Read our introduction to bourbon then explore our other whisky guides, including rye whiskey, Irish whiskey, Japanese whisky and Scotch whisky.
What is bourbon?
Like Scotch whisky, bourbon is governed by strict legal requirements (otherwise it can’t be called bourbon). It must be made within the US with at least 51% corn in the mash bill (the blend of grains that is cooked, fermented and distilled into bourbon), distilled to a maximum of 160 proof, aged in new charred oak barrels and bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV. The vast majority of bourbon is made in Kentucky but you can find distilleries across the country.
Ageing and labelling
Unlike Scotch whisky, bourbon doesn’t have a minimum ageing requirement, but if a bottle is labelled as ‘straight bourbon’ then it will have been aged for at least two years. If a bourbon has been aged for less than four years it must have an age statement on the bottle. Other terms you may come across are ‘small batch’ – which tend to be bourbons blended from a carefully curated, relatively small selection of barrels – while ‘single barrel’ is bourbon from just one barrel. ‘Cask strength’ is where bourbons are bottled without dilution so these will be stronger and more alcoholic.
What does bourbon taste like?
Because of its high corn content, bourbon usually tastes sweet in character, with other factors such as barrel-ageing giving flavours and aromas of vanilla, caramel, baking spice, maple, toasted oak, nuttiness and cocoa. As well the 51% corn requirement the mash bill can be made up of varying amounts of other grains such as rye, malted barley and wheat and this will impact how the bourbon tastes. High-wheat bourbons will be soft and sweet in character, while high-rye bourbons are spicier.
What is Tennessee whiskey?
Tennessee whiskey is very similar to bourbon – it’s made in almost exactly the same way with many of the same legal requirements governing the production process. The key differences are that it can only be made in the state of Tennessee and the spirit is filtered through sugar maple charcoal after distillation, called the Lincoln County Process. This results in a smooth, mellow end result, and it’s why bourbons tend to be a little more bold and robust in character. Tennessee whiskey will be labelled as such on the bottle (Jack Daniels being the most famous example).
How to drink bourbon
It’s delicious sipped neat, although higher-ABV spirits may benefit from a tiny splash of water – this will dilute the spirit but also softens the kick of the alcohol which can numb the tastebuds. It also helps to open up the spirit. Bourbon is brilliant in cocktails, and many classic recipes call for it. Try it in an old fashioned, mint julep, boulevardier or highballs.
More like this
9 best bourbons to try at a glance
- Best rye-forward bourbon: FEW bourbon, £53.95
- Best all-rounder bourbon: Buffalo Trace bourbon, £24.95
- Best barrel proof bourbon: Wild Turkey Rare Breed barrel proof bourbon, £53.99
- Best for citrus notes: Frey Ranch bourbon, £54.95
- Best single-barrel bourbon: Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky straight bourbon whisky, £44.95
- Best classic bourbon: Redwood Empire Pipe Dream bourbon, £47.99
- Best easy sipper: Uncle Nearest 1884 small batch whiskey, £55.04
- Best value bourbon: Ezra Brooks Kentucky straight bourbon, £25.94
- Best blended bourbon: Yellowstone Select Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, £52
9 best bourbons to try 2023
Best rye-forward bourbon
Evanston in Illinois was once the centre of the Prohibition movement in the USA and an entirely ‘dry’ city until 1972, when the sale of alcohol was legalised. It’s now the home of FEW Spirits. Their winning bourbon has classic notes of vanilla and caramel, as well as lots of toasty, woody spice thanks to a rye-forward mash bill.
Master of Malt (£58.95)
The Whisky Exchange (£53.95)
Buffalo Trace bourbon
Best all-rounder bourbon
With flavours and aromas of toffee, vanilla, spice, as well as hints of leather and mint, this is a good all-rounder bourbon, especially for the price. Make it your go-to for whisky cocktails.
Master of Malt (£24.95)
The Bottle Club (£24.69)
The Whisky Exchange (£26.95)
Wild Turkey Rare Breed barrel proof bourbon
Best barrel proof bourbon
Brands known for their popular, mass-market whiskies like Jack Daniels will often have smaller premium lines worth seeking out. Wild Turkey Rare Breed barrel proof (meaning it’s bottled straight from the cask with no added water) is a blend of six, eight and 12-year-old bourbons. It’s intense and full-bodied, with notes of orange, mint and lots of spice. Delicious sipped neat or use in a julep with sugar syrup, fresh mint leaves and crushed ice.
The Whisky Exchange (£55.25)
The Bottle Club (£53.49)
Frey Ranch bourbon
Best for citrus notes
Frey Ranch is a proper grain-to-glass operation. The distillery grows all the grain used to make its whisky on its 165-year-old farm in Nevada – a practice that is still relatively unusual in whisky-making. This straight bourbon is aged for five years, with noticeable citrus aromas as well as caramel, vanilla and banana.
The Whisky Exchange (£54.95)
Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky straight bourbon whisky
Best single-barrel bourbon
An impressive single-barrel bourbon, smooth, rounded and complex with butterscotch, fragrant wood and cocoa aromas, delicate cherry flavours on the palate and lovely length.
The Whisky Exchange (£44.95)
Redwood Empire Pipe Dream bourbon
Best classic bourbon
This, from California, has classic bourbon aromas of vanilla, oak and caramel moving into deep flavours of roasted nuts, toasted oak and peppery spice on the palate.
Master of Malt (£47.99)
The Whisky Exchange (£49.75)
Uncle Nearest 1884 small batch whiskey
Best easy sipper
An African-American-owned Tennessee whisky brand, this was created to honour the legacy of Nathan ‘Nearest’ Green, the first African-American master distiller and a pioneer in American whiskey (he taught his distilling techniques to Jack Daniels). This blend was created by Green’s great-great granddaughter, Victoria Eady Butler, and is a soft and delicate whisky, easy to drink, with vanilla, brown sugar, oak and baking spice notes.
Master of Malt (£57.94)
The Whisky Exchange (£57.95)
Ezra Brooks Kentucky straight bourbon
Best value bourbon
A great-value straight bourbon, this is an easy-going affair with familiar flavours: big, mellow butterscotch and vanilla, with hints of chocolate, and a soft, smooth texture. Try it in cocktails.
Master of Malt (£25.94)
Yellowstone Select Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
Best blended bourbon
A blend of four- and seven-year-old bourbons, this has creamy vanilla and caramel, hints of peppery spice and subtle smokiness.
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