The biggest bourbon brands are easy to find. But that doesn’t mean they’re all good or worth your time (or money). Just because something is on every shelf around the country doesn’t mean it’s going to be the best. It just means it’s ubiquitous. Still, basic, entry-level, and big-name bourbon is popular for a reason. Most of it is pretty okay, some of it is bad, and a few select bottles are actually kinda great. That’s where a blind tasting comes in as a lifesaver when figuring out which of the standard big-name bourbon bottles are actually good to buy and drink.
To help you make the best decision when you’re at the liquor store and staring down the aisle of seemingly endless bourbons, I’m going to blindly taste and rank 10 standard bottles from the biggest and best-selling bourbon brands. There’s nothing fancy in this lineup. This is down-and-dirty cheap big bourbon with recognizable names that you can 100% find.
Our lineup today features the following bottles of bourbon:
- Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky
- Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Wild Turkey 101 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Knob Creek Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 9 Years
- Bulleit Bourbon
- Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
When it comes to ranking these bottles, I’m going off of taste alone. I’m here to find you the best bottle your money can buy from the small batch, standard, and findable bourbon whiskeys on the market. Let’s dive in!
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- The Absolute Best Bourbons Between $50-$60, Ranked
- Every Single Buffalo Trace Whiskey & Spirits Brand, Ranked
- The Absolute Best Bourbons Between $20-$30, Ranked
Part 1: The Bourbon Tasting
Nose: Soft and sweet apple and cherry woods greet with a good dose of sour red berries dusted with brown winter spices, especially clove and nutmeg.
Palate: The palate leans into soft and salted caramel with a hint of those berries underneath while the spices get woodier and a thin line of green sweetgrass sneaks in.
Finish: The finish is silky and boils down to blackberry jam with a good dose of winter spice, old wood, and a hint of vanilla tobacco.
This has a lovely nose, a great body, and a solid finish. I really like this.
Nose: The nose has classic hints of caramel and vanilla with a grassy underbelly next to soft cherry, hints of oak, and a touch of apple orchard.
Palate: That grassiness becomes vaguely floral as slightly spiced caramel apples arrive, along with a chewy mouthfeel that leads towards a soft mineral vibe — kind of like wet granite.
Finish: The end holds onto the fruit and sweetness as the oak and dried grass stay in your senses.
This is a nice wheated bourbon with a soft landing. It’s not quite as well-rounded as the last sip but has a nice depth.
Nose: Classic notes of vanilla come through next to a dark maple syrup sweetness, a flourish of fresh mint, and a leatheriness that’s just punctuated by dark burnt orange.
Palate: The palate cuts through the sweeter notes with plenty of spices — like clove, star anise, cardamom, and cinnamon — next to a hint of tart berries, a whisper of dark chocolate, and a dash of sweetly spiced oak.
Finish: The end is long and lush and slowly fades back through the dark citrus and berries with a lively spiced finish.
This is damn good whiskey. It’s as well-built as the first sip and maybe a tad more refined.
Nose: This opens with a rush of apple cider and vanilla cake with a hint of dark chocolate, orange zest, caramel, and some sour red berries tossed with fresh tobacco and mint.
Palate: The palate opens with some dried apple skins next to cinnamon sticks floating in hot and spicy apple cider, a hint of mint tobacco, and salted orange dark chocolate bars.
Finish: The end has a nougat wafer vibe next to caramel, vanilla cookies, and boot leather.
This is classic bourbon with a very light touch. All the key elements are there without any rough edges at all.
Nose: The nose is very light but does meander through apple candy, dry corn, vanilla, and a touch of caramel.
Palate: The taste stays on a similar path with a hint of brown spice and “oak.”
Finish: The end is short but does touch on more vanilla and oak with a hint of cherry tobacco way in the background before an ethanol note takes over.
This is basic bourbon with a clear profile and a light end.
Nose: Sweet and buttery toffee is countered by burnt orange, old oak, and a hint of cumin and red chili pepper flakes.
Palate: The palate leans into soft vanilla pudding cups with a touch of butterscotch swirled in next to orange oils, nougat, and a hint of menthol tobacco.
Finish: The midpalate tobacco warmth gives way to a finish that’s full of woody winter spices and a whisper of Cherry Coke next to orange/clove by way of a dark chocolate bar flaked with salt.
This has a nice spiciness next to classic Kentucky bourbon cherry notes. It’s well-balanced and warming.
Nose: The nose on this feels classic with a bold sense of rich vanilla pods, cinnamon sharpness, buttered and salted popcorn, and a good dose of cherry syrup with a hint of cotton candy.
Palate: The palate mixes almond, orange, and vanilla into cinnamon sticky buns with a hint of sour cherry soda that leads to a nice Kentucky hug on the mid-palate.
Finish: That warm hug fades toward black cherry root beer, old leather boots, porch wicker, and a sense of dried cherry/cinnamon tobacco packed into an old pine box.
This is rich and bold. It’s also quintessential bourbon from top to bottom. But it’s not that much more.
Nose: This has a very classic, spicy bourbon nose with clear hints of vanilla, oak, spice, and wood.
Palate: The spice is squarely in the cinnamon category, with creamy vanilla, warm tobacco, and a hint of orchard fruit lurking in the background.
Finish: The end is warm but not hot. The oak, dark spice, brown sugars, and whisper of corn linger on your senses through the medium finish.
This has classic bourbon notes and a thinner finish.
Nose: There’s a sense of sweet yet slightly bitter tea next to rye crust and winter spice next to a flutter of fresh mint on the nose.
Palate: The palate carries that spice into peppery territory with hints of oak, vanilla, tart apples, and honey alongside light but spicy tobacco lurking in the background.
Finish: The spice gets a little more peppery as a final spritz of orange oils arrives to help the end slowly fade out towards a lush vanilla-honey end.
This was interesting but so light that it almost disappeared on the palate by the end.
Nose: There’s a classic sense of “bourbon” on the nose with notes of mild caramel, buttered popcorn, peanut brittle, vanilla pudding, mild Cherry Coke, and a dash of apple orchard.
Palate: The palate largely leans into the nose’s vibe with a deep sense of cherry/vanilla pudding next to candy corn and dry straw.
Finish: The end is light and short thanks to that proofing water but does carry notes of cherry tobacco, old tobacco leaves, and a hint of dry oak with a sense of maybe some pecan-chocolate clusters lurking in there somewhere.
This is another classic bourbon-y bourbon that also just kind of disappears by the end.
Part 2: The Bourbon Ranking
10. Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 10
Average Price: $15
This bourbon is made with Beam’s classic low-rye mash bill and special yeast that was pulled from the window seal in James B. Beam’s kitchen back in the 1930s. That heritage is the core of every Beam product. This straight bourbon is aged for four years before the barrels are blended/batched and it’s all cut down to 80 proof.
This washed out the most. There was zero wrong with it, it was just really light. That means you should use this for highballs with sugary/spicy sodas and big garnishes.
9. Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 5
Average Price: $12
This is more of an entry point for Evan Williams. The whiskey is a mix of four to seven-year-old barrels of the standard Heaven Hill bourbon. The difference in this bottle is that it’s proofed at a slightly higher 86 proof, giving it a slight edge against Evan Williams Green Label at 80 proof.
This was pretty thin too. It had a tad more depth than the Beam above, but that’s really reaching. Overall, this is a highball whiskey.
8. Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 9
Average Price: $32
Unlike standard Jim Beam, this mash bill leans more heavily into the rye, creating a solid base for two very closely related bourbons — this and Old Grand-Dad. Basil Hayden’s is made from barrels pulled from specific ricks, blended, cut down to 80 proof, and bottled under the watchful eyes of Jim Beam’s master distillers and blenders.
This had a nice complexity but was so light on the finish. I wanted it to last longer. I can see enjoying this in a simple cocktail but that’s about it.
7. Bulleit Bourbon — Taste 8
Average Price: $32
This whiskey embraces a high-rye mash bill that’s comprised of 68% corn, 28% rye, and 4% malted barley. The juice is then rested for six years before blending, cutting down to proof, and barreling.
This is a pretty classic spicy bourbon. There are no bells or whistles and it’s not going to wow you. That said, this would work really well as a cocktail base thanks to those bolder spicy notes.
6. Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky — Taste 2
Average Price: $24
This is Maker’s signature expression made with Red winter wheat and aged seasoned Ozark oak for six to seven years. This expression’s whiskey is then sourced from only 150 barrels (making this a “small batch”). Those barrels are then blended and proofed with Kentucky limestone water before bottling and dipping in their iconic red wax.
This is where things get more complex. This also had a soft landing but it didn’t feel thin. It was complex and stood out. Get this if you’re making cocktails. It’ll shine.
5. Wild Turkey 101 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 6
Average Price: $19
A lot of Wild Turkey’s character comes from the hard and deep char they use on their oak barrels. 101 starts with a high-rye mash bill that leans into the wood and aging, having spent six years in the cask. A little of that soft Kentucky limestone water is added to cool it down a bit before bottling.
This is so classic. It’s that perfect balance of spicy sweet Kentucky bourbon that just delivers. Get this if you’re looking for a great workhorse whiskey for mixing, shooting, or everyday sipping.
4. Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 4
Average Price: $30
The mash bill on this bourbon is mid-range rye heavy with 18% of the grain in the bill for support. Triple distilling in pot stills (like Irish whiskey) and blending with column-distilled whiskey is utilized. The bourbon then rests for six to seven years — taking time to mature before barrels are pulled for blending, proofing, and bottling.
This was subtle and nuanced and felt downright essential as a Kentucky bourbon pour. It was still just standard though, making this a great candidate to build good cocktails with.
3. Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 9 Years — Taste 7
Buy Here: $45 (one-liter)
This is Jim Beam’s small batch entry point into the wider world of Knob Creek. The juice is the low-rye mash aged for nine years in new oak in Beam’s vast warehouses. The right barrels are then mingled and cut down to 100 proof before being bottled in new, wavy bottles.
This was big and bold and very spicy cherry forward. If you’re looking for something to mix a killer Manhattan or old fashioned with, this is it.
2. Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 1
Average Price: $27
Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon is a blend of four whiskeys. The blend is split evenly between the high and mid-ryes with a focus on “slight spice” and “rich fruit” yeasts. The whiskey is then blended, cut with soft Kentucky water, and bottled.
This leaned into unique flavor notes that went beyond basic Kentucky bourbon cherry and spice. There were botanicals, herbs, orchard fruits, and florals. It was complex but didn’t lose any of its basic characteristics to be unique. Get this if you’re looking for something a little different on the palate amidst your regular bourbon routine.
1. Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 3
Average Price: $35
This is the whiskey that heralded a new era of bourbon in 1999. Famed Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee came out of retirement to create this bourbon to celebrate the renaming of the George T. Stagg distillery to Buffalo Trace when Sazerac bought the joint. The rest, as they say, is history — especially since this has become a touchstone bourbon for the brand.
This bourbon delivered the best overall experience. It was complex yet approachable. It was classic yet had its own vibe. It just tasted good. I’d keep this on hand for cocktails and on the rocks for daily sipping.
Part 3: Final Thoughts On The Bourbons
It was nice re-tasting some of these standard bourbons. There wasn’t a “bad” bourbon in the bunch. Some were simply more macro and proofed down which made them better for shooting or mixing with ginger ale.
Still, I’d say the top six are all winners. The distance between those six when it comes to quality and depth is paper thin.
And then the top three are all really tied. They do offer completely different profiles though. I’d say, go for the Knob Creek when you want a great bourbon cocktail, grab the Buffalo Trace when you want a classic bourbon sipper on the rocks, and pour a splash of the Four Roses when you want something a little different.