Like most good things, there’s a healthy amount of mystery surrounding the origin of bourbon. It’s either named for the Kentucky county, in turn named for the French king who helped the Americans in the War of Independence, or the hotbed of debauchery that was Bourbon Street in New Orleans, also founded by the French. Confused? Us too.
Thankfully, there need be no confusion around what the best Kentucky bourbon is these days, as we’ve got you covered with our list of the best bourbons in the shops right now.
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How to shop for bourbon
Before we jump in, a little guidance, and one unfortunate but necessary lesson on classification. While to be called 'bourbon' the spirit must be made somewhere in the United States, realistically everyone and their grandma knows that really translates to “made in Kentucky”, with 95% of the world’s bourbon coming from the state that also gave us the world-famous derby, the finger-lickin’ fried chicken, and Muhammad Ali.
While you might be tempted to go for something extra-special on your first foray into bourbondom, experts generally advise against it, as top-shelf whiskies tend to present a much stronger flavour profile and might trick you into thinking that bourbon isn’t for you. More affordable entry-level spirits, meanwhile, tend to be heavier on vanilla and caramel notes that are more palatable for beginners.
If you’re buying for cocktails, don’t think that means you can get away with any old thing. A Manhattan, Old Fashioned or Julep will always be next-level if you think carefully about the whisky that’s going into it, and we’ve earmarked a few types that’ll play nicely with other ingredients below.
Finally, a disclaimer: these won’t be the best whiskies in the world. We’re not about to suggest you go out and sign yourself up to a waiting list to get your hands on a limited-run bottle costing into the thousands, but as far as affordable, accessible and great-tasting bourbons go, this list will get you firmly on the right track.
It has a bottle, and a glowing caramel hue, that’ll light up your drinks cabinet; and, according to Four Roses, an enticingly spicy-sweet nose which provides arguably the most well-balanced flavours of perhaps any bourbon in this price range — and that’s what makes Four Roses the best Kentucky bourbon in our list.
Devotees say it easily rivals bottles in the triple figures with its palate: a little sweet, a little sour, mostly smooth, with a kick like a mule. Said kick won’t be to all tastes, of course, but if you’re looking for a whisky to return to time and time again, with more complexity than you can shake a stirring stick at, this is it.
Eagle Rare has the...well, rare distinction of being a thoroughly middle-of-the-road bourbon, which, trust us, is no bad thing. Enjoyed by hardcore enthusiasts and beginners alike, it’s distilled to be slightly sweet with notes of warming vanilla, backed up by hints of spice, oak and nutiness for complexity.
Reviewers have found it great for sipping straight, or at the very most with a splash of water, commenting on its overriding smoothness followed up with just enough kick to keep things interesting. One of a handful of really good sub-£50 releases from Buffalo Trace, this is a solid bet for gifting (the borderline Tolkein-esque label helps) or keeping for yourself.
Aside from the all-important taste, can we just take a moment to appreciate how cool this bottle is? Cupboard candy for sure. Anyway, if we’re talking flavour, Blanton’s has that in abundance, too — according to reviewers, it’s all about the zesty and soft fruit notes and amazingly soft aroma, and is best enjoyed with a single cube of ice.
There’s not much bite, so if you’re into that sort of thing, try Knob Creek instead, but for a smooth (and let’s face it, utterly stylish) bottle of bourbon, this one’s hard to beat.
Knob Creek might be a bit of a giggle-worthy name to spy in your drinks cupboard, but this “patiently aged”, rye-heavy bourbon is no laughing matter. Tasters found it less on the sweet side than some entry-level offerings, with a powerful spicy kick, and while that might not to be to all tastes, all agreed there was something deliciously moreish about it that smoother whiskies might lack.
It’s strong, so you only need a little, and the finish has great longevity. Perfect for sipping over a few hours in front of a roaring fire.
With a delightfully smooth taste and tons of warm, sweet and spicy notes, Wild Turkey is possibly our best bourbon for beginners. It’s soft on the nose, so it won’t make you cringe on the approach if you’re not used to spirits, and the slightly more user-friendly ABV gives it the edge on the usually recommended Wild Turkey 101.
A high rye content and heavy-char cask aging gives it enormous, complex flavour that’ll leave you wanting more, but without any of the mouthwash-like burn of a higher-proof spirit. Great all round.
If you want to make your Old Fashioned, Manhattan or Mint Julep extra special, we heartily recommend you make it with Bulleit. Like all good whiskies for cocktails, reviewers also found it to be a pleasant sipper, with an upfront kick of spicy rye that’s followed by soft dried fruit, nutty and spice notes.
Affordable enough to break out for post-party drinks or treat yourself on a Friday, but with all-round-agreed quality and a taste that’s loved by pretty much everyone — if the rave reviews are to be believed — it’s a great one to keep in the drinks cabinet.