Smooth, spicy, or somewhere in between, bourbon whiskey has owned the taste buds of Americans for over 200 years. Its distinct flavor and long history make it the pride of the U.S., standing out from regular whiskeys and spirits produced in other countries.
Though there are bourbons crafted in multiple states (namely Tennessee and Indiana), the bottle must be both distilled and aged in Kentucky to be considered a Kentucky bourbon. There are some baseline requirements for production, such as 51% corn ingredients and between 80 and 160 proof.
The spirit ages in a charred oak barrel, which contributes to its iconic amber color. A good bourbon is drinkable straight, but may also take on ice or mixers for a bourbon cocktail recipe.
In our list, we’ll rank the best Kentucky bourbon on taste, complexity, style, finish, and value. Try them for yourself, and you might discover a new favorite!
Henry McKenna Single Barrel
This offering from Heaven Hill Distillery takes the name of an Irish immigrant to the U.S.
McKenna brought his family recipe across the Atlantic and combined it with local traditions to produce this masterful bourbon.
A San Francisco World Spirits Competition winner in multiple categories, the Single Barrel is aged 10 years and delivers 100 proof.
I’m quite attached to the color, a perfect golden warmth to stare at as you let the taste linger on the palate.
Under the nose, the Henry McKenna gives notes of vanilla, oak, caramel, and even a hint of herbs. On the tongue, it’s a delightful blend of sweet and spicy, with a distinct touch of honey.
Any whiskey can blend if you do it right, but I recommend you sip this one on its own.
Maker’s Mark 46
The company’s founder’s son, Bill Samuels, Jr., created this recipe to be an easy sipper.
It’s all about the wood: Before finishing the whiskey, ten French oak staves go into the barrel to add to its distinct taste as the spirits age.
Maker’s 46 has a taste that reminds me a little of aromas from my grandma’s kitchen.
Baking spices, vanilla, and caramel intertwine for a sweet and indulgent flavor. Surprisingly, the finish is just as nice as the front end on this one.
With a legacy of meticulous wood finishing, you can’t go wrong with this bourbon.
It’s original while preserving mass appeal, unique without going bitter, and layered just right.
Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon
Rich and complex, but not overpowering, the Woodford Double Oaked doesn’t disappoint.
Its maturation process is what stands out about this one. The first barrel is standard, then the second adds a charring-and-toasting to extract more personality.
If Woodford is a bit modest for its status, I forgive it any timidity. Other bourbons that pack more punch can be a lot to sip.
This one, on the other hand, went down easily in my experience and beckoned me to return for more.
It’s a bit darker than some others, including notes of chocolate, as well as that characteristic toasty flavor.
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Part of what I found appealing about Buffalo Trace is its styling, with a gorgeous label and historical associations of Buffalo paths through the wilderness.
I was surprised by this bourbon’s sweetness, with brown sugar under the nose that developed into a deep toffee flavor.
It’s perhaps less complex than some others, but the value is unmatched. This is a great first-time bourbon as well as a cocktail mixer.
The Jefferson’s distillery prides itself on the Reserve being their oldest batch, and also the most accessible.
If that sounds middle-of-the-road, be reassured that its depth and complexity more than make up for a lack of flavor distinction.
With a bouquet of all the classic sweetness, like honey and vanilla, it finishes with a decidedly firm palate evocative of leather and tobacco.
This is a robust swallow, for sure. Artful, smooth, and satisfying, this one left me wanting another neat pour.
Best of all, I can recommend it to anyone on the spectrum of bourbon experience.
Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20 Year
The law of supply and demand doesn’t work in our favor with this bottle, one of the best Kentucky bourbon drinks in recent memory.
Pappy’s—actually Buffalo Trace, their parent distillery—only releases a limited number of the Family Reserve every year. Unless you’re a fan of collectibles, this is probably not the brand for you.
However, to those of us prepared to pay a steep price, it’s a treasure. The dark coloring and smoky taste reminiscent of cigars make this a traditional whiskey.
This is a rugged variety, so I recommend giving it a swerve if you’re new to bourbon. However, it will suit the palate of a bourbon aficionado nicely.
Would I choose Pappy’s over others with a more accessible price tag? Most likely not. But it’s a fun foray into the world of specialized bourbons when you can find it.
Evan Williams Single Barrel
There is a distiller named Evan Williams from 1783 who implies a historical bent to this bourbon.
In reality, the association is false, as current production has nothing to do with the figure other than borrowing his name.
Despite its many awards for a “vintage” pour, this batch is only aged seven to eight years.
Heaven Hill Distilling Co. gives us a spirit that is, in my opinion, fairly unremarkable as a straight sipper.
But no harm, no foul: the moderate oaky taste plays well with others to provide an affordable mixer option.
Noah’s Mill Small Batch Bourbon
Slightly pricier than similar varieties, the Small Batch rings in at a staggering 114.3 proof and has the power to match.
During my sampling, I immediately felt a kick on the tongue at first taste. However, that gave way to a spicy, lingering finish.
I would say this one is too strong for someone sampling bourbon for the first time.
But to the veteran drinker who enjoys a figurative (or literal) punch in the face, look no further than this rascally bottle.
Warm and slightly dry, the softness and sweetness reward the taste buds later in every sip.
Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon
The Single Barrel takes on the label of “high rye,” which influences the complex development as it travels from glass to tongue.
From the onset, I noticed a delightful crispness that gave way to a very long finish, with more fruit notes than other bourbons in its class.
Part of the appeal of this batch is the gorgeous bottle with a carved rose motif. While I always judge the substance of bourbon, a quality bottle should never be overlooked.
This offering from Four Roses is worthy of a permanent spot on your bar cart.
I wouldn’t recommend any additives other than perhaps one cube of ice to smooth out the initial bite (if that’s your preference).
Wild Turkey Decades
The Master’s Keep Decades bottles from Wild Turkey have a modest personality.
Its enticing blend of flavors includes a little of everything—butterscotch and caramel notes for the sweetness under the nose, with a woody and spicy taste that I covet.
The fine craftsmanship of this batch combines old traditions with youthful exuberance, for a well-balanced drink. I enjoyed sipping this neat, but a high-quality mixture will also do the job.
Blade and Bow Kentucky Bourbon
Fruit-forward and without a burn, the Blade and Bow is accessible to the bourbon novice.
While I don’t consider it to have an overly unique flavor, it still has a tantalizing appeal. I recommend pairing it with a cigar, while just about any food will complement it.
The Stitzel-Weller distillery created a game that encourages drinkers to “unlock” the keys printed on each bottle, for a total of five collectibles.
This San Francisco World Spirits Competition gold medal winner is smooth and tasty, if somewhat unremarkable.
I’d keep it stocked for use in an old-fashioned for its pleasant mouthfeel and friendly taste.
Town Branch Straight Bourbon
With a scent sweeter than its taste, Town Branch bourbon has a dry oakiness that will appeal to an experienced bourbon palate.
It pairs well with meat, and I find it does a fine job as a dinner sipper.
Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. has a proud history as the city’s first new distillery to go up after Prohibition and has sustained its reputation ever since.
Warm and with a long finish, this bourbon balances the sweetness and spicy elements, giving it a well-rounded taste I enjoy.