I often get asked some form of this question: “I’m new to bourbon, but I’d like to get into it. What should I start out with?” Whether it’s moving a beginner into their first bourbon or getting the intermediate to try new and different whiskeys, I'm always stoked to teach others about bourbon.
I’m not of the opinion that people need to spend a lot of money on whiskey, that they need to be pretentious about drinking whiskey, that whiskey needs to burn so much that it puts hair on your chest, or that whiskey is only a man’s drink. I believe whiskey is for everyone and people should drink what they want, when they want.
For someone new to the spirit, I find it helpful to pair them with a smooth, easy-to-drink bourbon that has a lot of flavor but not a lot of burn.
These are my five must-haves for the beginner getting into bourbon:
Eagle Rare 10-year is a Buffalo Trace product. They also make an Eagle Rare 17-year which happens to be my favorite bourbon. This is a single barrel product so each barrel is going to taste a little different. Unfortunately, they don’t label their bottles with what barrel it came from, so you can’t keep track of what you like best.
A very sweet nose with flavors of vanilla and cherries. The palate is smooth with toffee and mint up front, followed by leather, dried fruits, and lots of cherries. Good notes of oak throughout.
- My Rating: 89*
- Proof: 90
- Age: 10 year
- Price: $30
Jefferson’s does not distill any of their own bourbon. They buy it from another company and blend it to create their own flavors, a process known as “sourced bourbon.” But they do a damn good job of blending (and further aging in some instances). This small batch bourbon is the cheapest out of their collection and the one that is most readily available.
Smooth and light with strong notes of corn. Tastes young, but not in the same way as many new distillery bourbons. And it still has hints of oak. Also honey with dry and spicy notes, remind me of being on a farm.
- My Rating: 83
- Proof: 82.3
- Age: no age statement
- Price: $30
Basil Hayden’s is part of the Jim Beam Small Batch collection which also includes Knob Creek, Booker’s, and Bakers. It’s by far the smoothest and most approachable bourbon out of the collection. It also has a much higher rye content which is noticeable on both the nose and the palate. My wife (who doesn’t typically drink bourbon neat) tried this one while I was writing this post and liked it so much she proclaimed, “hello and welcome to my mouth.”
Nose of mint and honey, a little methanol, this one definitely has high rye. Very smooth with a palate of honey, vanilla, and spice followed by leather and mint.
- My Rating: 84
- Proof: 80
- Age: 8 years
- Price: $40
An employee of Jim Beam recently told me that Jim Beam Black was the best kept secret in bourbon. Considering it’s price of $17 and it’s great taste, I definitely agree.
Nose of caramel and a hint of vanilla. This one isn’t quite as smooth as the others but has more complexity. Palate is sweet with lots of oak, vanilla, and fruit. Caramel and oak continue for a long finish.
- My Rating: 87
- Proof: 86
- Age: 8 years
- Price: $17
Maker’s is one of the classic brands of bourbon. Before I knew much about whiskey, I associated Maker’s with some of the cheaper stuff like Evan Williams Black and Jim Beam White Label but it’s really much higher quality than those two. This is also a great bourbon for cocktails.
Mild nose of fudge and vanilla. Palate of citrus fruits and candy corn. Strong on the vanilla and sweetness. I’ve met many people who say this is too sweet of a bourbon. I don’t agree.
- My Rating: 85
- Proof: 90
- Age: ~6 years
- Price: $24
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There you have it. If you are new to bourbon or helping someone else get into bourbon, give one of these a try. Even if you’re not new to bourbon, I think you’ll like many of these. And if you’ve got one in this category that I didn’t mention, let me know in the comments below, email, or hit us up on social media.
I prefer to follow the rating system of Whiskey Advocate Magazine:
95-100: A classic! All components are balanced appropriately, with the complexity and character expected in a classic.
90-94: Outstanding! One of the best for its style. Distinctive.
80-89: Good to very good. Plenty of character and no identifiable flaws. Worth seeking out.
70-79: Average. No unique qualities. Flaws possible.
60-69: Below average. Major flaws. Avoid.