May 13th, 2014
09:30 AM ET
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Ray Isle (@islewine on Twitter) is Food & Wine's executive wine editor. We trust his every cork pop and decant – and the man can sniff out a bargain to boot. Take it away, Ray.

As a longtime Manhattan drinker, I am surprised, confounded, pleased and yet at the same time a little concerned about the current state of bourbon. I’m not talking about the quality level—there’s probably more good bourbon out there than there’s ever been before. I’m talking about the popularity level. The rocket-like rise of bourbon’s appeal makes me think about the cigar boom a decade or so ago, when a grizzled vineyard manager and longtime cigar smoker I knew produced one of his favorite stogies from his shirt pocket and said, “See this? I was paying two bucks for these a couple of years ago. Now the damn things cost me 12 bucks each!”

As someone who not all that long ago paid $85 for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Old—a bourbon that now goes for around $1,500 a bottle, if you can find it—I think it’s fair to be a little worried. Plus, it isn’t just the US that’s gone all bourbon-bonkers. Sales hereabouts are rising spectacularly, but what about Colombia? Bourbon sales there have risen 13,250 percent over the past decade. That’s like a person who used to drink a single bottle of bourbon every year deciding he’d be better off if he drank three bottles of bourbon every week. But who knows. Maybe Colombian drug lords are hoarding the stuff. After all, look at what’s going on with Mexico and limes.

But that’s as maybe. To get to matters at hand—that is, to get some recommendations in before the bourbon world goes even more berserk—here’s a quartet of good bottles to seek out.

Bulleit bourbon ($22)
Bulleit’s high rye content (about one-third of the mash bill) gives it a distinctive dark spiciness; pronounced oak notes add to that impression.

Weller 12 Year Old ($26)
Like the elusive Pappy Van Winkle, Weller is a wheated bourbon—the distiller substitutes wheat for the more traditional rye, giving it a gentler, less overtly spicy character. Like Pappy, it is also made by the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Unlike Pappy, it’s a hell of a bargain.

Four Roses Small Batch ($35)
In the soft and sweet zone initially, this combination of four relatively young whiskies (all under seven years old) assembled by master distiller Jim Rutledge ends on a subtle spice note.

Angel’s Envy ($55)
Master distiller Lincoln Henderson created this gorgeous, satin-textured bourbon after retiring from his 40-year career with whiskey behemoth Brown-Forman (Jack Daniel’s, Woodford Reserve, etc.). Three to six months finishing in port casks gives it a faint but distinctive cherry-maple note.

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soundoff (68 Responses)
  1. steve b

    Plenty of stuff goes through this, not just Pappy. I used to love a nice cheap bottle of yamazaki and that stuff's way overpriced now too. Sucks.

    June 11, 2014 at 2:22 pm |
  2. StopIt

    "That's as maybe?" Really? Perhaps author was sipping bourbon during his high school english class.

    June 10, 2014 at 7:08 am |
    • Sgt Hulka

      He left out a space or you're the one needing some English lessons. Either way, lighten up Francis.

      June 10, 2014 at 7:14 am |
  3. Chadwick

    Thank goodness the really good bourbons wasn't on this list. Hopefully they will be overlooked and I'll be able to afford them when I decide I want to grab a bottle, whenever that may be. At the rate that I drink it, a 750mL bottle would last me for several years.

    June 10, 2014 at 1:20 am |
  4. JT

    We like Jesse James. Pretty smooth stuff.

    June 9, 2014 at 1:25 pm |
  5. Drink Me

    Really liked , and I am pretty sure the ONLY reason No.7 black hasn't been mentioned is, well..it IS JD, Which is my normal fare (and favorite alcohol). I was really impressed with the limited bottle run of JD's White Rabbit, 120th anniversary special, even numbered, at 43% it was a treat! (Don't like The Honey one tho...too girly, and I am a female...) I also have found new love in a bottle of Dickel, at 45$ for the standard price, it really is a gorgeous smooth change to good ol JD.
    Man, why am I thirsty all of a sudden?

    May 28, 2014 at 6:55 am |
    • ....

      Whiskey comes from four places on this earth – Scotland, Ireland, Tennessee and Kentucky. Bourbon comes from one place, and thats Kentucky.

      May 29, 2014 at 9:58 pm |
      • Steve

        Whisk(e)y comes from many places on Earth. Aside from those you mentioned, it also comes from Canada, India, Japan, South Africa, other parts of Great Britain than Scotland such as England and Wales, various European countries, and now even Taiwan. Bourbon comes from anywhere in the United States. Most comes from Kentucky, but a huge quantity of bourbon is distilled in Indiana. Other states with bourbon distilleries include New York, Utah, Georgia, Virginia, Ohio, Texas, and more. Tennessee not only has Tennessee whiskey distilleries (Jack Daniel and George Dickel) but also bourbon distilleries.

        June 3, 2014 at 5:21 pm |
  6. Crimzin

    I've had a lot of great bourbons in my time...and the best thing about bourbon is it does not have to be expensive to be good. Sure, some of the more expensive brands have a complexity that's hard to match. Four Roses Single Barrel is one of my favorites. But my go-to will always be Wild Turkey 101...just classic American bourbon. Better than most of the more expensive brands. You can get a 1.75L handle of it for $35 where I live... 750ml for less than $20.

    May 16, 2014 at 1:14 am |
  7. elove8

    The reason Pappy goes for so much is because someone involved in the production of it stole 75 cases of the stuff.

    Not because it is amazing, because, well it is. The price would be the exact same if they had not had such a huge loss by way of theft.

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/crime/2013/12/03/pappy_van_winkle_bourbon_theft_10_000_reward_in_stolen_whiskey_case_won.html

    May 16, 2014 at 12:04 am |
  8. Sausage Frenzy

    "s a longtime Manhattan drinker, I am surprised, confounded, pleased and yet at the same time a little concerned"
    Alcoholism causes confusion and disorientation- say no more...

    May 15, 2014 at 8:33 pm |
  9. sophomorocat

    None of those Bourbons are as good as standard premium Maker's Mark.

    May 15, 2014 at 8:25 pm |
    • JS

      All those bourbons are better than Makers Mark. Makers Mark is okay but overpriced for what it is. L.T. Weller is a wheat bourbon like Makers, and every bit as good for less than $20 for 750ml.

      May 16, 2014 at 10:33 am |
      • GentlemanJim

        You should give Larceny a try. It is a wheated bourbon from Heaven Hills, aged longer than Maker's Mark.

        May 26, 2014 at 11:14 pm |
  10. Temp R. Ence

    Wow, lots of alcoholics out today...

    May 15, 2014 at 3:58 pm |
  11. Jon

    To follow up Rowan's Creek is some of the best value bourbon out there. Noah's Mill is solid too a little more pricey, same type though with a little more kick. Personal favorites are Baker's, Colonel Taylor, and Rowan's Creek. The man up top is right though: Stagg is better than Pappy. It's the GOAT right now

    May 15, 2014 at 3:47 pm |
    • Jon

      Sorry I meant Heart Broken is right about Stagg.

      May 15, 2014 at 3:48 pm |
  12. Single Barrell Jack

    Bourbon only comes from the US (I believe only Kentucky). Whiskey or bourbon-like spirits may come from Columbia or anywhere else. Just saying.

    May 15, 2014 at 3:42 pm |
    • DNA

      that's not true, bourbon can be made anywhere, it just has to follow specific ingredient and proof guidelines.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bourbon_whiskey#Legal_requirements

      May 16, 2014 at 3:42 am |
      • DNA

        I meant not true about only Kentucky, to clarify.

        May 16, 2014 at 3:43 am |
        • GentlemanJim

          Bourbon must be from the US but not necessarily from KY, although 90+% is from KY. The climate in KY is very cold in the winter and hot in the summer, causing the whiskey to go in and out of the charred wood in the barrel. Also the limestone in the area causes the water to be very good for whiskey.

          May 26, 2014 at 11:18 pm |
  13. Heart Broken

    Reading all of these comments breaks my heart.
    I see all these bourbons and whiskeys, and I didn't see a single mention of Buffalo Trace's Antique Collection.

    Folks, as a partaker of nearly all of these bourbons mentions, if you've not partaken of any of the BTAC, you're missing a little bit of paradise.
    And yes, the Pappy's really is all that and more, but most people miss the most important angle.
    Pappy's to a newcomer is just another hard liquor.
    Only after one has seasoned his/her palette to the numerous bourbons out there, can one truly appreciate these other "high end" bourbons.

    Sip them.
    Savor them.
    Try to make them last forever.

    George T. Stagg & Thomas Handy Sazerac for the win!

    I just hope this comment doesn't add to their popularity, because they're nearly as hard to get as Pappy's these days.

    May 15, 2014 at 2:21 pm |
    • Jessamine

      I mentioned Buffalo Trace. Not specifically the AC but I did mention BT. :)

      May 15, 2014 at 2:35 pm |
  14. profbam

    If you were a REAL Manhattan drinker, you would be using rye whiskey and not that lousy corn mash stuff. Just saying.

    May 15, 2014 at 12:37 pm |
  15. Shawn

    Do yourselves a favor and find a bottle of Willett Pot Still Reserve.

    May 15, 2014 at 1:50 am |
  16. Jessamine

    I've had Angels Envy. I think they spent more on the bottle design than the bourbon. I'm partial to Knob Creek and Buffalo Trace.

    May 14, 2014 at 2:50 pm |
  17. Meh...

    Such first world problems...

    May 14, 2014 at 12:36 pm |
    • Love_Whisk(e)y

      There's always one guy whose trolling. Don't click the link if you don't care to discuss bourbon. If you want to discuss third world problems hit google and comment your heart out. We can't discuss problems, issues, and negative topics 24/7. There is some good in the world and left for humanity to experience and savor and bourbon is part of that sweet goodness.

      May 14, 2014 at 5:40 pm |
      • Hunter

        Two Thumbs up!

        May 14, 2014 at 6:06 pm |
        • AleeD®

          Make that three.

          May 15, 2014 at 6:27 am |
  18. K

    Templeton Rye makes a great manhattan.
    Evan Williams single barrel is another sub-$30 gem of a bourbon.
    "Limited release" price spikes and hysteria have messed with craft beers, too. Any knucklehead can brew a stout, age it in a bourbon barrel, call it a limited edition and charge $20/bottle...even if it tastes like you swirled a little bourbon in your coffee cup before you filled it with Guiness.
    Drink what tastes good according to your wallet, we'll make it past the handlebar mustache phase.

    May 14, 2014 at 12:16 pm |
  19. Ray

    This article is interesting, and I get that he's talking about bourbon prices rising and all. But the question still begs, why are people switching to bourbons/whiskeys?? I switched from vodka/tequila/congac, just because they seemed too generic. Too basic.

    May 14, 2014 at 11:56 am |
  20. Adam Chaplin

    I have enjoyed many bourbons. Evan Williams “Black Label” Bourbon is a great price and very good quality. Drink with two ice cubes and nothing else.

    May 14, 2014 at 11:20 am |
  21. JB

    You haven't tasted good burbon until you have tasted a 20 year Pappy Van Winkle. There is a reason it goes for $1500 a bottle. It saddens me but I am fortunate enough to have gotten a couple of bottles for Christmas a few years ago and I wont be selling what I have left. The stuff is soo amazing.. Even the dirty glass smells like a freshly baked apple pie the following day.... Liquid Heaven!

    May 14, 2014 at 10:44 am |
  22. PCR

    Since pot is slowly becoming legal, the Mexican mafia needs to make money off something:)

    May 14, 2014 at 3:15 am |
  23. sixthromeo

    There are bad bourbons, good bourbons, above average, excellent and knock your socks off bourbon. Just as there are the same in scotch, vodka, gin, etc. A craze is a craze, just as the author said to remember the cigar craze; people are fickle, they do not necessarily even like any new craze but it is what they do in public and it is all the "rage." Enjoy good booze, there is nothing wrong about enjoying it; just remember when you pay premium prices for the sake of being shallow, pay the exact same amount to a charity that does some good.

    May 13, 2014 at 10:17 pm |
  24. sixthromeo

    Columbia and high prices for bourbon; it is all money laundering. "High volume" liquor sales mask money laundering and tax evasion; just ask Ian Schrager, he's back to the same old thing.

    May 13, 2014 at 10:12 pm |
  25. Jerry

    Wild Turkey 101 – $23 a bottle.

    May 13, 2014 at 8:15 pm |
    • Justsayin1951

      Totally with you, brother.
      You can even find it [usually- once a year] for as low as $14 @ bottle- must buy 6 at a time.
      I stock yearly provisions when it comes on ad.

      May 13, 2014 at 9:41 pm |
    • Ray

      Rare Breed is nice also.

      May 14, 2014 at 11:50 am |
    • Joe Hollis

      Wild is the REAL deal. My fav for 30+ years. Better flavor and very easy on the taste buds. old Weller is a fine one as well. Most of the others are just jealous of these good ones.

      May 15, 2014 at 9:22 am |
    • Crimzin

      Right on. And $23 is more than I pay in my area! A $750ml of WT 101 is $19 at my local Total Wine & More. A 1.75L handle is only $35! Cheap and yet it is THE classic American bourbon as far as I'm concerned. Bold, spicy, just the right amount of wood notes and a long, warm finish. Perfect. Of course I love to enjoy an expensive, more complex bourbon every now and then...Four Roses Single Barrel is a favorite of mine, but as far as my liquor cabinet at home goes, Wild Turkey 101 is all I ever need. Will be my go-to until I die I expect.

      May 16, 2014 at 1:22 am |
  26. Otis Campbell

    I want to drink what gets me drunk.

    May 13, 2014 at 7:10 pm |
    • Joe Hollis

      With a name like that it makes one wonder where the still is. Not a troll just a big fan.

      May 15, 2014 at 9:26 am |
  27. Thinking things through

    Jefferson's Reserve is good, so is Knob Hill. But I tend more to Scotch than Bourbon.

    May 13, 2014 at 5:33 pm |
  28. johnharry2911

    I'll stick with Scotch.

    May 13, 2014 at 5:27 pm |
  29. Chris

    Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel is another really nice bourbon for the value. I'm not sure how available it is outside of the midwest but when I lived in Kentucky that was a go-to, as is Weller 12 year.

    May 13, 2014 at 5:17 pm |
  30. Matt

    Little known fact: you make your own bourbon at home by adding isopropanol to skunked beer.

    May 13, 2014 at 5:15 pm |
  31. RACHAEL LAROCK

    In two words, who cares?

    May 13, 2014 at 4:53 pm |
    • Really?

      How about you take a stroll down to your nearest Lowe's or Home Depot store, buy yourself a big bag of rock salt and proceed to pound it high and hard.

      May 13, 2014 at 5:03 pm |
    • Adam Chaplin

      I do.

      May 13, 2014 at 6:31 pm |
  32. Dennis

    Ray Isle, correction, Brown-Forman does not make Woodford Reserve. That's Labrot-Graham.

    May 13, 2014 at 3:59 pm |
    • David

      Labrot-Graham is owned by Brown-Forman. Woodford is the signature Bourbon of Brown-Forman. They also make Old Forrester, which for the money, is an amazing option.

      May 14, 2014 at 4:29 pm |
  33. JT

    I like bourbon, but not enough to buy the nice stuff. If I'm buying topshelf, I'm buying Don Juilo Añejo :)

    But back to bourbon – it really is gaining in popularity all over the world. I last heard that distilleries were preparing for this, and that there were more barrels of bourbon than people in Bourbon County!

    May 13, 2014 at 3:56 pm |
    • sixthromeo

      What we read was that the distillers wanted to cut the quality of the drink so they can satisfy demand; people didn't like hearing that.

      May 13, 2014 at 10:19 pm |
    • Joe Hollis

      I live just 15 min from Bourbon County and they really don't store bourbon there anymore. most is made in Frankfort and Bardstown.

      May 15, 2014 at 9:31 am |
    • LexKYNative

      More barrels than people in KY, not just Bourbon County.

      May 15, 2014 at 4:48 pm |
  34. Sid

    years ago I took a bottle of Bourbon as a gift to a family in Moscow. I asked them if they wanted to share a glass to which they seemed surprised/concerned. turned out they didn't want to offend me but they were planning on trading it b/c it was worth several times its cost in US. I wasn't offended, in fact if I'd known I'd have brought them more!

    also, Weller's is the best bang/buck I'm aware of right now! guy at local store put me on to it.

    May 13, 2014 at 2:47 pm |
  35. Tim

    As a cigar smoker, there is nothing wrong with a glass of Maker's, a couple of ice cubes and a nice, full-bodied Nicaraguan stogie. Yummmmmm....$24.00 for 750 mL

    May 13, 2014 at 1:38 pm |
    • Crimzin

      Who needs ice cubs in Maker's? Stuff is already about as smooth and mild as bourbon gets.

      May 16, 2014 at 1:10 am |
      • Noxin

        "ice cubs"? Ya mean like polar bear pups?

        May 16, 2014 at 6:47 am |
  36. John

    Try Copper Fox rye from Sperryville Virginia. Outstanding.

    May 13, 2014 at 12:38 pm |
  37. betterdays

    It's a fad and it's funny to watch. Unfortunately, gin is next to be ruined by this hipsteria. But Bulleitt rye (not bourbon) is just fine at $26/liter in Ohio. You can spend twice as much and not do better. And as long as I'm here, Boodles gin is inexpensive and quite good. Bourbon I leave to the flavored vodka "martini" drinkers and cigar smokers of yesteryear. If they want to hitch their beards to this new bandwagon, fine with me.

    May 13, 2014 at 12:14 pm |
    • Scott N Bourbon

      Tequila is already on the way for the next niche booze, as far as bourbon goes there are plenty of good ones already mentioned, to each their own, just try them all and enjoy.

      May 30, 2014 at 5:40 pm |
  38. Mike

    A Manhattan is traditionally made with rye, not bourbon. That said, a bourbon Manhattan is also tasty.

    May 13, 2014 at 10:46 am |
  39. Robert

    I would also recommend Four Roses Single Barrel, Jefferson's Reserve, and Basil Hayden: $30-50.

    May 13, 2014 at 10:31 am |
    • BeerBrewerDan

      Agree, especially Basil Hayden. I also like Rowan Creek at the same price point.

      May 13, 2014 at 2:28 pm |
    • Joe Hollis

      Russel's Reserve is also very good. As is Fighting Cock.

      May 15, 2014 at 9:34 am |

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