Mexico has mezcal, France has Cognac and, in America, we have bourbon. Declared a distinctive product of the United States by Congress, this sweet-and-smooth national treasure traces its history back hundreds of years to homegrown distilling operations around Bourbon County, Kentucky. Today, the whiskey can be produced anywhere in America, so long as it’s made with at least 51 percent corn and aged in charred oak barrels.
However, the best bourbons go above and beyond the minimum requirement, offering complex, thoughtful blends that are sometimes aged upwards of 20 years.
1. Jefferson’s Presidential Select 21-Year-Old
Blended from just 15 casks of whiskey aged 21 to 24 years, Jefferson's 21-Year-Old bourbon pays homage to one of America's most important founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. A distiller in his own right, Jefferson routinely turned excess grains from his farm into drinkable spirits. Colored a dark saffron, the current-day Jefferson’s bourbon displays aromas of vanilla, caramel and rye spice on the nose, while the palate is covered in flavors of honey, warm pecan pie, cinnamon and oak. The finish is long and elegant, with slight floral and citrus notes complemented by a creamy vanilla finish.
2. Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit
The Dirty Bird. The Screaming Eagle. The Kicking Chicken. Wild Turkey has been immortalized in film and song for its bad boy ways, and has enough nicknames to fill a small phonebook. However, we prefer the spirit-maker’s more sophisticated offering, Kentucky Spirit. It's a single-barrel bourbon, and legend has it that Master Distiller Jimmy Russell, who has worked for the distillery since 1954, personally selects the barrels that will be used in the specialty product.
As for taste, there's brown sugar and nutmeg on the nose, citrus on the palate, and a zesty finish. But what makes Kentucky Spirit truly stand out is its viscosity; one sip of this amber potion and our lips are coated with sweet goodness.
3. Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20-Year-Old
Created in the early 1900s by onetime salesman Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery's renowned bourbon is now distilled and bottled at the Buffalo Trace factory by the Sazerac Company, using old stock from the original Stitzel-Weller Distillery. With such high demand, those original barrels won't last forever, making their 20-Year-Old bourbon all the more covetable. Boasting aromas of caramel, cream and raisin, each bottle is mouth-filling and oaky on the palate. Buttery flavors of vanilla, honey and notes of apple lead to a long and elegant finish.
4. Woodford Reserve Seasoned Oak Finish
Woodford Reserve is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby and always makes us feel like we're in the winner's circle. But every once in a while, the distillery — based in Woodford County, Kentucky — puts out a limited edition that surpasses the original. Our favorite is a bold and spicy concoction, which is finished in seasoned oak barrels that have been exposed to the outdoors for three to five years — as opposed to the standard three to five months.
The result is a complex flavor profile that combines hints of wood and pepper with smooth and satisfying caramel. The 100.4-proof bourbon is also noticeably stronger than the distillery's classic 90.4-proof product, providing a substantial bite while still finishing smoothly.
5. Four Roses Small Batch
Despite its iconic name and a history dating back to 1888, Four Roses stopped selling bourbon in the United States for 40 years. However, the whiskey was so popular in Asia that Kirin, the Japanese beer maker, bought the company in 2002 and started selling bourbon stateside. The Kentucky-based distillery combines its two mash recipes with five yeast strains to produce 10 different bourbons, four of which are used in Four Roses Small Batch.
The blend is understated, with a very subtle aroma. The alcohol is intense on the palate, but it can be enjoyed neat, especially with the notes of sweet oak and caramel that linger before a long, clean, vanilla finish.
Discover more of the top bourbons.
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