America’s very own bourbon has been around since the late 18th century, when colonial settlers got thirsty and adapted their whiskey-making skills to accommodate local crops like corn. After some no doubt interesting experimentation, a corn-based spirit aged in new, charred oak barrels was born, and the world has been enjoying it ever since. And, just to be extra clear, while all bourbons are whiskeys, not all whiskeys are bourbons. This liquor is a uniquely American classic in its own right.
The interest in bourbon may never have been higher than in recent years, and as such, the style has been known to feature heavily on the lists of most popular whiskey brands in America (via VinePair). But are the major bourbon players that rule the sales lists actually any good — or are they just big, and the real bourbon delicacies hide somewhere in the small batch game? Today, we’ll take a look at the most popular bourbon brands out there, and rank them from worst to best.
Oh, and don’t worry, purists. Jack Daniel’s won’t make an appearance here, despite its tendency to pop up on some bourbon bestseller lists (via Forbes). After all, it is a Tennessee whiskey instead of bourbon (per Jack Daniel’s).
9. Jim Beam
Every ladder has a bottom rung, and this time, that rather questionable honor falls to none other than Jim Beam. It’s the bestselling bourbon in the entire world (via VinePair), so chances are that when the average consumer thinks about this particular whiskey type, Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is the taste at the tip of their tongue. But should it be there in the first place?
To start, Jim Beam is not bad. You’re unlikely to have a sip of it and throw the bottle away in deep, seething disgust. What earns this particular brand the place at the bottom of the ranking is that, as Whiskey Reviewer notes, there simply isn’t a lot to it on any front. The standard, white-label Jim Beam is a young, cheap bourbon for people on the lookout for young, cheap bourbon, and there’s nothing wrong with that, per se.
However, at the end of the day, the nose, palate, and finish of Jim Beam all lack depth. It’s a sweet, shallow thing that’s excellent if you want a "training wheels bourbon" that doesn’t pretend to be anything else. If a person who doesn’t like whiskey finds themselves in a stereotypical Old West saloon where the only options on the menu are bourbon and bullets, this is the brand that’s among the easiest to drink — but a serious bourbon lover might want to head for different pastures.
8. Basil Hayden’s
Package design can be an incredibly important factor for all sorts of goods, not to mention liquors that are competing with each other on some pretty packed store shelves. And while Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey definitely looks good standing next to the competition, that belt-and-poncho system so unique to its bottles is specifically designed to make the bottle resemble a pre-wrapped gift (per Preacher).
That wouldn’t be a bad thing if the contents of the package were enough to justify all the frills, but unfortunately, Basil Hayden’s can’t quite live up to its neat belt buckle look.
Another member of the Jim Beam family, Basil Hayden’s has a fairly similar, light and butterscotch-y flavor profile, but adds a little punch of pepper at the end (per 31 Whiskey). Even then, at the end of the day, it still has that Jim Beam thing going on, meaning that it’s firmly on the easy-drinking side of the bourbon experience. As with Jim Beam, there’s no shame in that — but it also means that whenever heavyweight bourbons duke it out, Basil Hayden’s is just a touch too gentle and soft to make it to the final rounds.
7. Four Roses
Some may feel it’s sacrilegious to place a decent utility bourbon like Four Roses this low on the list, but the mid-tier is pretty packed, and ultimately, the Roses’ fruity tang can’t quite rise above the competition. There’s a good reason it’s among the bestsellers, though. Per Spruce Eats, the brand’s distinctive floral and fruity aromas make it interesting enough on its own, especially when it comes to the more expensive limited editions — though, to be fair, pretty much every brand on this list has a set of excellent limited editions and high-end products. So, for the purposes of simplicity, let’s stick with the flagship products whenever possible.
That leaves you with the standard 80 proof, which is drinkable enough on its own, but perhaps at its best as an affordable cocktail base. Arguably, the most interesting thing about Four Roses is its curious making process, in which the products are mixed from 10 separate bourbons that the company manufactures from two different mash bills and five yeasts (via Four Roses Bourbon).
As such, a bourbon enthusiast might very well want to keep a bottle around as a combination of a neat conversation piece and a capable everyday spirit. Still, unless you’re already a huge fan of Four Roses’ particular brand of well-balanced, low-proof fare, there are tastier things on this list.
6. Maker’s Mark
The third outing of the Jim Beam family on this list marks a significant turn for the better. Out of all popular bourbons, Maker’s Mark might just be the one with the greatest rock ‘n’ roll chops, courtesy of its association with Motörhead singer-bassist and overall rock legend Lemmy Kilmister (per Rolling Stone). In fact, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello once called Kilmister "Part man, part wolf, part Maker’s Mark."
Either because of this or because of its ready availability, the brand has been the "starter" bourbon for many, and as Breaking Bourbon notes, some have been soured by this reputation and dismiss it as an easy choice. But is easy all that bad, after all?
That’s not to say Maker’s Mark isn’t a very decent sweet bourbon, though. Its comparatively mellow palate can’t quite cash in the checks its strong nose writes, but the finish is nicer than the mouthfeel would make you assume, making Maker’s Mark a not-too-steep, but still perfectly enjoyable rollercoaster. Just don’t expect fireworks.
5. Wild Turkey
Yes, Wild Turkey makes it this high in the rankings. As VinePair notes, your favorite cheap non-Jim Beam-family bourbon shot from back in the day might not quite make it to the highest echelons, but when you look behind its relatively inexpensive price, it’s one of the most versatile and secretly delightful popular bourbons out there … with one important caveat.
Wild Turkey’s 81-proof base product is a decent, if not earth-shattering bourbon that would fare far worse on this list on its own, and that has a tendency to get two-star reviews (per 31 Whiskey and Distiller). This is the Wild Turkey you may remember from more hedonistic days. However, the situation changes pretty dramatically when you bring up Wild Turkey 101, which nigh-inevitably worms itself in the conversation whenever the brand is discussed — as well it should. This particular bourbon improves Wild Turkey’s overall standings greatly.
The powerful 101-proof stuff is notorious for being surprisingly finished and complicated, all while being surprisingly affordable, and the combination of an excellent flavor profile and a decent price tag makes it one of the best utility whiskeys out there. Ultimately, it’s a good choice for mixed drinks and sipping alike. Though Wild Turkey 81 may leave something to be desired, the existence of the highly acclaimed and award-winning 101 (via Master of Malt) is more than enough to drag Wild Turkey into the realm of better popular bourbon brands out there. Yes, really.
4. Knob Creek
Once again, the Jim Beam family makes an appearance on this list, though, by its very design, Knob Creek is quite a different beast from Jim Beam and Basil Hayden’s. As The Whiskey Wash notes, this small batch endeavor got its start in the early 1990s, and immediately proved its mettle as a highly sought-after hit product amongst all sorts of bourbon drinkers. In fact, it’s so good that even a reviewer that dislikes bourbon, in general, may find a soft spot for Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey’s rich, spicy, oaky autumnal vibe. If you’re a bourbon skeptic, then this may well be the right path for you to finally enter the world of whiskey.
Knob Creek is a very decent mid-tier bourbon, and reviewers have compared it favorably to fellow Beam Suntory brand product, Maker’s Mark, with Knob Creek considered the more nuanced of the two (via Whiskey Watch). Its relatively affordable price and enjoyable, old-school character make it a worthy addition to any bourbon fan’s collection, even though it’s not necessarily the bottle you’ll find yourself saving for special occasions. Still, there’s nothing wrong with a workaday bourbon of this caliber.
If you favor mellowness over boldness, you might want to mentally drop Bulleit a few places. Even so, few other mainstream bourbons pop like this one.
Bulleit Straight Bourbon Frontier Whiskey has developed a reputation as one of the best whiskeys to put in an old fashioned, but it can hold just as well on its own. Per Breaking Bourbon, Bulleit’s main draw is that it’s an excellent cocktail base, and thanks to its particularly high-rye mash bill, it combines hues of rye whiskey’s peppery punch with the traditional notes of bourbon. Unsurprisingly, Bulleit also has a pretty decent variety of rye in its array.
With its strong presence of rye and an ample, oaky spiciness, Bulleit is a fairly punchy bourbon compared to many of its more unabashedly sweet compatriots. While its sting makes it a solid and easily distinguishable presence as a mixing ingredient, it also makes Bulleit a very interesting mid-tier sipping bourbon — and while it might not be for everyone, the people who do swear by it might very well rank it even higher.
2. Evan Williams
In the world of hard liquor, coming up with a catchy name can sometimes be half the battle. On the other hand, when a bourbon happily enters the fray with a name like your mother-in-law’s favorite accountant, you know that the brand means business.
Evan Williams may not be the coolest or quirkiest bourbon on this list. It’s not even particularly high-end. On the contrary, it’s very much a value brand … but an absurdly underrated one. "Evan Williams Black Label is everything that bourbon is supposed to be," authors John McCarthy and Carey Jones attest (via Forbes). "It’s 86 proof, it’s got a little spice to it, while still having that rounded bourbon feel. And here’s the secret: bourbon’s not supposed to be expensive, dude. Great neat, on the rocks, or as a shot, and a workhouse in cocktails." We couldn’t agree more.
As Whiskey Watch notes, Evan Williams is indeed a surprisingly complex bourbon that consists of a number of nuances that just so happen to work — like pieces of a puzzle that all seem a different color, yet fit in perfectly. Its smoothness makes Jim Beam, the biggest affordable, smooth bourbon name out there, a natural point of comparison. Evan Williams is the more delicious of the two, and per Malt Review, its quality-price ratio makes it a perfect choice for an everyday liquor that might not be everything that a bourbon can be, but very much is what a bourbon needs to be.
1. Woodford Reserve
So, we’ve finally come to Woodford Reserve. The name alone invokes images of both high-brow sipping bourbon, and yet also something you’d order a shot or three of after a long day of logging. Aesthetically speaking, the brand covers its bases before you even crack open the bottle. Much like Bulleit, Labrot & Graham’s bourbon brand is pretty rye-heavy (per The Spruce Eats), but despite the spice this brings to its flavor profile, the spirit is still considerably mellow and beloved by quite a few bourbon aficionados. And that’s for good reason.
Woodford Reserve is noteworthy for its intensely fruity nose with a strong undercurrent of mint, vanilla, and several other aromatic notes (per The Whisky Exchange). The palate delivers what the nose promises, with a pleasantly soft, medium-length finish of spice and sweetness.
Now, if you happen to prefer your liquor with a more immediate kick, this bourbon might not be your jam. However, when it comes to taking traditional bourbon flavors and embracing them to the maximum, Woodford Reserve is a very hard drink to beat. In fact, when it comes to popular bourbon brands, it reigns supreme.