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10 Best Kentucky Bourbon Brands
Finding the best Kentucky bourbon is like finding the best single malt Scotch – it’s entirely subjective and based on a wide variety of factors including flavor, taste, aroma, price, and accessibility.
Kentucky is bourbon country, and despite other regions – such as Tennessee, Colorado, and even New York – beginning to craft some amazing bourbon, your bourbon bar is most likely to be stocked with expressions from the Bluegrass state. At least a 51% corn mash bill stored in charred oaks for four years and distillation in the US is what makes a bourbon, and 95% of the spirit bottled is distilled in the heart of Kentucky.
The following list of 10 best Kentucky bourbon whiskies to drink in 2020 scratches the surface of great choices for bourbon aficionados but will help outline a quality selection at a range of price points. Whether you like whiskey sours, Old Fashioned cocktails, or neat sipping bourbon here is a brilliant opportunity to find your new favorite bourbon.
1. Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon
Elijah Craig Small Batch is distilled from a traditional Bourbon mash bill of 78% corn, 10% rye and 12% malted barley and then aged for 8 to 12 years in #3 char new American oak barrels. The Reverend Elijah Craig is credited with being the first to age whiskey inside a charred oak barrel, with old wives’ tales suggesting he found the secret by accidently burning his oak casks.
Each batch of Elijah Craig is selected from fewer than 100 of the finest barrels at the Heaven Hill Distillery in Louisville. The famed Heaven Hill Distillery is home to other notable brands such as Old Fitzgerald, Evan Williams, and Larceny.
If a small batch yet cheaply priced bourbon is what you’re looking for, then the good reverend is a great place to start to find your favorite bourbon.
2. Kentucky Owl Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Batch 9)
Kentucky Owl Bourbon was founded in 1879 by C.M. Dedman and today is led by master blender, Dixon Dedman, who resurrected the brand and released his first bourbon production in 2014.
Batch 9 is a big, powerful small batch bourbon with notes of cherry wood, linseed and toasted coconut lingering on the palate. It is the most robust at a barrel proof (or cask strength) ABV of 63.5%, produced using four different mash bills and is a blend of a range of bourbon barrels aged between 6 and 15 years old. While it’s an expensive and high alcohol expression, it’s a bona fide Kentucky bourbon with an expansive flavor profile.
“It may be the most flavorful liquid ever bottled for the brand,” said Dedman of Kentucky Owl Batch 9. “To me, it’s a bourbon monster in the best way possible. I hope it’s something both serious and casual whiskey drinkers appreciate.”
3. Buffalo Trace Bourbon
Buffalo Trace is an amazing bourbon from the distiller also responsible for Sazerac American whiskey and other outstanding rye and wheated bourbon expressions. The tasting notes for Buffalo Trace are described as, “a complex aroma of vanilla, mint and molasses.
Pleasantly sweet to the taste with notes of brown sugar and spice that give way to oak, toffee, dark fruit and anise. This whiskey finishes long and smooth with serious depth.” Buffalo Trace is a must add for any bourbon bar worthy of the name. It’s a quality all around Kentucky straight bourbon at a mid-tier price.
4. 1792 Bottled In Bond Bourbon
1792 bourbon works best as a neat sipping whiskey or with just a little spring water added to bring out the flavor complexity. This Bottled in Bond American whiskey is made with a high-rye mash bill, which makes it a spicier expression than others on this list that may not suit every type of bourbon drinker.
Bottled in Bond means this bourbon was made in one distillation season, aged for at least four years in oak barrels in a federally bonded and supervised warehouse, and bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV). The tasting notes for 1792 includes the aroma of milk chocolate, roasted coffee bean, banana candy and baking spice, while the palate offers black pepper, vanilla, cinnamon, and subtle caramel apple tones that extend into the lengthy finish.
5. Michter's US*1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Michter’s US*1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon is made from a carefully selected mash bill that features the highest quality American corn, aged in oak barrels.
Michter’s is sweeter and offers more flavor than the oaky feel of some other small batch bourbon options. Moderate afterburn, with genuine mellow caramel and earthy grass notes. Each batch of Michter’s is batched in a holding tank sized to fit a maximum of twenty full bourbon barrels, which allows each bottle to have a distinctly individual flavor profile.
Michter’s individuality in bourbon production and age as a distiller – it’s the oldest Kentucky Distillery having been opened in 1753 – means it suits the bourbon lover with a refined taste that enjoys a sense of history with their mint julep or whiskey sours.
6. Knob Creek 12 Year Old
By selecting the finest grains and finishing in white oak barrels with maximum char, Knob Creek has created a top quality 100 proof bourbon filled with rich flavor and sweetness. The maturation process for this extra-long aged Knob Creek 12 Year Old Bourbon Whiskey allowed the bourbon to change in a way that younger whiskies never experience.
All the flavors of oak, caramel and vanilla present within those barrels are concentrated year after year, removing harshness of flavor while still maintaining the unmistakably full flavor of Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
7. Woodford Reserve Double Oaked
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked is first matured in new charred white oak barrels, then before bottling is transferred to a special heavily toasted, lightly charred finishing barrel that creates the taste of spicy oak throughout on the palate.
Double Oaked is crafted for people who love to just sit back and enjoy the strong oak flavor of a bourbon combined with classic Woodford smoothness. It’s perfect neat or on the rocks for warming cold winter nights and standing around a fire pit with friends.
8. Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit
Kentucky Spirit is a fuller bodied Wild Turkey single barrel bourbon expression laden with rich vanilla flavors and a hint of sweetness from layering almonds, honey, and blackberries. Each barrel that makes Kentucky Spirit is hand selected by Master Distiller Jimmy Russell to find the exact individual personality.
The hint of leather gives way to a long, dark and lingering finish that nestles cozily against your tongue, while warming from the inside out with the characteristic Wild Turkey heat. Kentucky Spirit is a 101 proof (50.5% ABV), single barrel bourbon made with the neat bourbon lover in mind.
9. Maker's Mark 46
Of the large distilleries, Maker’s Mark is one of the only ones to distil wheated bourbon as standard operating procedure. It’s an amazing bourbon expression made for easy drinking that comes with a very affordable price tag.
Maker’s 46 amplifies the oak flavor of their distillation by adding seared French oak staves into each fully mature, cask strength barrel. This more complex process ramps up the vanilla and caramel flavor of the whiskey, but against a lovely backdrop of oak woodiness.
10. Bulleit Barrel Strength Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
This barrel strength bourbon is raw and uncut striking a perfect harmony of brown sugar, spice and fruit notes, amongst the tones of maple, oak and nutmeg.
As per the company, “the barrels selected to create Bulleit Barrel Strength were emptied and combined into a single batch without the inclusion of any additional water after the whiskey was removed from the barrels.”
This means each bourbon bottle is somewhere between 120 and 135 proof, with the distinctly individual flavors from non-chill filtration and barrel aging.
Bonus: Heaven's Door Bootleg Series Vol II
Heaven’s Door Spirits, which produces legendary musician and visual artist Bob Dylan’s American whiskeys collection has recently released its Bootleg Series Vol II.
The Bootleg Series is a limited-edition collection of rare whiskeys and special blends named in tribute to Bob Dylan’s retrospective album collections. It’s the folk star’s only consumer brand collaboration.
The 2020 Bootleg Series offering features a cask strength 15 year-old Straight Bourbon finished in 30 year-old Jamaican Pot Still Rum Casks. Heaven’s Door Master Blender, Ryan Perry, describes the whiskey’s taste as “hints of maple syrup on the nose, notes of toasted coconut, holiday spice, and toasted oak on the finish.”
The Bootleg Series Vol II comes in a handmade ceramic bottle featuring Bob Dylan’s painting, Sunset, Monument Valley, and is housed in an ornate leather journal that is individually numbered.