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, 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.
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.
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Four Roses small batch Kentucky straight bourbon, 45%
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%
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%
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%
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%
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%
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%
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%
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.
Woodford Reserve Baccarat edition, 45.2%
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.
Frey Ranch straight bourbon
Nevada’s Frey Ranch has the proud declaration “farmers + distillers” on their bottles, and this bourbon is a product of their 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.
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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