45.7%: £55,
  • Best budget buy – Maker’s Mark 46, 47%: £34.90,
  • Best slow burner – Yellowstone select, 46.5%: £46.95,
  • Best newcomer – Wilderness Trail single barrel bourbon, 50%: £65,
  • Best for depth of flavour – Eagle Rare 10 year old, 45%: £33.95,
  • Best farm distillery bourbon – Frey Ranch straight bourbon, 45%: £54.95,
  • Best for a splash of luxury – Woodford Reserve Baccarat edition, 45.2%: £1,500,

Four Roses small batch Kentucky straight bourbon, 45%, 70cl

Best: Overall

This whiskey exemplifies the great value to be had in the bourbon world. Each bottling is hand-crafted from a blend of four bourbon casks and the result is well noted for a sweet, smooth sipping character that makes it popular with both bourbon beginners and bartenders alike. It’s creamy with light fruit flavours and a dusting of spices, while some subtle almond and oak notes lend it a more complex finish.

Peerless small batch bourbon, 54.9%, 75cl

Best: Hand-crafted bourbon

Although Peerless Distilling dates back to the 1880s, it will be an unfamiliar name to many in the UK, with its limited releases only being exported in any great number last December. This bourbon is hand-crafted, right down to the charring of the barrels with wood fires, producing a forest of toffee-coated flavours including spicy wood, earthy moss and even some floral touches. 

FEW bourbon, 46.5%, 70cl

Best: For easy sipping

It’s not just Kentucky distilleries that have the bourbon-making knack, as this product of Illinois proves. It has a huge depth of flavour, with a whack of rye punctuating every sip with its lively spices, while some rich toffee sweetness gives it maximum sippability – aided by a slightly slippery, oily texture. A powerful bourbon that is manageable with nothing but ice, but can also give an extra kick to cocktails.

Michter’s US*1 small batch Kentucky straight bourbon, 45.7%, 70cl

Best: For bourbon beginners

This top notch whiskey is very much an archetypal bourbon, made in small batches and bursting with spicy, fruity flavours. There’s sweet vanilla and soft, ripe fruits that aid neat sipping, while the charring to the American oak barrels help to push forward some powerful pepper and cinnamon flavours that make it equally effective in cocktails. An ideal choice if you’re looking to get your bourbon bearings before heading in other directions.

Maker’s Mark 46, 47%, 70cl

Best: Budget buy

Maker’s Mark bourbon is one of the best budget buys arounds; Maker’s Mark 46 is for those in search of whiskey with extra spice. To produce this variant on the classic expression, seared French oak staves were inserted into the barrels, which has wrapped the spirit in a warming cloak of cinnamon, nutmeg and other mulling spices. 

You’ll notice some toffee sweetness up front, and a green pepper twist to the finish, but it’s that long taste of woody, wintery spices that makes the biggest mark on this bourbon.

Yellowstone select, 46.5%, 70cl

Best: Slow burner

There’s a creamy mellowness to this bourbon that makes it seem rather a simple sip at first, but once your palate is introduced to the oak and rye spices you’ll start to find other subtleties emerging. Sweet and charred corn flavours mingle with a hint of caramel; a wisp of smoke weaves some further magic; and there’s even a minty tingle that joins those prickly spices. 

Wilderness Trail single barrel bourbon, 50%, 75cl

Best: Newcomer

Launched in 2012, Wilderness Trail is one of the new breed of Kentucky distilleries. This single barrel bourbon has an unusually high ratio of wheat in the mash bill at 24 per cent (with 64 per cent corn and 12 per cent barley) and is bottled in bond after at least five years maturing in virgin oak casks. There are buttery biscuit and cereal flavours to be savoured along with a drizzle of honey sweetness and a toasty, peppery finish that lingers. A simple, moreish kind of bourbon.

Eagle Rare 10 year old, 45%, 70cl

Best: For depth of flavour

This 10 year old bourbon from the Buffalo Trace distillery is another that offers exceptional value. It has a sweet ginger flavour that can immediately brighten up a gloomy mood and some scorched orange and leathery oak flavours that give it a depth of character. All that and a splendid looking bottle too.

Frey Ranch straight bourbon, 45%, 75cl

Best: Farm distillery bourbon

Nevada’s Frey Ranch has the proud declaration “farmers + distillers” on its bottles, and this bourbon is a product of its own grown corn, rye, wheat and barley. There’s an enticing aroma of sweet vanilla and it has a smooth, creamy feel in the mouth that binds the flavours together into a syrup of soft fruits, sun-scorched grass, sweet pine and earthy spice. 

Woodford Reserve Baccarat edition, 45.2%, 70cl

Best: For a splash of luxury

There may be many bargains in the bourbon world, but there are also extravagant purchases to be had. For a £1,500 investment, this release has been finished for three years in Cognac XO casks and is presented in a swanky Baccarat Crystal bottle. Its flavour has riches aplenty, with dried fruit, vanilla, cinnamon and creamy swirls of dark and light chocolate among them. If you’re looking for a cheaper upgrade on Woodford Reserve’s excellent standard expression, then look out for the equally delicious, sweet and toasty double oaked bourbon instead.

Bourbon whiskeys FAQs

What is bourbon?

Bourbon is a brown whiskey named after Bourbon County in Kentucky, where most of the stuff is produced. To be classed as such, it needs to be distilled from at least 51 per cent corn, while the rest is made from barley, rye and wheat. It then needs to be aged in American oak barrels, bringing out that deep brown colour and distinct smokey flavour.

What is the difference between whiskey and bourbon?

Put simply, it’s the way they are distilled and aged. While bourbon is a whiskey – fermented from grain and barrel-aged – not all whiskeys are bourbons. This is because not all have been distilled using the same grains, or the same barrels, as bourbon.

Is bourbon sweeter than scotch whiskey?

Generally, bourbon will be sweeter than scotch. This is because the later is distilled mostly from barley, while bourbon is distilled from 51 per cent corn, to create a sweeter taste. This sweetness however will also depend on the ratio of grains used (the more corn, the sweeter the taste, while more rye creates a spicier flavour.

The verdict: Bourbon whiskeys

There are some great new arrivals in the UK, as this list shows, but for sheer value we’ve picked out Four Roses as our best buy.

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Why not whet your whistle with our review of the best vermouths, or the best gins for your home bar cart

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.

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