The 12 Best Bourbons You Can Buy – 2021 Guide

Looking to try bourbon, pick up bourbon for a friend, or just want to see what has made for the best bourbons of 2021?

We have you covered.

Bourbon’s great because it truly sets itself apart. We love the sweet yet complex taste, bold aroma, and the fact that bourbon is versatile. Diluted, mixed, on the rocks, or neat at room temperature, it’s a whiskey that goes down well whatever the occasion.

But if you want specifics, we have rounded up the best bourbons of 2021, taking into account age, aroma, taste, finish (aftertaste), and current price.

There will be some familiar names here, as well as a few unfamiliar ones. But these are all top-quality bourbons that you should have at least one of sitting in your cabinet.

Is Bourbon Just Whiskey?

Not sure what bourbon is exactly?

The thing is… all bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon - as the adage goes.

What makes a bourbon a bourbon, however (according to the American Bourbon Association, that is), is that it has to be made in America, made from 51% corn, distilled to no more than 160 proof, and aged in new charred oak barrels to 62.5% ABV, or 125 proof, at most.

After all of that, bourbons have to be bottled at at least 40% ABV, or 80 proof.

All American whiskeys are made from the same core ingredients that bourbon is made from: corn, wheat, and rye. What separates them, though, is the mixture and how the whiskey itself is aged.

Simply put, bourbon gets its unique flavor from the casks it is aged in.

So, bourbon is far from being the same as other whiskeys, but it is a whiskey!

What Does Bourbon Taste Like?

Bourbon is generally considered to be smoother and sweeter than other whiskeys. Both on its own (neat) and mixed, the notes of bourbon are always distinguishable, which is why bourbon is one of the most enjoyed whiskeys around the world.

As for its taste, bourbon typically offers hints of smokiness (charred oak), caramel, vanilla, spice, nuts, honey, cinnamon, and fruit. You might taste one or several of these more than the other, which all depends on the distillery and how it was aged.

Of course, which overall bourbon you like the most will also depend on which of these different flavors you prefer!

Best Bourbons

Now for the main part: the best bourbons you can buy in 2021.

Aroma, taste (and aftertaste), age, price, and even appearance all matter when it comes to picking out the best bourbon. For bourbon lovers (including the purists), drinking bourbon is an experience, and for that reason we measured up these bourbons by drinking them neat.

Not all bourbons are expensive, and neither are all of them cheap or mid-range in price, but there are a few names that stand out more than the rest.

Whether you are looking to try a new bourbon for yourself or want to buy a bottle as a gift, here, in no particular order, are 12 of the best bourbons you can’t go wrong with - and why we think so.

OUR TOP PICK

Maker’s Mark

Maker’s Mark is a leading name in the bourbon industry (hailing from Kentucky itself), and it’s hard to have a conversation about bourbon without the name being brought up.

In fact, Maker’s Mark has been around long enough to create one of the most well-balanced, affordable bourbons around, and it’s for that reason that Maker’s Mark is so widely loved.

Maker’s Mark (Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey) comes in at 45% (90 proof) with a mostly caramel taste that makes it a great first bourbon for newcomers. At the same time, you could buy Maker’s Mark for a connoisseur and they wouldn’t shun you away.

Overall, Maker’s Mark deserves a spot on any best bourbon list because of its accessibility, affordability, and faultless quality. And if you do plan on mixing Maker’s Mark, the notable sweet taste is one of the best around for a marketed age of six years.

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EDITORS CHOICE

Four Roses Small Batch

There’s Four Roses Kentucky Straight, and then there’s Four Roses Small Batch, considered an upgrade blended from fewer casks with an increase in ABV (45% or 90 proof), aged “7 to 8 years”.

Four Roses Small Batch features a more creamy, vanilla taste, mixed with fruit, spice, and oak. The Kentucky-based distillery (originating in Lawrenceburg, to be exact) is one of the most recognizable bourbons around, also considered a great entry-level bourbon for any drinker or occasion.

Four Roses also make a single barrel bourbon (unblended) but we prefer Small Batch for its lighter, more pronounced flavors that make it a pleasure to sip on both neat and slightly diluted.

Price? Four Roses Small Batch sits at an affordable price for a decent, well-trusted bourbon that definitely delivers on value for money.

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BEST VALUE

Wild Turkey 101

Wild Turkey 101 Proof is no doubt the Kentucky distillery’s most popular bourbon. Why? Wild Turkey 101 has spicy, sweet toffee tasting notes that somehow still tastes like a well-balanced bourbon.

You probably know of Wild Turkey 101 through Matthew McConaughey - the distillery’s famous spokesman. We don’t doubt Matthew’s tasting skills and Wild Turkey 101, for its 101 proof (50.5% ABV), really is a smooth, oaky bourbon with a slightly spicy aftertaste that gives it a subtle kick.

In fact, if you love an old fashioned, Wild Turkey 101 is an undeniably good choice. The spiciness, which we are going to go ahead and say is Wild Turkey 101’s unique selling point, perfectly complements the zest of any old fashioned mix.

And just like the two bourbons sitting above this one, Wild Turkey 101 is one of our best bourbons with a price tag - for a blended 6-8 year bourbon - that won’t make you wince.

Available To Buy At

RUNNER UP

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight

Here’s a curveball that you probably didn’t expect - especially if you consider yourself a bourbon fanatic. But we have included Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon (Jim Beam Original) for its affordability and accessibility.

For the bourbon first-timer, bourbon mixer, or whiskey lover on a budget, Jim Beam’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey delivers if you want the best balance of taste and affordability - in other words: great value for money.

Jim Beam has been around for a while, produced in Kentucky, and is one of the bestselling bourbon producers around. At 40% ABV (80 proof), it’s accessible and easy to drink despite being aged for just four years, with what can be best described as sweet vanilla taste, heightened by notes of caramel.

If you want to try bourbon on a budget - or just need a decent bourbon to fill that empty slot in your cupboard - Jim Beam has our recommended seal of approval.

Available To Buy At

RUNNER UP

Old Forester Classic

It’s no exaggeration that Old Forester Classic Bourbon (Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey) has a zesty orange nuance to it, and it’s the reason why it is such a popular bourbon for old fashioned drinkers.

In addition to its orange flavor (sharp, but subtle), Old Forester Classic brings out notes of spice, oak, and vanilla for a sweet and smooth, yet woody, bourbon that has a reputation for being one of the most widely enjoyed bourbons around.

While Old Forester Kentucky Straight is not as balanced as the other bourbons mentioned on this list, we love the fact that this bourbon still works as an everyday bourbon that, at the same time, can be pulled out for mixing on special occasions.

As for the fine points, this bourbon is 86 proof and, against Old Forester’s other bourbons, an affordable bottle that isn’t going to break the bank.

Available To Buy At

RUNNER UP

Evan Williams Black Label

Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Black Label) is well-known as a budget-friendly bourbon that provides the “best bang for your buck”. We can’t argue with this, as it is one of the best selling bourbons money can buy - and for good reason.

This six-year-aged, Kentucky bourbon is 43% ABV (or 86 proof) with a distinct vanilla and caramel taste from start to finish. We also detected a slightly nutty, dry aftertaste, which gives Evan Williams Black Label a more “traditional” balance that works better neat or on the rocks.

Evan Williams Black Label is a bar favorite and, to be honest, there’s nothing wrong with that. Why is it one of our best bourbons, however? Because Evan Williams Kentucky Straight is consistent, affordable, and a classic bourbon that is one of the best value-for-money bourbons around.

But a bourbon to try for the first time, it might be worth looking elsewhere. Despite that, we still would not turn down an Evan Williams over ice. 

Available To Buy At

RUNNER UP

Wilderness Trail Single Barrel

Wilderness Trail Distillery, and their Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, is the newest bourbon on this list. It’s also the reddest bourbon on this list! And it reflects this in the taste.

Having opened in 2012, Wilderness Trail Distillery are relatively new to the scene, but you wouldn’t really think it. Their unblended single barrel bourbon - distinguishable by the red, squarish bottle - offers a more unique taste over other bourbons, hitting notes of butter, honey, vanilla, and caramel, with an age of 6 to 7 years.

In other words, it’s the best sweet bourbon for the sweet-tooth, coming in at 50% ABV (100 proof). If you are looking for the smoothest bourbon, Wilderness Trail Single Barrel is an option worth starting with, despite the fact that it is a slightly stronger single barrel bourbon.

What might turn some heads in the other direction is the price tag - a mid-range price for what is essentially a newcomer bourbon. It’s well worth trying, however, if you can get your hands on it without having to crack open a whole bottle.

Available To Buy At

RUNNER UP

We love the look of Redwood Empire’s Pipe Dream - the tall, minimalistic bottle, complete with a white label and a quote from John Muir - as well as the name. “Pipe Dream” just somehow has a nice, whimsical ring to it.

On top of that, we also love the taste.

In fact, Redwood Empire Pipe Dream is the nuttiest bourbon on this list, coupled with notes of orange and old oak. What kind of nutty? Pecan, walnut, and almond, to be as specific as we possibly can.

The given age? Between four and twelve years.

Redwood Empire is also relatively new, but have hit the ground running with their bottled in bond whiskey range that includes “Emerald Giant”, “Lost Monarch”, and Pipe Dream. Pipe Dream is the bourbon of the trio, though, released in 2019 after ten supposed years in the making.

Ultimately, Redwood Empire Pipe Dream is one of the newest, most exciting bourbons to be released in the last few years, which gives us no problem in including it on our 2021 list of the best bourbons.

Available To Buy At

RUNNER UP

Henry McKenna’s Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is another eye-catching bottle that has made it on our list for its full-bodied taste and price that does not ask too much.

Extra aged at 10 years, bottled in bond, and distilled in none other than Bardstown, Kentucky, Henry McKenna Single Barrel boasts spice, fruit, and honey flavor notes (on top of vanilla and oak) for a high-proof 50% ABV (100 proof) bourbon.

Despite being distilled by Heaven Hill Distillery, the bourbon was named after Henry McKenna - an Irish whiskey lover, and distiller, who, way back, made a name for himself in Kentucky.

It’s a popular bourbon for Irish bourbon drinkers, and it also has a San Francisco World Spirits Competition award to its name (another fun fact).

All in all, Henry McKenna is one of the best award-winning bourbons you can buy at the moment, with an easy-on-the-eyes price tag that is more than worth it for a 10-year single barrel.

Available To Buy At

RUNNER UP

What Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon lacks in appearance makes up for in taste. While there is nothing wrong with the simple, yet sophisticated, presentation of the bottle, it’s clear that Woodford Reserve put their focus on taste.

It’s a straight bourbon aged for 6 to 7 years, enhanced using a unique process called “heat cycling”, giving a notably richer flavor than your average bourbon.

On top of that, we noted splashes of honey, spice, cinnamon, and caramel, fully reflecting the dark amber color of the bourbon itself (and, of course, the casks it was aged in).

Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight sits at a reasonable 43.2% ABV, or 88.6 proof, and a price that isn’t sky-high. While this is the case, you wouldn’t feel guilty giving it as a gift, or using it to mix up a cocktail or two.

Why is it one of our best bourbons? Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight is a classic bourbon in a sophisticated, displayable bottle with a richer-than-usual taste that might surprise you.

Available To Buy At

RUNNER UP

Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight might look like a bottle of wine at first glance but don’t let that fool you; it’s a 10-year-old bourbon whiskey full of character.

On first taste, you will definitely pick up on notes of orange and ginger. In terms of depth, Eagle Rare 10 Year stands out in a way, offering what comes over as a nice mixture of burnt oak, honey, and maple syrup.

Despite the first appearance of the bottle, this Kentucky bourbon has a full-bodied taste that would not disappoint even the purest of bourbon enthusiasts. If you are planning on giving it as a gift, it also sells for a reasonable price that most wouldn’t argue with in terms of value.

To break it down, if you want to try a bourbon with zesty, yet subtle, gingery overtones, Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey delivers this perfectly - not forgetting the fact that it is a 10-year single barrel at 90 proof.

Available To Buy At

RUNNER UP

Last but absolutely not least, Widow Jane is another 10 year aged bourbon that makes our list for its nutmeg, cinnamon, and maple syrup flavors - a taste that, overall, we loved. We also detected cherry, which followed as a welcome aftertaste.

This signature bourbon by Widow Jane Distillery - founded relatively recently in 2012 - has something of a cult following among bourbon lovers. This might be due to the high-end price, or the fact that it’s a small batch bourbon that scales down on blending - five barrels, to be exact.

So, while it is a pricey bourbon (the most expensive bourbon on this list, in fact), this is a 10-year-old small batch that the majority of bourbon enthusiasts will certainly appreciate.

And while it does not look like much - the bottle’s simple presentation is, in fact, undeniably unique - Widow Jane mirrors its appearance as a one of a kind, high-end bourbon for its sweet, fruity, buttery taste.

Available To Buy At

Frequently Asked Questions

The 12 Best Bourbons You Can Buy - 2021 Guide

What Is Difference Between Whiskey and Bourbon?

Bourbon is in fact a whiskey - it is just made differently than scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, rye whiskey, and so on. Bourbon and scotch whisky are two of the most popular types of whiskey, which are both made from corn, wheat, and rye.

The difference is that bourbon has to be made in America from 51% corn, distilled no more than 160 proof, aged in new charred oak casks to no higher than 125 proof, with a final ABV of 40% (or 80 proof). 

Can Whiskey Be Called Bourbon if Not Made in Kentucky?

Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States and be legally called bourbon, as long as it meets the requirements of what makes it legally sellable as bourbon. Despite this, Kentucky is widely considered the “bourbon capital” due to its soil, climate, and history.

The opinion that bourbon has to be made in Kentucky to be “truly” called bourbon is more of an unwritten rule, viewpoint, or tradition than a hard fact. There are many bourbons that are produced outside of Kentucky that are still legally sold as bourbon.

Why Is Jack Daniels Not Called Bourbon?

Jack Daniel’s meets the criteria to be classified and legally sold as straight bourbon. However, due to the location where it is made, and the choice of the company itself, Jack Daniels is marketed and sold as a Tennessee whiskey as opposed to a bourbon.

In addition, Jack Daniel’s, as a rightful Tennessee whiskey, is made using the Lincoln County Process, which involves filtering the whiskey through charcoal before being aged. Jack Daniel’s states that this is what distinguishes their whiskey from being a bourbon.

Final Word

There is no best bourbon, or number-one bourbon, but there will be one bourbon that you prefer over the rest! The great thing about bourbon is that, depending on how it was aged, the different flavors can vary, while still maintaining the traditional sweet smoothness that bourbon is known and loved for.

In conclusion, it all comes down to your palate, price range, and how you choose to enjoy bourbon - whether that’s neat, diluted or on the rocks, or paired with your favorite mixer. Whichever you prefer, make sure to try as many of our best bourbons that we have listed above!

Mandy Winters
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