30 Top-Shelf Bourbons You Should Know

The beauty of bourbon is that the stringent laws around its production — enforced to guarantee a minimum level of quality — mean it's fairly hard to find a bad one. With plenty of excellent budget bourbons available, it can seem pointless to spend extra on a bottle that's claimed to be "top-shelf." At least, that's what people think until they've tried a true, premium bourbon.

The good news is that while the best bourbons do cost more, there's not a strict rule that the more you spend, the better it gets. If you've got thousands of dollars to spare on a super rare limited-release bourbon, then, by all means, go for it. It's also possible to experience top-shelf bourbons for as little as $50. More important than price or rarity is taste. 

There are a few things that most top–shelf bourbons have in common: While bourbons don't age as gracefully as other types of whiskey, older bourbons normally have a greater depth of character with woodier characteristics and a smoothness that comes from having time to develop. Small-batch bourbons are blended from a small selection of the best barrels in a distillery, while single-barrel bourbons are hand-picked from just one barrel from which to draw the final product.

With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the most notable top-shelf bourbons worth having on your radar.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed

Rare Breed is an exemplary example of bourbon craftsmanship. This top-shelf whiskey is blended from barrels of 6-, 8-, and 12-year-old bourbons that are hand-selected by Wild Turkey's world-renowned master distiller, Eddie Russell. Undiluted and bottled at a robust 58.4% ABV, Rare Breed has a powerful vanilla-forward flavor profile with strong notes of caramel and a spicy kick. Without chill filtration, the whiskey retains all of its rich characteristics, making it a must-try for those who love bold and unapologetic bourbons.

Maker's Mark 101

Even the most casual bourbon drinkers have likely heard of Maker's Mark, a whiskey known for its approachability and versatility. Still bulking up the corn-dominant malt bill with red winter wheat for a smoother profile, Maker's Mark 101 is a more intense and complex variant of the classic expression.

At 50.5% ABV, Maker's Mark 101 has become a favorite among bourbon drinkers who value reliability alongside quality. Although 101 was originally only available overseas, the limited edition bourbon is easy to source in the US at an extremely reasonable price.

Henry McKenna 10 Year Single Barrel

Named for an Irish immigrant who was famed for bringing his family's whiskey-making expertise across the pond to Kentucky, Henry McKenna 10-Year Single Barrel is a testament to the history of American distilling. While not the only whiskey in the Henry McKenna range, the 10-Year Single Barrel stands out as a top-shelf pick. The skill of the distiller and the extended aging allow the bourbon's rich caramel and vanilla notes to develop to perfection, offering a smooth, oaky drinking experience with a spicy finish.

Russell's Reserve Single Barrel

Another offering from the Wild Turkey distillery, Russell's Reserve Single Barrel is named in honor of the company's two iconic master distillers. Jimmy Russell joined the company in 1954 and his son, Eddie, followed in his father's footsteps this single-barrel expression is an homage to generations of bourbon craftsmanship.

Russell's Reserve Single Barrel is a true connoisseur's bourbon, with the barrels handpicked by the Russells themselves, boasting a rich and full-bodied flavor profile of toffee and vanilla.

Four Roses Single Barrel

Four Roses Single Barrel is an award-winning bourbon that offers a much more rewarding experience than the distillery's core expression. Each bottle is drawn from a unique barrel, aged between 7 and 9 years, showcasing an array of flavors from stone fruit and spice to cocoa and maple syrup. At 50% ABV, it's a whiskey with a little bite but that's still smooth enough to sip neat, and it's surprisingly affordable given its superior quality.

Woodford Reserve Double Oaked

Taking barrel aging to another level, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked is a premium expression of classic Woodford, using a unique process to elevate the bourbon's flavor. After being matured in new charred oak barrels, the whiskey is then transferred to a second barrel with a heavily toasted interior. The result is a complex bourbon with deep layers of dark cocoa, toasted oak, and rich caramel – the perfect tipple for drinkers who appreciate innovation within the industry.

Michter's US*1 Small Batch

Crafted in small batches, Michter's US*1 Small Batch is a testament to precision and high standards. Each batch is made in a holding tank that only fits twenty barrels of bourbon, so there's no margin for error. Fortunately, Michter's are expert distillers, so while the exact characteristics of their bourbon change over time, the superb quality remains consistent. Their US*1 Small Batch offers a harmonious blend of refined flavors, including butterscotch, honey, and toasted oak.

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

While Elijah Craig's Barrel Proof bourbon varies with each batch, it never fails to deliver a bottle packed with flavor. The age of the whiskey tends to be around 12 years, giving it plenty of time to develop and smooth out, and off-setting some of the kick from its high ABV. The nose is extremely rich and powerful and is followed by a delightfully viscous palate of rye, chocolate, oak, and roasted vanilla bean.

Old Forester President's Choice

Old Forester President's Choice is not a whiskey that's easy to get hold of, being a limited yearly release; however, it's worth entering the sweepstakes for the chance to buy a bottle. A single-barrel bourbon, President's Choice gets its name from the fact each barrel is hand-picked by the company's president. The result is a fruity, toasty top-shelf whiskey that never fails to impress with its bold taste and spicy, tannic finish.

Remus Repeal Reserve Series

The Remus Repeal Reserve Series from the Ross & Squire Distillery in Indiana was originally created to commemorate the repeal of the U.S. prohibition laws that decimated the bourbon-making industry at the start of the 20th century. Now on its sixth edition, each release differs in character but never fails to impress the judges on the international award panels. Despite small variances, the Series traditionally offers a spicy, leathery aroma with delicious tasting notes of fig, oak, toffee, and honey.

Calumet Farm 16-Year-Old Single Rack Black

Calumet Farm 16-Year-Old Single Rack Black is a rare gem in the bourbon world – it takes no small amount of patience and craftsmanship to age a bourbon this long while keeping its profile well-balanced. A limited release, Calumet Farm's 16-Year-Old delivers an unparalleled depth of flavor. The prolonged barrel-aging imparts this bourbon with lots of woody character, a touch of smoke, and dark fruit and toffee flavors. Although it's not a cheap bottle, Calumet Farm's 16-Year-Old is worth the higher price it demands.

Booker's Bourbon

It's not uncommon for distilleries to name bourbons after key figures in their history; however, some names are reserved for true icons. This is the case with Booker's, named after Booker Noe, a master distiller at Jim Beam who was the grandson of the man himself. Each batch of Booker's uncut, unfiltered bourbon is unique yet consistently robust with powerful elements of caramel, nuts, and spices. It should be no surprise that it exemplifies small-batch bourbon, given the very concept was created by Noe himself.

Blanton's Gold Edition

While Booker Noe may have invented small-batch bourbon, it was Elmer T Lee who created the first single-barrel bourbon with Blanton's. Named for Colonel Albert B. Blanton, former president of what would eventually become known as the Buffalo Trace distillery, the entire Blanton's range can be considered top-shelf whiskey that's worth exploring. However, Blanton's award-winning Gold Edition is arguably the brand's best expression, as the higher proof intensifies the flavors of honey, citrus, and oak, creating an unforgettable sipping experience.

Knob Creek 12 Year

While there are many expressions of Knob Creek, their core bourbon being 9 years old, it's their 12 Year that really stands out. Not only are you much more likely to be able to source a bottle compared to their limited edition 18-year release, but it's the perfect example of a well-aged bourbon. With a depth of flavor that balances caramelized woody tones with leathered fruit and bold vanilla, Knob Creek 12 Year is an excellent top-shelf bourbon with a reasonable, mid-shelf price.

Elmer T Lee Single Barrel

A tribute to Buffalo Trace's legendary master distiller, the same Elmer T Lee who created Blanton's and the single-barrel concept, this bourbon has a unique yet comfortingly familiar flavor profile. While Lee wasn't behind this particular whiskey, the idea is that the chosen barrels are ones he himself would have picked.

There's a balance of sweetness and spice that makes it universally appealing, with a nose of old leather and clove, and an elegant, complex palate of honey, vanilla, and dried fruits.

Old Elk Straight Wheat

Based out of Colorado, Old Elk is known for an exemplary American whiskey range that isn't afraid to experiment with the mash bill. Technically, not all of the whiskeys can be considered bourbon because some don't contain over 51% corn; however, the wheated bourbon does, and it strikes an incredible balance with the liberal use of the grain.

The Old Elk Straight Wheat delivers an incredibly smooth and mellow character with notes of baking spice and honey, while the distillery's unique "slow cut" dilution process helps the bourbon maintain its more nuanced flavors.

Eagle Rare 10 Year

Eagle Rare is an exceptional top-shelf bourbon, not just because of how it tastes but because it's also relatively easy to find and comes with an incredibly reasonable price tag. While their 17-Year and Double Eagle Very Rare are more premium whiskeys, the cost of Buffalo Trace Eagle Rare Bourbon makes bottles closer to being collector's items at this point.

With a decade of aging, Eagle Rare is an exciting bourbon with heaps of barrel character: molasses and maple syrup on the nose and plenty of full-bodied toffee and vanilla on the palate.

Redemption Bourbon

Redemption has a penchant for making high-rye whiskeys in the pre-Prohibition style. The brand's classic bourbon is one of the cheapest top-shelf bourbons around. You could try and track down one of the 36-year bottles but you'll need around $40,000 to spare, as only 18 were ever bottled. Redemption Bourbon's subtle rye spice shines through perfectly among notes of caramel and vanilla, and it's versatile enough to be used in cocktails or sipped neat.

WhistlePig PiggyBack 100 Proof Bourbon

WhistlePig is known more for the excellent rye whiskeys that make up the bulk of its range, but it turns out the brand is more than capable of turning out a superior small batch of bourbon too. Aged for six years, PiggyBack is a rich, full-bodied bourbon that still showcases its maker's skillful use of rye.

With plenty of brown sugar, maple syrup, and baking spice throughout, PiggyBack is incredibly smooth for its strength, and makes a stellar Old Fashioned.

Basil Hayden

Crafted by Booker Noe himself while working for the Jim Beam distillery, Basil Hayden bourbon is an homage to an early whiskey pioneer known for his high-rye mash bills. Despite the high-rye recipe, Basil Hayden is a beautifully subtle bourbon, as Noe intended for it to be approachable to new bourbon drinkers. It showcases rye's best characteristics, such as honey and citrus, that are balanced with charred oak and dried oak from start to finish.

W.L. Weller Special Reserve

Named after William Larue Weller, supposedly the first distiller to swap out rye for wheat in their mash bill, W.L. Weller Special Reserve is one of the finest examples of a wheated bourbon on the market. It embodies both elegance and depth, reflecting its long and storied heritage. W.L. Weller Special Reserve is smooth and delicate, as a great wheated bourbon should be, with soft caramel, honey, and butterscotch notes, and a subtle oak presence.

1792 Single Barrel

With each bottle drawn from only the finest barrels in the warehouse, 1792 Single Barrel releases have rarely failed to impress. While the bourbon is technically a limited release, expressions are released annually with no plans to stop any time soon. 1792 Single Barrel deserves its countless accolades thanks to its massive caramel aroma and palate of fruits, chocolate, and pastry. It's a bourbon that keeps on giving with a long, layered finish of fudge and baking spice.

John J Bowman Single Barrel

Produced in Virginia, John J Bowman Single Barrel is somewhat of a hidden gem in the world of bourbon. Despite its low profile, this particular expression has won its fair share of international awards over the years, as each bottle is drawn from only the oldest and tastiest barrels in the distillery. There's no age statement, but the maturity is evident in the form of fig, leather, toffee, and almond, and in the bourbon's rich, smooth character.

Bardstown Discovery Series

Each annual release of the Bardstown Discovery Series has so far earned its reputation as a top-shelf bourbon from one of the best distillers in the business. It's a series that embodies collaboration, with employees throughout the distillery having a say in which bourbons make it into the final blend. The result is a rich, well-aged whiskey with spicy rye notes among the classic caramel and vanilla that's a worthy addition to any bourbon collection.

Bib & Tucker 10 Year

Bib & Tucker's 10-Year expression is an older, small-batch bourbon known for its bold yet refined profile. It's also notable for employing the Lincoln County Process — something purists may argue makes it a Tennessee whiskey as opposed to a true bourbon – where the liquid is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before filling the barrel.

Dark and complex, the oak in Bib & Tucker 10 Year is surprisingly subtle, but it still boasts a mature flavor profile of fried fruit, toffee, and dark chocolate.

Noah's Mill Small Batch

Noah's Mill is a small batch bourbon from the Willett Distillery known for its complexity. The result of blending bourbons between four and 20 years old is a harmonious balance of rich flavors.

While all the classic bourbon characteristics are there, Noah's Mill has a unique floral quality to it that compliments dark fruits, burnt caramel, and earthy tobacco. At 57% ABV, Noah's Mill has a chewy, nutty mouthfeel that ends with a long and memorable finish.


Formerly known as Stagg Jr., Stagg is effectively the younger sibling of George T. Stagg, a premium, limited edition bourbon from the Buffalo Trace distillery that's not the easiest to get hold of. Despite being a younger expression, Stagg boasts many of the characteristics that make its older brother so good.

Small batch and uncut, Stagg is almost syrupy in its mouthfeel, with countless flavors present ranging from roasted wood and burnt toffee to spicy citrus and a whole range of fruits.

Woodinville Port Finished

A limited release from the Woodinville Whiskey Company, the Port Finished expression takes an innovative approach to barrel aging. After maturing in the usual new charred oak barrels for five years, the bourbon is then aged in port wine casks for six months to turn up the spicy fruit notes. The finishing process adds touches of plum, cherry, and chocolate that would otherwise be absent, while also producing a more velvety mouthfeel across the palate.

Barrell Bourbon

Barrell Bourbon is a craft bourbon released in ever-changing batches, each with its own unique flavor profile. Currently on Batch 35, few years have gone by without Barrell Bourbon garnering international acclaim for their barrel-strength, small batch whiskey.

While the specifics profiles vary, Barrell is typically a high-corn mash whiskey and the youngest bourbon blended into Barrell is usually 10 years old, so you can expect mature characteristics like pipe tobacco, cinnamon, grilled corn, and toasted nuts.

Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 Year

No list of top-shelf bourbons would be complete without an entry from the royal family of bourbon, the Van Winkles. The name is synonymous with quality, exclusivity, and eye-watering prices. While many would argue that paying thousands of dollars for a bottle of rare bourbon isn't money well spent — in most cases, they'd be right — the jury's out when it comes to Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 Year. 

Aside from being a legendary bottle in the whiskey world, few bourbons age this well, and it's rare in that it effectively tastes exactly how it smells. Almost every element of its powerful and complex aroma transfers directly to the palate before a seemingly neverending finish.