"We make fine bourbon at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon." - Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr.
The next Pappy giveaway takes place LIVE on our Facebook page at 9pm EST on Wednesday, January 16. We'll give away a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle's 15 year. If you don't have Facebook no worries we'll post the winner and the video on pursuitofpappy.com about 15 minutes after the drawing is over.
Pappy Van Winkle has been sighted North Carolina, Kentucky, Minnesota, Georgia, Mississippi, Illinois, Montana, Tennessee, Nebraska, Alabama, New Mexico, Maryland, Wisconsin, New York, Delaware, New Jersey, Oregon, Arizona, Kansas, Florida, Texas, California, Massachusetts, Colorado, Utah, Missouri, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, South Carolina, Idaho, Texas, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.
Ohio has closed its lottery and winners will be announced in January or early February. Virginia is in the process of notifying its winners too.
More Pappy Resources
The Pappy Raffle/Lotteries/Auctions Page (Keeps you in the know about Statewide, Store-Specific or other opportunities to locate a bottle of Pappy.)
The Pappy Events Page (Makes you aware of Tasting Events, Whiskey Festivals, etc. that offer and opportunity to taste some Pappy Van Winkle.)
Also, the Pappy List is now categorized by State. (Bars and restaurants do run out so it's always a good idea to call and ask if that's the only reason you're going.)
In the 1950s Julian P. Van Winkle did a series of advertisements that were folk stories he would tell with a moral that you should drink Old Fitzgerald Bourbon. He later had a collection of these stories published as a pamphlet called “A Jigger of Common Sense”. I have a photocopy of this pamphlet in my archive. The original is in the archive that Diageo now owns.
The cover has a photograph of Julian standing in front of the brass sign that hung by the gates of the distillery. He is dressed in a white suit and hat, pointing at the sign. In the pamphlet there are stories with titles like “ The Day the Rhino came to Town”, “How to Stay Married for Life”, “How to Live a Hundred Years”, and “ How to Read a Whiskey Label”. There are nine stories in the pamphlet. They are very fun advertisements to read and I am sure that they were very effective at selling Old Fitzgerald.
For example, the story “The Day the Rhino came to Town” is about a farm hand who is before a judge for beating up a man who called him a Rhinoceros for the past three years. When the judge asked him why he waited so long to take his vengeance he told the judge that he had never seen a Rhinoceros before until the circus came to town. Julian then goes on to explain that the words “sour mash” are “rhinoceros words”. Most people don’t know what they mean and he then explains the term. Of course, Old Fitzgerald is a sour mash Bourbon.
The story about “How to Stay Married for Life” tells of someone asking Henry Ford on his Golden Wedding Anniversary how he managed this and his answer was “Stick to one model”. You should stick to one Bourbon – Old Fitzgerald. In the story “How to Live a Hundred Years” old Granny Dilworth is asked how she lived to be so old and answered “Because I was born a long time ago”. So was Old Fitzgerald.
In “How to Read a Whiskey Label” Julian explains about Bottled-in-Bondwhiskey and the difference between bonded whiskey and blended whiskey. Of course Julian never sold Old Fitzgerald as anything other than a bonded Bourbon.
The other stories are in a similar vein. In a couple of them he used stories told by Abraham Lincoln to make his point. Others are takes on the field hand / stable boy / common man character.
These stories are filled with marketing for Old Fitzgerald. That does not make them less interesting. The history is not always accurate – John E. Fitzgerald is a Kentucky distiller in the “How to Live a Hundred Years” story. They do however have a “common sense” appeal in their telling as they sell the brand. They are good, clean, fun stories that work.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller, from Michael Veach’s personal archives
There is something special about bourbon.
For years I was a Scotch drinker only having tried a few lower end bourbons but never really getting into it properly and never tried any of the best bourbons. I was not one of those snobby Scotch drinkers that look down their noses at it, but I think I’d just never sampled anything that really grabbed me and forced me into the sweet and wonderful bourbon world.
That all changed when I went on holiday with a friend of mine and he brought with him a little unlabelled bottle in tow that contained some George T Stagg (it was either the 2015 or 2016 I think).
Needless to say, as I would imagine is the case with most people on their first Stagg experience, it blew my proverbial socks off.
In fact, it blew them so far off I never saw those socks again.
Shame, I loved those Winnie the Pooh socks. But it was ok, as I had a new love:
How Bourbon is Made
I’ll write this in layman’s terms as, to be honest, I don’t properly understand the process myself so I don’t want to get too technical and write a load of inaccurate nonsense. I reserve that for the rest of the website – but I simply won’t allow it here.
All types of whiskey/whiskey are made by the fermentation of different grains (corn, malted barley, rye and wheat). The predominant ingredient (at least 51%) determines the type of whiskey it is.
The process is as follows:
- The main ingredient for bourbon is corn and other grains are used in varying quantities. This mixture of grains is known as the mash bill.
- The grains are then cooked to form the mash.
- This is then mixed with “set-back” (basically the leftovers from the previous distillation process). This is known as Sour Mash and is a unique element in American whiskey.
- The mash is then fermented to produce a transparent spirit (sometimes known as White Dog).
- The spirit is finally added to new charred oak barrels (usually American white oak) for the aging process. The barrel aging process is what gives bourbon both it’s color and most of its flavor.
FACT: To be called a bourbon the whiskey must be produced in the USA. It does not need to produced in Kentucky (contrary to popular belief). Approximately 95% of bourbon is produced in Kentucky however.
Why We Love Bourbon
I think the main thing is it just has an amazing core flavor profile that runs through all the best bourbons.
The corn used gives it that classic caramel sweetness that isn’t really found in any Scotch whisky, sweet Scotch is a usually different kind of sweetness more akin to honey.
Then there are other great flavors such as the vanilla you find in many bourbons.
There is also a huge variety to choose from. There are a lot of bourbons that are very good and above so you will never get bored.
Add into the mixer that there loads of high proof bourbons that are absolute flavor bomb monsters and you can see there are countless reasons to love bourbon.
What Makes A Good Bourbon
This is a trick question as to answer it would be a little pretentious. What is good in the whiskey world is totally subjective.
Basically, if you like the flavor when you drink it and it makes you feel good it is a good bourbon and no one has the right to tell you otherwise.
With that in mind, writing a list of the best bourbons in the world may be difficult, right?
Well, this list is our personal preferences for what we enjoy but many of the choices to correlate positively with popular opinion.
If you are using this list to find yourself a nice bottle, we’re fairly confident you won’t be disappointed by any of the choices, but you should probably have a read of:
How We Decided What Made the List
This article is aimed at everyone but we didn’t want to put out a list of the best bourbons in the world and them all be ridiculously expensive or rare to the point where you’d have to sell a kidney to get hold of one.
We don’t have the funds to purchase a lot of those kinds of bottles anyway and I’m sure most people reading this don’t either.
Some really good bourbons out there will be expensive though.
So we decided to split the list into two with the following criteria:
- Readily available to the average person in terms of price
- Not particularly difficult to get hold of
Not so obtainable bourbons
- Can be expensive but not ridiculously so
- Must be something we have tried ourselves
Now you are armed with this important knowledge, let’s get down to business…
10 Best Bourbons That Are Obtainable
These are the best bourbons that are generally readily available. Obviously, this will vary depending on where you are located but we’ve tried to pick bottles that are usually on general sale in both the US and UK. In no specific order here are our choices:
1792 Full Proof
Rated the best bourbon of 2018 at the World Whisky Awards, we’re not sure it is the very best but it is excellent with some awesome flavors at play.
Rebel Yell 10
A great choice if you like a wheated bourbon this is up there with Weller 12 in that respect. Can be a little tricky to find sometimes but you have to grab a bottle if you do see it.
Four Roses Single Barrel
This is one of the contenders for the best pound for pound bourbon in the world (see below to find out if it won). Extremely well priced and always available, it’s one to always have on the shelf.
Smooth Ambler Old Scout 10
Smooth Ambler don’t make bad whiskey or if they do it is news to me. This 10-year offering is one of their best and a big favorite here at Whiskeybon.
The thinking man’s bourbon! It was a close call between this and the Antique 107 but this is refined and sophisticated and that’s what edged it. Great wheated profile.
Old Forester 1920
This is supposedly using the same recipe as during Prohibition in the 1920’s hence the name. Not sure how true that is but it is an amazing bourbon, that we do know!
Personally, I prefer this to the more full-on Straight From The Barrel, it is a super smooth bourbon with a deliciously sweet flavor profile. A winner for sure.
A great cask strength bourbon from Blanton’s which has a ton of classic caramel and vanilla flavors to enjoy.
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
A beastly powerhouse of a cask strength bourbon that packs a punch and has a great flavor profile, The Hazmat, in particular, is a personal favorite.
Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition
This is a little more expensive than others on the list but I’ve tried versions 2015-2017 and they are all consistently excellent.
7 Best Bourbons That Are Not So Obtainable
These are the bottles that may be either hard to get hold of because there isn’t enough supply and they sell out instantly upon release or are too expensive for the average person to afford. None of us has tried the likes of Michter’s Celebration or Pappy 25 so you won’t find them on here.
This is just incredible. Between us we have tried the 2015, 2016 and 2017 and they are all amazing. It is just a total flavor assault on the senses and a cut above anything else we’ve tried in our opinion. A worthy winner and if you are lucky enough to find a bottle at retail or can afford the secondary prices you simply must get a bottle.
George T Stagg
We are big Stagg fans. It’s just so bold and brash with great flavor of course but it’s the character that really makes it stand out. A very powerful bourbon.
Pappy Van Winkle 15
Some people rate this as the best Pappy, personally, the 23 just edges it for me but this delicious too. Pappy is the pinnacle of the bourbon world in terms of demand and it’s not just hype, the whiskey is excellent too!
Pappy Van Winkle 23
The big daddy, this is really exquisite. Never had the honor of owning a bottle but have tried it a couple of times in bars and it is just so refined. It does have an oakiness to it from those extra years in the barrel that some may not like, but I think it adds to the maturity of the flavour profile.
Four Roses Al Young
A blend of four different Four Roses recipes from 12-23 years old, this has been blended to perfection. Al Young has been working at Four Roses for 50 years and this is in honor of that service and it really is phenomenal, it just has everything you could want in a bourbon.
Some say the sweet spot for bourbon age is in the 12-15 years range but this beauty definitely goes against that. Really mature flavors and an exceptional drop.
Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel
This one is without a doubt the most obtainable on the “Not So Obtainable” list but can be quite expensive. The Four Roses Single Barrel is a great bourbon. Multiply that by 10 and that’s how good this is. You should be able to get a bottle to try if you have the Benjamin’s to spare and we urge you to do so if so.
As well as the lists we decided it would be cool to give out some awards for the best bourbons in various categories so if you are looking for something specific this may be helpful.
You may notice some contradictions like W.L. Weller being selected as the best overall but not the best wheated bourbon or Kings County Barrel Proof being selected as best craft and Balcones Baby Corn as best non-Kentucky bourbon when both are from non-Kentucky craft distilleries. Well spotted! A couple of things to note:
- The first 2 categories include all bourbon and for the rest, we tried to pick readily available and reasonably affordable stuff.
- We also wanted to pick something different for each category
Without any further trips to the waffle house, here are the awards:
BEST HIGH AGE (15 YEARS +):
Pappy Van Winkle 23
BEST POUND FOR POUND:
BEST VALUE BUDGET BOURBON:
BEST BARREL PROOF:
Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
BEST FOR BEGINNER / FIRST TIMER:
BEST FROM A SMALL CRAFT DISTILLERY:
Kings County Distillery Barrel Proof
BEST SINGLE BARREL:
Four Roses Single Barrel
BEST SMALL BATCH:
Elijah Craig 12
BEST BOTTLED IN BOND:
Colonel EH Taylor Bottled In Bond
Rebel Yell 10
BEST HIGH RYE:
Wild Turkey 101
BEST SMOOTH BOURBON:
Blanton’s Gold Edition
BEST NON-KENTUCKY BOURBON:
Balcones Baby Corn
We asked bourbon expert and author Susan Reigler for a quick list of books on bourbon (among them, her own) to keep you busy while sipping:
Carlton, Carla Harris.
“Barrel Strength Bourbon: The Explosive Growth of America’s Whiskey.”
Birmingham, AL: Clerisy Press, 2017.
Comprehensive, lively account of Kentucky’s expanding bourbon economy, including production and tourism. Tasting tips, too.
Cowdery, Charles K.
“Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey.”
Chicago: Made & Bottled in Kentucky, 2004.
Divided into topical chapters on various aspects of bourbon history, including an account of the famous Heaven Hill fire and a history of distillers named Beam.
Cowdery, Charles K.
“Bourbon, Strange: Surprising Stories of American Whiskey.”
Chicago: Made & Bottled in Kentucky, 2014.
Fleshed out stories behind many sometimes forgotten bourbon footnotes.
“Whisk(e)y Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life.”
New York: Viking Studio, 2014.
Sage advice about approaching all styles of the world’s whiskeys, including bourbon, by a New York-based whiskey sommelier.
“Bourbon Curious: A Simple Tasting Guide for the Savvy Drinker.”
Minneapolis, Minnesota: Zenith Press, 2015.
Fascinatingly develops a bourbon flavor taxonomy dividing into categories of grain-forward, nutmeg-forward, caramel-forward, and cinnamon-forward.
“Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey.”
New York: Viking, 2015.
Deeply researched account of where bourbon has been and its potential. Many interviews with industry insiders.
“Kentucky Bourbon Country: The Essential Travel Guide, 2nd ed.”
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016.
History, production details, and geographic guide to Kentucky distilleries big and small and how to get the most from a trip to bourbon country.
Reigler, Susan and Michael Veach.
“The Bourbon Tasting Notebook, 2nd ed.”
Morley, Missouri: Acclaim Press, 2018.
A log book with the authors’ tasting notes of nearly 350 bourbons arranged by distillers and fully indexed by proof, price, and style. Ratings are left to the reader.
“American Whiskey Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirits, Revised & Expanded Edition.”
New York: Sterling Epicure, 2015.
More than 300 American whiskeys (178 bourbons) with star ratings and good historical backgrounds.
“Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage.”
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013.
Excellent overview of the history of bourbon, from farmer distillers in Colonial America to the modern industry.
he bourbon industry has certainly had its highs and lows. Distilleries were hit hard when Prohibition took effect in 1920, and many didn’t last to see its end in 1933. Even the revered still of Stitzle-Weller ran dry in the early 1990’s, after clear spirits took the lion’s share of the market from whiskey.
Fewer highs, however, have reached the interest and investment we see in the world of American whiskey today. Hundreds of millions of dollars of development are taking place in Kentucky alone, and microdistilleries are popping up in almost all fifty states.
This modern revival has brought dozens of new bourbon and whiskies to consumers – and has breathed new life into brands considered all but dead. Here are six of our favorite whiskies first distilled decades ago that we’re drinking again today.
1. Bond & Lillard
William F. Bond and his brother in law Christopher C. Lillard distilled the first Bond & Lillard 150 years ago in 1869. The label remained popular for over 50 years, even stealing the show at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, where a judge declared it to have “real delicacy of flavor, beauty in the sparkle and superiority in strength – it bears no equal.” Campari revived the brand in 2017 as part of their “Whiskey Barons” series alongside Old Ripy, distilling at Wild Turkey with the Ripy family to recreate these lost recipes.
2. Cream of Kentucky
Now being bottled by J.W. Rutledge Distillery, the Cream of Kentucky name is back with an even bigger name behind it. Legendary distiller Jim Rutledge chose Cream of Kentucky as his first release for his new company, finding the perfect match for the soft, palatable whiskey in 11.5 year old barrels. As the name suggests, Rutledge promises a “creamy mouthfeel, with gentle fruitiness,” just as the bourbon had when it was first being bottled in the 1940’s.
3. O.F.C. (Old Fashioned Copper)
This bottle brings up more than one famous name! O.F.C. Distillery was established in 1870 by Col. EH Taylor on the site that is now home to the famous Buffalo Trace Distillery. The original O.F.C. Bourbon was distilled under George T. Stagg, who purchased the distillery in 1878 and renamed it after himself in 1904. The first iteration of the modern O.F.C. label by Buffalo Trace was made for donation only, and given to charities around the country to auction off to generous bidders. Each bottle is a labeled with specific vintage, as a nod to the history of the brand. Keep an eye on shelves near you – a new 1993 bottle is available to the public now, packaged in a crystal decanter with copper labels.
4. The President’s Choice
As the President of Brown-Forman, parent company to big bourbon names like Woodford Reserve and Old Forester, Campbell Brown certainly has his work cut out for him. Last year, he added one more item to his strenuous workload – choosing honey barrels for the historic President’s Choice label. Their tradition of specially selected barrels dates back to 1890, when Old Forester Founder George Garvin Brown chose a personalized bottling for then Governor of Kentucky Simon Bolivar Buckner. Today’s label is a nod to the bottlings chosen by George Garvin Brown II in 1964, when his President’s Choice program set out to find the most exceptional barrels the distillery had to offer for notable guests.
5. Kentucky Peerless
In 1899, Henry Kraver bottled the first Peerless Whiskey in Henderson County, Kentucky. 115 years and four generations later, Kraver’s descendants Corky and Carson Taylor decided to bring their family’s brand back. They opened Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co. in Louisville in 2014 under their ancestor’s original distilling permit number, DSP-KY-50. Peerless released their first rye in 2016, and we can expect the return of their historic bourbon label this spring. Those wanting to taste a more recent history of this whiskey can order the Peerless Series I – a progressive collection of their bourbon as it ages.
6. Kentucky Owl
Charles Dedman first built C.M. Dedman Distillery in 1879, and distilled and bottled “The Wise Man’s Bourbon” until the Feds came knocking in 1916. As the temperance movement swept the nation, an entire warehouse of Kentucky Owl barrels was seized and sent to Frankfort for “safekeeping.” It subsequently burned down under mysterious circumstances, with some saying the barrels inside were stolen prior to the warehouse fire by the famous bootlegger Al Capone. That was the last trace of Kentucky Owl – until the brand was brought back to its home state by Dedman’s great-great-grandson, Dixon Dedman and his business partners Mark and Sherri Carter in 2014. It has quickly become one of the most collectible labels on shelves, and we can expect more big things from them soon when Kentucky Owl Park is completed in Bardstown.