Bourbons You Can Actually Buy
I recently attended a bourbon pairing birthday party for a dear friend. As you might imagine, the conversation turned to America's native spirit. One of the attendees asked, "What's the best bourbon, say, between $40 and $50?" I confess, I was caught a bit flat-footed.
As I was ruminating that, he quickly followed up with the phrase "... that you can actually find and buy". Now, you did it! That is much tougher. There are many fine bourbons out there and they don't all have initials that are PVW, EH, or start with the letter B, as many of those just can't be found on an everyday, consistent basis. Here are my picks that are readily found on a consistent basis in most stores and are easily available in quantity.
With bourbon's popularity, and bourbon inflation, this category has become a little thinner than it once was. While many instinctively reach for the black labeled Evan Williams as an everyday pour, it's upscaled sibling Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond carries a higher proof and loads of flavor. Sporting a mash bill of 78% corn, 10% rye, and 12% malted barley, it is bottled at 100 proof and carries the bottled-in-bond moniker. This is a caramel and vanilla forward, with a touch of brown sugar and spice, that is smooth and well-balanced.
Introduced in 1992, Larceny is our only wheated bourbon in the lineup and comes from Evan William's parent Heaven Hill. Containing 68% corn, 20% wheat, and 12% malted barley. Larceny carries plenty of vanilla along with some fruitier notes. While great on its own, Larceny is an outstanding mixer for your favorite cocktail.
$20 - $30
This is a popular sweet-spot for many everyday bourbons for the masses. Our first exceptional pick in this category is Knob Creek Small Batch. Once carrying a 9-year age statement, then removed for a couple of years, it is once again proudly bearing its age. Bottled at 100 proof, this shares a mash bill with the flagship Jim Beam brand - 75% corn, 13% rye and 12% malted barley. With a dark copper tint, this is a vanilla, maple and brown sugar bomb that tastes like a warm fried apple pie. The finish is long, delivering waves of subtle oak and spice. One popular writer shares, "I could drink the sh*t out of this every day". I couldn't agree more.
Another great offering at this price point is also from Heaven Hill - Elijah Craig Small Batch. Carrying the same mash bill as our earlier Evan Williams selection, this product is bottled at a slightly lower 94 proof and is a blend of 8-12-year-old barrels. This carries a lovely, traditional nose of sweet caramel, vanilla, and oak. Oak and vanilla cascade on the palate along with a slight nuttiness with any oaky-cinnamon finish.
$30 - $40
At this price you're quickly reaching what is considered the premium bourbon category. While many often reach for Wild Turkey 101 in the prior category, the 10-Year age-statement on Russell's Reserve and a slightly lower proof (90) have many reaching for this on an everyday basis. The mash bill is classic Wild Turkey: 75% corn, 13% rye and 12% malted barley. Vanilla and spice are prominent, along with leather and even some tobacco notes. The flavors are layered and exceptionally balanced.
This price-point also prominently highlights Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select. Bottled at 90.4 proof (not 90; not 91), this bourbon begins with a mash bill of 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% malted barley. This is classic bourbon, with rich and layered notes of vanilla, caramel, toffee, cocoa notes and even a little bit of orange rind. While perfect in a Mint Julep or cocktail, this is a bourbon that drinks exceptionally well neat.
$40 - $50
Once more difficult to find, I'm seeing Blade and Bow more often on the shelf instead of behind the counter or in the glass case. Produced by Diageo, Blade and Bow contains a blend of bourbon distilled by the Stitzel-Weller Distilling Company and other straight bourbons (check out our review to learn more about the solera system utilized). The mash bill isn't disclosed, but this 91-proof product carries honey and fruit notes balanced by oak and light spice.
Wilderness Trail Small Batch is a high-rye selection in our lineup. Carrying a mash bill of 64% corn, 24% rye, and 12% malted barley, not only is this bourbon bottled-in-bond, but it also utilizes the more difficult sweet-mash process (check out our review to learn more). On the palate, you'll experience vanilla, butterscotch, marzipan and warm fruits along with honey-drizzled cornbread. This is an incredibly complex and layered delicious treat.
$50 - $60
We're approaching the upper-end of our list. Here, you're likely to run into some great bourbons as well as some local, craft bourbons that may be hit-or-miss. One that won't disappoint is Old Forester 1920 - part of the Whiskey Row lineup that pays homage to a Prohibition-style medicinal whiskey product. Don't let the 115-proof scare you, you won't experience the heat and burn generally associated with higher proofs. Instead, you'll pick up incredible notes of baking spices, classic vanilla, layered gently with florals and botanicals. Complex and wonderfully balanced, this is a great one to share with friends.
Last, but certainly not least, Four Roses Small Batch Select exemplifies true craft distillation in delivering an exceptional product. Master Distiller Brent Elliott utilizes 2 high-rye mash bills and 3 yeast strains to craft this expression (check out our review for the entire recipe). The finished product is bottled at 104 proof and is non-chill filtered, creating a creamier mouthfeel. On the nose, you'll likely find caramel layered on top of a rich fruity compote laden. Cinnamon, vanilla, and light fruit are balanced across the palate, leaving a long, smooth finish.