WHAT’S THE BEST BOURBON WHISKEY?
WHAT’S THE BEST BOURBON WHISKEY?
Asking us this question is a little like asking a parent which child they like best. Even if there was a definitive answer--which there’s not--we’d never tell.
But, of course, we also know that it’s a pressing question. And we even feel a little bit qualified to answer, given that our Barrell Bourbon Batch 021 won Best Bourbon of the Year at the 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and our Barrell Craft Spirits 15-Year-Old Bourbon picked up the nod from bourbon expert Fred Minnick for Best American Whiskey in 2018.
So what is it that makes a bourbon whiskey truly great? Can there ever be one “best?” To provide even a partial answer, we’ve got to start at the beginning.
WHAT IS BOURBON WHISKEY?
France has Champagne. England has Stilton. Italy has Barolo. And the United States has bourbon.
Just like its famous European counterparts, bourbon is a controlled origin product. It must be distilled and aged in the United States. Even if you follow all the other rules, you can’t make bourbon in Canada, Scotland, Brazil, Japan, France, Morocco, Antarctica, or anywhere else in the world.
One of the most common misconceptions about bourbon is that it must be distilled in Kentucky. In reality, bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, and today there’s great bourbon coming from every corner of the country. However, many of the most famous bourbon brands--think Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve, Knob Creek, Evan Williams, Heaven Hill, and Elijah Craig--are made in Kentucky, which is the historic epicenter of bourbon production.
Beyond being distilled in the U.S., a whiskey must adhere to a host of different rules to legally carry the word “bourbon” on the label.
First, it has to be made from a mash of at least 51 percent corn. The rest can be made up of any grain, but in practice, it’s usually a combination of malted barley, and then either wheat or rye.
Bourbons that use rye, which gives the whiskey a spicy flavor, are more common. But it’s not too hard to find examples of those that use wheat, which often produces whiskeys that are softer and sweeter. (You might hear these referred to as wheated bourbon or “wheaters.”)
And, of course, there are rules covering maturation. Bourbon must be aged in brand new charred oak barrels. There’s no minimum age for bourbon, but various sub-categories of bourbon have their own minimums, like straight bourbon (at least two years) and bottled-in-bond (at least four). The age on the label refers to the youngest whiskey in the bottle--and generally, as that age statement goes up, price points climb, too.
When it’s finally time to send it off to market, bourbon, just like gin, vodka, rum, and other American whiskeys, must be bottled at at least 80 proof. But that’s a minimum. Many are bottled stronger. Bottled in bond bourbons have to be at least 100 proof, and cask strength bourbons, which are bottled at barrel proof without any water added, can be even stronger.
WHAT DOES BOURBON TASTE LIKE?
Some of the most common flavor descriptors used for bourbon are brown sugar, vanilla, and caramel. Those are all characteristics that come from the oak barrel itself, which plays a critical role in developing the color, flavor, and aroma of finished bourbon.
Many bourbons also have a fruity component, with notes like red cherry, green apple, or stonefruit. Those flavors often come from a class of chemical compounds called esters, which develop during maturation. Finally, bourbon--especially high-rye bourbons--often have a spicy component, with flavors like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and black pepper.
One thing you won’t find in true bourbons is the flavor of finishing casks. The regulations are pretty clear that bourbon can only be aged in new, charred oak casks. Once you put a bourbon in cask that once held something else, whether that’s sherry, port, wine, or another spirit like rum, you’ve made something that, while possibly delicious, isn’t bourbon anymore.
That’s not to say we don’t enjoy experimenting with flavors by putting aged bourbon in finishing casks that once held something else. Case in point, our recent Armida release, which is a blend of bourbon whiskeys finished in rum, Sicilian amaro, and pear brandy casks. It’s just that, once we bottle it, we don’t call it bourbon anymore.
The upshot is that bourbon, perhaps more than any other American whiskey, has a true purity of flavor that comes only from the raw ingredients--grain, water, yeast, oak, and, of course, time. The longer a bourbon ages, the more intensely flavorful it becomes.
Those intense flavors can be good, or they can be less good. We’ve had super-aged bourbons 25 years or older that taste incredible, and we’ve tasted venerable bourbons that taste like dry, dusty wood tincture. Age can give you a clue, but it’s not the deciding factor it’s often made out to be.
WHICH ONE’S THE BEST?
Ah, back to the B-word.
Well, the number of Barrell Bourbons that have picked up awards for things like Best Bourbon, Best Whiskey, or Bourbon of the Year is a point of pride for us. We have enough gold medals to make the U.S. Olympic Swim Team jealous.
We won’t lie. Awards are great. They attract attention, which helps us get in front of consumers who might not bother with a small brand like ours. (Compared to other legends like Buffalo Trace, which got started in the 1700s, we’re barely out of the starting gate.)
But they’re not the point--or at least, not the only point. The point, for us, is to make great bourbon--the very best bourbon that we can--and then get that bourbon into the hands of as many people as possible, so that those people can enjoy it.
Because here’s the thing about trying to say which bourbon is “best.” It depends. Everybody’s palate and preferences are different. Some of us love the chest-warming spice of cask strength high-rye bourbon. Others prefer the mellow sweetness of a well-aged wheated bourbon. And still others push the bourbon to the back of the shelf and reach for malt whiskey instead.
Ultimately, whiskey doesn’t do anybody any good if it sits unopened in a collection, gathering dust. It only does what it’s supposed to do when somebody picks up that bottle, uncorks it, and begins to experience what we worked so hard to make.
Returning to that parent analogy, it’s the bittersweet feeling of dropping your little one off at college for the first time. Sure, you’ll miss them when they’re gone. But more than the missing, you’ll feel satisfied that they’re out fulfilling their destiny. Except instead of hoping for pre-med, we’re hoping for Manhattans.
In other words: Call it a cop-out, but we’re still believers that the best bourbon whiskey is the one that’s currently in your glass. And hopefully, it’s a Barrell bourbon.
Need to replenish your stash? Go here to shop all of Barrell’s bourbons, as well as our other products.