Bourbon is a distinctively American product with a rich history in its home state of Kentucky. But bourbon isn’t limited to Kentucky: It comes from all over the United States. Local distilleries from less bourbon-heralded states such as Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina are turning out memorable bottlings that bartenders are eager to praise.
As bourbon’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, bartenders continue to be wowed by its nuances, offering tasting notes that range from “dark cherries and chocolate” to “cherry hookah” to “bananas and clove.” And though the price of bourbon has steadily risen, many beverage pros are amazed at the depth and consistency that even affordable bottles deliver.
To help our readers dive into the wide world of bourbon, we asked bartenders from Nashville to New York what they consider the most underrated. These are the bottles that they can’t get enough of, the ones they stock their home and back bars with, and the ones they turn to at the end of a long shift or to toast with friends. Read on for their expert picks and discover new favorites (or revisit overlooked bottles) including an under-$25 stunner that beats out four-figure bottles in blind tastings; and a 105-proof flavor bomb that holds its own in cocktails.
Most Underrated Bourbons Recommended by Bartenders:
- Russell’s Reserve 10 Year
- Smooth Ambler Contradiction
- Eagle Rare Single Barrel
- Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon
- 1792 Small Batch Bourbon
- Stellum Bourbon
- Evan Williams Single Barrel
- Isaac Bowman Port Barrel Finished
- W.L. Weller Special Reserve
- John AP Conoley Bourbon Whiskey
- Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style
- Evan Williams Bottled in Bond
- Basil Hayden’s
- Pinhook Bourbon Heist
Keep reading for details about all of the recommended bottles!
“Russell’s Reserve 10 Year. At only $35 to $40 per bottle, this is an affordable bourbon to keep on your bar and enjoy frequently. When I heard it was from the same company as Wild Turkey, I was hesitant. I think everyone around my age has some memory of a plastic bottle of Wild Turkey snuck out to a party. The company dates to the 1800s and has rich history in Kentucky. This is from the Russell family, Jimmy Russell, the master distiller of Wild Turkey since 1954, and his son, Eddie. The flavor profile is more nuanced, but it’s still an easy-sipping bourbon.”— Tara Glick, Managing Partner and Beverage Director, Porter, Weehawken, N.J.
“Smooth Ambler Contradiction. I could go on all day about the Smooth Ambler distillery, their grain-to-bottle process, their procurement procedure, the wildly talented staff. I first had Contradiction at the Irish Pub [now Washington Street Pub] in Lewisburg, W. Va. I noticed the Smooth Ambler logo on a black label with an elephant standing on a barrel. I was already a fan of their gin and had enjoyed their High West, but this stuff really blew me away. It’s a blend of the bourbon they make and the bourbon they buy. It’s the bottle I grab when it’s dealer’s choice at the restaurant, it’s the bottle I grab when I get home after a long shift. It’s warm and dark and has this cherry hooka mildness to it. Contradiction is complex enough to enjoy all by itself, but who doesn’t like a nice muddled Old Fashioned?” — Mikey Mullikin, Bartender, The Waterwheel Restaurant, Warm Springs, Va.
“Eagle Rare Single Barrel. I discovered this bourbon around 2010 when I started to take spirits seriously. An ABC employee at a local Chapel Hill store who shared some of the same interest recommended it to me. Consistency is huge for me. The bourbon industry has changed so much over the last 10 years and quality has been the biggest loss, in my opinion. To this day, this bourbon has always managed to deliver quality for the price. Doesn’t hurt that Buffalo Trace is producing this whiskey — it just makes it a bit tougher to track down these days. I love this bourbon on its own. It’s mindlessly delicious. I love it most after a long week, after a shift maybe, with a cold beer.” — Jordan Joseph, Bartender, Crawford and Son, Raleigh, N.C.
“Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon. It is a familiar favorite in Texas, and I seem to have to rediscover it every few years. When I do, I always say, ‘I forget how good this is!’ Wild Turkey is one of the ubiquitous whiskey brands that so often gets overlooked. It’s a high-rye bourbon with lots of flavor and a big finish. I prefer the higher-proof 101 because it stands up so well on ice or in cocktails. Even diluted, it has a fantastic flavor; it’s a brawny, bold bourbon, making it a classic choice. I have had the opportunity to meet three generations of Russells, the family that makes Wild Turkey, and I am continually impressed with their dedication to simple quality. I like to enjoy two fingers of Wild Turkey 101 on a big rock of ice, sipped slowly, and accompanied with a good book.” — Brian Floyd, Beverage Director, Store House Market and Eatery, Bastrop, Texas
“1792 Small Batch Bourbon. I randomly came across this bottle in college when a buddy of mine and I would buy a different bottle every month and we happened upon it. It’s such a quality product for the affordable price point. I was immediately blown away. It uses a high-rye mash build, giving it a distinct spice that mixes well with the vanilla and caramel notes to give this bourbon a bold but smooth taste. Since discovering this bourbon, 1792 Small Batch Bourbon has gotten some notoriety in the bourbon world. The company has also released limited editions with different mash builds and finishing techniques. I like to enjoy 1792 on the rocks or in a Manhattan.” —Greg Heiremans, Bar Manager, Asheville Proper, Asheville, N.C.
“Stellum Bourbon. Born from the same force behind the premium Barrell bourbons, ryes, and blended whiskies, Stellum is a newcomer that is already making a splash. It’s also an overproof Bourbon; I enjoy it neat with a few drops of chilled water, which really brings forward the spirit’s notes of banana, clove, allspice, and nutmeg, or, in an Old Pal. I can’t wait to try it in eggnog, where I imagine it would make for an incredibly delicious, age-worthy bottled cocktail.” — Chris Struck, Beverage Director, ilili, NYC
“I will scream it till I’m blue in the face that Evan Williams Single Barrel is the best bourbon on the market for the money. I have blind tasted it for people against bottles that go for thousands of dollars on the secondary market, and it wins every time. I found it while doing my research and tasting for the opening of American Whiskey NYC and I’ve been a fan ever since. The depth of flavor for a whiskey that is usually less than $25 a bottle was astounding to me. It’s sweet and inviting, while also having an immense amount of structure, and a really pleasant finish. I drink it neat. It is such a fine and complex whiskey it is a cocktail in and of its own.” — Jon Howard, Bar Director, The Continental and Audrey, Nashville
“Isaac Bowman Port barrel aged bourbon. We had an influx of really good bourbon at our local [ABC] branch and I gave it a whirl. That port finish is absolutely nuts; subtle, but not! The grape and vanilla will stand out, but that almost spiced rum profile will make you remember what you’re enjoying. Personally, I really dig it on the rocks, neat, and even in an Old Fashioned, subbing in Muscadine grapes for the citrus. We need more people to sing praises of this beautiful bourbon. Like anything, we need to talk about it more — with friends and an open bottle.” — Jimmy Huynh, Jimmy the Bartender at Shoto, Lexington, N.C.
“W.L. Weller Special Reserve. It’s wheated so it’s remarkably smooth and as you analyze it, it becomes clear that even though this is the “entry level” offering from this distiller, it has some serious quality of juice and blending/aging. It’s smooth, lightly spiced, and perfectly balanced. Wheated bourbons tend to be more approachable. I also love the long finish with vanilla and baking spices—it seems to last forever. I like to enjoy it neat with a splash of water or a large rock.” — Zach Kameron, Beverage Director, Peak, NYC
“John AP Conoley Bourbon Whiskey from Bogue Sound Distillery gets my praises. For under $26 a bottle, it’s comfortably priced to keep on any home bar or professional back bar. It’s a flavor bomb of a bourbon and holds its own very well in cocktails. On the nose, you’re filled with notes of oak and dark cherries, raisins, and vanilla. It is bottled at 105 proof, so be careful not to burn your nose with the sneakily sharp bite on the inhale. On the tongue, you get that familiar bite, coated with sweetness. The body isn’t heavy, but the flavor is long-lasting. Warm baking spices, stone fruit, and smoke linger with strong notes of cinnamon. A light nuttiness can be found, though quickly fleeting, on the tongue. Paired with citrus, the warm smoke — that holds the familiarity of lapsang souchong — becomes even more present. In the cooler months, John AP Conoley is my first grab when making boozy hot apple cider, hot toddies, or a soul-warming Manhattan. Year round, I enjoy it in a Whiskey Sour, with ginger, or my favorite way, as the substitute for blended Scotch in a Penicillin.” — Sarah McCabe, Bartender, Osteria Georgi, Chapel Hill, N.C.
“Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style. I originally discovered this whiskey while working at The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill, N.C. That bar was a whiskey library of sorts, and 1920 stood out as an incredible value. Big, bold, and nuanced, it demands the respect that many high-dollar bourbons receive, but at a fraction of the price. This is a bottle that is readily available, that you can treat yourself to throughout the year. Many other comparable whiskeys are allocated and quickly scooped up by collectors before the masses can try them. A lot of the best whiskeys you just can’t find on the shelves. This is real bourbon, no frills, just full-flavored whiskey. I get beautiful dark cherry, cedar, and chocolate notes with an amazing body and texture. One thing I’m fond of is that the high-rye mash bill recipe is a big inspiration for other whiskey brands, especially the very popular brand Woodford Reserve. I like it sipped neat, used in a dry and bracing Old Fashioned, or when indulged in a small shot.” — Robby Dow, Beverage Director, Grand Army Bar, Brooklyn
“Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond (white label). If anything is labeled ‘bottled-in-bond,’ you know you’re getting a good product. It’s basically a government seal of approval that the bourbon was made following a set of regulations. I’d say this bottle is underrated mostly because of its under-$20 price point. It’s full-flavored, smooth, with a touch of sweetness (not a bad thing!). It’s distilled using the same mash bill as other Heaven Hill brands (Elijah Craig, Henry Mckenna, Heaven Hill). I like it in an Old Fashioned.” — Brandon Grogan, General Manager, Buxton Hall, Asheville, N.C.
“Eagle Rare. With the price point of this product, the flavor profile that comes out of it, and the fact that it is made at Buffalo Trace distillery, this is one of the most overlooked bourbons on the market today. My buddy who gave me my first taste really likes to pair flavors with a setting that you can put yourself in. I have adopted this idea to this day. He said, ‘Think about sitting around a campfire roasting s’mores when you were a kid.’ That’s exactly what this is to me. The flavor profile is toasted marshmallow, a hint of chocolate, and a slightly smoky oak. I prefer to drink Eagle Rare neat in a rocks glass to experience all of the warm, toasty notes it has to offer.” — Zachery West, Bar Lead, White Limozeen, Nashville
“Basil Hayden’s. I discovered it at a speakeasy in the West Village. It is just an elegant spirit with an elegant taste. It is sweet with a spice ending. With a nice whiskey like this one I don’t like to mix it much; I’d rather enjoy it on the rocks or drink it neat. But if you are to mix it, try it in an Old Fashioned — the bitters in the cocktail and citrus oils of the garnish explode its flavors.” — Oscar Gil, Head Bartender, Scampi, NYC
“Pinhook Bourbon Heist. While developing the bourbon program at Farmer’s Creekside Tavern and Inn, I wanted to bring in product that was more than just the big-name brands. Pinhook has a special and unique way of selecting their bourbons. They take a chance on young bourbon and make an educated guess to see how this bourbon will age, and then they launch the new bourbon. The flavor profile is very complex. You have the citrus and brown sugar on the nose but then the taste is a lot lighter than you expect. On the palate you will find cocoa and dark fruit; the finish is sweet and a tad peppery. I like to enjoy it with one large ice cube; adding the ice cube allows the bourbon to develop its finishing notes and makes it a little less harsh on the palate.” — Maria Valencia, Assistant General Manager and Bartender, Farmer’s Creekside Tavern and Inn, Le Roy, N.Y.