Mandatory Staff Picks: The Best Beginner Bourbons
Photo: wiratgasem (Getty Images)
It should come as no surprise to drinkers that late summer and early fall are the perfect times to crack open a bottle of bourbon. The evenings are beginning to get cooler, the first leaves begin to fall, and the damp, crisp smell of fall is starting to fill the air. Another reason to get reacquainted with bourbon whiskey this month is because September is National Bourbon Heritage Month.
This month-long celebration of America’s “Native Spirit” has been celebrated every September since 2007. That’s when the U.S. Senate declared the first-ever “National Bourbon Heritage Month.”
Before you fill your glass with this sweet, rich whiskey, you need to know a few facts first. To be called a bourbon, the whiskey needs to be made in the U.S. (not just Kentucky), made using no less than a 51 percent corn mash bill, distilled at no more than 160 proof, aged in new, charred oak barrels, added to the barrel at no more than 125, aged for at least two years (any bourbons aged less than 4 years must list the number of months), and has to be at least 80 proof at bottling.
Now that you know the bourbon basics, it’s time to have a drink. Check out our picks for the best bourbons for beginners and get sipping.
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There’s a reason Buffalo Trace is the brand’s flagship bourbon. It’s complex, nuanced, and full of caramel sweetness, vanilla, cinnamon, and the perfect amount of toasted oak. It deserves to be sipped slowly on a back porch or deck.
Photo: Buffalo Trace
Elijah Craig Small Batch
Honestly, you can’t go wrong with any offering from Elijah Craig. But, for someone new to bourbon, we suggest Small Batch with its hints of butterscotch, caramel, and subtle spice. It deserves to be sipped slowly on a chilly evening.
Photo: Elijah Craig
Evan Williams Black Label
There might be no better introductory bourbon than Evan Williams Black. The brand definitely doesn’t get the respect it deserves, and this whiskey is a perfect mixture of sweet corn and spicy rye. Spend as much time sipping it on the rocks as you do mixing it into cocktails.
Photo: Evan Williams
Four Roses Yellow Label
The best thing about Four Roses Yellow Label is its price. You can find a bottle for around $20. The second-best thing is the taste. Flavors of dried orange peel, sweet corn, and rich oak make it perfectly suited for mixing into your favorite cocktail.
Photo: Four Roses
Jim Beam White Label
There are few bottles of bourbon as classic as a simple, cheap handle of Jim Beam White Label. This rich, oaky, vanilla-filled whiskey is just as well-suited for slow sipping as it is for mixing into an Old Fashioned or Mint Julep.
Photo: Jim Beam
Knob Creek 100
If you’re going to grab one 100 proof bottle, make it Knob Creek. There’s a reason this well-balanced bourbon with hints of caramel, toasted honey, brown sugar, and cooking spices has been made for more than 25 years.
Photo: Knob Creek
Woodford Reserve is situated in the heart of horse racing country in Versailles, Kentucky. Even though the distillery and its surrounding farms give the bourbon an air of extra fanciness, its flagship Kentucky Straight Bourbon is a perfect beginner bottle. With its hints of charred oak, caramel, vanilla, and cinnamon, it’s so good it’ll find a spot in your liquor cabinet forever.
Photo: Woodford Reserve
Like Evan Williams, Maker’s Mark is pretty much a perfect beginner bourbon. But, while it might be your first sip, you’ll continue drinking it for years because of its rich tapestry of sweet corn, charred oak, and subtle peppery spice.
Photo: Maker’s Mark
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