Top 11 Bourbon Brands For Beginners

Bourbon is a friendly liquor for beginners. But what sets the bourbon flavor apart? 

bourbon whiskey in a rocks glass with ice

Known as “the American spirit,” bourbon is made exclusively in the USA. Unlike other whiskeys, distillers mix bourbon with at least 51% corn, which gives it a slightly sweeter flavor profile.

After an aging process in charred oak barrels, the final product is a rich, bold, and smooth drink with a fan base worldwide.

Bourbon is a supremely sippable whiskey and great for making cocktails as well.

To set you on your bourbon journey, we’ve compiled a list of the ten best bourbons for beginners. Or, scroll to the end to learn a bit more about the spirit itself.

Maker’s Mark – Best Overall

Maker’s is a supremely drinkable bourbon that pleases beginners and whiskey elites.

makers mark bourbon whiskey on a table with glass on the rocks

While most bourbons source from rye grain, Maker’s uses soft red winter wheat. The wheat base gives this bourbon an incredibly smooth, full, slightly sweet flavor that’s never bitter. 

Each bottle is hand-dipped in its signature wax, showing the care and time Maker’s Mark puts into every pour. 

While it’s not the cheapest, Maker’s is an excellent starting point for anyone looking to develop a new taste for bourbon. 

  • ABV: 45%
  • Tasting Notes: Caramel, Vanilla, Fruit
  • Aroma: Woody Oak, Vanilla, Caramel, and Wheat

Knob Creek – Runner Up

Aged for nine years in white oak barrels, Knob Creek has an excellent blend of spice, oak, and slight caramel sweetness.

knob creek straight bourbon whiskey

The brand is part of Jim Beam’s “Small Batch Collection” — a suite of elevated whiskeys aimed at a slightly higher market than traditional Jim Beam. 

The longer aging process draws out more flavor in the whiskey, giving Knob Creek a robust and spicy finish. 

This bourbon is excellent for strong-flavored bourbon cocktails like an Old Fashioned or Boulevardier.

  • ABV: 50%
  • Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Oak, Peppercorn, Caramel
  • Aroma: Caramel, Oak, Toasted Marshmallow, Vanilla

Wild Turkey – Best Budget

Wild Turkey manages to deliver a delicious bottle at a surprisingly low price.

wild turkey bourbon whiskey

If you’re new to bourbon and not quite sure you’ll love it, start here. You won’t regret the cost, and the flavor profile will give you a good idea of the road ahead. 

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Wild Turkey has a high rye content aged in deeply charred oak barrels.

These features give the bourbon a nice spicy flavor with notes of cinnamon, toffee, and oak. 

  • ABV: 50.5%
  • Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Maple, Cinnamon, Oak, Char
  • Aroma: Toffee, Caramel, Alcohol, Toasted Oak, Butterscotch

Woodford Reserve – Best for Sipping

Woodford Reserve has been making whisky since 1812, and their expertise shows.

woodford reserve bourbon

Their bourbon is in the pricier range but well worth the investment. 

Woodford Reserve is rich and full-bodied with over 200 flavor notes, making it ideal for slowly sipping and savoring. Balanced flavors of wood, spice, fruit, and aromatics deliver a robust and smooth finish. 

We highly recommend drinking this bourbon neat or on the rocks to savor it to the end fully.

  • ABV: 45.2%
  • Tasting Notes: Toffee, Caramel, Chocolate, Spice
  • Aroma: Dried Fruit, Mint, Orange, Cocoa, Vanilla, Tobacco 

Four Roses Single Barrel – Best Single Barrel

Single barrel bourbons are just what they sound like — batches of bourbon that come from a single barrel.

Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon

In the aging process, every unique barrel produces slightly different flavor notes. Distillers create most whiskeys by combining multiple barrels to achieve consistent flavor across batches. 

But for single barrel whisky, each batch comes from one barrel and thus has its unique flavor profile.

The Four Roses Single Barrel balances the benefits of both — each bottle will have unique nuances, but overall the bottles consistently deliver a full-bodied, smooth drink.

  • ABV: 50%
  • Tasting Notes: Plum, Cherries, Spice, Honey, Oak
  • Aroma: Dried Spice, Pear, Vanilla, Maple Syrup, and Cocoa

Bulleit Bourbon – Best Spice

Bulleit has been around for over 150 years but has exploded in popularity in the past two decades.

Bulleit Bourbon

Bulleit Bourbon delivers a bold, spicy take on bourbon that still manages to go down smooth using only the highest quality ingredients and a very high rye content.  

Alongside the elegant flavor profile, Bulleit is packaged in a sleek, minimalist bottle that customers love.

This bourbon checks many boxes for beginners — it looks good on your shelf, isn’t too pricey, tastes excellent, and gives a smooth finish.

  • ABV: 45%
  • Tasting Notes: Pepper, Oak, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Toffee 
  • Aroma: Vanilla, Caramel, Orange, Smoke, Cherry, Oak

Jefferson’s Ocean Small Batch – Best Small Batch

Similar to single barrel whisky, small batch focuses on the uniqueness of each separate batch.

Jefferson’s Ocean Small Batch

Instead of a single barrel, small-batch whisky is produced by mixing a few barrels. This select blend allows for slightly more consistency while maintaining exclusive flavor for each batch.

Jefferson Reserve Small Batch is an excellent choice for sampling small-batch whisky.

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What sets this bourbon apart is that it ages at sea in oak barrels. The turbulence of the waves brings out more sugar in the final product, while the ocean air and moisture give it a slight salty brine.

For beginners, this is a great bourbon to taste and a great conversation starter. 

  • ABV: 45%
  • Tasting Notes: Salted Caramel Popcorn, Tropical Fruit, Brine
  • Aroma: Salted Caramel Popcorn, Tropical Fruit

Eagle Rare – Best Aged

Five-time winner of the double gold medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Buffalo Trace’s Eagle Rare bourbon is a tasting delight.

Aged for no less than ten years in oak barrels, Eagle Rare has a profoundly complex aroma and flavor.

If you like a drink that suggests mahogany rooms and refined luxury, this is the bourbon to try.

The mouth-feel is incredibly smooth and a great bourbon for beginners and longtime drinkers alike. 

  • ABV: 45%
  • Tasting Notes: Oak, Candied Almonds, Cocoa
  • Aroma: Toffee, Orange Peel, Herbs, Honey, Leather, Oak

Basil Hayden’s – Best for High Rye Flavor

Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon is another installment of Jim Beam’s Small Batch Collection, along with our runner-up, Knob Creek. 

Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Whisky pioneer Meredith Basil Hayden, Sr. designed his whisky in 1792 with a higher percentage of rye than most bourbons.

The result — which Basil Hayden’s has kept to this day — is a uniquely spicy-sweet bourbon with a subtly complex flavor profile.

The hints of mint and spice make this an excellent Kentucky bourbon for sipping or making a spice-forward cocktail like a Mint Julep. 

  • ABV: 40%
  • Tasting Notes: Charred Oak, Brown Sugar, Black Pepper, Dried Fruit
  • Aroma: Oak, Vanilla, Caramel, Dried Fruit

Evan Williams – Best for Cocktails

Evan Williams is another bargain-priced bourbon that still maintains excellent quality and flavor.

It’s a classic bourbon with a smooth and rich taste. Nothing too fancy, but perfect for people just getting started with bourbons.

The Evan Williams brand has been around since 1783, and quality and consistency are hallmarks of the brand.

We love using this bourbon as a cocktail base since it’s not too pricey but provides a bold whisky taste.

  • ABV: 43%
  • Tasting Notes: Oak, Brown Sugar, Caramel
  • Aroma: Vanilla and Mint

Buffalo Trace Bourbon – Honorable Mention

Buffalo Trace Bourbon is a smooth bourbon, respected by whiskey lovers and a great bourbon for beginners.

Buffalo Trace distillery is featured elsewhere on this list with their Eagle Rare brand, but the classic Buffalo Trace is a solid budget bourbon for new bourbon drinkers.

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This high quality bourbon has complex flavors of vanilla, candied fruit, and toffee, a mellow finish, and a deep amber color. This Kentucky straight bourbon and the distillery itself has won many awards.

  • ABV: 45%
  • Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Toffee, Candied Fruit
  • Aroma: Caramel, honey, orange, vanilla

Bourbon 101

Now that you know the best bourbons for beginners, let’s answer a few frequently asked questions about bourbon.

How is bourbon different from other whiskeys?

Bourbon is a type of whiskey, but it’s different from standard whiskeys and other varieties like rye whiskey, Irish whiskey, Scotch whisky, or Canadian whiskies.

bourbon barrels

What sets bourbon apart is the mash bill – the mix of grains used to make it. To be considered bourbon, the whiskey must be made with at least 51% corn in the mash bill.

Bourbon also must be aged in new charred oak barrels. Bourbon is an American whiskey, but it can be made anywhere.

What does bourbon taste like?

Because of the aging process in oak barrels, bourbon has flavors like toasted oak, baking spices, vanilla, caramel, dried fruit and honey notes. It can also have a smoky flavor and a spicy finish.

Scotch whiskey bottle, glass and old wooden barrel

Every bourbon is different, with bold flavors coming from the type of barrels, the mash bill, and other factors from one distillery to the next.

What is the Difference Between Single Barrel and Small Batch?

Distillers allow their bourbon to age in charred oak barrels. Most big brand bourbons like Jim Beam will then blend barrels to achieve a consistent flavor across the whole. Each bottle of Jim Beam will taste pretty much the same.

However, whisky and bourbon connoisseurs love to have a unique experience with each bottle.

Small batch bourbon comes from a select “small” batch of barrels mixed for a collection with its own subtly unique flavor profile. The master distiller will choose specific barrels for a particular flavor. 

Single barrel bourbons are even more exclusive. A master distiller selects a single barrel for one batch with its own flavor characteristics. 

How Should I Drink Bourbon?

You can drink bourbon in several different ways, each of which will bring out a unique type of flavor and experience. 

bartender pouring bourbon straight into a glass

For beginners, we recommend trying it in a mixed drink like bourbon and Coke or bourbon and sour mix.

Mixed drinks will help you ease into the new flavor of a bourbon whiskey. Or you could try a classic cocktail like an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan

Other ways to drink bourbon:

  • Neat: No ice, no mixers, just pure, delicious bourbon
  • On the Rocks: Poured over ice
  • With Water: Some drinker prefer a little water to “cut” the bourbon, make it slightly easier on the palate, and draw out the flavors
  • As a Mixer or Cocktail: Bourbon makes many delicious cocktails, including this delightful New York Sour.

How Do I Choose the Right Bourbon?

In the end, it’s all about exploring your tastes and trying new things. 

Consider what types of flavors you like in other drinks and food. Do you like strong spice? Sweetness? Something smoother and creamier in the mouth? Look for bourbons with the right flavor profile and tasting notes for you. 

The best place to start is right here, with these top 10 best bourbons for beginners.

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  1. How helpful that you have a list of the best bourbons for beginners. My husband and I want to try a great kentucky bourbon this fall. We will find a reputable kentucky bourbon locally.

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Written by Brian Nagele

Brian attended West Virginia University, then started his career in the IT industry before following his passion for marketing and hospitality. He has over 20 years experience in the restaurant and bar industry.

As a former restaurant owner, he knows about running a food business and loves to eat and enjoy cocktails on a regular basis. He constantly travels to new cities tasting and reviewing the most popular spots.

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