If you pay any attention to our spirits writing, you know we love whiskey. And when it comes to whiskey, we have a special place in our hearts for bourbon. While rum is on the rise nationally, this corn-centric, highly sippable, American classic is still absolutely booming. The increasingly crowded marketplace is dominated by names like Pappy Van Winkle, Wild Turkey, and Blanton’s (though you’d be a fool to ignore the upstart independent distilleries on the scene).
As with any popular spirit, there are a lot of over-hyped bourbons on the market. On the flip side, there are also a good number of under-hyped expressions. Bottles that deserve more love than they currently get. When Alfredo Arroyo, bartender at Joe’s Café in Santa Barbara, California thinks about underrated bourbons, one immediately comes to mind.
“Buffalo Trace,” he says. “It’s now rated the best American small distillery, but still sold at a good price.”
Since we’re all eager to stock our liquor cabinets and bars with underappreciated, high-quality bourbons, we decided to get more insight from professionals like Arroyo. So we asked some of our favorite bartenders to tell us their picks for the most underrated bourbons on the market.
Old Forester 1920
Melissa Reigle, beverage manager and head bartender at Byblos in Miami
Old Forester is underrated and historic. It has been continuously distilled and blended in the US for 150 consecutive years (yes, even through the Prohibition).
If you want to taste what they were distilling and aging during Prohibition (under the guise of medicine), pick up a bottle of the 1920’s expression. At a whopping 115 proof, you won’t be disappointed with this hot medicine.
Nestor Marchand, director of food and beverage at Plunge Beach Resort in Lauderdale, Florida
My underrated bourbon pick is Jim Beam. Everyone is looking at the premium bourbons. Jim Beam quality, at its price level, is hard to find.
Reggie Maharaj, beverage manager at The Peninsula Beverly Hills in Los Angeles
In my opinion, the most underrated bourbon is Booker’s. It’s specially bottled, uncut and unfiltered. They do very little advertising or social media, but I love this bourbon.
Old Grand-Dad Bonded
Shawn Brown, general manager of Wine World in Miramar Beach, Florida
My underrated bourbon of choice is Old Grand-Dad “Bottled in Bond.” It’s reasonably priced, drinkable over ice, and a solid value.
Cory Richardson, bar manager at Hook & Barrel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
There are tons of great underrated bourbons out there that most people just haven’t heard of yet. Elijah Craig has been one of my favorites over the past year, as well as higher proof options like Stagg Jr. amazing flavor profiles on both of those options.
Bulleit Blender’s Select
Reniel Garcia, bar director of Havana 1957 in Miami
My pick is Bulleit 100 Proof Blender’s Select. This bourbon is 50 percent alcohol and it hasn’t been diluted or is only lightly diluted after removal from the barrels. It’s good neat, holds up on the rocks and gives a spicy rye kick to any bourbon-based cocktails you make with it. It’s a great bourbon for bartenders and in-home drinkers alike. It’s very approachable.
Warbinger Warmaster Edition
Mohammed Rahman, bar director at Kata Robata in Houston
With every celebrity trying to diversify their portfolio by jumping into the adult beverage market, most of these partnerships can look like a mere money grab from both parties. Enter Sespe Creek Distillery with their partnership with UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett to present “Warbinger Warmaster Edition.” A small-batch cask strength mesquite-smoked whiskey created by Master Distiller David Brandth Ph.D. Using new techniques to produce a product that tastes aged yet has only been treated for days to weeks.
This is definitely a must-try… if you can find any at the moment.
Seamus Gleason, bartender at Hotel Jackson in Jackson Hole, Wyoming
There’s no more underrated bourbon than Buffalo Trace. This Kentucky straight bourbon hits every time. Sweet with a hint of tang that doesn’t get overly sour.
Evan Williams Black Label
Robert Swain Jr., owner of On the Rox Bartending Service in the British Virgin Islands
100 proof and only about $15 a bottle, Evan Williams is definitely not so popular, but well deserving of praise. Easy to mix with a basic chaser, for a cocktail, or just on the rocks. And let’s be honest, for 15 bucks you won’t be mad if you forget your bottle at the office party.
Four Roses Yellow Label
Kurt Bellon, general manager and beverage director at Chao Baan in St. Louis
Four Roses Yellow Label is my preferred bourbon of choice for any occasion. For its reasonable price and high quality and smoothness, it’s a solid choice when building an Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Paper Plane or even just on the rocks or neat.
Old Forester 86
Tim Wiggins, co-owner and beverage director of Retreat Gastropub in St. Louis
Old Forester 86. I love the earthy and nutty quality of Old Forester. It has enough backbone to stand up in classic cocktails and also works really well in fruit-forward tropical drinks.
Elijah Craig Small Batch
Jeremy Allen, beverage director of MiniBar Hollywood in Los Angeles
I’m a fan of a lot of Heaven Hill cheapies, which aren’t that cheap anymore, like Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, and Henry Mc Kenna 10 year, but I am pretty sure it’s hard to spend money on Kentucky Whiskey right now without supporting racist or exclusivist policies, and the red white and blue new label on Evan Williams is a big red flag.
This might be the year to vote with your dollars and switch back to Tequila.