These Are the Only 5 Bourbon Bottles You Need

Inspired by a popular Reddit thread, we recommend bottles for almost any occasion...while bringing sanity to your home bar.

May 23, 2022 5:52 am
five whiskies from a "you only need 5 bourbons" list
Keep your bar cart tight with these five picks
Photo illustration

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A few weeks back we tackled the best everyday bourbons and utilized a popular approach on Reddit — the “you only need five bottles of bourbon at a time” argument, albeit limiting our selections to inexpensive, readily-available expressions.

For this roundup, we stuck with bourbon and fully embraced the five bottles format, including yet another choice for a daily drinker but also suggesting bourbons that’ll impress your guests, mix cheaply (and no one will know it), work as a well-earned Friday night sipper or something to be shared for a special occasion. 

Why five? Besides easy formatting, limiting your home bar will keep you organized, help you avoid the whiskey Paradox of Choice and tame your wallet — it should even allow you to spend a little more when one bottle is finished.

(One concern with these lists is that they tend to center on well-known brands, even if the releases themselves are limited edition. We’ll have more shoppable lists in the future that highlight newer and/or craft brands, though that will come with the caveat that those bottles will be harder to find in certain states. You can always check out our monthly new whisk(e)y roundup if you’re hankering for something really different.)

Old Forester 100 Proof
Old Forester 100 Proof
Old Forester

Daily drinker: Old Forester 100 Proof

I’ve been drinking a lot of Old Forester “Signature” 100 Proof recently, and it seems to hit all the sweet spots: Thanks to that elevated ABV and high-rye mashbill, it’s ideal for cocktails or sipping on the rocks. Plus, even in New York, I can find a bottle relatively easily for under $40. And there’s a real history behind the brand — Old Forester has been around for 150-plus years and is considered the first bourbon to be sealed in a glass bottle. People are welcome to line up for the annual Birthday Bourbon (a good choice for a “special occasion” bottle); I’ll happily be sipping the Signature 100 from home. (Also, the original Reddit poster of “you only need five bottles” apparently has a similar taste as mine, as they also picked Old Forester 100).

Maker's Mark Wood Finishing Series FAE-02
Maker’s Mark
Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series FAE-02

Impress Your Guests: Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series 

Maker’s Mark on its own is a solid choice and certainly a contender for a daily drinker. But this is where you can elevate the drink for you and your guests. These limited-edition releases utilize a multi-stave approach to unlock or emphasize different flavors and even mouthfeel; for example, the 2021 Limited Release FAE-02 concentrated on texture. That cask-strength release was full-bodied and mouthcoating, but it also hits similar sweet caramel notes as a prior Maker’s Mark wood-finishing release from 2020

Elijah Craig Small Batch
Elijah Craig Small Batch
Elijah Craig

Cheap Mixer: Elijah Craig Small Batch

Aka “for guests you know won’t appreciate it” but if you’re also trying to deliver a solid drink. Everyone’s been talking up the Elijah Craig Small Batch barrel proof releases, but for a lot less money and effort you can simply pick up a this solid Heaven Hill staple, which is modest in price ($30-ish) but big on flavor (the oak shines here, along with a hint of smoke — which makes sense, as history suggests Elijah Craig was the first to age its whiskey in charred oak barrels). 

Barrell Bourbon Batch 021
Barrell Bourbon Batch 021
Barrell Craft Spirits

Something Great: Barrell Bourbon Batch 021

My Friday night bourbon? This is where I pull out something a bit different or harder to find. Barrell Craft Spirits launched in 2012 and, very transparently, sources and blends all their whiskey, rye and rum in lieu of distilling their own juice. That said, every single release by Barrell is extremely limited, cask strength and “intentionally unique,” often with unusual finishes or spirits sourced from unlikely places. Batch 021 won the best bourbon at the 2020 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, but I’m honestly fine with anything they put out  (If you’re having issues finding Barrell, you can also pick up their very good, more readily available Stellum Bourbon if you want to save a few bucks.)

Wild Turkey Master’s Keep One
Wild Turkey Master’s Keep One
Wild Turkey

Saving for a Special Occasion Bottle: Wild Turkey Master’s Keep One

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. Master’s Keep One is a blend of hand-selected barrels aged between 9 and 10-years old, along with a small batch of 14-year-old whiskey. Those reflect the preferred taste profiles of Jimmy and Eddie; together, this works both as a story of a family and as an excellent (but extremely hard to find) bourbon full of notes of toasted and charred oak, vanilla, butterscotch and caramel.


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