For years I was a Scotch drinker having tried only a few lower-end bourbons but I never really got into it properly and never tried any of the best bourbons.
I was not one of those snobby Scotch drinkers that look down their noses at bourbon (nobody likes those guys right), but I think I’d just never sampled anything that really grabbed me and forced me to explore the sweet and wonderful bourbon world.
That all changed when I went on holiday with a friend of mine and he brought with him a little unlabelled bottle.
It contained some George T Stagg (it was either the 2015 or 2016 I think).
Needless to say, as I would imagine is the case with most people on their first Stagg experience, it blew my proverbial socks off!
In fact, it blew them so far off I never saw those socks again.
Shame, I loved those Winne the Pooh socks. But it was ok, as I had a new love:
How Bourbon is Made
I’ll write this in layman’s terms as, to be honest, I don’t properly understand the process myself so I don’t want to get too technical and write a load of inaccurate nonsense.
I reserve that for the rest of the website – but I simply won’t allow it here.
All types of whiskey/whiskey are made by the fermentation of different grains (corn, malted barley, rye and wheat).
The predominant ingredient (at least 51%) determines the type of whiskey it is.
The process is as follows:
The main ingredient for bourbon is corn and other grains are used in varying quantities. This mixture of grains is known as the mash bill.
The grains are then cooked to form the mash.
This is then mixed with “set-back” (basically the leftovers from the previous distillation process). This is known as Sour Mash and is a unique element in American whiskey.
The mash is then fermented to produce a transparent spirit (sometimes known as White Dog).
The spirit is finally added to new charred oak barrels (usually American white oak) for the aging process. The barrel aging process is what gives bourbon both it’s color and most of its flavor.
FACT: To be called a bourbon the whiskey must be produced in the USA. It does not need to produced in Kentucky (contrary to popular belief). Approximately 95% of bourbon is produced in Kentucky however.
Why We Love Bourbon
I think the main thing is it just has an amazing core flavor profile that runs through all the best bourbons.
The corn used gives it that classic caramel sweetness that isn’t really found in any Scotch whisky, sweet Scotch is a usually different kind of sweetness more akin to honey.
Then there are other great flavors such as the vanilla you find in many bourbons.
There is also a huge variety to choose from. There are a lot of bourbons that are very good or better so you will never get bored.
Add into the mixer that there are loads of high proof bourbons that are absolute flavor bomb monsters and you can see there are countless reasons to love bourbon.
What Makes A Good Bourbon
This is a tricky question as to answer it would be a little pretentious. What is good in the whiskey world is totally subjective.
Basically, if you like the flavor when you drink it and it makes you feel good it is a good bourbon and no one has the right to tell you otherwise.
With that in mind, writing a list of the best bourbons in the world may be difficult, right?
Well, this is a list of our personal preferences for what we enjoy the most but many of the choices do correlate positively with popular opinion.
If you are using this list to find yourself a nice bottle, we’re fairly confident you won’t be disappointed by any of the choices, but you should probably have a read of the following:
How We Decided What Made the List
This article is aimed at everyone but we didn’t want to put out a list of the best bourbons in the world and for them to all be ridiculously expensive or rare to the point where you’d have to sell a kidney to get hold of one.
We don’t have the funds to purchase a lot of those kinds of bottles anyway and I’m sure most people reading this don’t either.
Some really good bourbons out there will be expensive though.
So we decided to split the list into two with the following criteria:
1. Obtainable bourbons
Readily available to the average person in terms of price
Now you are armed with this important knowledge, let’s get down to business…
7 Best Bourbons That Are Not So Obtainable
These are the bottles that may be either hard to get hold of because there isn’t enough supply and they sell out instantly upon release or are too expensive for the average person to afford.
None of us has tried the likes of Michter’s Celebration or Pappy 25 so you won’t find them on here and we have only tried the following in bars hence there are no bottle photos or full reviews to share as we don’t do reviews based on drams tasted in bars.
Most of these would be in the top 10 bourbons of all time with a few from the obtainable list mixed in.
This is just incredible.
Between us, we have tried the 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and they are all amazing. It is just a total flavor assault on the senses and a cut above anything else we’ve tried in our opinion.
A worthy winner and if you are lucky enough to find a bottle at retail or can afford the secondary prices you simply must get a bottle. Probably the best in the world right now.
George T Stagg
We are big Stagg fans. It’s just so bold and brash with an awesome flavor of course but it’s the character that really makes it stand out.
Unchillfiltered, uncut and straight from the barrel, a very powerful bourbon that takes no prisoners
Pappy Van Winkle 15
Some people rate this as the best Pappy, personally, the 23 just edges it for me but this delicious too.
Pappy is the pinnacle of the bourbon world in terms of demand and it’s not just hype, the whiskey is excellent too!
Pappy Van Winkle 23
The big daddy, this is really exquisite. Never had the honor of owning a bottle but have tried it a couple of times in bars and it is just so refined.
It does have an oakiness to it from those extra years in the barrel that some may not like, but I think it adds to the maturity of the flavor profile.
This is massively hyped due to its scarcity but it backs the hype up.
Four Roses Al Young
A blend of four different Four Roses recipes from 12-23 years old, this has been blended to perfection.
Al Young has been working at Four Roses for 50 years and this is in honor of that service and it really is phenomenal, it just has everything you could want in a bourbon.
Some say the sweet spot for bourbon age is in the 12-15 years range but this beauty definitely goes against that. Really mature flavors and an exceptional drop.
Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel
This one is without a doubt the most obtainable on the “Not So Obtainable” list but can be quite expensive. The Four Roses Single Barrel is a great bourbon.
Multiply that by 10 and that’s how good this is. You should be able to get a bottle to try if you have the Benjamin’s to spare and we urge you to do so if so.
12 Best Bourbons That Are (Reasonably) Obtainable
These are the best bourbons that are generally readily available. Obviously, this will vary depending on where you are located but we’ve tried to pick bottles that are usually on general sale in both the US and UK.
In no specific order here are our choices:
The thinking man’s bourbon! It was a close call between this and the Antique 107 but this is refined and sophisticated and that’s what edged it. Great wheated profile with light, sweet caramel, toffee, apple pie and cherry. See the full review here.
1792 Full Proof
Rated the best bourbon of 2018 at the World Whisky Awards, we’re not sure it is the very best but it is excellent with some awesome flavors at play including a rich chocolatey element mixed in with classic bourbon caramel and vanilla. Read the full review here.
Rebel Yell 10
A great choice if you like a wheated bourbon this is up there with Weller 12 in that respect. Another deliciously sweet bourbon with hints of cashew nuts and spicy rye. Can be a little tricky to find sometimes but you have to grab a bottle if you do see it. It’s an amazingly well-rounded drop, see the full review here.
Smooth Ambler Old Scout 10
Smooth Ambler don’t make bad whiskey or if they do it is news to me. This 10-year offering is one of their best and a big favorite here at Whiskeybon. It has oodles of flavor with caramel and butterscotch mixed with oak and spice, an exquisite dram and one of our highest rated bourbons. Full review here.
Old Forester 1920
This is supposedly using the same recipe that was used during Prohibition in the 1920’s hence the name. Not sure how true that is but it is an amazing bourbon, that we do know! Amazing sweet profile with banana and baking spices.
Personally, I prefer this to the more full-on Straight From The Barrel (others here disagree), it is a super smooth bourbon with a deliciously sweet flavor profile. Some lovely cinnamon and vanilla combine with an almost sickly sweet caramel. A winner for sure.
A great cask strength bourbon from Blanton’s which has a ton of classic caramel and vanilla flavors to enjoy as well as deep vanilla and brown sugar. This s the epitome of a “flavor bomb”. Be careful though, due to it’s high ABV/Proof this one will knock your socks off!
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
A beastly powerhouse of a cask strength bourbon that packs a punch and has a great flavor profile of caramel, dark fruits and vanilla. There have been several very good incarnations of this but The Hazmat, in particular, was a personal favorite and was sure to put hairs on your chest.
Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition
This is a little more expensive than others on the list but I’ve tried versions 2015-2018 and they are all consistently excellent. The flavor profiles vary considerably from year to year. I just recently got a bottle of the 130th birthday edition and that is phenomenal. See the full review here.
Best Budget Bourbons (generally under $/£ 50 – 60)
Four Roses Single Barrel
This is one of the contenders for the best pound for pound bourbon in the world (see below to find out if it won). It has a heavy caramel and fudge profile with a good amount of spice from its high rye content. Extremely well priced and always available, it’s one to always have on the shelf. Full review here.
Eagle Rare 10
A deliciously fruity bourbon with dark fruits mixed into a classic caramel profile. It is also exceptional value for a 10-year-old and up there with Four Roses Single Barrel as one of the best pound for pound drams. See the full review here.
As well as the lists we decided it would be cool to give out some awards for the best bourbons in various categories so if you are looking for something specific this may be helpful.
You may notice some contradictions like W.L. Weller being selected as the best overall but not the best wheated bourbon or Kings County Barrel Proof being selected as best craft and Balcones Baby Corn as best non-Kentucky bourbon when both are from non-Kentucky craft distilleries. Well spotted!
A couple of things to note:
The first 2 categories include all bourbon and for the rest, we tried to pick readily available and reasonably affordable stuff.
We also wanted to pick something different for each category
Without any further trips to the waffle house, here are the awards:
W.L Weller (BTAC)
Best high age (15 years +):
Pappy Van Winkle 23
Best pound for pound:
Best value budget bourbon:
Eagle Rare 10
Best barrel proof:
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
Best for beginner / first timer:
Best from a small craft distillery:
Kings County Distillery Barrel Proof
Best single barrel:
Four Roses Single Barrel
Best small batch:
Elijah Craig 12
Best bottled in bond:
Colonel EH Taylor Bottled In Bond
Rebel Yell 10
Best high rye:
Wild Turkey 101
Best smooth bourbon:
Blanton’s Gold Edition
Best non-Kentucky bourbon:
Balcones Baby Corn
This post was originally published in 2018 and then updated for 2019, 2020 and 2021.