There’s one surefire way to find a new bourbon that you’ll actually like: Look to the bourbons you already love. Rather than shell out for bottle after bottle that doesn’t quite suit your tastes, find a bourbon that is similar to your current fave but still allows you to branch out a little. Many of these bottles come from the same trusted distillers that make your bourbon of habit or even use the same juice in different barrels, allowing us to predict the best bourbon for every palate.
Booker Noe, the late, beloved master distiller of Jim Beam, basically invented premium bourbon with the Jim Beam Small Batch collection in 1988. The bottle that bears his name is a heck of a lot hotter than standard Jim Beam bottlings, thanks to its proof, which falls between 120 and 130 depending on the batch. But with more heat comes more flavor (not always the case, but definitely true here). The whiskey explodes on the palate with tobacco and leather but it remains surprisingly sweet all the way through the long finish.
What a difference a few years can make. Eagle Rare and Buffalo Trace are made from the same mash bill (one of a few bills that the distillery uses to fill its many bottlings). But while Buffalo Trace is a blend of barrels from 7- to 9-years-old, Eagle Rare is, as the bottle says, 10-years-old. That cat nap in bourbon years actually adds a whole lot of rich flavor, like dark chocolate, brown sugar, coffee, maple syrup and cherry cola, without adding much on the price tag ($36, up from $29).
In wheated bourbons, distillers replace the usual rye in the mash bill with wheat to create a smoother, breadier taste. While you could jump from the most recognizable wheated bourbon, Maker’s, to the most coveted wheated bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle, there are other options in between (both in terms of taste and price). The wheated sweetness is there in W.L. Weller bourbons, but this 7-ish-year-old release is infused with a ton of charred oak too.
Blanton’s is for discerning drinkers who appreciate Yellow Label’s smooth, sweet quality and approachable price. The jockey atop the grenade-shaped Blanton’s bottle fits into the same Kentucky Derby milieu as Four Roses (the perfect bourbon for a Mint Julep), but don’t let the intricate design distract you from the serious bourbon inside the bottle. Blanton’s arrives sweet on the palate with caramel and raisin, but that fades into lively spices and more floral notes than the bottle with the darn roses on the label.
In yet another case of same mash bill, different day, Henry McKenna is made of the same stuff as Elijah Craig, but when those elements are bottled in a single-barrel release rather than blended across a batch, they release a huge variety of new flavors. Like other single-barrel whiskeys, Henry McKenna can vary from bottle to bottle, but you’ll usually get a beautiful 10-year-old bourbon with a good amount of cinnamon and vanilla. Occasionally, you’ll even get a truly stellar barrel, with deeper flavors of oak and spice, and ethereal toffee high notes.
We love Old Forester as a budget bourbon, but Woodford Reserve takes that same thick, creamy texture and those same mind-blowing honey, toffee and citrus flavors up a notch. A longstanding rumor inaccurately claimed that the two whiskeys (both at least partially made at the Brown-Forman Distillery in Louisville) were exactly the same. It was a myth Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris put to bed by pointing out how much more complex a profile the more expensive whiskey had. It’s not upselling; you get what you pay for.
Jefferson’s Very Small Batch is everything a robust bourbon should be. The beautiful bottle makes a serious impression on the backbar and the flavor doesn’t limp around your palate either. With rich dark fruits, cinnamon-heavy spice and honeyed nuts on the palate and a long woody finish, Jefferson’s is a good segue into grand bourbons for anyone who was introduced to whiskey through EW.
The uber-popular “frontier whiskey” wooed plenty of whiskey newbies and aficionados alike with its mix of bold high-rye flavor and easy sipping heat. Knob Creek strikes a similar balance. While not a high-rye whiskey like Bulleit, the 100-proof Knob Creek counters Bulleit’s peppery spunk with tingling allspice, which is backed up with wood and toasted almond. Plus, the bottle looks just as good.
Named for Wild Turkey master distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell, Russell’s Reserve takes the approachable backbone of Wild Turkey 81 and adds layers of nuance that bloom into floral high notes and dark, woody lows. Toffee, vanilla and spice open up into dark chocolate, marzipan and orange, with corn and rye both quietly supporting from the wings.
“Old Grand-Dad” and “Basil Hayden” are the same person—both names refer to Jim Beam’s original distiller, Basil Hayden, Sr. The two whiskeys use the same mash bill, but, while the combination of high proof and high rye content (27 percent) can make Old Grand-Dad a tad rough to drink neat (which is why it’s a great budget choice for an Old Fashioned), Basil Hayden’s has no such issue. Basil Hayden’s packs a good amount of pepper along with roasted fruit and baking spices, and it has a relatively short finish compared to its fellow Jim Beam Small Batch brethren.
If you like a corn-forward bourbon like Michter’s, which clocks in at 79-percent corn, try going full cob with a 100-percent corn bourbon like Hudson Baby Bourbon. Made entirely with local corn at Tuthilltown Spirits in upstate New York (none of that GMO-corn from super farms in the Midwest), Baby Bourbon combines the honeyed sweetness of bourbon with cooked corn to make a caramel corn-like beauty, with notes of marzipan and ginger for spice.