Sunday, March 20, 2011

Best Bourbons at Any Price Point

I feel I've been drinking bourbon long enough to make this list of my favorites at any price.  I'm sure I have a few blind spots.  There are also probably some bourbons that might not make it simply because I haven't had it enough to really get to know it, as one does in the course of a bottle, e.g., a lot of folks like Basil Hayden's, but I've only had it twice--once at a friend's house and once at the Beer, BBQ, and Bourbon fest in Annapolis last year.  The prices are what I've generally seen these bottles priced at.

Under $20
You can't find anything special down here, the goal is something that is enjoyable rather than simply tolerable (or intolerable).
Winner: Early Times 354 Bourbon
This is not the regular Early Times that was not bourbon (as it was aged in reused barrels), this is a new release bourbon.  For $15 bucks I was surprised at the fancy packaging, with tasting notes and a cool picture that reveals itself as you drink the bottle down.  Was I swayed a bit by the marketing?  Sure, but it made drinking cheap bourbon fun, and I found the stuff in the bottle to be enjoyable, too.
Honorable Mentions: Evan Williams Black Label, Jim Beam and Jim Beam Choice, Old Forrester

Winner: Buffalo Trace
Jim Murray, author of Whisky Bible, calls this one of the world's great bourbons from one of the world's great distilleries.  I've heard that this is essentially the same whisky as Blanton's Single Barrel which is more than double the price.  Tons of complexity for not tons of cash.  This is what I would call my "everyday" bourbon.
Honorable Mention: Elijah Craig 12

Winner: Evan Williams Single Barrel
With price taken into account, this may be my all time favorite bourbon.  For just 25 smackers, you get the fun of drinking a 10 year old single barrel whisky, hand labeled bottle that is vintage dated, meaning it comes out once a year.  I have unopened bottles of the 99 and 00, with an eye for a future whisky party comparing vintages.  And it tastes fantastic, a lot of influence from 10 years in the barrel and a nice cinnamon finish.
Honorable Mentions: Maker's Mark, Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, Knob Creek

Winner: Woodford Reserve
This makes a lot of folks' list of favorites.  It's a nice price point when you want something a bit more special than your everyday stuff but not too pricey.   It's got just enough burn that rocks may come into play, but not necessarily, and a lot of flavor.  Also their distillery tour is great.
Honorable Mentions: Makers 46, Four Roses Single Barrel, Wild Turkey Rare Breed

Winner: Booker's
I love the wooden box, the high proof, and the note from Booker on the label.  Tons of character.  A lot of fire to it but not so much that I don't get some vanilla from the wood and some leather.  It mellows with ice in a nice way.  Sweet and spicy finish.
Honorable Mention: Noah's Mill

Winner: Pappy Van Winkle 15 year
Pappy is my all time favorite.  I described it in my tasting notes as "puckering."  Most wheated bourbons are known for being mellow, but even with 15 years in the barrel Pappy comes out red and fiery.  Another great bourbon from Buffalo Trace.
Honorable Mention: Blanton's (the entry level single barrel)

Winner: George T. Stagg
I had to hunt hard to find a bottle of this once yearly release from Buffalo Trace.  Would you believe if I told you you can actually sip it at 143 proof?  I won't judge you if you need some water, though.  The Buffalo Antique Collection is fun, next year I'd like to try another one, perhaps the Weller or the Sazerac Rye (which is incredible).
Honorable Mention: Wild Turkey Tradition


  1. this is a quality list, i'm not as familiar with the higher end of the price points, but i think i'm well enough acquainted with lower ones to comment.
    under $20: i enjoy the jim beam choice, but i've never had the 354 early times. maybe that will have to be my next bottle
    20-25: buffalo trace is great, regardless of price. i agree that its tops for this division. it could probably compete in a few of the higher divisions.
    25-30: evan williams single barrel is a terrific deal as well, easily winner of its division. i would like to see knob creek in the runners up though.
    30-40: woodford reserve is my go to favorite, so we are definitely in agreement on that. The wild turkey 101 has some good firepower too.
    the upper price brands are always good, as they should be, being what you pay for them. i'm waiting for the right time to open this pappy van winkle bottle. I'll need your tasting notes on it being that pappy is your favorite

  2. Fair enough, Knob Creek is pretty good stuff. They have a new one out, too. I'm not a huge fan of the 101, but also I think it's less than $30, right? I do love the WT Rye though, both the regular and Russel's Reserve. Maybe instead of catch weight I could do just a final 5 from any price point, bc/ I think you are right some of the cheaper ones can easily compete against higher end stuff. The thing is often it's the same bourbon, e.g. EWSB is the same as Elijah Craig 18, maybe they are going for a different taste profile but it's essentially the same stuff.

  3. you may have to reevaluate the over $60 category when you try to 23 year pappy next weekend. i figure we could get a taste the day before the bourbon festival, kick the weekend off the right way

  4. this is a great list. i'm a huge fan of the Buffalo Trace bourbons and totally agree on George T Stagg. i just found a bottle of the William Larue Weller antique collection...almost as good as the Stagg, a little less hot and almost as flavorful. i'll pick up the Evan Williams Single Barrel.

  5. Thanks for the comment CB. I do think Buffalo Trace has about the best thing going. Some of the boutique distillers are good, like High West, but BT has such a stock which lets them put out such a great range. I agree with you about William L Weller I just had this year's entry, really good but not quite as good as Stagg.

  6. Rowan's Creek is going for $32.00 at my local liquor store. I've tried all the bourbons you mentioned, and I like RC the best.