About the Author: Jason P. is a Dappered devotee, having curated the majority of his wardrobe through the site. He is an enthusiast of wool sweaters, chino pants, and affordable automatic watches. In his free time, you can find him at his boxing gym or antiquing with his wife.
Bourbon continues to trend in America because bourbon IS America. America’s only true native spirit, by definition a bourbon whiskey must be distilled and bottled in America to be called bourbon. There are a few rules on what defines a bourbon, and these very same rules play a significant role into the ascension of bourbon – both in price and prestige.
- A mash bill of a minimum 51% corn. The “mash bill” is simply the proportion of each type of grain used to create the distillate. Most commonly, bourbon will use the aforementioned corn, and then a mixture of rye and barley. High rye bourbons usually come in between 10-20% rye, while wheated bourbons (like Pappy Van Winkle, Weller, and Maker’s Mark) swap out rye for wheat to create a naturally sweeter flavor profile.
- Proof Requirements. Bourbon must come off the still at no higher than 160 proof, enter the barrel no higher than 125 proof and bottled at no lower than 80 proof. A growing trend in the bourbon landscape are “barrel proof” or “barrel strength” bourbons. This “juice” (a bourbon term used for the actual distillate placed in barrels) is bottled at near- barrel entry proof. Meaning, it has been minimally, if at all, diluted. Less dilution means less product to bottle, creating a scarcity of sorts – at least for that specific distillate.
- American made. In an age where “Made in the USA” resonates greatly with customers, bourbon can claim national authenticity and character, and distilleries are cashing in on their American heritage.
- Aged in newly-charred American oak barrels. To be a “straight” bourbon, it must be aged no less than two years. To receive a “bottled-in-bond” designation, the requirement is four years.
Because bourbon requires at least 51% corn in the mashbill (and usually, you’ll find this number closer to 70%), it produces a sweeter spirit with a kick of spice from the rye.
In an effort to stay true to the affordable yet quality theme of Dappered, all the picks are $40 or less, plus two celebration-worthy $60 bourbons. A note on the listed prices – these were purchased on the shelf at my local store in the Northeastern New Jersey, one of the higher-priced markets in the country. You can look at the prices below as the upper limit of an “acceptable” price for each bottle. If you happen to find them lower, that means you’re likely getting a good deal. If you find them higher – which likely will be the case for those of you in more condensed city centers- you might be getting taken for a ride.
Below, the picks note the distillery in parentheses, and I’ve included only brands owned by the distillery responsible for creating the bourbon in the bottle.
This is important to note, as not all brands actually distill their own bourbon. As the bourbon craze continues to expand, entrepreneurs have jumped into the business without building their own stills. As such, you see a lot of two-to-three year old companies with six-to-seven year old bourbons. How is this possible? They buy stock from other distilleries, often industrial productions like MGP in Indiana, and blend the barrels themselves. I prefer the heritage brands, or upstarts who distill their own spirits. In doing so, I taste the true craftsmanship and heritage in the bottle, and have a more enjoyable overall experience. After all, half of selling bourbon is having a good story. To the picks…
The High-Rye Bourbon: Wild Turkey 101 (Wild Turkey) – $25
This is my favorite value bourbon. Often found for less than $25, Wild Turkey 101 is a 101 proof high-rye bourbon aged for 6-8 years and distilled by a reputable heritage distiller. A lot of bourbons at this price are thin with a quick finish, and while the finish doesn’t linger here, this is a substantial pour at a low price. Caramel, cinnamon and clove flavors are prominent to my palate. Wild Turkey doesn’t dilute this much, as it comes out of the barrel at 109-110 proof before being diluted down to 101. Compare this to other bourbons that come out of the barrel at higher proof, and you’re getting a bourbon as close to the proof off the still as you can find. This one works great for cocktails because of the higher rye content, while also being a good sipper.
The Wheated Bourbon: John Fitzgerald’s Larceny Bourbon (Heaven Hill) – $30
The Maker’s Mark alternative. As bourbon fans continue to seek out value, wheated bourbons are growing in popularity at the lower price point after a decade-plus of prominence in the triple digit realm. Larceny is distilled and bottled by Heaven Hill distillery (Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, Henry McKenna, Old Fitzgerland) as a wheated bourbon to compete with Maker’s Mark at the $30 price point. At 92 proof, it’s very approachable and easy to discern. The wheated mashbill is evident, with bright and sugary fruit notes on the nose and honey and orange on the palate. This is not anything remarkable, but it is a unique bourbon at the price point and worthy of a place on your bourbon shelf for a change of pace and style. This is a good one to pull out at a get-together to show you’re a bit different and possess a higher level of discernment, without breaking the bank.
The Old Man In Town: Russell’s Reserve 10 Year (Wild Turkey) – $35
As age statements start to disappear, a $35 10-year-old bourbon is worthy of any list. While not overly remarkable as a pour in itself, there is consistency from bottle to bottle for a 10 year bourbon. It’s a more mature Wild Turkey 101 at a lower proof (90 proof), devoid of heat and brash flavors. It isn’t vibrant, or unique. But, it is a delightful rye-forward smooth-sipper. This one is for when you don’t want to think too deeply about your bourbon, just drink and enjoy. I did enjoy this more than the WT 101, but not enough that I would repeatedly spend $10 more each time. Worthy of a spot on your shelf if you’ve never had it, or if you love Wild Turkey and want to kick it up a notch without spending a significant premium.
The House Bourbon: Knob Creek Small Batch (Jim Beam) – $30
This has replaced Buffalo Trace as the one bourbon I always keep a bottle of on my shelf. It’s reliable, easy to find, a very well-priced for the juice inside. Previously with a nine-year aged statement, this bourbon has everything you can ask for at the price point. It comes in at 100 proof and has a long full-bodied finish, something often eluding bourbons at this price point. On the nose, I get leather, vanilla, and brown sugar, while the taste is spice at the front, followed by rich caramel, oaky vanilla, and of course, sweetness from the corn. A perfectly balanced bourbon at my preferred proof.
The Bottled-in-Bond: Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch (Buffalo Trace) – $40
A victim of price gouging. List price is $40, but often found anywhere between that and, wait for it, $100. Seemingly, all Buffalo Trace products continue to creep up in price brought on by the Pappy effect (Pappy Van Winkle, Weller, and Colonel E.H.Taylor are all brands owned by the Sazerac company and distilled by Buffalo Trace Distillery). This is a bottle that if you find it for list price (as I do at my preferred store), snap it up. I actually have an easier time finding it’s higher priced single barrel ($75) and straight rye ($70) siblings.
This bourbon is named after Edmund Haynes Taylor, the architect of the landmark Bottled-In-Bond Act of 1897. This legislation was paramount in preserving America’s bourbon industry during a time when fakes were proliferating the market and diluting the prestige of American made whiskey. Bottled-In-Bond bourbons must be aged no less than 4 years, stored in a federally bonded warehouse, and be 100 proof.
What better BiB bourbon to buy than the one named after the man who pioneered the movement? You’re buying history, and a supremely delicious bourbon. I taste chocolate, oak, and a subtle cinnamon spice. This is one that gets better as it oxygenates, so savor the bottle slowly over time and you will have a unique taste with every pour.
Next Level Wheated Bourbon: Maker’s Mark RC6 (Maker’s Mark) – $60
From a distillery that doesn’t do many new products, a limited release product sparked my interest when news of this bourbon hit the press. This juice starts as the base Maker’s Mark, but is then dumped into previously-used Maker’s Mark barrels that house ten oak staves each. These oak staves, which are an outcome of Maker’s Mark’s ongoing wood experimentation efforts, are toasted after sitting outdoors for 18 months. The end result is a highly limited number of barrels of unique bourbon (reportedly 255 barrels).
There is no age statement, but it hits at a big 108 proof. I like to see a higher proof for limited releases. Being a Maker’s Mark, this is a wheated bourbon with big flavor. Dried fruit, burnt sugar, and cinnamon shine in this pour. This reminds me of a nice apple pie in the fall.
Next Level Single Barrel Bourbon: Blanton’s Single Barrel (Buffalo Trace) – $60
Yet another victim of the Pappy halo, the national average for this hits around $100. I’ve seen it crest $200 in some posts, but you’re a fool to pay such a sum. If you’re a good customer, you should be able to snag it for $60 to $70 if you’re patient. Buffalo Trace uses a higher rye mashbill for this bourbon, compared to their Weller label. It’s reported to use the same mashbill as the Colonel E.H. Taylor listed above – so what makes it unique, and worth the higher cost?
For one, it’s a single barrel product. All other bourbons on this list are created by batching together different barrels (and in the case of the Wild Turkey 101, different ages) to create the final product. Not so with the Blanton’s. Each bottle is the product of a single barrel. The benefit to this bottling is the taster gets the full expression of the aged distillate. The downside is that there is a chance of significant differences in flavor from bottle to bottle, though, I have not experienced that with Blanton’s.
Blanton’s is noteworthy for being aged in a steel rickhouse (the warehouse a bourbon barrel is placed). Most distilleries use wooden rickhouses for aging, and Buffalo Trace does this with their other bourbons, but Blanton’s gets placed in steel. In doing so, the barrels and bourbon inside them are exposed to the elements differently, and the product is altered as a result. This 93 proof bourbon bursts with notes of leather and oak on the nose, and butterscotch, citrus, and oak to taste. It’s like an orange-vanilla cream ice cream topped with butterscotch. Sublime.
Note: I do not purport to be some sort of certified bourbon expert. I’m just a guy who wants to point out above-average product without having to tolerate a snooty, ego-driven expert as is often the case in the spirits world. Lastly, the glass pictured is a glencairn tasting glass. I highly recommend you pick up a set if you want to experience the bourbon in the fullest form, especially if drinking neat.
Are you a bourbon fan? If so, let me know your go-to bottle in the forums.