Whether you're a dedicated fan of bourbon or just dipping your toe in, the ever changing selection of bourbon varieties can be hard to keep up with. Don't let the dizzying array of proof statements and barrel numbers give you decision paralysis! From yearly, limited edition bottlings to old favorites, I've compiled a list of the best bourbons you have to try this year. Newcomers should seek out some of the "go anywhere, do anything" options on this list, while enthusiasts may pick the options with their desired tasting notes. Cheers!
Evan Williams White Label
Evan Williams isn't a specialty release, nor is it a bourbon to rival the likes of Pappy Van Winkle or other highly-sought-after Kentucky whiskeys. Year after year, however, Evan Williams manages to hold a spot among my favorite bourbons for how good it is in its price range. Evan Williams simply has no business being as tasty as it is for how dirt cheap it is. The classic Black Label is a fantastic value and delivers on flavor, but it loses a little bit of complexity. Evan Williams White Label is Bottled-in-Bond, upping the proof from 86 to 100 and providing a commensurate increase in flavor and complexity, making this one of the greatest bourbons of 2018 at any price.
Russell's Reserve Single Barrel
It's not heavily advertised, so it may be easy to miss the fact that this is a Wild Turkey offering. The Russell's Reserve label is supposed to represent the best bourbons from the best barrels hand-picked by the Russell family that comprises Wild Turkey's master distillers. This year's Russell's Reserve Single Barrel is one of my personal favorites. It clocks in at a walloping 110 proof, but the flavor manages to be smooth and sweet compared to the rough spiciness of Wild Turkey's main line. If you prefer a milder, woodier bourbon with an age statement, Russell's Reserve also offers a 10 Year Old Bourbon at 90 proof.
Four Roses Single Barrel
Popular in the United States, the Four Roses distillery is one of the oldest in Kentucky, and their Single Barrel offering is simply one of the best bourbons money can buy. An extremely complex bourbon, expect to find a wide array of flavors including bananas, burnt sugar, and candied pecans. Four Roses also has a standard 80 proof offering as well as the mid-range Small Batch, both of which have their own strengths. The former is a great option for mixing simple bourbon cocktails, while the latter is a good everyday sipper—tasty as hell, but less thought-provoking than the Single Barrel.
Wild Turkey Rare Breed
Every year or so, Wild Turkey releases a new barrel proof whiskey under the Rare Breed label, and almost every new release ends up being one of the best bourbons I've tried, especially in its reasonable price range. Wild Turkey has also steadily upped the proof for each release, with this most recent coming in at a hefty 116.8 proof, or 58.4 percent alcohol. Wild Turkey's modus operandi has always been to provide big flavors with a high proof, and even their flagship is a particularly high proof at 101. If you've ever wondered why you should add water to your whiskey, Wild Turkey's high proof offerings make a compelling argument. Rare Breed maintains the signature spicy and funky notes of Wild Turkey's flagship offerings, accentuating the flavors with tobacco and a hint of orange peel.
Knob Creek Small Batch
Knob Creek is a 100 proof small batch bourbon with a rich, dark color thanks to a nine-year aging process, which is quite long compared to most bourbons. Jim Beam is Knob Creek's parent company, but don't let the parentage fool you: Knob Creek is one of the greatest bourbons for sipping or high quality cocktails. Nine years in the barrel really brings out the sweetness of the corn in Knob Creek's mash bill. Paired with the high rye content, the end result tastes pleasantly reminiscent of cornbread. While Knob Creek also has a single barrel offering, I actually prefer the flagship offering at this price point.
Buffalo Trace is one of the most popular bourbons on the market in 2018. Buffalo Trace's balanced mash bill and centuries-old distilling tradition make for one of the best bourbons for all-around use. The toffee and brown sugar notes, balanced by a touch of rye, provide plenty of interest if you like to drink your bourbon straight. However, Buffalo Trace is also reasonably priced enough so that you don't have to feel guilty about using it to mix any of your favorite basic whiskey cocktails. If you are just getting into the world of bourbons, Buffalo Trace is an excellent first choice: this whiskey can take you just about anywhere.
Elijah Craig Small Batch
Like Buffalo Trace, Elijah Craig is a well balanced whiskey that can do just about anything you want it to. Besides a higher proof, Elijah Craig also leans on the sweeter side. Instead of the touch of rye you get with Buffalo Trace, Elijah Craig offers a strong malt backbone to support its characteristic caramel and vanilla flavors. If you're looking for an all-around bourbon but you want to keep things on the sweeter side, Elijah Craig is one of the greatest bourbon choices for you, regardless of your budget.
High West American Prairie
Not all of the best bourbons are independently produced. In fact, as you delve into the world of bourbon, you'll realize the somewhat disappointing truth that many labels fall under the same parent company. This is a more profound relationship than the alcohol conglomerates like the Campari Group and Diageo, who rarely interact with their subsidiaries when it comes to production.
In the world of bourbon, there are a few key distilleries, like Jim Beam and Heaven Hill, that produce multiple labels under the same roof. This doesn't make those bourbons bad—Knob Creek, for example, is produced by Jim Beam—but it loses a little magic for me. High West Distillery is one of the few truly independent bourbon producers, cranking out high quality blends of whiskeys from their base in Park City, Utah. Their American Prairie bourbon is an excellent first step into their world of premium craft whiskey.
Henry McKenna Bottled-in-Bond Single Barrel
The legal requirements for a distilled whiskey to be called bourbon include several limitations including location, proof, mash bill, and even the type of barrel you're allowed to age it in. Believe it or not, while bourbon must legally be aged, there isn't actually a minimum. While most bourbons are aged in the neighborhood of three to six years, something could be aged for a month and still be called bourbon (as long as it met the other legal requirements).
Some of the best bourbons meet a stricter legal standard to be labeled as "Bottled-in-Bond." This standard, among other things, requires the spirit to be aged four years and bottled at 100 proof. Henry McKenna's Single Barrel offering meets that requirement handily, and is actually aged ten years in white oak barrels. It's rare to find bourbons aged for so long, especially in the low price range that Henry McKenna's occupies, so if you like a strong oak flavor in your bourbon, you aren't going to find a better deal than Henry McKenna's.
Old Grand Dad 114 Proof
Old Grand Dad is another whiskey that is far more delicious than its price point would suggest. One of the most affordable and all around best high proof bourbons, Old Grand Dad is bottled at 114 proof, which equates to 57 percent alcohol content. You'd be smart to enjoy this one on ice or with a splash of water, but personally, I think this is one of the best bourbons for use in cocktails. Its high proof means it can hold up to any other flavors you mix it with. Warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg come through to complement the cherry flavors in a good Manhattan cocktail or the bittersweet flavors in an Old Fashioned.