All September on VinePair, we’re turning our focus to America’s spirit: bourbon. For our third annual Bourbon Month, we’re exploring the industry legends and innovators, our favorite craft distilleries, new bottles we love, and more.
Over the last two decades, bourbon’s popularity has surged, which happily means that there are more options available than ever. But for those new to bourbon, navigating the different brands, flavor profiles, and price points can be intimidating. Moreover, with prices for old standbys spiking and bar lists touting rare and collectible bottles, bourbon can elicit a members-only vibe that can be off-putting to beginners.
Bourbon is part of the whiskey family and provides an excellent entry point to the category. Although bourbon must be made from at least 51 percent corn, and thereby has a naturally sweeter flavor profile than other whiskeys, bourbons are no one-trick pony. There’s a wide world of distinctive tastes, and bartenders are convinced that there’s a bourbon for every palate, particularly for those who prefer a sweet over a spicy spirit (the latter is more closely associated with rye whiskey).
If you’re starting out, rest assured that you don’t need to be in the know to buy a bottle at the liquor store, or to order at the bar. Most pros are more than happy to wax poetic about favorite bottles and underrated brands, or share history and anecdotes. No stacked bank account required, either — there are plenty of top-notch bourbons that offer an easy-drinking experience without any buyer’s remorse.
Whether you enjoy classic cocktails such as an Old Fashioned or Mint Julep, or gain an appreciation for sipping on the rocks, with a splash of water, or neat, bourbon is a versatile spirit to explore.
Here, 15 bartenders weigh in on their favorite bourbons for beginners, from an approachable Kentucky classic with hints of vanilla and caramel to an “unapologetically sippable” release from New York State.
Best Bourbons for Beginners as Recommended by Bartenders:
- Woodford Reserve
- Maker’s Mark
- Elijah Craig Small Batch
- Four Roses
- Angel’s Envy
- W.L. Weller
- Basil Hayden
- Evan Williams 1783
- Old Forester 86 Proof
- Hudson Whiskey Bright Lights, Big Bourbon
- Wilderness Trail Single Barrel Wheated Bourbon
- Knob Creek
Keep reading for details about all of the recommended bottles!
“Woodford Reserve. As a well-known name at an accessible price, it’s a great value. It’s slightly sweet, with notes of citrus and chocolate that coat the palate without being too overwhelming. At Brennan’s, we use Woodford Reserve in our house Mint Julep and Old Fashioned. Its subtle citrus, dark chocolate, and cinnamon notes play beautifully off of the Angostura bitters and orange rind in the Old Fashioned, whereas sweet hints of vanilla work really well in a Mint Julep. Novices may sometimes find bourbon’s robust flavor profiles to be overwhelming, but palates evolve over time. You’re likely to discover a style that suits you.” — Lexie Brennan, Bartender & Marketing Manager, Brennan’s of Houston, Houston
“Woodford Reserve. It is easy on the palate with a hint of orange, caramels, dried fruits, and vanilla. When it comes to beginners, I try not to offer something that has spicy notes to it. It goes really well with an orange peel for an Old Fashioned; nothing can go wrong with a simple Old Fashioned at home. For the bar program, I usually like to do a classic Whiskey Sour with a dash of amaretto to add a little more body and silkiness.” — Bobby Leonardo, Head Bartender, Wayla, New York City
“Maker’s Mark. The entry price is low enough so that it doesn’t scare off someone who wants to dip their toes into the world of bourbon. Since it’s made with winter wheat, it takes away some of the spice and it can be enjoyed neat or even with cola or other mixers. As you progress on your bourbon journey, you can use it in classic drinks such as an Old Fashioned, Manhattan, or Kentucky Buck. For some, bourbon may be intimidating due to the complexity of its flavors. Unlike other spirits that beginner drinkers tend to gravitate towards, which tend to be a single flavor note, with bourbons you get more of a rock band of different flavor notes bombarding your senses for you to enjoy.” — Manny Garcia, Head Bartender, BluSky Restaurant & Bar at Radisson Blu, Anaheim, Calif.
“Elijah Craig Small Batch! I love this bourbon because, at 94 proof or 47 percent ABV, it’s not too potent to drink neat or with a few rocks, yet it has enough oomph to stand up against other players in cocktails, namely bitters, citrus, and water content. Behind the bar, I find it makes a delightful Old Fashioned or Manhattan but is equally good in a Gold Rush or a highball with a squeeze of lemon and a dash of orange bitters. It’s a Jack-of-all-trades kind of whiskey and a perfect “step up” from the basics while still being super budget friendly. Instead of thinking of bourbon as something tough and intimidating, I invite people to see its sultry side with flavors of caramel, vanilla, cinnamon, smoke, and so many more!” — Leslie Cadillac, Bar Manager, The River and Rail, Roanoke, Va.
“I have been a huge fan of the Elijah Craig bourbons for decades now. Not only is it one of the very best bourbons on the market, it’s priced so affordably that you’re not going to experience any buyer’s remorse. It’s got everything I look for in a whiskey: interesting but not aggressively weird, easy to sip on but not boring. In the most recent bar program I was in charge of, Clyde Common, our house Old Fashioned was made exclusively with Elijah Craig for years. We went through full barrels of the stuff every few months. People came from all over just to have our Old Fashioned and I think a big part of that was our choice of bourbon.” — Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Bartender & Author, Portland, Ore.
“My pick is Four Roses. I feel slightly nostalgic for choosing this because it was the first bourbon I remember falling for years ago. At the time it was always talked about as being one of the best “bangs for the buck,” but it is so much more than that. It has great complexity but is also smooth, making it great for beginners. I find it great to drink neat but it also makes a great Old Fashioned with its honey notes. I always have a bottle of Four Roses and Four Roses Single Barrel on the back bar. It’s a great pick for someone who is interested in trying a bourbon but isn’t quite sure what to go for. I also find it goes great in a Lion’s Tail cocktail, which is one of my favorites for the approaching fall season. A little Angostura and allspice dram bring a nice hint of baking spice that pairs well with the honey notes in the bourbon — a perfect sweater-weather cocktail.” — Mike Zell, Bar Manager, Girl & the Goat, Los Angeles
“Angel’s Envy. The lower proof and port cask finish provide a perfect level of comfort for those who are curious about bourbon. The port finish also helps soften out the edges of the spirit that are at times rough and intimidating. It shines the most in stirred classic cocktails such as a Vieux Carre or Toronto.”— Adam Morgan, Bar Manager, Husk Nashville, Nashville
“Angel’s Envy. It’s finished in port wine barrels, which adds a little sweetness to the bourbon and makes it extremely flavorful. It drinks very well on a large rock and can also be used in various classic cocktails such as an Old fashioned or a Boulevardier. Many bourbons tend to be high proof and can burn on the way down; Angel’s Envy is a little more approachable to first-time bourbon drinkers.” — Koni Kim, Restaurant Manager, Highball & Harvest, Orlando
“W.L. Weller. It is a wheated bourbon, so after the ‘at least 51 percent corn’ that is legally required for bourbon, the remainder of the mash is wheat. This gives it a softer, sweeter profile than many other bourbons so it’s super approachable for beginners. Some bourbons are peppery and “hot,” which might be intimidating to new bourbon drinkers, whereas the Wells has a slightly citrusy profile and a rich mouthfeel that’s pleasant and inviting for those new to the spirit. It makes a great Boulevardier with Campari and a bit less-sweet vermouth than the classic recipe requires.” — Frankie Mace, Wine Director, Charlie Palmer Steak, New York
“A really great bourbon for beginners is Basil Hayden’s. It was the first bourbon that I personally would drink neat, because it has a very smooth taste. It is very approachable because it isn’t too complex or spicy, like some more ‘advanced’ bourbons are. It is a great mixing bourbon as well, so it would be great in an Old Fashioned, a Mint Julep, or Manhattan. It does have a somewhat sweeter, almost honey-like flavor, so it would be great in a Gold Rush as well. I think what makes bourbon intimidating to drink, especially with beginners, are the oaky and spicy notes in it. It is something that is acquired and can be overbearing for someone that is not used to it. At the same time, for a seasoned bourbon drinker, that is what they have come to appreciate.” — Melissa Lambert, General Manager, Piccalilli, Culver City, Calif.
“Evan Williams 1783. It is 90 proof, aged for at least six years, and very affordable and available. The quality and price point make it perfect for making cocktails and it is delicious by itself. Perfect in a Manhattan, neat, on the rocks, or in something as simple as a bourbon and ginger. A lot of [why people are intimidated by bourbon] has to do with the number of options that are available, and it has become quite popular in the past five years. Honestly, I think someone that does not enjoy bourbon has just not found the right one for their palate.” — Hunter Johnson, Owner & Bartender, Lucky, Roanoke, Va.
“Old Forester 86. It is a lower alcohol content than some, and its flavor profile is not offensive or complicated in any regards. It’s also at a very fair price point. In my bar program, I actually selected it as our ‘well’ bourbon. It’s not at all a low-quality option, and for an elevated cocktail bar, I want every bourbon cocktail to have a fighting chance at being likable. My favorite way to use it is with a deep, natural sweetener like honey or maple, and then a fall/winter fruit like fig or cherry.” — Meg Hoberg, Lead Bartender, Bode, Nashville
“Bright Lights, Big Bourbon is a great bourbon for beginners. The 2020 release from Hudson Whiskey is unapologetically sippable and stands up in a cocktail without being a bully. Notes of brine and caramel make this New York bourbon perfect for tinkering with classics at home. I like to throw it in a highball with a splash of apricot eau de vie, but you could really put it in whatever you desire; it’s extremely versatile. Bourbon has such an intense following (I’m looking at you, fellow spirit nerds) and rich history that can make it really intimidating for the uninitiated, but I assure you there’s nothing bourbon enthusiasts love more than getting to share their knowledge. So, just ask your bartender for a recommendation and imbibe.” — Sörine Anderson, Bar Manager, Bar Blondeau, Brooklyn
“For someone getting into bourbon, I’d recommend the Wilderness Trail Single Barrel Wheated Bourbon (the yellow label), bottled at 100 proof, or ‘Bottled in Bond.’ Wheated bourbons, those in which rye is replaced by wheat as the second most prevalent component of the mash bill, tend to be softer on the palate and less aggressive with the spice notes. This style of bourbon gives you all the vanilla, toffee, cornbread, and cacao along with subdued baking spice to balance it out. What I like about this whiskey is its versatility. Because it’s wheated, one can drink it neat or with a few drops of water. It’s also bottled at 100 proof, so it takes well to a few ice cubes or a nice cocktail like a classic Manhattan or Old Fashioned for an interesting take on both drinks, which usually call for rye. You’ll find the wheat really brings out the sweetness of the corn mash in the bourbon itself and I see it as a good stepping stone for people as they progress into spicier, or higher-proof bourbons.” — Donato Alvarez, Beverage Director, Dauphine’s, Washington, D.C.
“Knob Creek. It’s easy to drink, most bars carry it, and it’s a well-known label so it’s easy to find for your home bar. The dark cherry notes and smoky flavors work great in Manhattans. It’s 100 proof, so it’s definitely on the stronger side.” — Le Chau, GM and Beverage Director, Tobiuo Sushi & Bar, Katy, Texas