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Best bourbon whiskeys

22 Best Bourbon Whiskey Brands: Top Shelf to Affordable

Additional reporting by Jacob Osborn and Nick Hall

If you’re a fan of the Blue Grass State, only the best bourbon whiskey will do. Sweet and rich with a big brash flavour profile, the famed spirit is a stalwart of the barroom and a favourite amongst celebrities, mixologists and those with a penchant for history, not to mention, rules. Like tequila, cognac, and Scotch whisky, bourbon has specific regulations governing its production. If you’re a bourbon fan, you know that it must be made up of 51 per cent corn, be aged new, charred American oak barrels, and be produced in the United States (among other rules). It doesn’t, however, need to be made in Kentucky. Yet, the state that birthed America’s “native spirit” is still home to 95 per cent of the total bourbon produced in the US. This means that most (if not all) of the most well-known bourbons get lucky in Kentucky.

RELATED: Best Scotch Whisky Brands

Woodford reserve

Woodford Reserve Distillery | Image: Woodford Reserve/Facebook

Best Bourbons in the World

  • Best Overal Bourbon: Buffalo Trace
  • Best for Cocktails: Maker’s Mark
  • Best for Top Shelf: Pappy Van Winkle
  • Best for Value for Money: Woodford Reserve
  • Best for Affordability: Jim Beam

How We Chose This List of Best Bourbon Whiskey Brands

This list was compiled through personal experience and online research, plus through commentary from drinks critics and expert whiskey reviewers. We only looked at bourbons with a rating of 4.0/5 or higher through Dan Murphy’s reviews and took into account the major gripes and positives from the public. We also studied a series of reviews from prominent critics and online publications, allowing us to cull it down to the best bourbon whiskey brands.

Best Bourbon Brands

Exploring the wide world of bourbon whiskey–not to mention trying the best bourbons–is among the most rewarding hobbies an adult male can pursue. Indeed, what’s better than a hobby that combines the thrill of the hunt with an array of flavours and the warm touch of inebriation? Nothing, that’s what (okay, almost nothing). And if you disagree, then you probably haven’t tried the world’s best bourbons yet. Or maybe you’ve tasted some of them, but not the one that will change your life. While there are myriad great bourbons produced in far-flung states like Wyoming, California, Texas, and even New York, the eighteen best bourbon whiskey brands (in our opinion) all come from Kentucky. If you’re a bourbon aficionado, you won’t be surprised by this as giant distilleries like Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, and Buffalo Trace are all located there.

We get it, the idea that given all the different bourbon brands, we could make a list of the eighteen best is hard to fathom. Obviously, there is no way to make a definitive list free of argument. But we like to think even the most ardent bourbon purists would agree with at least most of these selections. If you disagree, let us know. But we believe the brands listed below are the best bourbon brands available today. Keep scrolling to see them all and let the debate begin.

1 van winkle

Van Winkle | Image Dan Murphy’s

1. Van Winkle

Best for: Top Shelf

When it comes to bourbon brands, there are few as well-known and sought-after as Pappy Van Winkle. The ultimate unicorn brand, the Buffalo Trace-produced line of Pappy Van Winkle expressions Named for bourbon pioneer Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr., the line includes Old Rip Van Winkle as well as Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve. There are few more awarded, hard-to-find expressions than those of Pappy Van Winkle. If you get a chance to try some, don’t hesitate. You might never get another chance.

Location: Frankfort, Kentucky
Founded in: 1994
Best-known expression: Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year

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2 george t stagg

George T. Stagg

2. George T. Stagg

Another Buffalo Trace-produced brand, George T. Stagg is named for the man who built one of the biggest distilleries of the 19th century (now known as Buffalo Trace). This uncut, unfiltered, barrel-proof bourbon brand named for the whiskey innovator comes in two different expressions. The first, George T. Stagg, was matured in new, charred oak casks for a minimum of 15 years. The result is a bold, complex whiskey with hints of raisins, pipe tobacco, vanilla, and charred wood. The second, George T. Stagg, Jr, was aged for at least eight years and carries flavours of dried cherries, honey, and toasted vanilla beans.

Location: Frankfort, Kentucky
Founded in: 2002
Best-known expression: George T. Stagg

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3 buffalo trace

Buffalo Trace

3. Buffalo Trace

Best for: Overall Bourbon

Arguably the world’s best bourbon whiskey, Buffalo Trace is serious value for money. Over two centuries, the icon has churned out incredible releases, been named the best distillery in the world and even managed to create its own line of cigars. Sure, the distillery is known for producing legendary drams like Pappy Van Winkle and WL Weller, the stock standard release is still a certified winner in our books. A workhorse in every sense of the word, the core expression features a mash bill that is slightly lower in rye content, giving it a much sweeter finish that pairs perfectly with soda. According to Sydney whiskey expert Aaron Shuttleworth, Buffalo Trace isn’t just a quality drop on its own, but a multi-faceted distillery that is responsible to some of the best bourbon labels in the world.

“My top bourbon brand has to be Buffalo Trace, the most highly awarded distillery in the world (of any spirit), “he says. “The distillery is home to some of the best bourbons on the market, including Willet, Van Winkle, Eagle Rare, George T Stagg, Blanton’s, Ancient Age, as well as its eponymous label.

Location: Frankfort, Kentucky
Founded in: 1775
Best-known expression: Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

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4 woodford reserve

Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

4. Woodford Reserve

Smack dab in the middle of Kentucky’s horse country, Woodford Reserve gets its name from the county (Woodford) it’s located in. With its roots beginning in 1812 (although the brand didn’t launch until the ‘90s), the distillery is listed as a National Historic Landmark. Well-known for its small-batch whiskeys the brand makes straight malt whiskey, rye whiskey, and various other limited-edition and experimental expressions. Obviously, its roots are firmly entrenched in bourbon and that’s what it does best. According to Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris, the best stock comes from Warehouse C, one of the oldest maturation spots in the Versailles house.

“I love to hear people say that Warehouse C is where the “magic” happens. In some respects that statement is true,” he said. “The science of maturation has been studied for decades as has the impact of the oak barrel. While we now know a lot about the results of oak exposure and the maturation process, of temperature changes, length of time in barrel, barrel entry proof and more – there is still some mystery about how it happens. We just do not know. So, maturation is best described as being both “art and science.”

Location: Versailles, Kentucky
Founded in: 1996
Best-known expression: Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon

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5 w l weller

W.L. Weller 12-Year-Old | Image: Buffalo Trace Distillery

5. W.L. Weller

Buffalo Trace has a habit of naming brands after whiskey pioneers and W.L. Weller is no different. Named for William Larue Weller, a whiskey salesman and a man who once hired Pappy Van Winkle to work for him, the brand consists of seven of the most sought-after whiskeys on the market. This includes unicorn bottles like W.L. Weller 12 Year, W.L. Weller Special Reserve, William Larue Weller, and W.L. Weller C.Y.P.B. There are few brands with more hard-to-find, iconic expressions than W.L. Weller.

Location: Frankfort, Kentucky
Founded in: 1849
Best-known expression: W.L. Weller 12 Year

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6 russells reserve

Russell’s Reserve 10-Year-Old

6. Russell’s Reserve

Wild Turkey is well-known in the whiskey world. But its offshoot Russell’s Reserve is the brand that’s received all the acclaim in the last decade. If you’re a fan of bourbon, you’ve heard of whiskey legend Jimmy Russell, the longtime master distiller of Wild Turkey. But his son Eddie has more than thirty years of experience of his own. This is why he created Russell’s Reserve as a way to pay tribute to the over 90 years of distilling experience between the pair. First released in 1998, the brand has grown to include multiple different bourbons and ryes, including the much sought-after Russell’s Reserve 13-Year-Old.

Location: Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
Founded in: 1998
Best-known expression: Russell’s Reserve 13-Year-Old

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7 makers mark

Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight

7. Maker’s Mark

Best for: Cocktails

If you’ve ever stumbled into a dimly-lit cocktail bar and asked for a whiskey cocktail, chances are you’ve already tried Maker’s Mark. A staple of barrooms across the globe, the spirit is one of the most versatile on the market, making it the ideal accompaniment for cocktails. Specifically, Maker’s Mark uses wheat as a flavouring grain in the mash bill instead of the usual rye, giving a softer finish that is far more palatable for the novice drinker. We’re big fans of the Maker’s 46, arguably the label’s most iconic release, due to its use of different proprietary wood staves, which ultimately deliver a far more balanced flavour.

Founder: T. William Samuels Sr
Founded: 1953
Best-known expression: Maker’s 46

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8 old forester

Old Forester 86 Proof

8. Old Forester

Its name is very appropriate because no bourbon has been continuously distilled, bottled, and sold longer than Old Forester. On top of that, Old Forester was the first brand to sell its expressions in sealed bottles in 1870. Founded by a former pharmaceutical salesman named George Garvin Brown, Old Forester is a brand that has one foot in the contemporary distilling world while having another firmly planted in the past. It’s well-known for its prohibition-style bourbons that are crafted to taste the same way they did over 100 years ago when the brand was founded.

Location: Louisville, Kentucky
Founded in: 1870
Best-known expression: Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style Bourbon

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9 eagle rare

Eagle Rare

9. Eagle Rare

Bourbon fans know all about Eagle Rare. This highly coveted brand has won countless awards over the years and there might be no more aptly named bourbon brand. This small batch bourbon brand is known just as much for its high quality as it is for its difficulty of being found in the wild. While its 10-year-old expression isn’t tremendously difficult to stumble upon online and at liquor retailers, its 17-year-old and Double Eagle Rare bourbons are almost impossible to find without paying ridiculous secondary market prices.

Location: Frankfort, Kentucky
Founded in: 1975
Best-known expression: Eagle Rare 17-Year-Old

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10 wild turkey

Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight

10. Wild Turkey

Best for: Value for Money

Besides Jim Beam, there are few names in the bourbon world more well-known than Wild Turkey. Sometimes referred to as the “Buddha of Bourbon”, the brand’s longtime master distiller Jimmy Russell has been crafting high-quality bourbon and other whiskeys for more than 60 years. The distillery makes a wide range of bourbons and rye whiskeys from bargain expressions like its classic Wild Turkey 101 to its award-winning Master’s Keep range of whiskeys.

Location: Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
Founded in: 1855
Best-known expression: Wild Turkey 101

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11 parkers heritage

Parker’s Heritage Wheat Whiskey

11. Parker’s Heritage

This line of whiskeys, named for late Master Distiller Parker Beam, is known for its special, limited-edition, highly coveted expressions. Currently in its 15th iteration, over the years the releases have been rye, wheat whiskeys, and most often bourbons. While the 2021 version was a wheat whiskey, the 2020 version was a ten-year-old bourbon highlighted by notes of candied orange peels, maple candy, vanilla, and oaky wood char.

Location: Bardstown, Kentucky
Founded in: 2007
Best-known expression: Parker’s Heritage Heavy Char Bourbon

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12 jeffersons bourbon

Jefferson’s Bourbon Very Small Batch

12. Jefferson’s Bourbon

While many of the bigger brands have long histories, Jefferson’s Bourbon has only been a brand since 1997 when Trey Zoeller and his bourbon historian father Chet launched it. To say that the brand is known for experimenting and pushing the envelope is a bit of an understatement. While it makes other whiskeys, Jefferson’s is most known for its Jefferson’s Ocean: Aged at Sea. This bourbon is actually aged at sea. It’s matured in barrels on a ship as it travels around the world. The newest version will be aged as long as eight years on the open ocean.

Location: Crestwood, Kentucky
Founded in: 1997
Best-known expression: Jefferson’s Ocean: Aged at Sea

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13 four roses

Four Roses

13. Four Roses

The story of Four Roses revolves around its founder Paul Jones, Jr. and a southern belle who showed up at an elegant ball wearing a corsage of (you guessed it) four roses. He decided to name his bourbon brand in honor of this woman who stole his heart. Like Wild Turkey and other brands, Four Roses has a nice range of bourbons that start relatively inexpensive and work their way up beginning with its bargain-priced yellow-labeled Four Roses Kentucky Straight bourbon and ending with various limited-edition expressions.

Location: Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
Founded in: 1884
Best-known expression: Four Roses Single Barrel

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14 knob creek

Knob Creek 9-Year-Aged

14. Knob Creek

One of the most well-known expressions in Jim Beam’s small batch line of whiskeys (along with Booker’s, Baker’s, and Basil Hayden), Knob Creek is known for its high-quality, high-end bourbons and ryes that are all aged in heavily charred American oak barrels. One of the most interesting aspects of this line of whiskeys is the high level of alcohol. Besides its 90-proof Smoked Maple bourbon, there are no expressions under 100-proof.

Location: Clermont, Kentucky
Founded in: 1992
Best-known expression: Knob Creek 9-Year

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15 elijah craig

Elijah Craig Small Batch 1789

15. Elijah Craig

While it’s likely just a story, some believe that Elijah Craig, a former Baptist minister invented bourbon when he decided to age his corn whiskey in charred oak barrels. Whether or not this legend is true, it doesn’t really matter since he still has a line of bourbon and rye whiskeys named after him. The signature bourbon is Elijah Craig Small Batch, a hand-selected, award-winning readily available whiskey.

Location: Bardstown, Kentucky
Founded in: 1986
Best-known expression: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

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16 michters

Michter’s Straight Rye

16. Michter’s

Michter’s traces its history to 1753 when Swiss Mennonite brothers Michael and Johann Schenk opened the distillery that would later be known as Michter’s. Today, the brand is most known for its single barrel and small batch whiskeys with its US-1 range being its most well-known. They include sour mash, rye, American whiskey, and bourbon. The brand also makes a handful of limited edition whiskeys including 10, 20, 25, and various special releases, the latter of which Shuttleworth believes is a must-buy. “Michters Distillery, established in 1753 and some of the best-aged bourbons on the market. If you see the 20 or 25 year old, grab it and run,” he says.

Location: Louisville, Kentucky
Founded in: 1753
Best-known expression: Michter’s 10 Year

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17 old fitzgerald

Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond

17. Old Fitzgerald

With a name like Old Fitzgerald, you can assume this brand has more than a century of history. This award-winning, long-aged range produced by Heaven Hill gets its notable, soft, mellow flavor from the addition of wheat instead of the usual rye in the mash bill. Part of the appeal of this brand is the fact that it isn’t always readily available (besides the 80-proof version). Every fall and spring, a new bottled-in-bond expression is released and they are always heavily sought-after by bourbon fans.

Location: Bardstown. Kentucky
Founded in: 1884
Best-known expression: Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond

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18 1792

1792 Barrel Select

18. 1792 Bourbon

1792 Bourbon is a well-regard brand in the bourbon world. Known for its hand-selected barrels and high-rye recipe, the classic 1792 Small Batch is robust, rich, and a great combination of vanilla beans, butterscotch, and spicy cracked black pepper. Besides the Small Batch expression, the brand also produces limited-edition expressions like Sweet Wheat, Aged 12 Years, High Rye, and Full Proof.

Location: Bardstown, Kentucky
Founded in: 2002
Best-known expression: 1792 Small Batch

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19 jim beam

Jim Beam White Label

19. Jim Beam

Best for: Affordability

Is there a bigger name in the bourbon world than Jim Beam? Likely not. The Clermont, Kentucky-based brand produces myriad Jim Beam products including the iconic, always cheap, and reliable Jim Beam White Label as well as Booker’s, Bakers, Knob Creek, Basil Hayden, Old Overholt, and Old Grand-Dad. There are few distilleries that better bridge the gap between cheap and expensive bourbons.

Location: Clermont, Kentucky
Founded in: 1795
Best-known expression: Jim Beam White Label

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20 e h taylor jr

E.H. Taylor, Jr.

20. E.H. Taylor, Jr.

You won’t find many bourbons more difficult to find than E.H. Taylor (besides Pappy Van Winkle). Named for whiskey innovator Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr, this line of whiskeys is actually aged in barrelhouses that were built by E.H. Taylor himself. These mellow, easy-sipping, very limited whiskeys include E.H. Taylor, Jr. Small Batch, E.H. Taylor, Jr. Single Barrel, E.H. Taylor, Jr. Barrel Proof, and a few others.

Location: Frankfort, Kentucky
Founded in: 2013
Best-known expression: E.H. Taylor, Jr. Single Barrel

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21 bookers

Booker’s

21. Booker’s

Named after its own creator, Booker Noe (grandson to Jim Beam), Booker’s was the first mainstream label to offer drinkers a taste of pure, uncut bourbon. Specifically, the brand refused to water down its whiskey when it launched back in 1988, subsequently giving birth to a barrel proof craze that’s more popular today than it ever was. Even with a slew of labels following suit, the originator still holds its own by way of a smooth, sweet and spicy body.

Manufacturer: Beam Suntory
Origin: Kentucky, USA

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Kings County Distillery Straight Bourbon | Image: Kings County Distillery

Kings County Distillery Straight Bourbon | Image: Kings County Distillery

22. Kings County Distillery.

A lesser known name in the bourbon whiskey scene, Kings County Distillery is a true love affair to American distillation. A favourite of bourbon expert Shuttleworth, the brand is best known for crafting unique drops the old-fashioned way, following practices carved out over centuries in Kentucky.In a rare move, this brand also offers a peated bourbon option, which walks the line between Islay Scotch and traditional Kentucky releases. “Kings County Distillery began as the smallest commercial distillery in the US before moving to its current home at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 2012, ” he explians. “Scottish copper pot stills, open fermentation and local grain make for a singularly unique take on the category.”

Location: Brooklyn, New York
Founded in: 2010
Best-known expression: Straight Bourbon

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What is Bourbon Whiskey?

While you might be a fan of the flavour, it may surprise you to know that not all bourbon whiskies are created equal, despite some fairly strict regulations. Whiskey is a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash, and bourbon is a form of whiskey. As Shuttleworth explains, there are some key differences between bourbon and other whiskey products, such as Scotch or Australian whisky.

“Bourbon is a far more rigidly defined category, whereas Australian whisky is currently the Wild West,” he says. “Australian whisky is generally characterised as a spirit made from cereal grain that smells, tastes and looks like whisky, has been aged in wood for at least two years and has been bottled at a minimum of 37%ABV. With bourbon, however, there are lots of regulations surrounding where it’s made, ingredients, what it’s aged in, for how long, and the ABV it goes in and comes out at.”

According to the whiskey expert, to qualify specifically as bourbon, the whiskey must contain a mash bill (i.e. the mix of base grains used to make the spirit) of at least 51 per cent corn. In addition to the corn, the mash bill will usually consist of grains such as malted barley, rye, or wheat. When bourbon is made using wheat instead of rye, it’s a “wheated” bourbon. All bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels, and all “straight” bourbon must sit in those barrels for at least two years.

Bourbon Whiskey History

Bourbon whiskey is a type of American whiskey, with its origins dating back to the 1820s, with consistent use beginning in Kentucky in the 1870s, according to the University of Kentucky. The name derives from the French Bourbon dynasty, however the exact inspiration for bourbon whiskey’s name is unknown; likely candidates include Bourbon County, Kentucky and Bourbon St, New Orleans, both also named after the French Royal House of Bourbon. While bourbon is now made anywhere in the world, it is strongly associated with the American South – in particular, Kentucky.

What Makes for Good Bourbon Whiskey?

While everything from ingredients, equipment, climate, distillation methods, and more can play a role when distinguishing one bourbon from the next, most good bourbons are the result of proper aging. Specifically, the highest-quality, top-shelf bourbon is usually aged no less than seven years, and no more than 12. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to the rule (including some entries on our list of best bourbons), but generally speaking, 7-12 years of aging allows the distillate to suck up a perfect amount of flavour and texture from the oak, without resorting to overkill. In turn, the bourbon retains a beautiful colour of dark or golden amber, while deftly balancing flavour, smoothness, and texture that you would expect from a high-end bourbon whiskey.

That said, not all the best bourbons are automatically “smooth” per se, at least not in the traditional sense. Indeed, some of the foremost whiskey brands (Wild Turkey for instance) mark their respective territory by way of robust flavour, ample spice, and a high (or relatively high) proof. As a result, there’s going to be some heat present on every sip, the kind of which you can feel in your chest. Nevertheless, the spirit still qualifies for the list of what is good bourbon, sometimes even top bourbon. It’s when the whiskey goes down hot, lacks complexity, and retains thin texture, then it’s likely bourbon of low quality. This most commonly occurs when the distillate isn’t aged for a long enough period of time, or when an expert isn’t overseeing the whole process, to begin with.

What to Look For When Buying Bourbon

When it comes to buying bourbon for the home liquor cabinet, there are some major considerations to keep front of mind. Whether you are looking for something specific and rich with unique flavour notes, or simply a classic bourbon for cocktail making, it pays to know your product, whiskey expert Aaron Shuttleworth says. According to the spirits veteran, quality research never goes astray.

“Any booze is a vastly subjective pursuit and my taste might be very different to yours,” the bourbon whiskey expert reveals. “Brands that have history and pedigree are a good bet. Just because their entry-level costs less than the craft brand doesn’t negate quality; they have built scale and consistency over the years that newer distilleries struggle to compete with. There are always exceptions to the rule, though.”

Bourbon Basics

Bourbon can be a confusing spirit, so it’s worth getting your basics down pat. Unlike Scotch, it isn’t subject to the same stipulations, however, it does have some specifics that separate it from all others. Here’s what you need to know about bourbon.

  • Does all bourbon have to be made in Kentucky? – While the Kentucky Distillers’ Association claims that 95 per cent of the world’s supply comes from Kentucky, it’s not a requirement. Under the regulations set out by federal standards, bourbon can be produced more or less anywhere, however, the federal standards governing the identity of bourbon stipulate that it is a ‘distinctive product of the United States’. Further to that, ‘the word “bourbon” must not be used to describe any whiskey or whiskey-based distilled spirits not produced in the United States’.
  • What is the difference between bourbon and whiskey? – Put simply, bourbon is a type of whiskey, so there isn’t a major difference between the two, however, there are some characteristics that are exclusive to bourbon. Specifically, all bourbons must be made from a mash that contains at least 51 per cent corn and contain no additives. Furthermore, it must be distilled at 160 proof or less and stored in charred new oak barrels.
  • What does bottled-in-bond mean? – Bottled-in-bond refers to the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. Under these guidelines, the spirits must be the product of one distilling season from one distillery and bottled at 100 proof. It must also be aged for at least four years in a federally bonded warehouse.

Alternatives to Best Bourbon Whiskey Brands

If you’re not quite aboard the bourbon train or looking for something a little different in the whiskey scene, why not check out our articles on some of the other great drams from across the world?

General FAQ

What is the top selling bourbon?

While production records do indicate that Jim Beam 'White Label' is the world's top selling bourbon, new data from online marketplace Drizly suggest that Bulleit Bourbon is the top-selling. The brand reportedly topped Drizly most sold list for 2020. .

What are the best bourbon brands?

Some of the best bourbon brands are Jim Beam, Four Roses, Knob Creek, Maker's Mark and more!

What is the most expensive bourbon in the world?

Michter's Sour Mash Whiskey Celebration is the most expensive bourbon in the world, costing over $5,150 per bottle.

CONTRIBUTOR

Christopher Osburn

Christopher Osburn is a pop culture, travel, food, and drinks writer located in New York. He's been writing professionally since 2006 when he got a job as a beer columnist at his local newspaper. Since then, the culture and drinks expert has written for Men's Journal, Thrillist, Esquire, Food & Wine, Uproxx, Matador, Maxim, and many more sites and magazines.