See? It never fails. Bourbon is a whiskey made from at least 50% corn mash (the rest of the malts are various grains, usually barley, rye, or a wheat) and aged in oak barrels. And it is American, sir. In fact, it is from only one state in America, at that. And only certain regions of that state—Kentucky—at that! Don’t let some imitation whiskey take you on a wild ride through the night claiming to be bourbon if it ain’t from Kentucky, got it? (Actually, do let that happen; it sounds fun. You can clear up the specifics of categorization in the morning).
Beyond the requirements of production location, corn mash content, and oak barrel aging, there are some pretty broad legal stipulations as to the alcoholic content of bourbon, but beyond that it’s game on for various distilleries to make whatever twist on bourbon they would like. And they do. And we thank them, from the bottom of our glasses and our hearts.
5 Evan Williams
Evan Williams has been making whiskey since the mid-18th Century and they’re still at it. And their booze is still cheap, but pretty damn good, considering! This is the bourbon you want to be sipping from a fine jug (once your stash of ‘shine runs out, I mean) as you rock back and forth on the porch, scatter gun lying across yer lap. Or maybe if you’re on a college budget.
4 Woodford Reserve bourbons
Woodford Reserve bourbons start to get a bit pricier than all but our #1 guy up there, but the quality is commensurate. There is almost a wine-like quality to some of their bourbons, which are usually about 42.5% ABV. A great after dinner liquor to sip (slowly) neat from a wide glass, ideally as you stare into the fire. Their unique wide, flat bottles look right well on your bar, too.
3 Maker’s Mark
Now, Maker’s Mark… things get a bit more serious with this one. Over 90 proof serious, see? Maker’s Mark bourbon is a “bigger” whiskey, meaning it has more overt flavors (still woody, a bit of pepper, some honey and a lot of heat) and alcohol presence. But you can still find it for usually under $30 a bottle, and that ain’t bad at all. Great with lemonade or in standard bourbon cocktails, and not bad over ice, either.
2 Jim Beam
Jim Beam holds down the number 2 spot, also, this time just with straight up Beam. The one with the white label in the glass bottle. Fifteen bucks a fifth if you’re lucky, and certainly worth that low price. This is the go-to bourbon: not the standard-bearer but the baseline, yes, but it is a fine whiskey for a great price and it is probably the one you grew up on, anyway. I wouldn’t harangue the masses to drink it straight, but I would declare from atop any soap box or balcony that it makes a fine Manhattan! 80 proof, not too subtle slightly oaky/woody flavor with a hint of cherry and plenty of burn. It’s Jim Beam, kids!
1 Basil Hayden wins the day. Why?
Because it is friggin’ awesome, that’s why. A tour de force or a liquor, I do declare. This is a bourbon that begs to be sipped neat or over ice, but if you use it to make a cocktail, you’d better make it a damn fine cocktail indeed, or else you gotta answer to me. It is one of Jim Beam’s “small batch” bourbons and as such is both higher in quality and in price than some of our other entries, but it’s well worth the cash. Aged 8 years and the standard 80 proof, Basil Hayden’s has more complexity and richness in its rather light body than most think possible for a bourbon. There is a light peppery spice, sweet honey and almost a bit of cinnamon/ginger taste, too. A triumph of booze!