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.
25. Booker’s Bourbon 2021 Batch 3, Bardstown Batch
> ABV: 62.75%
> Average price: $90
This cask-strength bourbon (meaning that it hasn’t been diluted with water) from Jim Beam is the third Booker’s batch of 2021, and is named after the hometown of longtime Beam master distiller Booker Noe. This batch was aged for about six years and five months, and clocks in at a potent 62.75% ABV. It has a ton of character, with nuttiness and cinnamon apples on the nose and cinnamon, spice, and coffee notes on the palate.
24. Bomberger’s Declaration (Michter’s)
> ABV: 54%
> Average price: $90
This Kentucky straight bourbon, a part of the Michter’s Legacy Series, honors the legacy of Bomburger’s, the distillery that was renamed Michter’s in the mid-1900s. It’s aged in barrels of Chinquapin oak that have been air-dried for three years, and is 54% alcohol by volume. There’s toast, caramel, and plum on the nose, and it’s remarkably smooth on the palate, with notes of burnt sugar and chocolate.
23. Yellowstone Limited Edition Bourbon 101
> ABV: 50.50%
> Average price: $115
Limestone Branch has released a limited-edition bourbon called Yellowstone Limited Edition every year since 2015, and this year’s is a 101-proof blend of a 7-year-old bourbon finished in Italian amarone barrels and 15-year-old aged bourbon. The amarone lends its flavors of cherry, black currant, and oxidized fruits, and the aged bourbon adds caramel and vanilla notes. The distillery notes that the sweet cherry and black currant finish is reminiscent of pre-Prohibition bourbons.
22. Dettling Small Batch Six Grain Bourbon
> ABV: 40%
> Average price: $40
Dettling is the first and only Straight Bourbon Whiskey to be produced in Alabama. It’s aged for at least two years in new American oak char #3 barrels, and has been praised for its smooth, approachable flavor. Six different grains are used in the mash, which is pretty uncommon, and as it’s only available in seven states and Washington, D.C. – and is a bargain compared to other whiskeys on this list – if you find a bottle, grab it.
21. Stellum Bourbon
> ABV: 57.49%
> Average price: $55
Stellum’s award-winning bourbon (its prizes include a Gold Medal from the 2021 San Francisco World Spirits Competition) actually involves three separate mash bills; it’s a blend of two high-rye bourbons and one almost exclusively made with corn. Older barrels from Kentucky and Tennessee are slowly folded in, and the end result is a complex bourbon with a flavor that unfolds as it moves across the palate, from sweet marshmallow to spicy cinnamon and black pepper to candied ginger and honey on the finish.
20. Russell’s Reserve 13
> ABV: 55%
> Average price: $550
Wild Turkey’s Russell’s Reserve was made by master distiller Eddie Russell to celebrate 40 years of distilling whiskey with his dad, Jimmy Russell. It’s made from whiskeys at least 13 years old from barrels hand-picked by Eddie, all blended and bottled as-is. There’s a lot of dried fruit on the nose, dark chocolate and cherry on the palate, and hints of chocolate and vanilla on the finish.
19. Blue Run 13.5-Year Barrel #3 “Honey Barrel”
> ABV: 63.41%
> Average price: $230
Blue Run, from former Four Roses master distiller Jim Rutledge, is one of the hottest bourbons on the market right now. And even though bottles cost $230, fans say it’s worth every penny. Rutledge personally selects each barrel (there are 10 different bottlings, each from a different barrel), and fewer than 150 bottles are released at a time. There’s lots of toffee on the nose, and the flavor has plenty of leather, vanilla, tobacco, and dark berries.
18. High West A Midwinter Night’s Dram
> ABV: 49.30%
> Average price: $200
As the name implies, this is the kind of whiskey you’re going to want to curl up with next to a roaring fire. It starts with High West’s signature Rendezvous Rye, which is aged in new white American oak and finished in French-oak port wine barrels. The rye lends it flavors of caramel, vanilla, and cinnamon; the port imparts dried fruit notes; and French oak adds spice.
17. Jack Daniel’s 10
> ABV: 48.50%
> Average price: $195
The first 10+ year Jack Daniel’s release in more than 100 years, Jack Daniel’s 10 is made with whiskey that spent time aging in the distillery warehouse’s Buzzard’s Roost before being methodically relocated to the lower floors of different barrel houses to extend the aging process for the last 10 summers. The weather variation and sheer amount of time spent in the barrel result in an intense, unique whiskey with notes of butterscotch and soft fruit and an incredibly long finish with tobacco and spice.
16. Michter’s Single Barrel 10 Years Old
> ABV: 47.20%
> Average price: $200
Another wildly complex and delicious 10-year-old, Michter’s 10 Year Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon represents a true expression of the new American white oak barrels it’s aged in. It has a big, bold flavor redolent of dark toffee and caramel, with plenty of maple syrup and vanilla.
15. William Larue Weller
> ABV: 62.65%
> Average price: $800 (suggested list price $99)
Undiluted, unfiltered, and hand-bottled, Buffalo Trace’s William Larue Weller is a true masterpiece. It’s a wheated bourbon, and the 2021 release was aged for 12 years and six months before being bottled at 125.3 proof. Look for crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e on the nose, cherry and toasted graham crackers on the palate, and herbs and oak on the finish.
14. 2021 Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch
> ABV: 57.20%
> Average price: $150 (by lottery only)
The 2021 Four Roses Limited Edition Small Batch was made by blending four delicately nuanced bourbons ranging in age from 12 to 16 years. It’s non-chill-filtered and bottled at barrel strength, 114.2 proof. It has ripe berries and warm oak on the nose and plum, orange peel, and warm spices on the palate.
13. Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel
> ABV: 50.50%
> Average price: $60
Wild Turkey’s famed Kentucky Spirit is a great value for the money. Aged eight years and bottled at 101 proof, it’s a complex, full-bodied, and intense spirit, with rich vanilla, almond, and honey flavors and a hint of sweetness. The finish is long and smooth.
12. Blanton’s Straight From The Barrel (Barrel No. 159)
> ABV: 65.15%
> Average price: $400
Blanton’s was the first-ever single-barrel bourbon to be sold commercially, in 1984, and it’s still among the best ones on the market. This particular bottle was drawn from barrel #159, and it’s undiluted and unfiltered (it’s pulled straight from the barrel, after all). It has dark chocolate and hazelnut on the nose and vanilla, oak, toasted nuts, and hints of butterscotch on the palate.
11. Peerless Double Oak Bourbon
> ABV: 53.55%
> Average price: $134
Louisville’s Peerless Distilling Co.’s Double Oak is aged in two new oak casks (hence the name), and the flavor is rich and nuanced: The first sip is honey-sweet, then cinnamony, oaky, and spicy. The second sip adds leather to the mix, and the finish is sweet and oaky, with a slightly viscous mouth-feel.
10. BTAC 2021 Eagle Rare 17
> ABV: 50.50%
> Average price: $1,390
2021’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection has been aged for a whopping 17 years, and according to the company, 73 percent of the bourbon was “lost to the angels” (evaporated during the aging process). Made with Kentucky corn, Minnesota rye, and North Dakota malted barley, it’s bottled at 101 proof. It’s a peppery, slightly bitter whiskey, with plenty of wood and tobacco notes.
9. Remus Repeal Reserve Series V Straight Bourbon
> ABV: 50%
> Average price: $94
Made by a distillery named after the famous Prohibition-era bootlegger George Remus, Remus Repeal Reserve is a blend of five individual bourbons, each distilled between 2005 and 2008. It’s very flavorful and balanced, with notes of toffee, chocolate, vanilla, candied fruit, and lingering spice.
8. Woodinville PX Sherry Cask Straight Bourbon Whiskey
> ABV: 47.50%
> Average price: $70
Washington State’s Woodinville Whiskey Co. starts with their flagship Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and after it’s fully matured, it’s transferred into freshly emptied Pedro Ximenex sherry barrels. These barrels impart notes of dark cherry, chocolate, citrus, and honey-like sweetness, complimenting the classic bourbon flavors of oak and vanilla.
7. Heaven’s Door Redbreast Master Blender’s Edition
> ABV: 50%
> Average price: $115
Founded by none other than Bob Dylan himself, Heaven’s Door has since emerged as one of the most in-demand whiskey brands on the market. Their Master Blender’s Edition is a collaboration between master blenders Ryan Perry of Heaven’s Door and Billy Leighton of Redbreast Irish Whiskey. The pair spent two years working together on a multitude of blends and barrel finishes to arrive at their final whiskey – Heaven’s Door 10-year aged Straight Bourbon finished in Redbreast’s signature Single Pot Still Casks for 15 months. The end result delivers prominent notes of nuts, spice, and leather, as well as sherry, citrus, and dark fruit.
6. Barrell Craft Spirits Bourbon Aged 15 Years
> ABV: 52.5
> Average price: $270
Kentucky’s Barrel Craft Spirits makes its 15-year-old bourbon with corn, rye, and malted barley and bottles it at a cask strength of 105.1 proof. It’s incredibly complex – fruity and oaky on the nose as well as the palate and finish, with flavors of strawberry, honey, and maple coming through. With a splash of water, it opens up to reveal notes of apple blossom and tropical fruits.
5. George Dickel Bottled in Bond, Spring 2007
> ABV: 50%
> Average price: $45
Made with a mash bill of 84% corn, 10% rye, and 6% malted barley, aged for 13 years, and bottled at 100 proof, George Dickel’s Spring 2007 is made with whisky (as they spell it) from the spring distilling season. It’s full of dried dark fruit on the nose, with flavors of butterscotch, oak, and dried cherries. It has great body, and is an excellent value.
4. Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond 8 Years Aged, Spring 2021
> ABV: 50%
> Average price: $85
The seventh edition of Heaven Hill’s highly sought-after Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond Series is the youngest one yet; this eight year-old bourbon is comprised of barrels filled in 2013 and bottled in the spring of 2021. It sticks with Old Fitzgerald’s traditional wheated mash bill, and has lots of caramel on the nose, with toffee, vanilla, and baking spices on the palate.
3. Michter’s 20-Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon
> ABV: 57.10%
> Average price: $8,000
Michter’s master distiller Dan McKee pays special attention to barrels that have been aging for more than 17 years, as they consider those between 17 and 20 years old to hold the most promise for a truly extraordinary level of quality. Bottled at an astonishing 20 years old, Michter’s 20-Year Kentucky Straight Bourbon is made with barrels that have been personally selected by McKee, and this limited-release bourbon truly represents the cream of the crop. It’s intensely rich and flavorful, with notes of black cherry, molasses, honeysuckle, roasted pecans, and, of course, plenty of charred oak.
2. Little Book Chapter 5: “The Invitation”
> ABV: 58.40%
> Average price: $175 (suggested list price $125)
Little Book, an ongoing annual release from Jim Beam Distillery, is curated by Freddie Noe, son of Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe. The 2021 release, called “The Invitation,” is a unique blend of 2-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 3-year-old Kentucky Straight Rye Malt Whiskey, 5-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon, and 15-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon and is bottled undiluted. The age range of the bourbons as well as spiciness from the rye serve to make this a truly fascinating whiskey, with cinnamon on the nose; earthy tobacco, cinnamon, and plenty of oak on the palate; and leather and lingering heat from the rye on the finish.
1. Double Eagle Very Rare
> ABV: 50.50%
> Average price: $18,900
Tipping the scales at an eye-popping $18,900 per bottle, Buffalo Trace’s iconic Double Eagle Very Rare is as much a collector’s item as a simply great Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. The reason for its high price tag? Aside from the container it comes in (which includes a silver box, crystal decanter, and two sculpted glass eagles), the whiskey itself has been aged for 20 years, and very few bottles were produced. Even though it spent two decades in wood, it’s surprisingly well-balanced, with vanilla, toasted oak, and caramel all singing in perfect harmony.
Sponsored: Want to Retire Early? Here’s a Great First Step
Want retirement to come a few years earlier than you’d planned? Or are you ready to retire now, but want an extra set of eyes on your finances?
Now you can speak with up to 3 financial experts in your area for FREE. By simply clicking here you can begin to match with financial professionals who can help you build your plan to retire early. And the best part? The first conversation with them is free.
Click here to match with up to 3 financial pros who would be excited to help you make financial decisions.
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us?
Contact the 24/7 Tempo Editorial team.