What is it about bourbon that just feels special? Perhaps the history of a true, American-born spirit, the feeling that each sip brings one closer to the wild west. Or the security and comfort from a drink with such strict, honored qualifications. For instance, every bourbon barrel must be a new, freshly charred oak barrel, use it once and it's no longer acceptable. I know I get a little smile every time I explain this to the whiskey novice. "What do they do with all the barrels when they're done?" they ask, "ship 'em over seas for all the Scotch and Irish Whiskeys" I reply, "they can use them as many times as they like." Of course there's more to the alluring power of bourbon than just its origin, such as the rich, dark color that can only come from years of maturity. Not to mention that sweet, charcoal, caramel and vanilla nectar, it's like taking all the best smells and flavors in life and boiling them down to awesomeness! Sorry if I got a little carried away there…
Even with the made-in-America requirement, there are literally thousands of bourbons, ranging from the big guys, to small, craft bourbons all across the country. It can be quite the task for the bourbon newcomer to determine just what's out there, and like any hobby, you need to start somewhere. Well consider this a head start into the heart of some of the best and most sophisticated bourbons money can buy. One great thing about bourbon (as opposed to Scotch) is that, while it can get expensive, it typically won't require your life savings to try the best in the world.
Now that we're all on the same page about what bourbon is and how amazing it tastes, let me shed some light on what I find are the 5 best bourbons available. These are not the best bourbons of 2012 or any year in particular, rather a general "best of" list comprised of 5 of the best bourbon "brands" available today.
Requirements for my list are as follows:
It has to be bourbon (duh) - this may seem like a no-brainer but the whiskeys on my list are all American bourbons, no Scotch, no Canadian whiskey, no Irish whiskey, no Rye (I'll save that for another time).
It has to be available - not every bourbon on my list are readily available, but they are all still in production. There are no "one time" releases on the list.
Now, let's delve into this wonderful corn spirit, shall we?
5. Black Maple Hill
Black Maple Hill is a small batch, blended bourbon, meaning the whiskey comes from a select few barrels blended together to form the desired flavor profile. The "blended" portion means that multiple recipes were combined (quite masterfully) to form the overall flavor. This is a well-balanced bourbon, with a round nose of corn, charcoal, and vanilla. The flavor is smooth with a salty zing, followed by corn, vanilla candy, and charred oak. It's a 95 proof bourbon, which gives Black Maple Hill a smooth start that builds in strength and finishes with a medium strength kick that warms long after the finish.
BMH runs around $45 and is becoming quite popular, its origins are somewhat mysterious, with claims that recipes as old as 18 years are included in the blend. Don't be surprised if you need to do some tracking in order to get ahold of a bottle.
4. Knob Creek Single Barrel
The best way to describe Knob Creek Single Barrel is as follows: condensed butter. Seriously, this stuff is intense! It actually feels heavy on the tongue, as if you were to take an already tasty bourbon (Knob Creek Small Batch) and boil it, reducing it to a thick, weighty substance. Okay, so it's not actually as thick as say, maple syrup, but it sure does resemble it in flavor. Right away you'll notice brown sugar and maple on the nose, along with a full, oak smell. The flavor is superb, again with dark sugars, maple syrup, and caramel. It seems to coat the tongue with an oily, butter-like quality that lasts and lasts. It finishes with a tingling spice and a blast of heat, accompanied by what feels like a summary of the nose and palate.
At only $40, Knob Creek Single Barrel is clearly the best "pound for pound" bourbon currently available (in my opinion). Sure, Booker's may hold the top spot in Jim Beam's small batch offerings, but I believe Knob Creek Single Barrel's amazingly fair price point gives it the slight edge. This is a 120 proof bourbon that feels almost perfect in strength, complimenting the heavy flavors and going down smooth, with just the right amount of heat.
3. George T. Stagg
I may begin to sound a bit repetitive describing George T. Stagg, coming straight off of Knob Creek. Let's just say old George T. is like Knob Creek's father. No, that doesn't quite articulate, more like great grandfather! George T. Stagg is like nothing you've ever tried. This is a barrel proof bourbon, it's uncut, unfiltered, straight from the barrel Kentucky bourbon! In other words, Buffalo Trace Distillery hasn't "watered down" or tampered with this bourbon in any way, you may even see bits of charred oak in the bottle. Remember the old Western movies where they'd take a shot of some intense whiskey and say, "It'll put hair on your chest"? This is that whiskey. Coming in at a whopping 142.8 proof in the most recent release (2012), this is truly a bourbon for the experienced enthusiast. Many will recommend cutting George T. with a few drops of cool water; and it can be said that doing so may unlock more complex flavors, but I feel that a bourbon should be enjoyed pure, just as the barrel intended.
Make sure to plan ahead to give yourself plenty of time to enjoy a glass of Stagg, as each sip will give you plenty to ponder. On the nose you will find dark chocolate, raw cinnamon, and vanilla, with a strong alcohol vapor that warns of the flavor to follow. With just a small sip, Geagre T. will quickly coat your whole mouth, it's as if the alcohol is evaporating, spreading up through your nose and out in every which direction. The flavors are bold and to the point, with chocolate at the forefront, followed by caramel, charred oak, molasses, cinnamon, and vanilla. The strength picks up, and you will find it hard to keep the bourbon on your tongue for more than a few seconds, though the finish will suffice. It's warm, very warm, and you'll feel its vapors with each breath. Brown sugar, lots of oak, vanilla, and toasted nuts seem to last forever, breathe out the nose for a nice spicy note. One glass is more than enough to enjoy for a nice, exillerating bourbon experience.
George T. Stagg is released seasonally, usually in the fall and spring, alongside Buffalo Trace's other high-end whiskeys as part of the "Antique Collection" (5 amazing whiskeys). At $70, you may have to save up for this one, though it is well worth the price and the wait.
2. Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 15 Year
Pappy Van Winkle has seemed to built up to legendary status, and probably the most impressive alcohol releases you will ever find. Typically released in the fall (and occasionally spring), you may be shocked to find (literally) hundreds of people lined up outside your favorite liquor store on a frigid morning, eagerly awaiting the release of some of the best alcohol money can buy! And you might find yourself chuckling, thinking, "What a waist of time", that is, until you try this liquid gold for yourself.
Pappy Van Winkle is a wheated bourbon, meaning the flavor grain is wheat rather the typical rye recipe. This plays to Van Winkles favor, as wheated recipes lend themselves better to long age. This Kentucky straight bourbon has been sitting, untouched, for a solid 15 years, and let me tell you, it's worth the hype. Coming in at 107 proof, the strength of the bourbon is evident right away on the nose, but not overpowering. It has a very floral aroma, filled with green plants, apple, and oak; there is plenty of vanilla, spice and caramel as well. You can tell right away, this is a complex treat. You'll want to take note of your first taste of Pappy's, as it may change your life (just a warning). Exploding with flavor instantly, Pappy's seems to capture the very essence of bourbon, in what has to be the most well balanced bourbon you'll ever try (along with Van Winkle's other offerings). Sweet, vanilla candy, tannins, orange citrus, caramel… the flavors simply explode! Ending with a dry oak and nice warmth that perfectly compliments the flavors as it runs up through your nostrils; bringing more vanilla and spice, in what I like to call the "bourbon retrohale" (cigar smokers, you know what I mean).
This is a bourbon that really must be tried to believe. If you are ever lucky enough to find a bottle, do NOT pass it up, its $70 price tag is well worth it, just don't be surprised if you need to fight for it!
1. Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 20 Year
Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 20 year old edition is my number 1 pick for best bourbon. Although, it wasn't an easy decision, it was really a toss-up between the 15 and 20 year versions. We at the Dojo are split between the two, and I personally give the 20 year the slight edge for what I feel are a longer finish and more complexity. Both bourbons are absolutely amazing and either could vie for top spot depending on personal preferences.
Using the same recipe as the 15 year, Pappy's 20 year old bourbon is aged to perfection. With the extra age comes a softer, more delicate rendition. The proof has come down to 90.4 and you may not even recognize it as bourbon, it's smooth and sweet, almost reminiscent of a liquor. I could honestly smell this bourbon for days, in fact, if someone could somehow capture its aroma in the form of a scented candle, I would not leave my house… Sweet cognac, leather, cigar tobacco, vanilla, raw organics, maple syrup, maybe even bubble gum, it really doesn't end. The flavor is more delicate than the 15 year, with subtle complexities of tobacco, vanilla, fruits, and spice. This is one of those rare delicacies that almost feels beyond me, as if it should be enjoyed by someone more qualified, someone more interesting, perhaps with a monocle… As I said before, it's the finish that I feel separates the 20 from the 15 year. Where the 15 has a heated finish, the 20 year is silky smooth, with vanilla and cherry that go on and on. Finally ending with a similar dry oak, battling on and off with that sweetness, it's really something unique.
The 20 year Van Winkle is actually fairly priced at $100, and while I typically don't go out and drop that kind of cash at my local wine and spirits, this feels like money well spent. It's one of the reasons I find bourbons so attractive, compared to the finest bottle of cognac or Scotch, this top-shelf bourbon is actually attainable by the average joe; and I enjoy it every bit as much, maybe I'm just a simple man.
These are my top 5 favorite bourbons, and of course there are many others that fought hard but just didn't make the cut. Incase you're interested, and still reading, here are the contenders: Colonel E.H. Taylor (very similar to Pappy Van Winkle), Booker's (strong, toasted toffee and penuche fudge), Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23 year (more age, less strength, possibly more complex), Noah's Mill (makers of Black Maple Hill), and really anything from Buffalo Trace's Antique Collection (Eagle Rare 17 year and William Larue Weller 12 year, along with two incredible rye whiskeys [Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye 6 year and Sazerac Rye 18 year]).