Some bourbons deserve more attention than others. These are the whiskeys you want to savor and sip — not pour on ice or mix into a cocktail. Sure, everyone tells you that you can “drink whiskey however you want.” You wanna add Mountain Dew to your Wild Turkey? There’s a precedent for that. You want to down Pappy 15 like it’s a well shot? Your money, pal.
But the best sipping bourbons are the ones that can stand up to some scrutiny. Sipped on its own, you’re getting the aroma, taste and finish just as the distiller wanted, sans dilution. And give these bourbons a chance to rest a minute in your Glencairn — oftentimes, the best and most complex whiskey will reveal interesting new characteristics when you let it breathe a bit.
Our choices for best sipping bourbons
Our choices below were collected from several tastings over the years. These aren’t necessarily everyday bourbons. We leaned on higher-proof releases — veteran whiskey drinkers will find 80 proof too thin for the palate. And while we love bottled-in-bond (100 proof) bourbons, we find them best suited for cocktails, where the relatively modest ABV increase helps the spirit thrive in a mixed drink. With one or two exceptions, our best sipping bourbons start above 100 proof but stay below 120 (except for rare occasions, we’re not really into “hazmat” whiskey craze.)
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Side note: It’s ok to add a drop of water here. And if you’d rather just use any one of these fine bourbons in a classic whiskey cocktail (like an Old Fashioned) instead — it’s your call. We’re just saying there are simpler ways to enjoy the following bottles.
Jefferson’s Bourbon is a Kentucky distillery that’s been experimenting with the maturation process of whiskey for 25+ years. For the Aged at Sea releases, which are usually but not always bourbon (aged about 6-8 years old), the whiskey is placed in small barrels and loaded onto special cargo ships; from there, they sail around the globe through different seasons, extreme temperature fluctuations and a lot of agitation from storms and waves. Each release offers a lot of variation — try ‘em all, including a cask-strength edition — but the consistent tasting note here is salted caramel popcorn.
Look, everything these guys do is great — it’s all sourced product, but uniquely blended and often (but not always) featuring some unusual cask maturations, so pretty much any of their offerings would be among the best sipping bourbons. But Batch 32 is a beguiling blend of straight bourbon whiskeys (5, 6, 7 and 10-year-old barrels) distilled and aged in TN, KY and IN, and bottled at cask strength (115.34 proof). You’ll get everything here from cherry to ginger to wasabi to brown butter, with a hint of grassiness.
The fourth bottle in the distillery’s limited edition 117 Series “honors” the anniversary of the fire on Whiskey Row that nearly destroyed the historic Louisville block. The bourbon here comes from barrels that the Louisville Fire Department chose in 2020. There’s an unrelated bit of heat on this release, which nicely balances caramel, oak, coconut and dark fruits. The entire experimental 117 Series is worth sipping, though these are usually limited to the distillery shop and some Kentucky liquor stores.
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Wheel Horse whiskeys are distilled at the Green River Distillery (Owensboro Distilling Co.) in Owensboro, KY, aka the westernmost stop along the famed Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Besides racking up accolades, Wheel Horse also wins on price (roughly $35/bottle). Their 101-proof bourbon, with a mashbill of 70% corn, 21% rye and 9% malted barley, might only be aged 3-4 years, but it offers a nice mix of tropical, oak and caramel notes, with plenty of rye and wood spice (and it’s unique almost ginger-like on the finish). If you’re sipping on a budget, this is your pick.
A Jim Beam distillery small batch release, the 15 is a much darker and deeper color than the 12 year expression, ultimately making it a shoe-in as one of the best sipping bourbons. The 15 stands out because it provides a real amount of spice, even at a modest 50% ABV. The vanilla and caramel still come through (now with a bit of coconut), but notes of leather, tobacco and charred oak are also readily apparent.
After releasing a collaboration with Irish Whiskey Bonder Louise McGuane last year called the St. Patrick’s Edition, Kentucky Owl decided to make the team-ups an annual release. On its second limited-edition bourbon, they worked with Nagahama, the smallest distillery in Japan, headed up by Master Blender Yahisa Yusuke. There is a lot of fruit and citrus in this 100-proof release. I picked up cherry, apple and pear during my tasting, both on the nose and palate. While sweet up front, this bourbon has a balanced and rich mouthfeel and just enough of a spicy kick from the rye to leave an impression, but not overpower the exceptional balance at work here.
An annual release (and well worth seeking out each year), last year’s Limited Edition Small Batch was bottled at 109 proof. You’ll get a lot of vanilla and butterscotch on the nose, while the palette brings out cloves, apricot, cocoa, berries and brown sugar. It’s rich and almost dessert-like in mouthfeel, while still balanced and complex enough to let in other flavors (I got more oak, cinnamon and even a hint of mint on subsequent sips).
Launched in 2021, Brother’s Bond Bourbon was created by Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley, long-time friends who you might know from the long-running show The Vampire Diaries. Their Cask Strength release sacrifices the balance of the BB’s core bourbon, but now you’ll discover more caramel, butterscotch and jammy notes (including raspberry), with hickory and tobacco on the nose and some rye spice making an appearance on the finish.
Maker’s Mark on its own is a solid choice and certainly a contender for a daily drinker. But 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. If you prefer a certain flavor profile, it’s worth finding one of these bottles.
As the name suggests, this one is twice barreled in White Oak and matured in handcrafted barrels created at Woodford Reserve’s own cooperage. The second custom barreling process creates heavier notes of honey, cream and vanilla alongside some sweet oak character. If you’re really ambitious, WR also offers an even more complex Double Double Oaked variation, where the twice-barrelled Double Oak is matured again in a second, heavily toasted, lightly charred, new oak barrel, bringing out some spice.
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