15 Best Kentucky Bourbons

Our 16 Favorite Kentucky Bourbons

Posted in DRINK, GEAR GUIDES By

It doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky to qualify as bourbon, but with two centuries of whiskey-making experience, it’s safe to say the Bluegrass State knows what it’s doing when it comes to America’s favorite whiskey. Declared by Congressional Resolution to be America’s “Native Spirit,” bourbon does have to be made in the US in order to be carry the name (which is so called either after Bourbon Street in New Orleans or Bourbon County in Kentucky).

Drinking these 16 Best Kentucky Bourbons (assuming you can get ahold of all 16) will be like taking a masterclass in fine bourbon production. Single barrel, double oaked, cask-strength, small-batch — just about every expression of delicious amber fire is here. If you want a Kentucky Bourbon that won’t break the bank or are ready to invest a bit of your finances on a superior bottle, this list will give you something to ask for next time you visit your local purveyor of fine spirits. And something very good to drink afterwards. Here are the 16 best Kentucky bourbons available to drink right now.

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon

90.4 Proof • Wide Release • Versailles, KY

All bourbon is grain plus water, fermented, distilled and aged. Woodford Reserve calls these the “five sources of flavor” and their Double Oaked plays around with the flavor delivered by that last source: the aging process. After spending time in its first charred oak barrel, this bourbon is transferred to a second, deeply toasted, lightly charred barrel where it matures further, gathering an intensity of flavors that include sweet oak and vanilla, with honey and caramel aromas, followed up by a creamy finish. – Buy It

Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

100 Proof • Wide Release • Clermont, KY

With its distinct rectangular bottle and typographic design aesthetic on the label (not to mention the high-caliber stuff inside) Knob Creek is aiming for the guy who likes his whiskey a bit evolved. It’s one of the high-market, small batch bourbons under the Jim Beam banner and was introduced in 1992, well ahead of the bourbon popularity spike back in the late aughts. Knob Creek is a quality, well-executed bourbon with a nutty aroma and a rich, almost fruity taste that goes great in… a glass (or if you must, an old fashioned). – Buy It

Elijah Craig 23-Year-Old Single Barrel

Elijah Craig 23-Year-Old Single Barrel

90 Proof • Extremely Limited • Bardstown, KY

For every year bourbon matures in the barrel, it goes through a winter and summer where the wood expands and contracts, pushing and pulling the spirit in and out of the staves to impart that oakey goodness. Too much of this and you get a bitter, tannic bourbon. Unless the distiller knows what they’re doing, as these guys do. For 23 years EC23 hangs out in the lowest floors of the storehouses where environmental swings are milder. The result is a toasty, buttery bourbon that’s near-impossible to find (and quite spendy to buy) but very worth the search. – Buy It

Maker's 46

Maker’s 46

94 Proof • Wide Release • Loretto, KY

Before bourbon goes the barrel to age, it’s clear, fiery, and not very tasty. The magic of the barrels brings the mellowness, the vanilla, the amber color and the depth. The distillers at Maker’s Mark thought if some wood was good, more must be better. For Maker’s 46 they pop open a barrel of fully mature Maker’s Mark, add 10 seared French oak staves, then age it in their limestone cellar for another 9 weeks. The result is lots more vanilla and caramel notes, with no tannic bitterness. – Buy It

Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 20 Year

Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 Year

90.4 Proof • Extremely Limited • Frankfort, KY

This is the white whale of bourbons. They release stock once a year and retailers lucky enough to carry it hold lotteries to decide who gets to buy a bottle. After that, resellers ask upwards of $2,000. Why the heavy price tag? It’s been called the best bourbon whiskey in the world by connoisseurs, celebrity chefs, and others who seem to know what they’re talking about. Should you get ahold of some, expect a velvety smooth texture, notes of leather and smoke, with a balanced finish. – Buy It

Booker's Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey

Booker’s Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey

125-128 Proof • Semi-Limited • Clermont, KY

By law, bourbon must go in the barrel no higher than 125 proof and be bottled no lower than 80 proof. Just about every distiller adds water to the final product, not to save coin, but to balance the ABV, flavor and color. Some bourbons get bottled up uncut. Booker’s is one of those. They release 4 batches a year, each selected by their master distiller from a set of barrels of different production dates at their distillery for a bourbon that’s very excellent in its price range (which is reportedly going up). – $130

Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon

Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon

100 Proof • Semi-Limited • Lawrenceburg, KY

So many variables can affect the outcome of bourbon — from the weather to the location of a barrel in a warehouse — most distillers blend a range of barrels to create an end bourbon that’s fairly consistent. Unless it’s single barrel. That means no blending — what came out of the barrel goes into the bottle (with maybe a touch of water). Four Roses Single Barrel comes from a recipe that’s 35% rye lending it a spicy and floral sweetness followed up by a long delicate finish. – Buy It

Jefferson's Reserve

Jefferson’s Reserve

90.2 Proof • Wide Release • Crestwood, KY

Some producers make their bourbon from scratch. Some buy their bourbon from other distilleries and mature, blend or finish it to produce their bourbon of record. Jefferson’s Bourbon is of the blending and finishing sort. While some non-distilling producers try really hard to make you think they did all the work, Jefferson’s relies on the customer understanding that selection expertise and knowledgeable finishing skills can produce a very fine bourbon. Jefferson’s Reserve is a big, complex bourbon with a deep finish. – Buy It

Old Forester Signature 100 Proof

Old Forester Signature 100 Proof

100 Proof • Wide Release • Louisville, KY

Prohibition was a dark time for bourbon distillers (and everyone else). Most closed up shop, but Brown-Forman, distiller of Old Forester, was granted permission by the Feds to continue making their bourbon for “medicinal purposes.” Today it’s the oldest bourbon distillery still run by the founding family and their Signature 100 Proof is probably the ideal spirit for making an Old Fashioned. The high proof will hold up to the bitters and sugar, while the strong, spicy flavor balances the sweetness. No prescription required. – Buy It

1792 Small Batch

1792 Small Batch

93.7 Proof • Wide Release • Bardstown, KY

Kentucky became a state in the Union in 1792 as the region was just beginning to perfect the craft of American whiskey-making. Barton 1792 Distillery started making bourbon in 1879 and named their flagship spirit after Kentucky’s birth year. With a high proportion of rye in the mash, this bourbon has strong spice notes that mingle well with the vanilla aroma and caramel flavors. 1792 also releases limited edition variations, including a port-finished, a single barrel, and a very intriguing bottled-in-bond. – Buy It

Wild Turkey Decades

Wild Turkey Decades

104 Proof • Semi-Limited • Lawrenceburg, KY

If your last dance with Wild Turkey was in a college bar when you drunk dialed an ex, it’s time to give the brand another go. Especially if you go with this. Blending the best barrels of of 10 year to 20 year old bourbon, the result delivers the complexity of an older bourbon with the bright fruit and herb notes of a younger spirit. A bottle will run you significantly more than the 101 you drank back in the day, and it will be well worth it. – Buy It

Evan Williams Single Barrel

Evan Williams Single Barrel

86 Proof • Wide Release • Bardstown, KY

Their Black Label is the #2 selling Kentucky bourbon (Beam’s white label is #1) so you’ll often see Evan Williams Black sitting in the well at any given watering hole. While it’s not a bad bourbon, there’s a reason it’s in the well. Take a few steps up and you get the distillery’s gold standard, their Single Barrel. It’s a lush and accessible bourbon, with honey flavors and oak aromas. For a good price you get a quality single barrel that’s even vintage dated on each bottle. – Buy It

Eagle Rare Bourbon Whiskey

Eagle Rare Bourbon Whiskey

90 Proof • Wide Release • Frankfort, KY

If you’re not sure where to start in your bourbon adventures, Eagle Rare is a good jumping off point. It’s made by Buffalo Trace using the same mash as their namesake bourbon, yet aged for 10 years. The result is a full flavored whiskey that goes down easy. The low percentage of rye in the mix lowers the spice and focuses on the honey and leather notes. At a very good price point for a 10-year-old whiskey, a bottle of this won’t disappoint. – Buy It

Parker’s Heritage Collection 11-Year-Old Single Barrel Bourbon

Parker’s Heritage Collection 11-Year-Old Single Barrel Bourbon

122 Proof • Limited • Bardstown, KY

Every year a different whiskey is chosen to be the Parker’s Heritage release. Named for Parker Beam (grandnephew of Jim Beam and sixth-generation master distiller), the label supports ALS research (which the late Parker Beam was diagnosed with in 2010). 2017’s edition went to market in September and is now pretty tricky to find. It’s single barrel, not chill filtered (chill filtering makes bourbon less cloudy and some would say, less tasty) and has heavy oak flavors with smoky hints and a dry finish. – Buy It

Maker's Mark Private Select

Maker’s Mark Private Select

110-115 Proof • Semi-Limited • Loretto, KY

For Maker’s 46 they added 10 seared French oak staves to a mature barrel of Maker’s. That worked well so they decided to let people finish their own barrels by adding about a 1,000 different combinations of 5 different oak staves. It’s then bottled at cask strength and printed with the staves used and proof (which varies by barrel). You can find versions in various markets from suppliers who made their way down to Loretto to participate in the program, or get some from the distillery. – Buy It

Orphan Barrel Rhetoric 22-Year-Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Orphan Barrel Rhetoric 22-Year-Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon

90.4 Proof • Limited • Tullahoma, TN

A Kentucky bourbon bottled in Tennessee? Yes. With the sales, mergers and takeovers that happen constantly in the whiskey world, sometimes rickhouses (warehouses) full of bourbon suddenly don’t have the same destination they once had. These “orphan” barrels (many of them Kentucky-born) have been rounded up by Orphan Barrel to be (attractively) bottled so they may again see the light of day. The Rhetoric series releases the same stock of bourbon every year, each year’s older than the last with the 22-year-old representing the eighth release. – Buy It

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