The big race in Kentucky this weekend is synonymous with extravagant hats, ballsy bets and cocktails served in icy silver cups. That’s right: julep season is upon us. Time to stock up on bourbon. And why not splurge on a good craft bourbon whiskey now that so many are readily available? From Kentucky Straights to small-batch Yankee bourbons to sweet corn whiskeys from the West Coast, there’s no shortage of brown liquors for your mint julep. Of course, with bourbons as fine as these, you’ll probably want to sip ’em straight.
1. Four Roses 2013 Limited-Edition Single-Barrel ($80)
Four Roses is where it’s at when it comes to excellent value. We strongly urge you to use the original Four Roses with the yellow label in your mint julep. But you might not be able to bring yourself to mix the brand’s new limited-edition bourbon, released this spring. Bottled at barrel strength, which is anywhere from 100.6 to 114.4 proof, only about 4,000 bottles went out to the market. Also read our interview with Four Roses distiller, Jim Rutledge.
2. Redemption High-Rye ($30)
By law, in order to be called bourbon, a whiskey must be made from a grain bill that is at least 51% corn and must be aged in charred new oak barrels. Other grains in the mash typically include wheat, rye and malted barley. Bardstown Barrel Selections, makers of Redemption Rye, have such a penchant for rye that they decided to make this high-rye-content bourbon. Distilled in Indiana and bottled in Bardstown, Kentucky, it’s a spicy small-batch bourbon that clocks in at a bold 92 proof.
3. Willett Single-Barrel “Estate Reserve” ($50)
To have the words “Kentucky Straight Bourbon” on the bottle, all of the whiskey therein must be produced and aged in Kentucky, according to bourbon rules (see above). This Kentucky Straight is sweetly honeyed and pleasantly spiced. Plus, it comes in a handsome bottle shaped like a copper pot still.
4. High West “American Prairie Reserve” ($40)
Following last spring’s launch of their “Campfire” blend of bourbon, rye and scotch, this Park City, Utah, distillery released this latest offering last fall. It’s not a bourbon per se, but a blend of straight bourbons named for a nature reserve located on Montana’s High Plains. Proceeds go toward plans to expand it to roughly the size of Connecticut. A sweet, fruity, caramelized way to give back.
5. Hirsch Selection Small Batch Reserve ($40)
Courtesy of Anchor Distilling, based in San Francisco, this award-winning Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey offers great value. It has notes of oak and pine, giving way to dried fruit, baking spices, vanilla and pepper. For a bigger splurge, look for the 28-year-old bottling. You’ll only have to pony up $425 or so for it.
6. Maker’s Mark 46 ($50)
Remember the brand’s recent “New Coke” moment, when it tried to offer a weaker-proof bourbon to drinkers’ rather vocal dismay? Well, now that all that nonsense is behind us… did you know Maker’s also has a high-proof bourbon? The 46 is a 94-proof whiskey that gets aged longer than the original and is exposed to toasted French oak wood staves. The result is a spicy, woody, sweet Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
7. Hudson Whiskey Four Grain Bourbon ($50)
Made in New York state at Tuthilltown Spirits, this small-batch bourbon in the adorable fat medicine bottle is a gem if you can find it. It’s a blend of corn, rye, wheat and malted barley, 90% of which is sourced from within 10 miles of the distillery. The result is sweet and peppery, a mellow bourbon made for sipping.
8. Woodford Reserve 2013 Kentucky Derby Bottle
Woodford Reserve has been the official Kentucky Derby bourbon for the past 15 years. Its 2013 commemorative Derby bottle features the artwork from Oregon artist Eric Bowman. Regardless of what’s on the outside, the inside is Woodford’s signature Kentucky Straight Bourbon, exuding caramel and dried fruit character, with a peppery finish.
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