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.