5 Best Bourbons in 2023 (+ How To Drink Them) – Josh’s Guide

Last updated on January 2, 2023 by Josh Koerpel

Picture this. You’re standing in a crowded bar, brushing shoulders with a first date.

(And to those in a relationship, I haven’t forgotten you in this little example. Substitute wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend…or whatever you’re into).

You make eye contact with the bartender, raise your finger, and order a bourbon. But not just any bourbon. You want the best bourbon, and order one calmly – confident in your abilities to pick good alcohol. Your date smiles, the body language shows interest in you…and your appreciation of the craftsmanship of an American tradition. The bartender cracks a smile, returns a slight nod – a respectful gesture that acknowledges the apparent mastery of your own boozy domain. This mutual respect strengthens your confidence, as you turn to your date and clink glasses. First impression? Nailed it.

See in life, I think it pays to know a little about a lot of things. Bourbon included.

Today is a great time to be into bourbon. You made of heard of some familiar brand names or terms like Wild Turkey, Buffalo Trace, a “wheated bourbon” or a “Kentucky straight bourbon.” This article will lay it all out. In fact as I sit writing this, I am indeed tossing back a slightly watered-down Maker’s Mark. My favorite way to relax after a long day.

Why try to learn about the best bourbons? Simple. The idea is to find your best bourbon. Perhaps you’re a digital nomad here to find a ‘budget bourbon.’. Or perhaps you’re here to impress your friends with some cool, newfound whiskey knowledge. Maybe you’d like to try something new or to simply better understand the different ways to enjoy your drink.

Regardless my friend, I commend your decision to be here. As a fellow whiskey drinker, I love this brown water more than anything. Derived from it’s charred oak barrels, bourbon can be as simple or complex as you make it. From hints of vanilla ice cream, toasted oak, dark chocolate, or salted caramel, this drink has roots deep in American tradition while simultaneously delivering a profile that can be unique as a fingerprint.

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

Elijah Craig

This is a rich, full-flavored craft bourbon experience you’re sure to enjoy anywhere, anyhow. One of my personal favorites!

So without further ado, let’s get into the five best bourbons in 2023 and how to drink them.

What Are The Best Bourbons in 2023?

A bourbon is a whiskey. It’s a type of whiskey.

And it should go without saying that the “best bourbon” is highly subjective. Whether you like hotter, higher proof spirits with more intensity and flavor, or, on the contrary, a smoother bourbon with mellower, more buttery tones that drinks and tastes more reliably, the best bourbon is simply the best bourbon because you love it.

In fact, my friend Nate Darling over at independent bottler Pekut and Carwick helped me understand this much better…for not just bourbons, but ALL small-batch spirits. If you have some time, this is a really great conversation to learn from.

I sat down and spoke to my buddy Nate Darling about all things alcohol and spirits!

My goal with this article is to give you enough knowledge about bourbon whiskeys to be dangerous. Maybe a trip to the Buffalo Trace distillery isn’t in the cards at the moment. Maybe you don’t know a master distiller, or never even heard of Wild Turkey. Maybe you’ve never even thought of ordering a straight bourbon whiskey in your life.

Fear not, my friend. By the end of this article, the world of American whiskey (ie. bourbon) will all make sense.

Grab a drink and let’s get to it. We’re about to dive into the world of the best bourbon whiskeys.

Best Bourbons in 2023

1. Knob Creek 12 Year

This nice little description is straight from Knob Creek’s site: “​​Full proof for full flavor. An honest Pre-Prohibition style bourbon.” The Knob Creek 12 is one of four bourbons that comprise Jim Beam’s Small Batch Bourbon Collection, and I dig it.

Knob Creek Small Batch 12 year bourbon whiskey
Knob Creek Small Batch 12 Year. This is a good one…read how it tastes below!

Knob Creek 12 Year is a nice little reminder that an American whiskey, or Kentucky Straight bourbon, in this case, can be great year-round and doesn’t need to be a special pick. With a rich flavor profile, in my opinion, it’s worth the price.

Classification: Straight Bourbon
Distillery: Jim Beam
Proof: 100
Age: 12 Years
Mashbill: 77% Corn, 13% Rye, 10% Barley Malt
MSRP: $60

Knob Creek 12 – Tasting Notes

What it smells like (or the “nose”):

  • You can get hints of vanilla and caramel
  • Very pleasant and rich
  • A hint of ethanol

What it tastes like (or the “palate”):

  • Spending extra time in the barrel, you get rich leather and oak flavors
  • Touches of vanilla
  • A bit of a complex palate that helps cool the ethanol

How it “finishes”:

  • Spicy flavors of tobacco leaf, leather, and black pepper
  • A touch of vanilla and peanuts
  • Nice long finish of oak and spice

One way you can drink it – “Neat”

Drinking your bourbon “neat” is the most old-school way to enjoy it. Neat is simply another word for ‘plain,’ where the bartender simply pours that sweet nectar into a glass and slides it your way.

What it looks like to drink neat – an old school method
Here’s what you get if you order a whiskey bourbon “neat.” It’s as old-school as you can get.

Depending on the proof, drinking your bourbon “neat” can be an intense experience. This is why some people tend to “loosen up” even the best bourbon with something like ice or water. But if the old-school, badass rockstar vibe is what you’re going for, ask for a Knob Creek 12 year – neat. You’re sure to get a wink from that cutie at the end of the bar.

2. Maker’s Mark

Maker’s Mark is a wheated bourbon created in batches of less than 1,000 gallons (around 19 barrels at a time). The iconic shape of the bottle is inspired by Bill Samuels Sr. wife’s collection of cognac bottles. Another cool fact? Each bottle is dipped by hand as opposed to by machine No two dippings are alike and occasionally a bottle is over-dipped which Maker’s Mark fondly refers to as a “slam dunk.”

Maker's mark bourbon whisky
Maker’s Mark bourbon whisky is a great drink after a long day of blogging. I would know.

Another interesting fact about Maker’s Mark is that it is one of the few distilleries to rotate the barrels from the upper to the lower levels of the aging warehouse. This evens out the differences in temperature during the process. Notice something missing? They are also one of the few American distilleries to use the Scottish spelling “Whisky” (as opposed to the traditional American spelling “Whiskey”).

Classification: Straight Bourbon
Distillery: Marker’s Mark
Proof: 90
Age: NAS
Mashbill: 70% Corn, 16% Wheat, 14% Barley Malt
MSRP: $30

Maker’s Mark – Tasting Notes

What it smells like (or the “nose”):

  • Vanilla and brown sugar. A bit of maple syrup
  • A touch of strawberry
  • Strong ethanol scent that fades over time

What it tastes like (or the “palate”):

  • Less sweet than it smells
  • Toffee, vanilla and oak with hints of cinnamon
  • Buttery mouthfeel, very smooth

How it “finishes”:

  • At first, very unassuming
  • A “middle-ground” between hot and meek
  • Pleasant and thin

One way you can drink it – “On the rocks”

Drinking a bourbon whiskey “on the rocks” it’s probably one of the first things you ever heard stepping foot in a bar.

You can drink the absolute best bourbon on the rocks, anytime.
“Whiskey on the rocks” said every college student with a fake ID, ever.

You can drink the absolute best bourbon on the rocks, anytime.

“On the rocks” simply means with ice. And there are two main ways people drink their bourbon whiskeys on the rocks. With multiple, smaller ice cubes, or instead, one GIANT ice ball or cube.

The difference is that smaller ice cubes tend to melt faster. Not to get all physics on you, but this is because there is more surface area on the cubes themselves. Whereas a larger cube or ball tends to melt slower, releasing water and loosening up the tannins at a slower pace. So really it’s a matter of personal preference, how fast you want to drink, and how quickly you want that person at the end of the bar to get better looking.

3. Henry McKenna Single Barrel

Henry McKenna came to America in 1837 from Ireland and settled in Kentucky where he set out to create a better bourbon using his family’s recipe.

Henry Mckenna is one of the best budget bourbons out there!
Henry Mckenna is one of the best budget bourbons out there!

In my opinion, Henry Mckenna is one of the best budget bourbons out there.

This is a nuanced bourbon that can satisfy even the most scrutinizing purists. It is a whiskey produced in Kentucky and in american oak barrels, giving off subtle notes and a mid palate flavor profile at a price that won’t break the bank.

Classification: Straight Bourbon
Distillery: Heaven Hill
Proof: 100
Age: 10 Years
Mashbill: 78% Corn, 12% Malted Barley, and 10% Rye
MSRP: $30

Henry McKenna – Tasting Notes

What it smells like (or the “nose”):

  • Very traditional blend of caramel and vanilla
  • Backdrop of charred, seasoned oak
  • Ethanol scent equally as strong and blends well

What it tastes like (or the “palate”):

  • Vanilla and oak at first
  • Rye spice, a touch of brown sugar and caramel
  • Satisfying mouthfeel with a slight edge burn

How it “finishes”:

  • A medium length, balanced with flavor and spice
  • Hint of leather mixed with oak and vanilla
  • Oak is present but not overpowering

One way you can drink it – “Splash of water”

You heard people say it in movies, bourbon splash of water. Why water? Well, depending on the type of bourbon that you’re drinking, the water can loosen the tannins and broaden the range of flavors.

A little water can tame the hottest of bourbon whiskeys
A little water can tame the “hottest” of bourbon whiskeys

And if it’s a “hot” bourbon (meaning that there’s a higher alcohol content) and it has that bite, watering it down can cool that down a little bit and make it easier to throw down your throat. Or, at least allow you to take a sip and continue the conversation without facial contortions that make it look like you just swallowed a Sour Patch Kid or have extreme brain freeze.

4. Four Roses Single Barrel

Four Roses uses 2 different mashbills and 5 different yeast strains to create 10 unique bourbon recipes. The strain of yeast used is version “V” which is described as being delicate fruit, spicy, and creamy.

Roses bourbon is one of the great affordable bourbons, and the absolute best bourbon for experimentation!
Four Roses is one of the great affordable bourbons, and the absolute best bourbon for experimentation!

What makes Four Roses unique is that they have 10 different recipes they use when making their blended bourbon. While all aged in new charred oak barrels, a lot of the fun of the Four Roses Single Barrel line is trying each recipe and finding what you like.

Classification: Straight Bourbon
Distillery: Kirin Brewery Company
Proof: 100
Age: NAS
Mashbill: 60% Corn, 35% Rye, 5% Malted Barley
MSRP: $40

Four Roses – Tasting Notes

What it smells like (or the “nose”):

  • Light and delicate
  • Hints of cork, raisin, creamy vanilla and fresh flowers
  • Subtle ethanol smell

What it tastes like (or the “palate”):

  • Heavy flavor explosion of rye spice
  • Honey, peaches and slight brown sugar
  • Not very deep, but delivers an immediate palate

How it “finishes”:

  • Long, lingering finish of little spice
  • Spicy heat over the next minute or two
  • Hints of old wood, mint, dried raisin and cherries

One way you can drink it – “Mixed with something”

It was obligatory that I included this in my list, even though I don’t really do this. And by no means am I saying that the only bourbon you should mix with Coke or ginger ale is Four Roses Single Barrel. Not at all.

Mixing bourbon with coke. Perfect for that first Tinder date. Just don’t tell the master distiller you did this.

However, there are a number of people that enjoy mixing bourbons with other ingredients like Coke or a good ginger beer. Especially with high proof bourbon, it can take the edge off. In fact, in my tallship days the drink of choice is usually the dark and stormy, which is a good rum with ginger ale…so I’m familiar with the attractiveness of making a mixed drink. However, when it comes to bourbons, I prefer mine either on the rocks or with a splash of water.

5. Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof was first released in March, 2013. Because it’s barrel proof, the proof varies from batch to batch.

Lots of tradition in this beautifully-shaped bottle.  I suggest you give it a shot.
Lots of tradition in this beautifully-shaped bottle. I suggest you give it a shot.

Elijah Craig maintains a more traditional bourbon flavor profile, at barrel proof you would think it would be intense. But instead, it delivers a rich, full-flavored craft bourbon experience you’re sure to enjoy.

Classification: Straight Bourbon
Distillery: Heaven Hill
Proof: 127.2
Age: 12 Years
Mashbill: 78% Corn, 12% Malted Barley, and 10% Rye
MSRP: $65

Elijah Craig Single Barrel – Tasting Notes

What it smells like (or the “nose”):

  • Sweet caramel and graham cracker
  • Balance with aged oak
  • Not a strong ethanol smell

What it tastes like (or the “palate”):

  • Charred oak with toasted marshmallows, caramel and burnt brown sugar
  • Very heavy underlying body with strong flavoring
  • A bit ‘hot’ but not overpowering

How it “finishes”:

  • Rush of immediate spice
  • Tobacco, leather and aged oak
  • A long and warm spicy-sweet combination

One way you can drink it – “Shoot it from the navel of a Tiajuana hooker”

Okay okay, maybe you don’t have to go that far. However, some people like to shoot bourbon.

An empty shot glass.  The scene that accompanies 90% of all morning headaches.
The backdrop scene that accompanies 90% of all morning headaches.

Am I going to judge these people? No. Is it my preferred way? Also no. But sometimes after a hard day working at the factory or getting your butt handed to you in the cryptocurrency day-trading space, you need to kill that last remaining brain cell hanging on by a thread.

And you need to do it quickly.

Bourbon Questions, Common Terms, and FAQ

To make you sound wicket smaht when talking bourbon and sipping down that sweet brown water with friends and family.

Is bourbon the same thing as whiskey?

A bourbon is a type of whiskey. So all bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbon.

In fact, to qualify as a bourbon, the mash bill needs to be at least 51% corn. That’s what makes it “bourbon” whiskey. The corn gives it a bit of a sweeter and sugary flavor, as opposed to a rye whiskey which can be a bit sharper.

What is the difference between bourbon whiskey and rye whiskey?

A bourbon whiskey has a mash bill of at least 51% corn. so the main ingredient when distilling a bourbon whiskey is corn.

As opposed to a rye whiskey, where the main ingredient (again, 51% or more) is rye. As far as taste is concerned, a bourbon whiskey is a bit more sugary and sweet compared to a rye whiskey that can be a bit spicier and, especially whiskeys with a high rye mash bill, a bit drier.

What makes a bourbon smooth?

The smoothness of a bourbon is a much debated topic. Some think that a bourbon’s “smoothness” is that buttery and oily feeling that some have. Some may also call it a more velvety feeling. But on the downside, a smooth bourbon can also mean a more blended and bland-tasting bourbon to experienced palates.

When someone takes a craft bourbon and says it’s not smooth enough, many times people associate that feeling with the “alcohol burn.” A common way to address this would be to lower the proof of the alcohol by diluting it in water. The less proof a bourbon is, the less alcohol burn you will experience.

Is a smooth bourbon a higher quality bourbon?

Not necessarily. For some, the mark of a higher quality bourbon is it’s drinkability, in a sense that it is not an intense experience. Others may disagree.

Very much like people that adore spicy food while other people absolutely can stand spicy food. A bourbon can be very similar. Some folks equate the smoothness to an easy drinking experience, While others look for a sharper and more flavorful experience. Either way, a high quality craft bourbon can have either characteristic.

What is a “Straight” bourbon whiskey?

A straight bourbon whiskey meets all the requirements of being called a bourbon (see “What should I look for in a bourbon” below), but is aged for a minimum of two years in new charred oak barrels. All straight bourbons share this quality.

What is a Kentucky bourbon?

A Kentucky bourbon is simply a bourbon that comes from the state of Kentucky in the United States. All bourbons by definition must come from the United States, however ones that come from Kentucky are labeled as “Kentucky Bourbons.” Some of the best Kentucky bourbon (that you’ve probably heard of) would be Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark, and Wild Turkey.

What should I look for in a bourbon?

There are a few things to look for in a true bourbon.

It should be made in the United States, it should be at least 51% made from corn, and it must be aged in new charred oak barrels.

However if you are looking to understand how to pick a good bourbon from an experience point of view, there are a few things that you can keep your eye on.

Notice the smell. Is it sharp? Does it burn the nose hairs right out of your face?

You can also notice the color. There are lots of bourbons out there that range in color from dark to lighter brown liquid. Finally, the taste, where you allow the bourbon to roll over the tongue. Pull out hints of sweet vanilla, or candied orange. Perhaps orange zest, dark fruit, or sweet corn. Look for a sugary, maple syrup, smoky taste in some bourbons or sharper, more intense, and more complex flavors in others.

josh drinking the best bourbon
Nothing like slipping on a nice bourbon and reading about how to hand-feed hummingbirds. Is that weird?

Final Thoughts On The Best Bourbon

I love bourbon. Personally, I like it better than rye whiskey.

I like the sweetness and the flavoring, and I do like it “hot” in the sense that the intense flavors remind me that I’m alive every time I put it to my lips. But that’s just me.

At the end of the day, the best bourbon is the one that you enjoy drinking. And the only way to do that is to try a few. Hopefully, this article gave you a couple of guideposts that will help you navigate your own journey and distinguish between experiences you like and ones you don’t like.

Because life is meant to be lived. In fact, I’ve got a few suggestions on how to do that.

I raise a glass to you, my friend. Good luck.

Last updated January 2, 2023 by Josh Koerpel

Josh Koerpel

Josh has spent the last 15 years working from the road as a ship captain, wilderness guide, mechanical engineer, marketing director and software developer.

He currently lives aboard his 32′ sailboat “Albatross” in Key West, Florida.

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