Along with smoky barbecue, bourbon whiskey is perhaps America’s finest contribution to the world of food and drink (and as it happens they pair very well with each other). According to IBISWorld, there are an astonishing 740 whiskey and bourbon distilleries in the United States as of 2022, an uptick of more than 15% from the previous year, and they’re all jockeying for position on the shelves at your local liquor store as well as in your liquor cabinet. (The craft distilling industry mirrors craft brewing. These are the 50 most popular craft breweries in America.)
What exactly is bourbon? To put it as simply as possible, it’s a distilled spirit made with a grain mixture that must be at least 51 percent corn and aged in new charred oak barrels. (In recent years, some producers have “finished” their whiskeys in used barrels that once contained something else, like port or wine. Technically, the results are considered to be “whiskey specialties,” and not bourbon per se, though this distinction is often ignored.)
There’s no specific aging requirement for bourbon, but if it’s going to be called straight bourbon it must be aged for at least two years. And if it’s labeled “bottled-in-bond,” that means that, among a few other parameters, it must be aged for a minimum of four years and bottled at 100 proof (50 percent alcohol) – as opposed to the standard 80 proof or so.
A key factor in bourbon is its “mash bill” – the specific percentage of different grains that goes into the whiskey. For example, Jack Daniel’s classic mash bill is 80% corn, 12% barley, and 8% rye. Those three grains are the classic bourbon trifecta, but sometimes wheat replaces rye, in which case the result is called wheated bourbon. And incidentally, Jack Daniel’s can’t actually call itself bourbon, because it’s charcoal-filtered, which the laws for bourbon don’t allow; it’s properly called Tennessee whiskey, instead. (These are the signature drinks from every state.)
To reveal the 25 best bourbons of the year – and “bourbon” is an all-inclusive term in this case, including Jack Daniel’s and some examples of whiskey specialties – 24/7 Tempo reviewed “The 50 Best Bourbon Whiskeys Of 2021, Ranked” by Zach Johnston, published by the entertainment and popular culture site Uproxx. Most of the whiskeys on our list are hard to find, but may be located from specialty retailers. They are also sometimes very expensive. In two cases, in fact, the average price as of late 2021 was higher – in one instance eight times higher – than the distiller’s suggested retail price. (In those cases, both prices are noted.)
If your bourbon repertoire doesn’t extend beyond Jim Beam and Evan Williams, spend a little more money the next time you run to the liquor store and try something new. Pour some into a glass and take a deep sniff, then take a sip, swirl it around your tongue, swallow it down, and exhale. From the nose to the palate to the finish, each of these whiskeys offers an extraordinary experience.
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