Bourbon is a type of whiskey that comes from American distilling traditions and is synonymous with the deep south.
Bourbon’s main ingredient is American corn distilled and barrel-aged to a characteristic deep amber color and a flavor profile that takes on the components of the aging barrels.
Just as with any spirit, the quality of bourbon runs the gamut from poor to top shelf. Below, you can explore a long list of top-shelf bourbon varieties from notable and obscure brands.
Pappy Van Winkle
Named for the whiskey salesman turned owner, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, Old Rip Van Winkle distillery has seen four generations of family ownership.
Pappy Van Winkle offers a variety of Kentucky straight bourbons aged between 10 and 23 years.
Blanton’s Single Barrel
A newer distillery steeped in old Kentucky bourbon tradition, Blanton’s Single Barrel distillery opened under the lead of longstanding master distiller Elmer T. Lee.
Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon is a premium bourbon sourced from a single-aging cask.
Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon is a 93-proof bourbon with delicious tasting notes of citrus and oak with a vanilla aroma.
Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon
Four Roses is a Kentucky distillery founded in 188. Its iconic distillery, built in 1910, is a protected landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.
Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon is a 100-proof bourbon that won the gold medal for taste from World Whiskies Awards.
Unlike most Kentucky bourbons, Four Roses use a higher proportion of hand-picked rye.
Tasting notes include plum flavor and cherries with a full-bodied mouthfeel and a long, smooth finish.
E. H. Taylor
E.H. Taylor is a subsidiary line of the famous Buffalo Trace distillery, named for the famed founding father of bourbon.
E.H. Taylor Single barrel bourbon uses a blend of corn, barley, and rye mash, aged around 7 years.
Flavors in this bourbon are complex yet delicate, offering sweet fruit, honey, black pepper, and charred oak.
Another production from the Buffalo Trace distillery in Kentucky, W.L. Weller is an old brand that has been producing traditional Kentucky bourbon since 1849.
The 12-year Antique edition is the most decorated, receiving the Extraordinary and Ultimate recommendation from Ultimate Spirits Challenge.
It has tasting notes of flowers, vanilla, and a spicy cinnamon finish.
Knob Creek is a newer distillery, opening in 1992 and specializing in Kentucky Bourbon and Straight Kentucky Rye.
Its various bourbons are aged 9 years, with its select single barrel bourbon offering a higher 60% abv.
The single-barrel top-shelf bourbon has a dark burnt amber color with rich caramel-tasting notes.
Woodford Reserve is one of the oldest distilleries in Kentucky, its 1812 distillery was registered as a National Historical Landmark.
Over 200 years of distilling results in some of the finest bourbons in the world, with a perfect ratio of corn, rye, and barley,
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked bourbon is their most prized bottle, aged twice in two different oak barrels to create an ultra-rich palate with a full-bodied mouthfeel and smooth, rich finish.
Perhaps the most famous bourbon producer in the world, Buffalo Trace is the oldest distillery in America, with over 200 years of continuous operation.
It’s also the most highly decorated distillery.
Its Kentucky Straight Bourbon uses its century-old warehouses to age each whiskey barrel in cold temperatures which facilitates the extraction of its bourbon’s signature candied fruit, toffee, and vanilla-tasting notes.
Michter’s Single Barrel
Where Buffalo Trace is the nation’s oldest distillery, Michter’s is the country’s oldest whiskey company, originating in 1753 as a rye whiskey producer in Pennsylvania.
Michter’s went bankrupt in the 1980s but has since resurfaced as a venerable brand.
Michter’s Single Barrel is a double barrel-aged bourbon made in small batches, with tasting notes of pecan, baked and candied fruit, cinnamon, and marshmallows.
Parker’s Heritage is a collection of Kentucky Straight Bourbon from the Heaven Hill Distillery, established in 1935.
Parker’s Heritage edition has a 67% abv and is double-aged to maximize flavors.
You can find Parker’s Heritage bourbon aged 13 or 15 years, with dark amber coloring, and a trifecta of sweet, dry, and spicy tasting notes.
Winner of the Gold and Double Gold Medals in the 2022 International Spirits Challenge and San Francisco World Spirits Competition respectively, Basil Hayden’s is a premium Kentucky whiskey distillery.
The Kentucky Straight Bourbon from Basil Hayden’s has a rich taste of charred oak and brown sugar with pepper and dried fruit on the finish.
Touting its brand as the only spirit with a five-year run of double gold medals from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Eagle Rare bourbon offers three varieties, aged 10, 17, and 20 years.
The aroma of Eagle Rare alone will alert you to its quality, offering rich notes of toffee, orange peel, leather, and oak.
The dry, earthy palate with notes of candied almonds and chocolate is yet another reason it’s a double gold winner.
Booker’s is an artisanal, small-batch distiller that is so confident in the excellence of its rare bourbons that they don’t advertise.
Only true connoisseurs and whiskey snobs will happen upon Booker’s exquisite products.
The current batch is an unfiltered and uncut bourbon aged nearly 7 years with a rich palate of vanilla, oak, and nuts and a long full-bodied finish.
Widow Jane 10-year Bourbon
Widow Jane is a newer, hip brand out of Brooklyn New York, sourcing their ingredients from New York state’s bounty.
Widow Jane’s 10-year Bourbon is a gold medal-winning bourbon that blends the rarest and best bourbons.
The flavor palate features tasting notes of cherry, almond, orange, and maple with an earthy and spicy finish.
Russell’s Reserve is a family-owned distiller with two generations of master distillers.
The famed Jimmy Russell worked as the master distiller of Wild Turkey for six decades. His son created Russell’s Reserve in his honor.
Russell’s Reserve single barrel bourbon is a pre-prohibition era bourbon with a robust and complex palate of cream, toffee, licorice, and vanilla with a spicy and malty finish.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
Receiving a double gold from San Francisco’s World Spirit Competition and Whiskey of the Year from Whisky Advocate, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof bourbon is an uncut spirit served straight out of the barrel.
Its unusually high proof of between 128 and 140 belies a deeply complex taste of caramel, butterscotch, black pepper, and cinnamon.
Tasting notes intensify and linger with the finish.
George T. Stagg
Now a subsidiary of the Buffalo Trace brand, George T. Stagg originated during the peak of bourbon popularity in the 19th century.
George T Stagg is a barrel-proof bourbon with 58% abv, featuring a sumptuous flavor palate of sweet toffee, dark chocolate, nougat, and molasses with a coffee and tobacco finish.
Originating in 1879, Kentucky Owl focuses on pre-prohibition era bourbon.
Kentucky Owl Bourbon Confiscated edition blends four fine and rare bourbons into one top-shelf bottle.
The blend has unique aromas and flavors of peaches and cream with undertones of spice and butter.
The herbal finish also makes Kentucky Owl stand out.
Founded by whiskey historian and distiller father-son duo Chet and Trey Soeller in 1997, Jefferson’s Bourbon is a modern and creative company rooted in bourbon history.
Jefferson’s bourbon collection features a wide range of interesting bottles, especially the Ocean-aged bourbon, aged in an operational ocean ship to infuse salt water and churn the bourbon through the motion of the waves.
One of the top-selling whiskey brands in the U.S., Maker’s Mark originated in 1953, making its mark among critics and drinkers alike for its unique recipe.
Instead of using rye, Maker’s Mark whiskey uses winter wheat, giving its product a much sweeter palate than the competition.
The distillery offers a wealth of bourbons, but their top-shelf bourbons include Maker’s Mark 46, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, and Maker’s Mark Private Selection.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed
Another famed bourbon producer, Wild Turkey whiskeys are famous for characteristically spicy flavors.
They produce a top-shelf bourbon known as Wild Turkey Rare Breed, a barrel-proof bourbon made by blending three different bourbons, aged 6, 8, and 12 years.
It has a distinctly vanilla-flavored palate.
The first bottled bourbon brand, Old Forester debuted in 1870. Old Forester single-barrel bourbon is a 50% abv bottle that has a dark amber color with rich-tasting notes of vanilla, caramel, and charred oak.
They also have a President’s Edition, aged 8 years, and produced in small batches for a slightly higher abv.
Named for the year of Kentucky’s statehood, 1792 Bourbon is a product of the Barton distillery in Kentucky.
1792 Bourbon has been gracing shelves since 2002, offering small batches of different varieties including:
- Sweet wheat
- High Rye
- Single Barrel
- Bottled in Bond
- Barrel Proof
Bulleit Bourbon is a fast-growing whiskey distillery out of Kentucky that champions sustainability and a high-rye recipe that delivers a spicy yet smooth bourbon.
They offer a delicious, award-winning barrel strength bourbon with a high 60% abv offering maple, oak, and nutmeg flavors with a dry toffee and oak finish.
Named for the famed river that runs through its native state Hudson Baby is a New York distillery that uses locally sourced New York corn to elaborate a 95% corn, 5% barley bourbon whiskey.
Their bourbon is the youngest on the list, aged for a minimum of 3 years, which leaves a warming finish.
Flavor notes include cornbread, caramel, and cashews.
Top-shelf bourbon undergoes a longer aging process and uses the highest quality ingredients and distillation methods.
Our list of top-shelf bourbon brands offers the best array of fine Kentucky bourbons on the market.
Let us know which bourbon you favor in the comments below.
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