The question I'm most often asked when I tell folks I manage a food publication is, "What whiskey do you recommend?" There's just something about whiskey and its American counterpart known as bourbon that seems to confuse us all. Heck, even the difference between whiskey and whisky isn't so well-known (whiskey is the American spelling, it's whisky everywhere else). Whether it's a lack of confidence, the bold flavors, or the heftier price tag, bourbon is just not something many folks experiment with within their own homes. Here at Wide Open Eats, we want to change that. That's why we took it upon ourselves to try the 6 best bourbons recommended to us over the last few months. These are a good mix of small-batch brands and larger ones.
Before we get into the rankings, let's be clear: none of us are professional whiskey or bourbon drinkers. We wanted to approach this review the way that you actually experience a new bourbon: unexpectedly handed to you with someone saying, "Try this." It's important to us that we approached this from the perspective of your casual drinker so we can help you make some good decisions this summer for your own bourbon purchases, especially with summer in full swing.
On Monday afternoon, five of us sat down to do a taste-test using the American Bourbon Association's Tasting Notes sheet. We also used their Tasting Wheel and their very handy guide that defines what you look for in a good whiskey titled Become a Connoisseur. Each bourbon was ranked on Aroma, Taste, and Finish using a scale of 1-10 where 10 was the best. The highest score a bourbon could receive is 30. We tallied up the results and created an average score. The following ranking reflects those results. Not a bad Monday, huh?
Editor's Note: There isn't a single bourbon on this list we wouldn't recommend, even those that didn't make the Top 3. In fact, these bourbons are the cream of the crop and were suggested to us by readers, friends, and family because they, too, loved these bottles. You can't go wrong with any option on this list.
The James E. Pepper name is well-known in the American whiskey business, but it wasn't until January 2, 2018 that it released its first barrels in 50 years. The original distillery in Lexington, Kentucky was built in 1869 by Colonel James E. Pepper and shut down in 1958. History aside, this bourbon did rank last in our review. The most common review was that the finish was short and the flavors of honey, cloves, and spice were there, but not prominent enough to stand out.
While the history behind the brand is there and the flavor profile was good, it just wasn't enough to top the list. To learn more about James E. Pepper, check it out here.
Everyone knows Bulleit, and it's probably the whiskey you go for when you need something nicer, but are in a rush to choose. While it eked out a higher score than James E. Pepper, one reviewer who shall remain anonymous (to prevent hate mail in their DMs, of course) wrote "FORGETTABLE" next to the name. Not every reviewer agreed, though, as many picked up tastes of cinnamon and liked the spicy aroma of oak.
While this might be the most well-known and therefore the most requested, this review just proves that you don't have to hit a higher price point to have good quality. To learn more about Bulleit Frontier Whiskey, check it out here.
Editor's Note: This bourbon was the only one opened ahead of time. The writer had a thirsty guest at her house over the weekend where she was storing the bourbons and they requested a glass of Bulleit. It's good etiquette to give the guest what they want!
This bourbon came on recommendation from our staff writer, Sarah Ramsey, who told me that this is actually the only distillery with a mother-daughter distiller team in the United States. How cool is that? Christine Riggleman, also known as Hooch Mama, is serving up something special at this Virginia distillery with her daughter Lauren and the reviewer team agreed. Most reviews noted the subtle sweetness in aroma and appreciated the smoky finish that didn't last too long or short, but was just right.
Overall, reviewers most appreciated the easy drinkability and felt that it was one of the most approachable bourbons to offer newbies or friends who aren't that into spirits. You can find the bourbon online through their website and the vendor P Street Wines.
This bourbon, aged over four years, was recommended by writer Lindsay Mattison as one of her personal Colorado favorites. Reviewers felt it was smooth and easy to sip, especially in the summertime. Most noted the extreme spice of the taste, which manifested into sweeter notes of orange on the finish. Two reviewers noted a chocolaty aroma and what's better than that?
This is the bourbon to bring to a cookout where you're not sure what the hosts like because this easy-to-love bourbon hits all of the checkmarks for a good everyman's brand. Find the whiskey here.
An iconic Texas whiskey brand, Balcones was one of the most recommended bottles to include in the review. I hesitated to include it at first because a single malt whiskey is different from a bourbon in that single malt calls for 100 percent roasted barley and bourbon is at least 51 percent corn. However, most single malts are actually aged in old American bourbon barrels so the flavor profile aligns well. And it was so popularly recommended, there was no way we could skip it.
It's clear that our readers of Texan persuasion know and love this brand, but to our review surprise, we did too! The early wood aroma gives way to notes of banana and pears, earning this prized comment: "Best-smelling." The taste is full, yet soft. Most reviewers, however, couldn't pinpoint the exact flavors in the profile, sticking to adjectives like "crisp" and "spicy," but that didn't stop them from loving it.
Consider this the whiskey to bring your experienced whiskey-drinking friend for a price point that feels like an absolute steal for the flavor. Find out more here.
As you can see, this was a very close call for first place and most of you are probably shaking your head asking who the heck Oak & Eden even are. That's normal because the Texas brand only opened their distillery to the public in April 2018. That thing you see inside the bottle is the "Spire" that's been exposed to fire, just like a barrel for aging. It extracts flavorful botanicals that add spice to the bottle, so the whiskeys are actually in-bottle finished. You can take it out, too, and use it to infuse flavor into cocktails at home.
Reviewers noted that the pleasant aroma of honey and buttery spice was inviting, while the flavor had more honey notes for a sweeter flavor. Perhaps it ranked first because it wasn't the boldest in spice of the bunch, or perhaps it's because the finish was smooth and silky. Either way, this new Texas brand just went head-to-head with some longstanding favorites and newbies alike for a straight bourbon whiskey review and took home the top prize.
This is the whiskey to gift to your mom, your dad, a friend going through a difficult time, or those newlyweds celebrating their first anniversary. Learn more here about this whiskey distilled by brothers with a passion for spirits.
Bourbons that did not get tasted include:
- Buffalo Trace
- Jim Beam
- Wild Turkey
- Wood Ford Reserve
- Heaven Hill
- Maker's Mark
- Knob Creek
- Evan Williams