The 50 Best American Whiskeys and Bourbons for the Fourth of July
A detailed rundown of our favorite bourbons, ryes, wheaters and Tennessee whiskeys ideal for celebrating the USA
For the Fourth of July, we wanted to celebrate what makes America great. And we also wanted a drink. Ergo, we went with whiskey.
Whiskey is not an American invention, but the best domestic iterations certainly have their own fanciful backstories and flavor profiles (and we can claim bourbon and Tennessee whiskey as our own). Without spending too much time on a history lesson — though we suggest quickly familiarizing yourself with the Whiskey Rebellion, Nearest Green and the Bottled-in-Bond Act — we simply wanted to profile 50 American whiskeys we appreciate on this, our Independence Day weekend.
As with any list, there are omissions (1792, Rittenhouse, Old Overholt and Willet immediately spring to mind). We didn’t have room for everything we like (see: those four brands we just mentioned) and I’m positive we outright forgot a few. And one of the most popular whiskey brands we’re still not quite sure how to discuss. Then you’ve got our criteria for inclusion, which was admittedly pretty loose — many of these hail from a few select distilleries and the larger brands they supply, but others are tiny and regional. And even though we went with 50 for thematic reasons, we did not include a whiskey from each state (sorry, South Dakota).
Still, we consider this a good overview of where American whiskey (and America!) started, where it is today and where we’re headed … with a drink in hand.
Back in the 1950s, Frank Sinatra held up a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on stage and called it the “nectar of the Gods.” An exaggeration, yes, but the charcoal-mellowed Tennessee whiskey was the first registered distillery in the U.S. and has maintained its iconic status throughout the years.
Drink: The very limited Bottled-in-Bond release amps up everything you like about the classic Jack Daniel’s No. 7 label. You’ll still find the notes of vanilla, banana, toasted oak and caramel, but the higher ABV makes it ideal for cocktails (your overly-sweet Jack and Coke will finally strike the right balance).
The most important story in the history of American whiskey. The Black-owned Tennessee whiskey brand didn’t even exist five years ago; today, it’s the fastest-growing whiskey brand in U.S. history.
Drink: The new Masters Blend, only available in the just-opened (and ambitiously game-changing) distillery in Shelbyville.
Launched as Old Jake Beam Sour Mash in 1795, the world’s best-selling bourbon has been overseen by seven generations of the Beam family. The company claims it’s been using the same strain of yeast since the end of Prohibition in 1933, and beyond the flagship brand, you’ll find some other specialty and small-batch Beam lines throughout this piece (Knob Creek, Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s, Booker’s).
Drink: Jim Beam Black, which is a bargain — a little higher ABV and a few extra years of aging make this an ideal (and sub-$30) everyday sipper.
The Russell family has presided over a remarkable run for the bourbon brand for six decades; in that time, WT has become the best-selling American whiskey, and both of WT’s Master Distillers, Jimmy and Eddie Russell, have been enshrined in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.
Drink: 101 is a classic and ideal for Old Fashioneds, but summer has us longing for WT’s Longbranch, a collab with actor Matthew McConaughey that adds hints of smoke and citrus.
Booker’s only releases barrel-strength bourbon and puts as much emphasis on the location of the barrels in their warehouses as anything else. The hooch here is overseen by seventh-generation Master Distiller Fred Noe; he named it after his late dad Booker — a Master Distiller for 40 years and son of Jim Beam’s daughter, Margaret Noe — who actually coined the term “small batch” bourbon.
Drink: Booker’s Batch 2020-03 “Pigskin Batch,” a loosely football-themed release with baking spices and vanilla on the nose and a candied fruit on the palate. It coats the mouth nicely and the finish is long and warm.
Barrell started in 2012, and the company admittedly — and in a very transparent manner — sources and blends all their whiskey, rye and rum in lieu of distilling their own juice. But they pretty much keep winning all the awards, and justifiably: every Barrell release is limited edition, cask strength and “intentionally unique,” often with unusual finishes or spirits sourced from unlikely places.
Drink: Their Double Gold winner Rye 003 uses ryes from Poland, Canada and the U.S. to create a nicely balanced blend with notes of dried fruits, honey, coconut and ginger.
Owned by drinks giant Diageo, what we now know as George Dickel was first bottled in 1964, although Dickel himself started in the whisky business in 1870. The Tennessee whisky giant — yes, with no “e” — has significantly raised its game since General Manager and Distiller Nicole Austin has come on board. And they just launched a bourbon (review coming soon).
Drink: Their 2019 Bottled-in-Bond release won pretty much every major whiskey award — you’ll never find it at the original $40 price point, but the annual follow-ups have been just as good (and inexpensive).
Started in 2011, Wes Henderson founded the brand with his father and now has several sons working alongside him. The family-run, Louisville-based craft distiller produces small-batch finished whiskeys that are starting to get a lot of notice
Drink: Their Tawny Port-finished bourbon release is rich and tannic.
The Waco, TX-based distillery is inspired by Texan grains, Scotch and craft beer. They were also the first legally sold Texas-made whiskey since Prohibition, and they serve as a leader in the American Single Malt movement.
Drink: Their Brimstone release is a smoked corn whiskey with Texas scrub oak (which is like peat, but barbecue-y).
Just launched, Lost Lantern is a whiskey nerd’s dream. These are unique, extremely limited releases from your favorite craft distilleries, all under one label.
Drink: American Vatted Malt Edition #1, a collaboration with six different regional distilleries around the U.S. It features wonderful orange and chocolate notes with a bit of salinity.
Basically, the history of bourbon starts here. The oldest continuously operating distillery in America — they got a medicinal waiver during Prohibition — was home to iconic distillers such as E.H. Taylor Jr, George T. Stagg, Albert B. Blanton, Orville Schupp and Elmer T. Lee. Buffalo Trace, the namesake brand, launched in 1999. There are a lot of sublabels here from the distillery, including something called … Pappy Van Winkle (more on this later).
Drink: The namesake Buffalo Trace release seems to win a new award every five minutes.
Julian P. “Pappy” Van Winkle Sr. was the first of four generations of Van Winkle in the world of bourbon; today, Julian Van Winkle III serves as the caretaker for the mythologized brand. Their wheated bourbon (and a rye) is now under the umbrella of Buffalo Trace, but it’s still almost impossible to find.
Drink: Whatever your friend is buying. That said, the Family Reserve 15 Year is exquisite, a wonderful balance between the caramel, spice and oak.
Another Buffalo Trace release (historically, BT used to be called the George T. Stagg Distillery), this is part of that distillery’s “Antique Collection” — aged over 15 years, this uncut, unfiltered and barrel-proof annual release is right up there with Pappy as far as limited supply and inflated secondary market prices.
Drink: You’ll probably never find it affordably, but the 2007 release — a multiple Whiskey of the Year winner — comes in at a whopping 144.8 proof.
You can thank Blanton’s for the idea of single-barrel releases — expected today but a novelty in the early ’80s. Elevated bourbon here, and you’ll want a bottle just for the horse-and-jockey bottle stopper.
Drink: As long as you’re going with single barrels, you might as well get the most out of them with the cask-strength Blanton’s Straight From the Barrel, where the proof will usually top out above 130.
You’ll recognize the green, white and black labels of this inexpensive but underrated Heaven Hill brand, named after the man behind (as legend suggests) Kentucky’s first commercial distillery in 1783.
Drink: White Label is a bottled-in-bond release that makes for a perfectly decent Old Fashioned. And it might be the only bottle we recommend under $20.
Four in the title, but the magic number here is 10. This Lawrenceburg, KY-based distillery utilizes two mash bills and five proprietary yeast strains to create 10 total bourbon recipes, each one providing a unique flavor experience. The flagship release utilizes all 10 factors, while the limited releases offer a more curated approach and older barrels.
Drink: Four Roses makes some very elevated expressions, but their core product is extremely inexpensive and a crowd pleaser; if it’s your local’s well bourbon (it happens occasionally in Brooklyn, where I live), cherish that bar forever.
This Portland standout utlilizes local barley, an ale yeast and the distilling team’s craft beer background to produce an excellent American Single Malt — it’s also the centerpiece of my favorite Old Fashioned.
A Seattle-based distillery (now just over a decade old) that’s been crafting interesting single malts utilizing roasted malts, a Belgian Saison brewers’ yeast strain and virgin American oak casks. They also are heavily into experimentation and showcasing the land and local ingredients found in the Pacific Northwest.
Drink: Westland’s Outpost releases play around with an indigenous wood, an atypical barley and a local peat.
A small-batch bourbon brand that crafts great whiskey but truly shines in the R&D department; these are bourbons aged during round-the-world voyages, or in unusual barrels with oddly inventive ingredients, and even as collaborations with great chefs and iconic magazine editors. How the barrels maturate the whiskey is the key here.
Drink: Jefferson’s Ocean is a bourbon that sails around the globe and arrives with the taste of “salted caramel popcorn.”
Technically, this iconic distiller with the dipped red wax on the bottle — and some soft red winter wheat in its mash bill — has just one whiskey, but they “tweak it with oak and proof and different flavor levers,” as Maker’s Mark Director of Innovation Jane Bowie told us last year. Ergo, Maker’s has more recently become a beacon for innovation and limited releases.
Drink: The 2020 Limited Release utilizes a multi-stave approach to get the whiskey close to a (spicy) butter pecan profile.
When James Bond drinks whiskey, Ian Fleming had 007 polish off several Old Fashioneds made with this high-rye bourbon. The brand (now owned by Beam Suntory) dates from the early 19th century, and you’ll see it pop up in a lot of mid-20th century pop culture, from Bukowski to M*A*S*H.
Drink: The Bottled-in-Bond (50% ABV) expression is a great mixing cocktail — and you should be able to find a 750ml bottle under $30.
Now produced out of the Buffalo Trace Distillery, Weller was and remains a pioneer in wheated bourbons (high-proof, too). The personal connections between Weller and Pappy Van Winkle date back to the 19th century, and many whiskey pros think Weller 12 is pretty similar to Pappy’s 10, 12 and 15 year releases — naturally, secondary-market pricing for that has skyrocketed.
Drink: You can’t go wrong with 12 or Special Reserve, but if you want something with a fun backstory, W.L. Weller C.Y.P.B. was a crowd-sourced attempt to craft the perfect bourbon. Whiskey fans went with a wheated recipe aged on the highest warehouse floors for eight years and bottled at 95 proof
Great whiskey straight outta the cobblestone streets of Red Hook, Brooklyn. The whiskey here is proofed with limestone- and mineral-rich water from the Rosendale Mines of NY.
Drink: The Vaults, aged 15 to 17 years and finished in rare casks raised from five-year air-seasoned Appalachian oak.
Preceded by a convoluted history that (tenuously) dates back to 1753 and includes early distilling roots in Pennsylvania, Michter’s is now Kentucky-made and has a relatively new micro-distillery on Louisville’s Whiskey Row.
Drink: Michter’s Sour Mash surprisingly won The Whisky Exchange “Whisky of the Year” award in 2019; interestingly, the first American winner is not a rye or bourbon and doesn’t carry an age statement.
The first whiskey distillery in New York since Prohibition, Hudson recently went nationwide and completely reinvented their portfolio — design-wise, the bottles are now done up in Helvetica, paying homage to the NYC subway system.
Drink: Short Stack was previously known as Maple Cask Rye, which, no surprise, is a NY straight rye whiskey finished in maple syrup casks.
Woodford is drinks giant Brown-Forman’s founding brand, founded in 1870 by George Garvin Brown. An incredibly balanced bourbon (72% corn, 18% rye, 10% malted barley), this is also the brand and bottle you’ll most associate with the Kentucky Derby — and as part of their sponsorship, they craft a $1,000 Mint Julep every year for various nonprofit organizations.
Drink: You’ll probably only find it in Kentucky or at the distillery on the day of its release, but the Woodford Reserve Double Double Oaked takes the twice-barreled Double Oak and matures it again in a second, heavily toasted, lightly charred new-oak barrel to bring out some spiciness.
Established in 2011, Laws Whiskey House utilizes open-air, on-grain fermentation and high-altitude grains all sourced from Colorado — with many of the grains hailing from small family farms that are pretty much exclusive to Laws.
Drink: Their award-winning bonded rye is great, but the real winner from Laws is their wheated release. It’s an easy sipper built for hot weather.
The Denver distillery utilizes the area’s dry climate, high altitude and some craft beer know-how to craft excellent American Single Malts, which straddle the very wide line between bourbons and single malt Scotches.
Drink: Stranahan’s Mountain Angel 10 Year Old features a creamy mouthfeel, some oak on the finish and a very prevalent note of tobacco. It’s your “whiskey and cigar in the study,” end-of-night treat, without the need for a cigar.
A whiskey blend shaped by Metallica’s music. Literally. A blended whiskey co-created by the late Dave Pickerell (an award-winning Master Distiller most recently known for his work at WhistlePig) and the band Metallica, the whiskey here is overseen by former Stranahan’s Master Distiller Rob Dietrich and utilizes a sonic enhancement process they call Black Noise.
Drink: Finished in black brandy casks, the core release of Blackened features enough wood spices and fruit notes that it can really elevate your whiskey-based cocktails. Especially if you go for the Cask Strength edition.
If “celebrity-owned” and “flavored whiskey” give you pause, consider this: BSB is Black-owned (it was recently purchased by Jamie Foxx) and a World Whiskies Award winner. Yeah, it’s sweet, but it’ll also serve as a gateway whiskey or excellent mixer. Or, you know, shots.
Drink: BSB 103 might be the first overproof flavored whiskey, and that higher ABV will cut down the sweetness (and help your cocktails).
The Fort Collins, Colorado-based Old Elk is under the guidance of Greg Metze, a 40-plus-year vet of the whiskey world. The distillery utilizes a slower (and proprietary) Slow Cut method to craft its high-malt bourbon.
Drink: That said, it’s the recent wheated releases by Old Elk that’ll really turn your head; the Wheated Bourbon features the notes of vanilla, caramel and oak you’d expect here in a bourbon, but also hints of toffee, leather and amaretto.
An Illinois-based distillery that helped overturn still-existing Prohibition laws in 2011 so they could craft grain spirits within Evanston’s city limits. You’ll recognize the FEW bottles by their rectangular shape and colorful labels. Plus, they source their grains regionally.
Drink: FEW does a few unusual maturations and enhancements to their ryes, from extra time finished in an ex-tequila barrel to FEW Immortal Rye, which is proofed to bottling strength with cold-extracted “8 Immortals” tea and adds notes of peach and dragon fruit.
Yes, you can get a great whiskey in the not-so-teetotaling state of Utah. Besides blending great whiskey (some their own stocks, some sourced), High West also operates a ski-in gastro-distillery and a luxury lodge.
Drink: We’re big fans of the limited-release Bourye, a blend of bourbon and rye whiskey that seems to elevate the best of both worlds.
Based along the Patapsco River in Baltimore, this state-of-the-art waterfront distillery offers beautiful harbor views and Maryland-style rye whiskey, which is a bit less spicy on the palate. Here, some unique finishes (port, Cognac, etc.) elevate the final product. The ryes hail from two distinct and proprietary mash bills (a high rye and a low rye/high corn) and are proofed with Sagamore Farm spring water.
Drink: The Calvados Finish is a blend of straight ryes finished in Calvados barrels (aka French apple brandy casks) for more than 11 months. That’s then aged for another nine months in low-rye American oak barrels. Apple, anise, cinnamon and nuttiness are prevalent here.
Sour mash only, all copper stills, no chill filtration, bottled in bond: it all comes together with these Kentucky-based bourbons and ryes … and other interesting, well, new riffs on a classic spirit (see below).
Drink: We love their flagship high-rye bourbon, but the recently launched Backsetter offers something unique: the bourbon and rye releases utilize backset collected from a distillation of peat-smoked malted barley, imparting a smoky note.
Old Forester has been around for 150+ years and is revered as the first bourbon to be sealed in a glass bottle. These are high-rye bourbons, which adds a bit of spice. Otherwise, as the brand’s Master Taster Jackie Zykan told last year about their famed Birthday Bourbon release, Old Forester represents the “true essence of what Kentucky bourbon is supposed to taste like: sweet on the front, spicy on the back, a little bit dry, oak forward, but balanced and palatable.”
Drink: If you can find it, the annual Birthday Bourbon releases all hail from one day’s production in a particular year — and they’re so revered people used to camp out for them (when they could).
This adventurous, award-winning Vermont distiller offers farm-to-bottle ryes and blended whiskeys, formerly under the tutelage of whiskey legend Dave Pickerell.
Drink: Homestock is a crowd-sourced blend of rye, wheat and barley whiskeys — there’s spice here from the rye, but an overall gentleness.
The most awarded craft distillery in the country, the family-owned, PA-based Wigle is named after Philip Wigle, one of the original Whiskey Rebellion protestors (he punched a tax collector and inspired a wave of anti-tax protests).The distillery churns out dozens of excellent grain-to-bottle ryes and American whiskeys.
Drink: Lots of experimentation here, but if you can find it, try the Oaxacan Rye (a two-year rye aged an extra year in used mezcal barrels).
Love Scotch? This Virginia distillery might be your best stateside alternative. They’ve basically transported the methods (and pot stills) used to create a great single malt Scotch into the Blue Ridge mountains.
Drink: Courage & Conviction American Single Malt, where the 100% malted barley release is aged for a minimum of three years in bourbon (50%), cuvee (25%) and Sherry (25%) casks.
A bit more rye in the mash bill but overall a comfortable 80 proof, Basil Hayden’s is the most approachable (won’t say smooth!) small-batch whiskey in Beam Suntory’s portfolio.
Drink: For their Dark Rye, the touch of port (along with a blend of Kentucky and Canadian rye) lends some dried fruit notes to the sweet/spicy mix.
Another Jim Beam distillery small-batch release, Knob Creek ages their pre-Prohibition style bourbon nine years (and longer) and at a higher proof (with one exception, it’s 100 or higher). You probably have one of their distinctive rectangular bottles on your home bar cart.
Drink: Only recently a full-time addition to their lineup, Knob Creek 12 Year Old delivers more on the oak and leather notes.
This New Hampshire distillery is all about hyper-local ingredients (they source all their grains from within a 150-mile radius) and radical experimentation. So, yes, while they have a bottled-in-bond bourbon, they also have a venison-flavored whiskey.
Drink: Tamworth produces a beaver sac spirit called Eau de Musc — a two-year bourbon with a bit of (FDA-approved) castoerum for “natural flavoring.” Try it once. It makes for a story.
A mesquite-smoked Southwest single malt, this Tucson-based newcomer only matures their juice for a year or two. The result is a perfect American answer to peated Scotch.
Drink: Their Dorado release is basically like a barbecue in your mouth.
In 1789 Baptish preacher Elijah Craig started the process of aging whiskey in new charred oak barrels — or at least that’s the legend. Now under the Heaven Hill umbrella, the whiskey bearing the reverend’s name is modest in price but big on flavor.
A co-creation of music legend Bob Dylan and Spirits Investment Partnership (“SIP”), Heaven’s Door has already won numerous accolades for its American whiskey releases, including a Double Gold at this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition. And Dylan plays an interesting role in the whiskey-making process (both in the design and the taste).
Drink: The just-launched Master Blenders’ Edition is a 10-year low-rye bourbon from Heaven’s Door finished in Redbreast 12-Year Old Irish Whiskey casks, which impart dried fruit, marzipan and walnut notes to the bourbon.
Col. Taylor was the distiller who led the movement for the Bottled In Bond Act — an 1897 consumer protection law that provided a government-backed guarantee to consumers that their whiskey was produced to a certain standard (not adulterated, made at one distillery in one distilling season, aged for a minimum of four years in a government bonded warehouse under government supervision, and bottled at 100 proof). The Col. Taylor brand is under the care of the Buffalo Trace distillery.
Drink: While difficult to find, the most recent Colonel E.H. Taylor Single Barrel was aged in a warehouse built by Taylor in 1881 and put in a barrel in early 2012. This limited release is sweet (almost like marzipan); expect raisin and honey with hints of tobacco and rye on the finish.
Under the auspices of Heaven Hill, this inexpensive bottled-in-bond bourbon surprisingly won the 2019 San Francisco World Spirits Competion for Best in Show, only the second bourbon to ever take home the honor.
Drink: Their Single Barrel Bourbon is one of the longest-aged Bottled-in-Bond spirits available today, a sweet and spicy sipper with notes of honey, vanilla and spice.
One of the better-known wheated whiskeys, this Heaven Hill brand and worthy Pappy alternative won Whisky Advocate’s best whiskey of 2020.
Drink: Their flagship Small Batch release is a touch too smooth for us. But that award-winning Barrel Proof release (that’s 122+ proof) adds a nice kick to the sweetness.
Non-chill filtered, sweet mash, barrel proof — there’s a lot to like about this relatively “new” brand that actually started in the 1880s (the family business effectively shuttered around 1917 but was revived in 2015). Whatever the age, the Louisville distiller already offers what we called a tantalizing collection of single-barrel, cask-strength bourbon and rye whiskeys.
Drink: The notched, heavy glass bottle design of their flagship bourbon stands out, as does the soft and sweet flavor profile.
My one cheat pick, as I really wanted to focus (at least for this list) on distillers who place whiskey front and center. But I’ve been struck by the overall quality of the spirits crafted by some domestic breweries, including the bourbon and rye releases from Michigan’s New Holland Brewing Co.
Drink: Their Beer Barrel Bourbon was one of the most interesting whiskeys I tried last year — it’s aged in new American oak barrels before finishing in the brewery’s Dragon’s Milk barrels (DM is a bourbon-barrel aged stout). The vanilla and malt notes are prevalent here.
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