Primer’s Great Bourbon Roundup

bourbon roundup reviews
Primer’s Great Bourbon Roundup
An in-depth look into a delicious American whiskey

Let’s talk bourbon.

Actually, first let’s talk whiskey, of which there are many varieties. Primer has a fantastic, well … primer on the subject that you should go check out, but in very general terms whiskey is semi-neutral grain alcohol that’s aged in barrels for several years, during which time it absorbs many flavors from the burnt wood. The difference in whiskey types comes mainly from the blend of grains, certain local methodologies, and different handling of the barrels.

To make bourbon for sale in the United States, by law you must meet the following requirements: produced in the USA, made from a grain bill of at least 51% corn, aged in new (ie: not previously filled with another spirit) charred oak barrels, distilled to no more than 80% ABV, aged in the barrel at no more than 62.5% ABV, and bottled at no less than 40% ABV.

There are rules about aging and labeling, too, but for the purposes of this article we’re only dealing with “straight” bourbon, which means it’s not blended with other liquors, flavoring agents, or artificial colors. All of the bourbon in this roundup has also been barrel-aged at least four years (most quite a bit more).

Even with all these rules, there’s a large diversity of flavors among bourbons. I’m happy to be able to present a wide selection here, but this is really just the tip of the iceberg. Any good liquor store will have loads of brands that I wasn’t able to include here, some of them cheap, some very expensive. Let me know what your bourbon of choice is in the comments!

If you’re looking to get more into bourbon after reading this article, I recommend finding a bar that stocks a bunch of them, visiting on a slow night when you can chat with the bartender, and asking if he or she will hook you up with a “flight” (three or more small quantities). I find that tasting bourbons against each other really helps me notice the differences, and figure out which ones I like best.

Finally, a bit of full disclosure: with the exception of Woodford Reserve and Eagle Rare, I was provided samples of all of the bourbons in this article by their distilleries or PR representatives. Additionally, while I was provided with a sample of Michter’s 10 Year Single Barrel, I chose not to feature it here because, while it’s absolutely spectacular, its price point puts it out of reach for most folks (it can retail for well over $100 a bottle, if you can even find it). Everything in this article can be had for $50 or less.

Let’s get to tasting!

Basil Hayden’s (40% ABV)

Price Range: $31 to $45

Color: Light golden-yellow with no real red to be found.

Nose: Sweet corn right up front. Virtually no alcohol burn. There’s a very distinct, unusual, but not unpleasant black tea note. Barest touch of mint at the very end.

Taste: Wow — unique, peppery spice note at first, with a hint of smoke. Very sweet on the tongue, leading to a mild burn with TONS of … almost floral honey taste. Very brief, dry finish.

http://www.basilhaydens.com/

Buffalo Trace(45% ABV)

Price Range: $21 to $30

Color: Almost pure orange, slightly yellow.

Nose: Pretty big corn note to start, and throughout. Touch of caramel follows. Not a lot of alcohol burn. Cotton candy note develops a little later, along with a bit of orange peel.

Taste: Really sweet on the tip of the tongue. A little dried fruit, a little wood. Not a ton of burn but the tingling finish lasts a good long time.

http://www.buffalotrace.com/

Bulleit 10 Year (45.6% ABV)

Price Range: $31 to $45

Color: Honey-colored, just a shade deeper than scotch.

Nose: Oak barrels, a distinct and very interesting salt air note, leading into warm, sweet caramel and fruits.

Taste: Elegant. More light sweetness up front followed by a big oaky spiciness. A little bit of raisin as the oak wears off, and then a long warm finish.

http://www.bulleit.com/whiskey.aspx#!bulleit-10-years

Eagle Rare (45% ABV)

Price Range: $21 – $30

Color: deep, rich amber-brown, red tinted where the light catches it.

Nose: Slight mint note up front! Unusual but not a bad thing. A little bit of corn comes through next. Not a ton of woodiness to be found, but a little bit of leather. Some toffee notes arrive after a while, and then a medicinal scent – herbal – that I really like.

Taste: Very dry and oaky up front – strange since there’s so little in the nose. Quite a bit of caramel. Big heat follows, with sweetness arriving on the sides of the tongue. Their literature says cocoa, but I’m not really finding it. Leads to a long, warm finish, dry on the tongue with lots of grain character. Oh, interesting: near the very end, as the tingling wears off, I get some chocolate.

http://www.eaglerare.com/

Jim Beam (40% ABV)

Price Range: $10 to $20

Color: Golden, reminiscent of Irish Whiskey

Nose: Substantial alcohol up front and a bit of a charcoal note. Some woodiness shows up after a moment. Overall scent is a little on the thin side. Give it more time, and some corn shows.

Taste: Thin on the tongue. A bit of caramel, a touch of sweetness that’s there for just a moment, then a little charcoal, followed by a spike of not-unpleasant heat. Finish is fairly lengthy, tingling warmth, with more corn notes.

http://www.jimbeam.com/original

Jim Beam Black (43% ABV)

Price Range: $10 to $20

Color: Nearly identical to Original Jim Beam, just a shade darker, but still golden.

Nose: Big, big caramel at the front! Followed up with a lot of very spicy oak character. Tiny bit of smoked corn comes in very late.

Taste: Surprisingly smoky! Different than Original, which is more charred. This is almost scotch-like at first. Not a lot of sweetness. The oak shows up a split second later on the sides of the tongue. Finish is smoother, shorter than Original, and this may sound crazy but I swear there’s just a hint of toasted coconut at the end.

http://www.jimbeam.com/black


Jim Beam Devil’s Cut (45% ABV)

Price Range: $21 to $30

Color: Trending towards amber — darker than its siblings and a bit more red.

Nose: Oak right at first, with a light vanilla following. Starts to develop raisin and coffee characteristics. No real corn in evidence.

Taste: Spicy, almost like a rye. Big warmth right off the bat and a whole lot of oak character. Vanilla notes fade way to the back. Not as much heat as Original, about on par with Black, despite being higher proof than either.

http://www.jimbeam.com/devils-cut


Maker’s Mark (45% ABV)

Price Range: $21 to $30

Color: Warm and yellowish, like clover honey.

Nose: A noticeable corn up front, along with a hint of oakiness. After a minute, an interesting grassy note arrives. Fairly substantial alcohol burn.

Taste: Sweet on the tongue right at first, followed by a big whomp of alcohol that brings with it a bit of burnt (but not buttery) popcorn. That may not sound appealing but it actually adds a nice smokiness to a very long, lingering finish.

https://www.makersmark.com/

Maker’s 46 (47% ABV)

Price Range: $31 to $45

Color: Just a bit darker than regular Maker’s, with a little more red, like a glass of iced tea.

Nose: Toasty caramel without a lot of alcohol note. Sweet. Some oak but it’s not super-prevalent at first. Wait two minutes, though, and here it comes — big woody scent that drives the caramel toward the back.

Taste: More caramel, and sweetness on the sides of the tongue, then a moderate alcohol burn which brings lots of very spicy (almost rye-like) flavors and a dominant oakiness. Not smokey, or burnt, or char-flavored … but just a strong, slightly astringent wood flavor.

https://www.makersmark.com/sections/15-maker-s-46

Michter’s US*1 Small Batch (45.7% ABV)

Price Range: $31 to $45

Color: Orange-amber with golden highlights.

Nose: Brown sugar, spice and quite a lot of vanilla. Opens up to a mild woodiness. Brown sugar comes back for more after a few minutes to develop. Very little burn. Port and caramel come in when you let it sit.

Taste: Spicy! Just a whole lotta grain and oak character right at the front. A little bit of anise on the sides of the tongue as the burn sets in. Sharp, fairly thin mouthfeel. Sweet caramel comes in a bit later, with a medium-warmth finish.

http://www.michters.com/selections/us1-small-batch-bourbon

Tuthilltown Hudson 4 Grain (48% ABV)

Price Range: $46+ (375ml bottle)

Color: Light amber, like grade A maple syrup.

Nose: They’re not kidding about four grains. Very grainy scent up front, and an almost peppery note to start. Moves into really unique leathery notes with a little sandalwood character. A tiny bit of buttery popcorn.

Taste: Very dry — not a hint of sweetness — with a lot of rye character. There’s a significant burn that drops away quickly and leaves a long, woody finish with just a bit of corn notes.

http://www.tuthilltown.com/products/aged-spirits/hudson-4-grain-bourbon

Knob Creek (50% ABV)

Price Range: $31 – $45

Color: Amber, just slightly edging toward brown.

Nose: Interesting nuttiness with sweet overtones, almost like honey-roasted almonds. Little bit of chocolate. Oak shows up quickly, and there’s reasonable alcohol burn here (but not an alcohol scent). Ends with a grainy, almost rye-like scent. That chocolate note grows if you let it sit for a bit.

Taste: Heavy. I know that’s not a taste, but this one’s just … heavy. Their literature says “rich” which isn’t wrong. Little bit of sweetness, a lot of wood, and more of that chocolate, oddly sitting at the roof of the mouth. Big whomp of alcohol that builds and builds, becoming almost jalapeno spicy for a second before fading into a long, tingling finish.

http://www.knobcreek.com/knob-creek

Russell’s Reserve 10 Year (45% ABV)

Price Range: $31 to $45

Color: Caramel, more brown than red.

Nose: Sweet spices. A little vanilla. A hint of marshmallow (seriously). Medium alcohol with a peppery, almost wintergreen note. Smoky wood shows up after a short period of time.

Taste: Thick on the tongue. Chewy. Quite a bit of smokiness along with some vanilla. Oak aplenty as it warms up and spreads over the tongue. Lengthy but soft finish — doesn’t hammer you.

http://wildturkeybourbon.com/goods/

Wild Turkey 81 (40.5% ABV)

Price Range: $10 to $20

Color: Golden with just the slightest hint of reddish-orange.

Nose: A bit grassy, with plenty of oak. A touch of buttery caramel. Medium-high alcohol burn with a slight saltwater tang. Just a ghost of corn. A soft candy note arrives after a few minutes.

Taste: Thin on the tongue, with a noticeable char and a whole lotta burn showing up right away. A little sweet at the edges, and then a long and lingering spiciness with just a little of that candy flavor that was apparent in the nose.

http://wildturkeybourbon.com/goods/

Wild Turkey 101 (50.5% ABV)

Price Range: $10 to $20

Color: Amber with deeper red-orange hues

Nose: Spicy wood all over the place. Similar grassiness to Wild Turkey 81. Hint of smoky char and a little popcorn. Actually seems to have less alcohol than the 81. An interesting green apple scent arrives later.

Taste: Hoo … the alcohol might be less apparent in the nose but it’s there to greet you on the tongue. “Hello, I’m 101 proof. How are you?” A short fly by of caramel, then lots of black pepper, like … LOTS … and a good amount of dried fruit here. Then big oak. Finish is shorter and less spicy than 81.

http://wildturkeybourbon.com/goods/

Wild Turkey Rare Breed(54.1% ABV)

Price Range: $31 – $45

Color: Amber, like grade-B maple syrup but with more red.

Nose: Spicy up front, with a big ol’ hit of oak that lasts a long while. Leads into a citrusy, Christmasy smell … like an orange studded with cloves and baked. Merest touch of corn at the end.

Taste: Warm caramel and dried fruits. Maybe apricot? A whole lot of citrus, a short spike of alcohol, and then a prolonged finish that’s very oaky.

http://wildturkeybourbon.com/goods/

Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit (50.5% ABV)

Price Range: $46+

Color: Yellowish-orange with a hint of reddish tones.

Nose: Lots of maple syrup right at first! Tiny hint of corn and a long, sweet woodiness. Medium alcohol burn. Little bit of charcoal and an interesting almost medicinal scent at the end.

Taste: Big, strong maple and vanilla flavors followed by a pretty intense burn. Charcoal at the sides of the tongue. Burn actually doesn’t last too long. The finish has a little bit of mint to it, and a little more charcoal.

http://wildturkeybourbon.com/goods/

Woodford Reserve(45.2% ABV)

Price Range: $31 to $45

Color: Light gold with amber hints around the edges

Nose: Peppery vanilla with a strong alcohol burn. Tiny bit of smoke comes next, and then roasted corn — almost like corn chips. Oaky and spicy at the finish.

Taste: Very oaky with a sharp, pronounced (but enjoyable) burn. A little bit of sweet caramel and dried fruit. Peppery note continues, and there’s quite a bit of orange to be found too. Finish is lengthy, warm, and has a touch of smoke to it. Virtually no corn except in the nose.

http://www.woodfordreserve.com/

Have a favorite bourbon? Give us your notes on it in the comments.

Christopher Buecheler is a novelist, a web developer, an award-winning amateur mixologist, a brewer, a guitarist, a drummer, and an NBA enthusiast. He lives a semi-nomadic life with his wife and two cats, currently residing in Providence, RI. You can learn more at his website, cwbuecheler.com.

  • Erik

    Great list! Four Roses was a noticeable omission, though!

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      I contacted the folks at Kirin, who manufacture Four Roses, but never received a response. Sadly it would’ve been cost-prohibitive to go out and buy a bunch more bottles, so I had to omit many very nice bourbons from the list.

  • Jon B.

    When I first started drinking, I would rotate between Knob Creek (specifically the single barrel reserve) and Maker’s Mark. However, a friend of mine recently gave me a Buffalo Trace bottle for a graduation gift. For the price and the taste, an excellent go-to bourbon.

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      Buffalo Trace was an even better deal a few years ago when you could sometimes find a 1.75 liter for about 25 bucks, but it’s still a really nice bourbon at its present price point.

      • URKiddinMee

        When I first discovered Knob Creek about 12 years ago, it was VERY competitively priced. Perhaps as their way of introducing it to a broader market before raising the price? A very good bourbon anyway.

        • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

          Yeah, it’s a standard approach for new bourbons (and other booze). Start it at a mid-range price to get some notice, then slowly increase the profit margin as it gets popular.

  • Halgy

    My two current favorites are missing: Colonel E. H. Taylor & Blanton’s. Taylor is a more traditional tasting bourbon, but Blanton’s is so sweet and rich that I haven’t been able to knock it from the top spot.

  • Josh

    Great article! Eagle Rare 10 is a can’t miss. Also worth noting is Evan Williams Single Barrel. Would love to hear thoughts on the strengths (I know its a bit subjective) of the above bourbons. Which did best neat, with a splash, on the rocks, and in a cocktail?

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      I didn’t want to turn this particular article into a review, but I found that the Bulleit 10, the Michter’s, the Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, and the Maker’s 46 to be my favorites for sipping neat or with a splash. The Hudson 4 Grain makes a REALLY interesting Manhattan, especially with a big vermouth like Cocchi or Carpano Antica.

  • Bryan Cole

    Of that list, Eagle Rare is my favorite, with a nod to Bulleit. I was a little disappointed by Buffalo Trace for the price, and I’m not a big Knob Creek fan.

    For anyone in the Boston area: Saloon in Somerville has ~100 whisk(e)ys.

    And for the beer drinkers: Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale is sort of the best of both worlds.

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      I fully enjoy Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale (and Stout). Goose Island in Chicago also makes an amazing bourbon barrel stout.

    • James Taylor

      Saloon! I’ve been there once. Unreal place. I’d rather not drive to get there from my Brighton apartment, though.

  • Ian Zelgowski

    Very happy to see a good bourbon list on Primer!

    My recommendations for the next list? Four Roses Yellow Label and Old Grandad 100 Proof – both AMAZING bottles for ~$20.

  • http://www.erichenao.com Eric Henao

    Great list. Next up, Rye and then do a blended whisky list. Focus on small crafters!

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      The prob with focusing on small crafters is that the price points all tend to be high. I wanted to highlight a wide variety of bourbons in different price ranges for this particular article.

  • ToddB

    Eagle Rare, neat. Makers Mark is my fallback. Booker’s for special occasions. I treated some non-neat bourbon drinking friends and they both loved ER, neat. I buy/sample other brands and bottles but always gravitate back to ER. Four Roses is good and 1792 is decent for the money. Even though it is subjective, I wish author would have ranked each. Great article, none the less!

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      I didn’t want to turn this into a ranking/rating article, but I do understand why some folks would’ve preferred that. My suggestion is to pick a couple that sound good, then go try them out at a local bar and see what you like!

  • mantic59

    My throat disagrees with the “virtually no alcohol burn” comment on Basil Hayden but I agree its an excellent bourbon.

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      Well, that comment was for the nose, not the taste. It’s certainly got a kick on the tongue!

  • Joel Williams

    I’m really enjoying a bottle of Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel I picked up a while back. If I’m remembering right it was in the $30 range, which is a nice price point for a late-20’s guy like myself.

    Question for you, is “sour mash” just a marketing term? Does that actually mean anything?

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      Sour mash is an actual thing — it means they withheld a little bit of the previous mash and use it to balance pH in the new mash and keep out rogue bacteria or yeasts (other than the ones they want in there). It basically helps ensure consistency from batch to batch.

      Most bourbon is made that way, though, so there’s not really anything all that special about it.

      • Joel Williams

        Ah, cool. Thanks for clarification about the process.

        Though if it’s being done in most bourbons batches, but only printed on the front of the bottles of a few, kinda makes me think that the ones that do print it on the bottle are trying to use it as a gimmick. So that when Joe Bourbon Drinker is at the liquor store and sees “Sour Mash” bourbon on the bottle he thinks, “Hmm, sour mash bourbon. Never had that before. I’ll give this a try.” Still a legit process, but not exactly as unique as they’d have us believe.

  • Bardstown

    Being from Bardstown I hate to admit it, but one of my favorite cheaper bourbons is Old Forrester Signature-one of the best $20 bottle to be had. Another one I am quite fond of-and from Btown is Johhny Drum. I’d put Evan Williams single barrel against any bottle up to twice its price.

    • bardstown

      Oh-and great list! Thanks for posting!!

      • Bardstown

        Hate to post now 3 in a row….but this Devil’s Cut business has me rolling. They talk about getting the juice back out of the wood – that’s the “Devil’s Cut”…in high school we called it sweating a barrel…where you add a gallon (for strong) and 2 gallons (for weaker) of water to a barrel and roll it quarter turns every couple of hours in the hot sun to draw out the bourbon….we’d then have barrel parties and everyone would puke. Same stuff…except ours had charcoal soot all in it and they now filter it. Brilliant marketing really! They make money off of what was once their scraps!

  • Domingo Lantigua

    A personal favorite of mine has been the Angel’s Envy bourbon. I highly recommend it as one of the most “bang for your buck” whiskeys on the market.

  • http://mantelligenceapp.com/ Kyle Boureston

    Love Bulleit. Great list. Thanks Christopher.

  • DynamicMenace

    Not technically a Bourbon, but as a Colorado native I feel the need to inform you that if you can manage to get your hands on some Stranahan’s, do yourself a favor and do so!

  • Bourbontruth

    This had me as a good article right to the point of seeing you getting it for free or not rating it. Bars, minis, friend mooching and such are options but to write a review and article that others will base your opinions of that are limited to what you get for free really trash your credibility and that of what was a great piece.
    Bourbontruth

    • http://cwbuecheler.com/ Christopher Buecheler

      This is a pretty standard approach for food and drink writing. I’m always up front when I’ve received samples from a company — lots of writers aren’t. I also bought more than one bottle of bourbon for this article. Why does it trash my credibility? I haven’t claimed to be a reviewer (this article is not a review) or an investigative journalist. I wrote what I tasted.

      It would have cost me about $150 to do all these tastings at a bar, which is beyond what I can afford on a per-article basis, and I don’t have any nearby friends with substantial bourbon collections. So I solicited samples. Sorry that doesn’t work for you.

  • BYC

    Buffalo Trace was my go-to bourbon for a while at $34 for a 1.75L, but lately i’ve switched to W.L. Weller Special Reserve which is just as cheap. Both are great choices for bourbon lovers on a budget.

  • Jeff

    I’ve recently discovered an enjoyable new Texas made whiskey that goes by 1835 Bourbon. It comes in a slightly tapered bottle with a wooden plug. I put it in a class with Buffalo Trace (which I used to frequent) both in terms of price and taste. Not sure what it’s distribution is like, but if you find it, give it a try. I don’t think it will disappoint.

  • Matt

    You missed Evan Williams. While it is bottom shelf bourbon, it is a good starter, with pints running $5 and fifths at $12. There’s also Old Crow

    • Kevin

      Hahahaha

  • Derek

    J.D. Hancock and Blanton’s are very tragic omissions.

  • Ayo

    W.L weller, delicious bourbon, that or get some pappy on there (If anyone can find some let me know)

  • Oz

    Garrison Brothers Single Barrel is the single best bourbon I’ve ever had in my entire life, second only to Pappy van Winkle 20.

  • wickdawg

    Here lately I’ve been enjoying the Old Weller Antique.

  • Dan Sowienski

    Pappy van Winkle is highly overrated, people think it’s cool to spend a lot of money unnecessarily. My favorite bourbon currently has the worst name and labeling I have ever seen. Old Fitzgerald 12 year Bourbon. It’s about $45-50. My local liquor store owner highly recommended it to me. I was very skeptical at first, but it was wonderful. Give it a shot and thank me later.

  • Dan Sowienski

    This bottle. Don’t be fooled by this ugly duckling. It tastes much better than it looks. $45-50

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