12 best bourbon whiskeys for mind-blowing manhattans and more

We tested these blind, without ice and from identical glasses (The Independent)
We tested these blind, without ice and from identical glasses (The Independent)

While bourbon is certainly the most popular American whiskey style in the UK, the spirit’s resurgence is relatively fresh. Although hugely popular in the United States before prohibition (and during if you were able to receive a prescription for medical purposes), bourbon fell out of fashion during the 1960s, just as business began to boom once again following the Second World War.

Bourbon was considered old fashioned and low quality, with exports such as Scotch and Irish whiskies becoming considerably more popular in America during the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. Even bourbon from the likes of Pappy Van Winkle – now one of the globe’s most sought-after spirits – sat on shelves, almost impossible to sell.

A number of factors have helped fuel the modern day bourbon renaissance, but cocktail culture seems to have been the key driver over the past decade, with consumers keen to recreate the bar experience at home. After all, bourbon is particularly well suited to countless cocktails. The old fashioned is arguably the most popular, with television series such as Mad Men having played a crucial role in celebrating its key component (although bourbon wasn’t necessarily the preferred base whiskey).

Considered one of the only true American spirits, the production of bourbon is governed by a set of strict rules. It must be made from a mash bill (a recipe) containing at least 51 per cent corn alongside other grains such as rye, malt and occasionally wheat. Bourbon must also be produced in the United States, be distilled to at least 80 proof, and aged in new charred oak containers (not necessarily in barrels, although barrel ageing is the most common practice).

While the production of each different bourbon whiskey has its similarities, hundreds of varieties are available with certain elements that distinguish them from other spirits in the same category. Many are absolutely sensational examples of the style, but some are – of course – better than others.

These are the best bourbons to upgrade your home bar. They’re best either in cocktails, neat, or even with a large ice cube.

How we tested

We provisionally tasted these bourbons on their own, without ice, and from identical glasses, using a blind tasting method to avoid any bias. Each featured in a round of three or four, which were ranked before we knew which glass contained which bourbon. The best whiskey in each “round” was then tasted again (also blind) to determine the overall best bourbon.

The best bourbon whiskeys for 2022 are:

  • Best overall – Michter’s US*1 Kentucky straight bourbon: £49.45, Masterofmalt.com

  • Best slow sipper – Yellowstone select Kentucky straight bourbon: £45, Ocado.com

  • Best for bourbon beginners – Woodford reserve Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey: £31.95, Drinksandco.co.uk

  • Best bottle – Wild turkey longbranch: £35.25, Distillersdirect.com

  • Best budget buy – Ezra Brooks Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey: £26, Ocado.com

  • Best aged bourbon – Atom Labs charcoal & cornmeal & rickhouses & a decade: £47.95, Masterofmalt.com

  • Best farm distillery – Belmont Farm kopper kettle straight bourbon: £40.75, Thewhiskyexchange.com

  • Best flavoured bourbon – Few cold cut bourbon whiskey: £55.95, Thewhiskyexchange.com

  • Best newcomer – Wilderness trail single barrel bourbon: £64.90, Thewhiskyworld.com

  • Best for splurging – That Boutique-y Whisky company bourbon whiskey #1 24 Year Old: £199.95, Masterofmalt.com

  • Best for mixing – Smooth ambler old scout: £54.95, Houseofmalt.co.uk

  • Best for something a little different – Daddy Rack Tennessee straight whiskey: £35.45, Masterofmalt.co.uk

Michter’s US*1 Kentucky straight bourbon

Bought out by Joseph J Magliocco and Richard Newman at the turn of the millennium, Michter’s can be traced back to 1753. Originally named Shenk’s, set up by Swiss Mennonite farmer John Shenk, the original Pennsylvania distillery was re-named Bomberger’s during the mid-1800s, changing hands many times after prohibition. With the trademark having been taken over, the entire operation has been moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where it continues to produce exceptional “straight” whiskeys, aged for a minimum of two years.

As is the case with the rest of the distillery’s US*1 expressions, the Michter’s US*1 Kentucky straight bourbon is an exceptional benchmark bourbon for both enthusiasts and newcomers looking to taste a premium whiskey without an eye-watering price tag. Although well suited to cocktails, the bourbon is best sipped neat, with pronounced caramel and vanilla notes joining stone fruit character alongside just a whisper of smokiness and plenty of oak on the finish.

Buy now £49.45, Masterofmalt.com

Yellowstone select Kentucky straight bourbon

Honouring the whiskey first produced in the late 1880s, before the company changed hands numerous times, Yellowstone’s select is a fusion of four-year-old and seven-year-old Kentucky straight bourbons from seventh-generation master distiller Stephen Beam – a descendent of the legendary Beam and Dant whiskey-producing families.

Intended to celebrate the Beam’s family’s deep distilling roots, Yellowstone select has plenty of categoric bourbon notes, including vanilla fudge and caramel, plus summer peach, leather and some brown sugar sweetness that complements the light, creamy mouthfeel and dry finish with savours of oak and white pepper.

Buy now £45.00, Ocado.com

Woodford Reserve Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey

While Woodford Reserve was launched in 1996, the brand’s distillery site is one of Kentucky’s oldest, having been used since 1812. A small batch Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey, Woodford Reserve is distilled in a mixture of copper pot stills and columns stills, with the flagship expression aged in new charred American oak barrels for around seven years.

With a mash bill of 72 per cent corn, 10 per cent malted barley and 18 per cent rye, it has a very high rye content compared to other bourbons. As a result, plenty of rye spiciness prevails on the palate, joined by a banana bread note that’s become synonymous with Woodford Reserve, plus cinnamon, walnut, dark chocolate, marmalade and dark cherry on the finish with just a whisper of tobacco leaf, menthol and dry oak notes. A perfect base whiskey for old fashioned cocktails.

Buy now £31.95, Drinksandco.co.uk

Wild Turkey longbranch

While Wild Turkey 101 is a fine entry-level bourbon, Wild Turkey longbranch is a premium expression born from a 24-month collaboration between master distiller Eddie Russell and the brand’s creative director, actor Matthew McConnaughey. With a name inspired by the spirit of family and community, spanning from Kentucky to Texas, longbranch is a small-batch Kentucky straight bourbon, with the liquid aged for at least eight years. Following rigorous testing, the flavour profile is achieved via a proprietary process which combines two separate filtration methods. The first filtration is through American white oak, followed by charcoal from Texas mesquite wood. Rather than lending a prominent mesquite flavour, the charcoal simply helps to polish the final product with a smooth, full finish.

On the nose, the longbranch has classic Wild Turkey aromas of nutty caramel, vanilla, cherry, baking spices and a touch of charred oak, while the palate has a balanced combination of honey, nuts and a prominent rye note alongside peppery charred oak, dark chocolate and dried stone fruits.

Buy now £35.25, Distillersdirect.com

Ezra Brooks Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey

Initially created in response to the scarcity of Jack Daniel’s during the late 1950s and early 1960s, given the drink’s popularity, Ezra Brooks whiskey is also contained in similar square bottles, distilled with a sour mash process, and charcoal filtered.

Colloquially known as Ezra Brooks “black label”, this bourbon is now distilled at Lux Row, at the heart of the Kentucky bourbon trail. With an 80 proof version available in Europe (as opposed to the original 90 proof whiskey), the spirit’s sour mash distilling process uses the prior batches’ yeast to ferment the new batch in a continued procession, before the liquid is aged in new charred white oak barrels and finally filtered through small amounts of charcoal to provide a mellower flavour. Although the overall whiskey is fairly uncomplicated, it’s well-made and accessibly priced, making it especially suited to being used in cocktails. Typical vanilla and butterscotch notes join some faint apple and citrus flavours against a backdrop of baking spices, particularly cinnamon, while the finish is warming and peppery.

Buy now £26.00, Ocado.com

Atom Labs charcoal & cornmeal & rickhouses & a decade

A 10-year-old bourbon from independent bottler Atom Labs, charcoal & cornmeal & rickhouses & a decade was launched with intentionally understated packaging and branding, with the aim of being accessible while steering away from the traditional marketing of so many spirit brands. The point here is that the liquid inside the bottle is all that really matters. Also offering good value for a bourbon of its age, the resulting liquid has plenty of vanilla fudge, raisin, oatmeal and treacle alongside some gorgeous peanut brittle, black pepper and just a whisper of sweet black coffee. The finish, on the other hand, is particularly approachable with soft spiciness and notes of liquorice, apple and buttered popcorn. A particularly complex bourbon, best sipped neat.

Buy now £47.95, Masterofmalt.com

Belmont Farm kopper kettle straight bourbon

Coming from a family of moonshine history, Chuck and Jeanette Miller established Belmont Farm in 1988. Having turned their Virginia farm into a distillery, it became the first in the United States to be considered a craft whiskey distillery.

Slowly made in a solid copper pot still to preserve all the aroma and taste of a fine, fresh whiskey, Belmont Farm kopper kettle straight bourbon is a grain-to-glass spirit, with a mash bill of 51 per cent corn, 24.5 per cent wheat, and 24.5 per cent malted barley, aged for at least three years in Virginia mountain oak barrels. Cacao, caramel and oaky vanilla dominate on the palate, with some slight spiciness lingering on the smooth finish.

Buy now £40.75, Thewhiskyexchange.com

Few cold cut bourbon whiskey

Known as “the seat of prohibition” and the established headquarters of the temperance movement, the Chicago suburb of Evanston continued to ban alcohol until 1972. Today, the city is home to a number of distilleries, including FEW Spirits, which focuses on craft distilled whiskey and gin.

Instead of using water to cut the distilled bourbon, Few uses cold brew Chicago Passion House coffee. The result has similarities to the distillery’s core bourbon expression, notably corn and vanilla, but has a far fruitier profile. Unexpectedly, the coffee element is actually quite subtle, only really materialising on the long, slightly bitter finish. There’s also a fair amount of rye spiciness alongside feint smokiness and a suggestion of smoked paprika.

Buy now £55.95, Thewhiskyexchange.com

Wilderness trail single barrel bourbon

A relatively new distillery, Wilderness Trail was founded in 2012. Operating from a 44-acre facility in Danville, Kentucky, it draws on owners Shane Baker and Pat Heist’s combination of over 20 years’ industry experience. It uses a fairly unique process, with each grain in the mash bill cooked at its optimum temperature, and only using fresh water, grains, and yeast in the mashing and cooking process each time. Wilderness Trail is also a chemical-free distillery, sourcing all of its ingredients from a local seed farmer.

With a mash bill of 64 per cent corn, 24 per cent wheat, and 12 per cent malted barley, the Wilderness Trail single barrel bottled in bond bourbon has one of the highest wheat ratios used in a bourbon made in Kentucky. With the whiskey aged for at least four years, it features prominent honey bread notes alongside some caramelised sugar and ripe fruit savours, with classic vanilla and plenty of oak imparted from the heavy char.

Buy now £64.90, Thewhiskyworld.com

That Boutique-y Whisky Company bourbon whiskey #1 24 year-old

An independent whisky bottler, That Boutique-y Whisky Company is owned by Atom Brands, with the founders having travelled around the world selecting single casks to create their own blends, which are then bottled and sold under various guises.

The brand’s bourbon #1 is a bottling of 24-year-old bourbon from undisclosed distilleries – which is fairly rare for bourbon, with most only aged until their late teens. Naturally, it’s a small batch bottling with an outturn of just over 8,000 bottles, which is also reflected in the price. It is a remarkably complex spirit. On the nose, a parade of liquorice, oak, pepper, toffee, lime, leather, chocolate and mint aromas lead to a rich palate with plenty of cinnamon, banana, dried fruits, violet, clove and a manuka honey sweetness.

Buy now £199.95, Masterofmalt.com

Smooth Ambler old scout

A blend of two whiskeys made with bourbon mash bills, Smooth Ambler old scout can’t technically be classified as a bourbon, given one of the whiskeys is aged in re-charred bourbon casks. Many of the characteristics fit the bourbon blueprint, however.

In the spirit of transparency, it’s also worth noting that the “old scout” name specifically refers to the fact that the product is sourced from elsewhere. In this case it’s MGP – a huge company that distils spirits for numerous brands from their facility in Indiana. For this expression, the mash bill comprises a high level of rye (36 per cent), which gives the whiskey a satisfying spiciness, from the nose to the long finish rampant with chocolate, apple and a hint of peppermint. Elsewhere, buttery notes join spiced dough with a suggestion of rich tobacco.

Buy now £54.95, Houseofmalt.co.uk

Daddy Rack Tennessee straight whiskey

Launched towards the end of 2020, Daddy Rack is a Tennessee straight whiskey. Like bourbon, Tennessee straight whiskey must be made with a mash bill of at least 51 per cent corn, but unlike bourbon, it can only be made within Tennessee, ensuring the process follows strict production and quality standards. The spirit must be made using the Lincoln County Process, where the whiskey is filtered through a thick layer of maple charcoal after distillation.

If you can overlook its name, Daddy Rack is an extremely smooth drink, filtered twice to produce a spirit that’s surprisingly light, and finished in small batches to retain a consistent level of quality. Created by Englishman J Arthur Rackham, Daddy Rack’s smoothness is joined by hints of roasted apple and ripe banana, plus vanilla, nutmeg, and salted popcorn – perfect in a whiskey sour.

Buy now £35.45, Masterofmalt.com

Bourbon whiskey FAQs

What is bourbon?

Bourbon is a brown whiskey named after Bourbon County in Kentucky, where most of the stuff is produced. To be classed as such, it needs to be distilled from at least 51 per cent corn, while the rest is made from barley, rye and wheat. It then needs to be aged in American oak barrels, bringing out that deep brown colour and distinct smoky flavour.

What is the difference between whiskey and bourbon?

Put simply, it’s the way they are distilled and aged. While bourbon is a whiskey – fermented from grain and barrel aged – not all whiskeys are bourbons. This is because not all have been distilled using the same grains, or the same barrels, as bourbon.

Is bourbon sweeter than scotch whisky?

Generally, bourbon will be sweeter than scotch. This is because the latter is distilled mostly from barley, while bourbon is distilled from 51 per cent corn, to create a sweeter taste. This sweetness, however, will also depend on the ratio of grains used (the more corn, the sweeter the taste, while more rye creates a spicier flavour).

The verdict: Bourbon whiskeys

With so many varying flavours and styles available from just one category, all of the whiskeys featured are recommended, for both bourbon enthusiasts and those just hoping to become better acquainted with the world of American whiskey.

The Michter’s US*1 Kentucky straight bourbon is a real standout, from a distillery that’s become renowned for offering consistently exceptional benchmark whiskeys. And while Michter’s is a little more expensive than some other offerings on the list, it’s worth every penny. Yellowstone’s select is another particularly solid classic bourbon, while Woodford Reserve is easily the best suited to being used in classic old fashioned cocktails.

Why not whet your whistle with our review of the best vermouths, or the best gins for your home bar cart