Today’s generation enjoys countless wonderful gifts from the people of old. For example is the rich and flavorful top-shelf bourbon, a drink so ripe with history. The master distillers in the 18th century skillfully distilled what is dubbed as the Great American Spirit.
The pioneer settlers of Scottish, German, Irish descent came to the West in search of new land and resources. Many of them occupied the state of Kentucky. Equipped with skills and knowledge in distilling, they realized it is a suitable place to make fine whiskey. As they say, the rest is history.
No US law requires bourbon to be made in Kentucky. However, the Bluegrass state remains to be the bourbon capital of the world until now for some significant reasons. Fact is, it holds the record of producing about 95 percent of the world’s supply of bourbons.
- Pappy Van Winkle’s 23 Year Family Reserve
- Michter’s 10 Year Old
- William Larue Weller
- Jefferson’s Ocean Bourbon
- 1792 Single Barrel Reserve
- Wild Turkey Bourbon
- Blanton’s Single Barrel
- Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
- Widow Jane 10 Year Old
- Jim Beam Black
- High West Bourye 2017
- I.W. Harper Straight
- Black Maple Hill 16 Year Old Small Batch
- E. H. Taylor Four Grain
- George T. Stagg
WHAT IS A BOURBON?
So, what is bourbon exactly? For the uninitiated, bourbon must be 100 percent American-made. It is a type of American whiskey made from at least 51 percent corn and complemented by malted barley, rye, and sometimes wheat.
In addition to that, as the American Bourbon Association emphasized, bourbons must age in charred new oak barrels not exceeding 62.5 percent (125 proof). It must as well be produced at not more than 80 percent alcohol (160 proof).
Bourbons should be free from any color or flavor additives. It also has the distinct characteristic sweetness from the corn. This elemental quality is not found in other American spirits such as rye whiskey or popular Scotch, Canadian, and Japanese whiskeys.
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HOW BOURBON IS MADE
Just like any type of whiskey, bourbon is made by fermenting various grains such as corn, malted barley, rye, and wheat. The chief ingredient of at least 51 percent indicates the type of whiskey.
The process involved in making bourbons is detailed as follows:
- In the case of bourbon, 51 percent corn is used and the other grains used vary in quantities.
- Then, these grains are cooked to form the mash.
- The mash known as the sour mash is mixed with “set-back”, which are the leftovers from the previous distillation process. The sour mash is a distinctive element in American whiskey.
- The mash is fermented to produce a transparent spirit or sometimes called White Dog.
- Lastly, the spirit is added to new charred oak barrels typically an American white oak for the aging process. The barrel aging process gives bourbon both its color and most of its flavor.
BOURBON VS. WHISKEY
Bourbon is a whiskey but not all whiskey is bourbon. Simply put, there’s a difference between the two. Remember that one notable difference is that bourbon is only produced in the United States.
The two also differ when it comes to the distillation process. For bourbons, it’s doubled most often. Also, aging is important in making bourbons. In this regard, the true American liquor has to sit and get the flavor from oak casks for a minimum of two years or even more.
The aging process also gets rid of any tannin and gives it a smoother flavor. Further, charring the barrels gives the smoky aroma and caramelizes the liquid.
WHY LOVE BOURBON?
Bourbon is a crowd-favorite especially in the South where its humble story began. It has become a custom there to offer visitors something to drink, celebrate special moments, or just to unwind. After work, they cap the day off with a bourbon drink in their hands.
But there’s more to it that explains why anyone will love a bourbon drink: all the best bourbons ooze with an amazing core flavor profile. The corn used brings a caramel sweetness that is absent in any Scotch whiskey. The sweet Scotch offers a different kind of sweetness that is associated with honey.
Apart from that unique quality, bourbons have other great flavors such as the vanilla found in most bourbon drinks. Liquor drinkers can choose from a wide and great variety, hence, they won’t get bored. Thrown into the mix is a stack of high-proof bourbons that offer impeccable flavors.
This love for bourbons converts into a steady rise in sales across the world in recent years. The increasing popularity of whiskey among the millennials has made America’s favorite spirit a frontrunner in the cocktail culture.
So, let’s get to the bottom of this. Now, if you’re wondering what are the top-shelf bourbons to drink next, we got you covered. Simply check out our guide to the world’s 15 top-shelf bourbons for the thirsty modern man like you.
Pappy Van Winkle’s 23 Year Family Reserve
The super rare and limited edition Pappy Van Winkle’s 23-Year Family Reserve tops our choice of 15 rare and top-shelf bourbons. It’s made at 95.6 proof and needless to say, it comes with a hefty price tag.
Tracing back its roots to 1893, Pappy Van Winkle bourbons take four generations of the most careful and expensive distilling method. The 23-year release with dark aromas and flavor is the most exceptional. Each barrel is aged to perfection for 23 years and it’s prudently selected from the distillery.
Meanwhile, the 20-Year and 15-Year labels are remarkably great-tasting, too. The distiller’s 15-year release is aged over three times longer than other bourbons such as Jim Bean.
You see a deep amber red color in a pour of Pappy Van Winkle’s 23 Year Family Reserve. The rare bourbon’s exquisite taste has various hints of ripe apples, cherries, oak wood, and tobacco with a note of chocolate. Its early aromas include caramel and cream with soft notes of oak, nuts, and leather.
The 23-year Reserve of Pappy Van Winkle also features a sweet taste composed of vanilla, maple, and honey complemented with flavors of citrus and spice. It has a long-lasting, pleasant oaky finish. Your sipping experience begins with oozing wood flavors with hints of some smooth, sweet caramel notes.
It’s best to drink this signature whiskey pure. Adding ice or water to it will dilute its uniqueness.
Michter’s 10 Year Old
Michter’s 10 Year Old comes in high-end small-batch and single-barrel bourbons. It’s the epitome of rare bourbon, releasing only 277 bottles for its Celebration Sour Mash in 2019. It retails for an eye-popping price range of $3,700 to $5,000.
Michter’s 10 Year Old matures in age and has an exceptionally superb quality. The fact is Michter’s 10 Year Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon has earned its place as a lasting, classic favorite of the most insightful connoisseurs in the world of top-shelf whiskey.
Dubbed by Food & Wine Magazine as the Best American Whiskey, Michter’s 10 Year Single Barrel Bourbon is aged patiently in special new charred American white oak barrels. It’s a truly special premium spirit rich flavors of cloves, pineapple, and notes of dark chocolate truffles.
Michter’s 10 Year Old currently holds the record of selling a private barrel selection for a whopping £166,000 (US$ 209,462) at a London auction in 2020. It beat past the $78,000 record for a barrel of bourbon set at a Christie’s auction.
William Larue Weller
William Larue Weller is a one-of-a-kind annual release aged for a maximum of 14 years. The brand is a namesake of William Larue Weller, the first-gen whiskey distiller of the Weller family.
Weller sooner became famous for his wheated bourbon recipe. He originally developed the production method that substitutes wheat for the traditional rye grain in the mash for a softer, smoother taste. His legacy still lives on today with the brand’s award-winning wheated bourbons.
This hand-bottled bourbon is barrel-proof, uncut, and unfiltered. It’s a hearty drink that offers a very fresh, smooth, and invigorating finish with flavorfully sweet honeysuckle flair.
This top-shelf bourbon has fragrant scents of caramel corn, new leather, plums, light toffee, and pipe tobacco. It has a sweet aroma with a hint of caramel. Its delicate and calm tasting notes are of honey, butterscotch, and a soft woodiness.
William Larue Weller boasts its 2015, 2016, or 2017 releases are a champion. It’s so worth it to try a sip once in your life at the very least.
Jefferson’s Ocean Bourbon
Jefferson’s Ocean Bourbon is the wild brainchild of master blender Trey Zoeller. It’s uniquely aged in the barrels aboard a ship traveling around the world.
In 2008, Zoeller thought of this genius idea while traveling on a ship with another Kentucky-born friend and OCEARCH founder, Chris Fischer. The two were having whiskey when it struck him what if a barrel of bourbon is aged at sea. And as they say, the rest is history.
As OCEARCH navigates around the globe, the consistent movement of the ocean helps with the aging process of the whiskey. For the record, Zoeller has been boarding hundreds of barrels on each of the ship’s voyages to more than 25 ports, 5 continents, and 2 equator crossings.
Jefferson’s Ocean Bourbon unique production method results in a hyper-aged, darker, richer, and caramelized bourbon. The American spirit’s dark and thick texture is attributed to sea salt and some extreme temperature changes.
The bourbon’s early aromas are of dried fruits and red apples with some bitterness from the strong dark chocolate. Its delectable taste resembles a salted caramel and is loved for its flavor notes of sweet cinnamon, creamy vanilla, and subtle spice.
1792 Single Barrel Reserve
The 1792 Single Barrel Reserve provides a superior American whiskey experience to a tee. This top-shelf bourbon brand has won several international accolades. It received the 2020 Gold Medal at the Best Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey International Whisky Competition.
This rare bourbon bears a unique flair obtained from its high-rye composition as well as limited-edition single-barrel production. Also, the 1792 Single Barrel Reserve is a straight bourbon aged in a new oak barrel for at least two years.
The finest bourbon barrels are carefully selected and tasted from the best aging warehouses. Only the exceptional ones make a single bottle of top-shelf bourbon label. This way, it maintains the distinct character of each barrel. This small-batch contains lots of rye aged in special barrels.
This superior bourbon has hints of fruit and toffee. It also has delicately balanced and flavorful notes of rich butterscotch and caramel notes that go down smoothly.
Wild Turkey Bourbon
Wild Turkey Bourbon 101 is another top-shelf bourbon from master distillers that exactly know what they’re doing down to the very last detail. Truth be told, this American liquor brand has perfected creating the premium spirit for more than 100 years.
The straight bourbon is aged in American White Oak barrels coated in the deepest alligator char. Most of the Wild Turkey Bourbon barrels in the blend are aged within six to eight years.
Time is a limited resource that costs money and so does the aging process for world-class bourbons. There are plenty of less expensive bourbons but they’re immature and so, it’s a little unfinished. That’s not true with Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon.
After 66 years, master distiller Jimmy Russell, now 86, continues to make Wild Turkey Bourbon with his son, Eddie. The father and son tandem as co-master distillers keep the same traditional recipe in creating the top-shelf bourbon.
Wild Turkey Bourbon 101 is perfect for sipping because of its complex yet subtle flavor. It’s a well-rounded whisky that has the aromas of nuts and raisins. It features notes of caramel, toffee, vanilla, old leather, coffee, baking spices, and berries. A taste brings a strong tropical fruit finish.
Blanton’s Single Barrel
Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon is the first of its kind introduced in 1984. The luxury brand of bourbon is selected from the center-cut sections of the prestigious Warehouse H.
Colonel Blanton’s namesake bourbon was once an exclusive American whiskey for his family and friends, the dignitaries, and ambassadors. However, everyone can now have a taste of the world’s first single barrel bourbon by Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee.
Since 1984, Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon has set the standard for single barrel bourbons. The high-rye mash saw commercial success when it first hit the market. Each unique bottle of the top-shelf bourbon comes in eight different collector’s bottle stoppers.
The single barrel bourbon’s super-premium taste makes it a great sipping option. It offers a sweet taste profile with notes of citrus and oak. The profoundly pleasurable nose of nutmeg and spices with hints of honey and vanilla flavors all create a smooth blend. It has a medium finish of returning corn and nutmeg flavors.
Bottled at 46.5% alcohol by volume, whiskey drinkers may enjoy Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon either pure or on the rocks.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength
Maker’s Mark Cast Strength is the brand’s purest bourbon bottled at barrel proof and non-chill filtered (NCF). The straight bourbon is skillfully crafted with meticulously selected ingredients.
Depending on the barrels, it ranges from 108 to 114 proof and is aged for six years. This top-shelf bourbon is not one for beginners. It’s made to impress the whiskey enthusiasts who are into bolder flavors and higher proofs.
This incredibly smooth bourbon preserves the brand’s signature front-of-the-palate flavors while boosting the notes of oak, caramel, vanilla, and spice. Further, it doesn’t have a sharp or bitter taste. Rather, it has a subtle flavor because of its fruit essences and the red winter wheat. Also, it adds extra heat from the oak and spices.
It finishes longer on the front of the tongue without the roughness or bitterness. This captivating blend makes it unique from other bourbons. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is smooth enough to sip neat or enjoy with some ice.
Widow Jane 10 Year Old
Widow Jane 10 Year Old, as the label suggests, is a non-chill filtered bourbon aged 10 years. The newbie takes its name from the water surrounding the Widow Jane Mines in Rosedale, New York.
In 2012, founder and inventor Daniel Prieto Preston established a company that offers sourced and distilled in-house whiskeys. In just a short period, the distillery owned by Cacao Prieto has earned its place in bourbon manufacturing.
The Widow Jane 10 Year Old batches come in 5 barrel lots of straight bourbons from Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee. The unique method in the aging process of Widow Jane bourbons is using pure limestone mineral water from Rosendale Mines as the proofing water.
The nose features vanilla, patisserie cream, toasted oak with oak spices, cherries, with hints of orange and chocolate. It has a perfect blend of Sandalwood aromas with milk chocolate, baking spices, and cocoa with the sweetness of dark Demerara sugar, raisin plums, and hints of cashew nuts.
A sip of Widow Jane 10 Year Old has a long and dry finish with notes of molasses, ginger qualities, and oak spices.
Jim Beam Black
Our neat choice of 15 top-shelf bourbons won’t be complete without the crowd-favorite drink, the Jim Beam Black. It’s arguably the most popular choice of whiskey in the world that has been around since the 18th century.
The elegant vintage bourbon label is of superlative quality that it bagged the Bourbon Trophy. This award is the highest accolade in the bourbon category at the 2016 International Wine & Spirits Competition.
Jim Beam Black bourbons are consistently extra-aged to taste and bottled after spending eight years in the new charred, white oak barrels. The distillery 86-proof is aged twice longer than its younger brother, the original Jim Beam bourbon.
Thus, those four extra years of aging result in a full-bodied, extra elegant texture of Jim Beam Black. It offers a heavy caramel aroma with warm oak, vanilla, and smooth cinnamon notes. A sip ends with a smooth finish.
High West Bourye 2017
High West Distillery is back with its limited sighting of the 2017 Bourye, a coined name for mixing bourbon and rye whiskey. First, the exotic blend uses straight bourbon (75% corn, 21% rye, and 4% malted barley mashbill). Then it mixes straight rye whiskey (95% rye, 5% malted barley mashbill).
Sourced from MGP in Indiana, the limited edition of Bourye released in February 2017 is aged between 10 and 14 years. The expression is bottled at 46% ABV.
In each sip of High West Bourye 2017, you first notice the hints of spices and quickly taste the tartiness of the raspberries plus the nuttiness of the vanilla. You experience a feast of nuts and woody oak that gives a pleasing taste on the palate afterward.
High West Bourye 2017’s nose brings hints of slightly burnt brown sugars, freshly baked cinnamon rolls, rye spice, ripe red fruits, and subtle aromatic herbs. Meanwhile, the sweetness of caramel immediately lets through the flavors of cinnamon and other baking spices on the palate.
The unique blend starts hot as it offers more rye notes, molasses, astringent oak, and cedarwood. It has an inviting, lengthy, and warm finish with a lingering touch of dark caramel and rye spice.
Bottom line, similar to previous releases, High West Bourye 2017 has a welcoming profile suitable for beginners and experienced ones.
I.W. Harper Straight
Contrary to the other top-shelf bourbons on our list, I.W. Harper Straight is a no-age-statement American whiskey. Instead, it is a light yellow and nice mellow spirit that has an excellent sipping selection for the novice.
Founders Isaac Wolf and Bernard Bernheim built the Bernheim Bros. Distillery in 1870. It continued operating in some capacity by producing prescription whiskey during Prohibition.
In 1872, the distillery released I.W. Harper Straight, a namesake of the Kentucky Derby horse the Bernheim brothers were so fond of. The siblings soon began making straight bourbon whiskeys that won Gold Medals under their belt during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
I.W. Harper Kentucky Straight Bourbon is aged between 4 and 15 years. It has a subtle nose at the beginning and retains hints of caramel and vanilla. Then, a sweet and pleasant finish follows with subtle fruit notes on the palate.
In addition, the straight bourbon offers early corky sweetness complemented by the smoky blond oak and nuttiness of vanilla. Simply put, I.W. Harper Straight makes a simple yet elegant choice.
Black Maple Hill 16 Year Old Small Batch
Black Maple Hill released its 16 Year Old Small Batch Bourbon for those who prefer stronger, extreme flavor. This good old intense spirit is a tough one to catch. But when you do, it makes a worthy staple in your whiskey collection.
The new 16-year release comes from the famous producer of one of the most sought-after bottles of bourbon. Black Maple Hill is not a distillery, instead, it produces several whiskeys under a label consisting of bourbons and ryes from casks. This mature offering is aged in casks for 16 years before bottling.
You pay an extra $90 for a bottle of Black Maple Hill 16 Year Old Small Batch Bourbon than a choice of a normal BMH bottle. It’s worth it, however, for having a spectacular concentration of flavor. Apart from that, Black Maple Hill 16 Year Old Small Batch Bourbon comes in a very limited number.
When it comes to tasting notes, BMH 16 Year Old Small Batch contains rich and profound flavor that is nice on the palate. It also has the spice and flavors found in any Black Maple Hill whiskey.
In addition, the taste fills your mouth with cereal sweetness and nuttiness with a touch of golden apple fruit. You’ll enjoy a smooth, lengthy finish. Although it’s 95-proof, you can drink it straight up and neat without a hint of burn.
E. H. Taylor Four Grain
E. H. Taylor Four Grain is a traditionally flavored bourbon made by the distillery behind the fine creation of Bottled-in-bond. This four-grain bourbon is made from a mash bill of corn, rye, wheat, and malted barley, hence the name.
Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr., who is the founding father of the bourbon industry, developed this breakthrough technique used until now. The top-shelf bourbon is made by hand and aged for 13 years inside century-old warehouses of then-O.F.C. Distillery. The distillers then evaluate and carefully select the barrels to make a perfect, one-of-a-kind blend and also bottled-in-bond at 104 proof.
E.H. Taylor Four Grain Bourbon became available on its second release starting April 2018 after the expression’s inaugural release in 2017. After a successful limited release at the time, E. H. Taylor Four Grain Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon would be hard to find.
This bottled-in-bond bourbon features a nose of bubble gum and sweet cherries on a rye base. The taste offers caramel corn sweetness with hints of butterscotch and licorice. It gives a soft mouth-feel aftertaste and finishes off with oak notes.
E. H. Taylor Four Grain won prestigious accolades including the 2019 Silver Medal at the New York World Spirits Competition. It also bagged the 2019 Silver Outstanding Medal at the Whiskies of the World.
George T. Stagg
George T. Stagg is also a top-shelf bourbon released in limited supply once every year. Buffalo Trace Distillery distributes this limited-production bourbon whiskey as part of its Antique Collection series.
Aged not less than 15 years, George T. Stagg is a rare bottle found only in high-end whiskey bars. The bourbon costs between $40 and $50 per 1 ounce pour.
George T. Stagg comes in dense and robust-bodied texture. It has a lush toffee sweetness and dark chocolate with hints of vanilla, fudge, nougat, and molasses. The rare bourbon also brings underlying notes of dates, tobacco, dark berries, spearmint, and a hint of coffee. Its lengthy finish lingers with hints of cherries, cloves, and smokiness.
Unfortunately, Buffalo Trace announced recently that the 2021 line-up of its Antique Collection will not include the uncut, unfiltered 15-year-old George T. Stagg whiskey.
BASIC BOURBON TERMS YOU SHOULD KNOW
So, now you have a good idea of the 15 top-shelf bourbons in the world. While you’re at it, you might as well know the basic terms related to making the Great American Spirit.
Proof. The term refers to the percentage of alcohol, displayed as twice that of the alcohol percentage.
High Rye. This means that the bourbon has a higher than normal percentage of mashbill made up of rye. This is contrary to using more of the other chief grains used in bourbon mash, namely corn, wheat, or barley. High Rye bourbons likely have spicier flavors.
Wheated. This means that the bourbon has a higher than normal percentage of mashbill made up of wheat. The main grain is still corn, however. Wheated bourbons offer a softer, less spicy whiskey.
Small Batch. It is a subjective term used for bourbons made using a select number of barrels or recipes in a blended bottling.
Single Barrel. It is a term used for bourbons made using single barrels. Thus, it gives a higher range of variation in flavor, and the chance at specific, unique characteristics.
Non-Distiller Producers (NDP). The term is used for a company that buys its whiskey from another instead of producing its own. Note that it’s nothing new and it fills a huge role in blended bourbons.
Bourbon Whiskey. It refers to a whiskey produced in the US at not more than 80 percent alcohol by volume (160 proof). Bourbon Whiskey comes from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent of corn. It is stored at not exceeding 62.5 percent alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.
Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It refers to Bourbon whiskey stored in charred new oak containers for at least two years. Straight bourbon whiskey may have mixtures of two or more straight bourbon whiskeys as long as all the whiskeys are made in the same state.
Bottled in Bond. This term refers to a technique where the spirit must be the product of one distillation season by one distiller at one distillery. It must have been stored in casks inside a federally bonded warehouse for at least four years. Then, it will be bottled at 100 proof. The label of the bottled product must indicate the distillery where distilling and bottling occurred.
Sour Mash. It refers to a fermentation technique used by most of the bourbon distillers that employ pre-fermented mash from the previous distilling in a new mash. The sour mash serves as a preventive measure that stops wild yeast from entering the mash and causing infections.
> CHECK OUT MEN’S GEAR BUYING GUIDE: Best 16 Whiskey Glasses