How to Find the Best Sipping Bourbon

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Did you know some bourbons were made just for sipping and some for drinking? In this guide, I will discuss what sipping bourbon is, how it’s made, and what makes good bourbon so good. I’ll also suggest my top 7 favorite sipping bourbons for you to try based on their taste profiles, price range, and quality. Ready to relax and learn about bourbon? Take out a glass, and let’s get started.

Top 3 Picks

Before branching out into the specifics of bourbon, I’d like to recommend our top 3 favorite bourbons to you. I’ll cover what makes these 3 bottles so special further down in the article, but if you’re new to bourbon or simply want new ideas, check out these 3 first.

Best Overall: Widow Jane 10 Year Straight Bourbon

Best Taste: Wyoming Whiskey Small Batch Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Best for Newbies: Evan Williams Single Barrel

What Is a Sipping Bourbon?

Simply put, a sipping bourbon is what I consider a “good” bourbon. Bottom shelf bourbon is something you can mix into mixed drinks, but usually, the burn in cheap bourbon is too harsh to enjoy sipping instead of the drinking experience.

Quality bourbon will make the sipping process enjoyable because the bourbon was made more carefully. You’ll be able to actually identify the flavors and aromas instead of being punched in the nose with alcohol. The mouthfeel will be smooth like butter instead of a strong burning sensation.

bourbon glass

Why You Should Sip Bourbon

Sipping bourbons allows you to enjoy its aromas, flavors, and mouthfeel to the fullest. Oftentimes, when mixed with soft drinks, coffee, and other beverages, the subtle notes in the bourbon that make it such a standout are lost.

There’s a chance you’ll still taste the sweetness of the bourbon in a mixed drink, and maybe some caramel or vanilla notes; however, you’ll miss all the delicious notes under those specific to that bottle.

Bourbon vs. Whiskey

You know how a square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square? Bourbon and whiskey are similar, but bourbon is the square, and whiskey is the rectangle. All bourbons are technically a type of whiskey, but they have defining characteristics from whiskies not considered bourbons. I made a chart to explain.

Bourbon

 

  • 51% of the mash to make it is corn, which is partially what gives it a sweet flavor
  • Has to be made in America to be considered bourbon
  • Huge portion is made in Kentucky
  • Must be aged in a new American Oak cask
  • The cask has to be charred on the inside to give bourbon its smoky flavor
Whiskey

 

  • Can be made of corn, wheat, barley, etc.
  • Does not always have a sweet flavor
  • Can be made anywhere in the world
  • Can be made from a variety of wooden casks, and the casks do not have to be new
  • The inside of the cask does not have to be charred, but sometimes it is

How Is Bourbon Made?

Being made in America is one requirement for bourbon to be considered bourbon, but many specific processes go into making this drink. The careful way bourbon is crafted is what makes it so unique. Curious? Here’s how it’s made:

  1. A mixture of grains (that have to be at least 51% corn) and water and mashed together.
  2. This mashing process releases starch molecules inside the corn into the water, which is how germination happens.
  3. The starches in the water become sugar, which is then collected and stored to be used in fermentation.
  4. Yeast is added to the sugar water, because the yeast will gobble up all the sugars and convert them into alcohol.
  5. Next, the mixture is distilled in a boiling process that refines the flavors.
  6. Vapors rise from the mixture as it is heated, and these vapors are collected to make the bourbon.
  7. A new American oak cask has to be charred on the inside to give bourbon its smoky flavor.
  8. The spirit is added to the American oak casks to mature.
  9. After aging for years, the bourbon is usually sampled for flavor and then bottled.

How to Drink or Sip Bourbon

I recommend investing a little money into a genuine whiskey glass. The shape of the glass is made for you to be able to first swirl your drink to watch how streaks form on the sides of the glass. Then, you can swirl again to take an inhale that lands you smack dab in caramel-and-butter heaven.

The top of the glass is also made so that you can take small sips without a sudden rush of liquid filling your mouth. Trust the engineers who made whiskey glasses, whoever they are, because they knew what they were doing.

maker's mark bourbon

What Makes a Good Bourbon?

The price point isn’t the only thing that will signify a great bourbon to you. While top-shelf bourbons are typically better quality than bottom-shelf bourbons, it’s all about the process that makes the drink.

For one thing, aged bourbon makes for good bourbon. Particularly if bourbon is over 10 years old, it has had time to mature and steep in flavor. While bourbons older than 2 decades may not be for the faint of heart, I certainly recommend it for experienced bourbon drinkers.

I also appreciate bourbons that come from high-quality distilleries. These bottles of bourbon will usually list the specific notes you’ll find in the smell, taste, and finish. Time was taken to craft these individual notes in specific batches that are clearly labeled. This makes for great bourbon, too.

What Makes a Bad Bourbon?

Oh, bad bourbon. We’ve all been there. Maybe you’re in college on a budget or simply don’t have anything left in the liquor cabinet. Either way, bad bourbon is typically cheap, mass-produced, and the bottle doesn’t list more than a few (or no) notes you’re supposed to be picking up on.

Even if those notes are listed, you can barely taste or smell them in bad bourbon! The pungent alcoholic bite makes it hard to sip and even more difficult to swallow. Instead of smooth, buttery goodness, you taste chemicals on your tongue. Bleh.

Stay away from bourbon that doesn’t list when it was produced or distinctive notes. Stay away from bottom-shelf bourbon. We’re sorry, but it is what it is.

Best Sipping Bourbons

We’ve done a lot of bourbon tasting in our time, and after all of it, these are the top 7 sipping bourbons I have to recommend. You’ll smell and taste each individual note. The mouthfeel is smooth. Any of these would be fantastic served as neat or on the rocks with one giant ice cube (so less of it melts into the drink, diluting it.)

Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bourbon, 10-Year, Bottled in Bond

henry mckenna

Best For: Unique herbal notes

About

This 10-year-old bottle of bourbon has unique herbal notes that are uncommon for this type of drink. I love it. Henry McKenna is a reputable brand, and they’ve got a loyal following of bourbon fanatics. This bottle can be bought in a 750 ml size or a 375 ml size. Being 50% alcohol, you’ll feel a nice buzz as you drink it without the alcoholic bite.

  • Notes: Caramel, herbal, honey, oak, spicy, vanilla
  • Alcohol %: 50%
  • Price Range: $60-$70
  • Best Characteristic: Herbal notes

Pairs Well With

  • Pair this drink with beef, cheeses, and nuts like:
  • Steaks and chuck roast
  • Hard, aged cheeses
  • Walnuts, almonds, and macadamia nuts

Henry McKenna | The Whisky Exchange

Medium-bodied, yet intensely flavoured, with a strong blast of spice amid the dark sugar and vanilla notes.

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Pros

  • Higher alcohol percentage
  • Unique herbal flavors
  •  10+ years old

Cons

  • May be too strong for new bourbon drinkers

Maker’s Mark Bourbon Whiskey

maker's mark

Best For: Fruit Notes

About

This bottle of bourbon, made in Kentucky, is from another high-quality brand I love. The spiced fruit flavors come alive on the tongue and in the nose. Being 45% alcohol, it still has a nice boozy kick to it. I also appreciate the unique packaging details for the lid, which appear to be red drips running down the glass.

  • Notes: Spiced honey, fruit, citrus peel
  • Alcohol %: 45%
  • Price Range: $50-$62
  • Best Characteristic: Fruit and citrus peel notes

Pairs Well With

Pair this drink with fresh, crisp fruits like:

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Pomegranate seeds
  • Oranges

Pros

  • Delicious fruit notes
  • Reasonably priced
  • Unique bottle design

Cons

  • Year isn’t listed

Widow Jane 10 Year Straight Bourbon

widow jane

Best For: Overall

About

This is our favorite bourbon I have to show you. These notes are so warm and complex, from the butter and cherry to creamy flavors and tobacco notes… You’ll fall in love. Though this is a pricier bottle, you get what you pay for in this case. Being aged 10 years only makes it better.

  • Notes: Biscuit, butter, cherry, creamy, honey, minerality, rich, smooth, toasty, tobacco
  • Alcohol %: 45.5%
  • Price Range: $70-$80
  • Best Characteristic: Beautifully complex notes

Pairs Well With

Pair this drink with beef, desserts, and coffee, such as:

  • T-Bone Steaks
  • Brisket
  • Chocolate cake
  • Dark chocolate
  • Hot coffee with cream

Pros

  • Delicious notes
  • Aged 10 years
  • Reputable brand

Cons

  • Pricy

Evan Williams Single Barrel

evan williams

Best For: Newbies

About

Maybe you’re new to sipping bourbon, and that’s okay. I have this drink for you, which has a simple set of notes that no one could complain about. Honey, oak, and vanilla are classic when it comes to bourbon.

Being 43.3%, it is also a little weaker than some of the other choices. This bourbon was made in Kentucky, which is something I like to see. The year isn’t listed, which means it won’t be terribly strong for beginners.

  • Notes: Honey, oak, vanilla
  • Alcohol %: 43.3%
  • Price Range: $25-$35
  • Best Characteristic: Simple blend of delicious notes

Pairs Well With

This drink is known to pair well with desserts and nuts like:

  • Raw honeycombs
  • Honey cake
  • Vanilla scones
  • Cinnamon rolls
  • Walnuts
  • Pecans
  • Chestnuts

Pros

  • Perfect for beginners
  • Simple yet delicious notes
  • Most inexpensive on the list

Cons

  • Year isn’t listed

Heaven’s Door Straight Bourbon Whiskey

heaven's door

Best For: Gorgeous Bottle Design

About

If you’re giving bourbon to someone as a gift, this is the flashiest bottle on the list. I love the gorgeous gold and black design on the front and how regal the packaging is. The notes are simple but enjoyable to all bourbon lovers.

Also being reasonably priced for great quality bourbon, I can’t complain about the 46% alcohol content, either. This bottle of sipping bourbon has been aged for a minimum of 6 years; however, the exact year isn’t listed.

  • Notes: Spices, vanilla, toasted oak
  • Alcohol %: 46%
  • Price Range: $45-$55
  • Best Characteristic: Beautiful bottle

Pairs Well With

This drink pairs well with desserts like:

  • Coffee cake
  • Cinnamon rolls
  • Cinnamon cake
  • Pecan rolls
  • Bread pudding

Heaven’s Door Straight Bourbon Whiskey | Drizly

Heaven's Door Straight Bourbon Whiskey, aged for a minimum of 6 years, is exceptional by all measures: smooth and lasting with notes of baking spices and vanilla layered over a bed of toasted oak.

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Pros

  • Beautiful bottle design
  • Simple and delicious notes
  • Reasonably priced

Cons

  • Year isn’t listed

Russel’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon

Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon

Best For: Experienced Drinkers

About

This one is for all the experienced bourbon sippers out there. You know who you are. The notes in this drink are classic, but they’ve got a spicy kick to them and delicious flavors of toffee. You’ll feel that extra uptick in alcohol percentages with this drink at 55%. Each barrel used to make the bourbon in this bottle has its own distinctive flavors, which adds complexity to this bottle.

  • Notes: Spicy, rich, toffee, vanilla
  • Alcohol %: 55%
  • Price Range: $55-$65
  • Best Characteristic: Complexity within simple notes

Pairs Well With

This drink pairs the best with coffee and desserts like:

  • Turtle brownies
  • German chocolate cake
  • Caramel lava cake
  • Hot coffee with cream and sugar

Russel’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon | Drizly

Bottled at 90 proof, this hand-selected, small batch bourbon is aged for a minimum of 10 years in #4 "Alligator" charred American Oak barrels resulting in rich caramel and vanilla flavors and uniquely smooth finish. These bold notes make our 10 Year perfect for classic cocktails, like the Boulevardier (a Negroni riff with bourbon!)

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Pros

  • Delicious notes
  • High alcohol %
  • Made in Kentucky

Cons

  • Year isn’t listed

Wyoming Whiskey Small Batch Straight Bourbon Whiskey

wyw

Best For: Taste

About

When it all comes down to taste, this is our favorite sipping bourbon. Buttery, creamy, and fruity with a dash of cinnamon and vanilla? We’re sold. The different notes interact together harmoniously when sipped from a whiskey glass. This bourbon is also very reasonably priced for what it is.

  • Notes: Butter, cinnamon, creamy, floral, nectarine, vanilla
  • Alcohol %: 44%
  • Price Range: $37-$47
  • Best Characteristic: Flavor

Pairs Well With

According to Wyoming whiskey, this complex bourbon pairs well with:

  • Beef like steaks, brisket, and chuck roast
  • Fish like salmon, cod, halibut, and pollack
  • Desserts like toffee cake, bread pudding, and vanilla shortbread

Pros

  • Delicious notes
  • Woman-owned company
  • Reasonable price

Cons

  • Only aged 5 years instead of 10

FAQ

In our last segment of this boozy guide, we’re going to answer your most frequently asked questions about sipping bourbon. Good bourbon gives you such a warm, sweet, enjoyable experience that it would be crazy for us not to want to talk about it!

That’s why, if you have any more questions I haven’t answered in this article, please leave us a comment below with your question so I can get back to you with a response.

Question: Are You Supposed to Sip Bourbon?

Answer: Ideally, yes. Good bourbon is meant to be sipped. For the optimal experience, invest a little money in a quality whiskey glass. Different types of glasses will give you a different drinking experience, depending on the shape, thickness, and other factors.

If you enjoy bourbon on the rocks, consider using one big ice cube instead of lots of tiny ice cubes to fill your glass with. Since large ice melts slower, your bourbon won’t be as diluted by the time you’re ¾ of the way done with your drink.

Question: What Bourbon Can You Drink Straight?

Answer: I only recommend drinking good bourbon straight. Remember, the point of drinking straight bourbon is to enjoy its sweet, classical notes-not to get smashed in the face with the smell and taste of alcohol.

Quality bourbon will be from a reputable distillery. You can always research particular distilleries online to see if you like their methods and bottles from different years. Typically, good bourbon will all be made of mash from the same batch, too, so the flavors are crafted carefully.

Question: Is Bourbon a Sipping Whiskey?

Answer: Bourbon is a sipping whiskey. While you can always add bourbon into a mixed drink (and there are plenty of popular drinks that call for bourbon) I prefer it neat or on the rocks. You sip bourbon so you can appreciate the way it was crafted. You can enjoy the rich, smoky flavors of the charred American oak barrel and the buttery flavors of the corn.

We’ve Reached the Bottom of the Glass

Well, it looks like we’ve reached the bottom of the glass. Today, I went over what sipping bourbon is, how bourbon is made, and what separates good bourbon from bad. I also got to share my 7 favorite sipping bourbons with you so you can try out great bourbon yourself.

Although, personally, I love the Wyoming Whiskey Small Batch Straight Bourbon Whiskey for its amazing taste.

Do you have any comments, questions, or fun stories related to bourbon? Please leave them in the comments below, and I’ll get back to you with an answer. For even more great guides like this one, check out this breakdown of brandy VS whiskey.

Recommended reads:

Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond enjoys reviewing all things Whiskey and helping people find the perfect drink or product for their taste. Why are you giving advice on Whiskey Watch? I love whiskey. The smell, the taste, the way it differs from everything else. I love how versatile and layered it can be. I’ve experienced so many kinds, and now I get to share that. What is your favorite Whiskey? It’s so hard to pick just one but I do love a good bourbon. Where does your passion for Whiskey come from? Growing up, I had an uncle who used to make whiskey. The smell brings me back every time. And now, as an adult, I get to experience the varying tastes. If you could give people a word of advice regarding Whiskey, what would it be? Start with something milder and work your way up to the more robust flavors.