How to build a beginner’s bourbon collection

Writer and food and spirits aficionado Ray Marcano is up on his bourbon game—and has recommendations to put you on, too.

Bourbon continues to grow in popularity, with Kentucky distilleries, which produce 95 percent of all bourbon, pumping out a record 2.5 million barrels in 2021, according to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.

If you’re not in the game, you should be. A relaxing bourbon—neat, up, or with ice—turns the end of any day into heaven. But where to begin?

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Bourbon can admittedly be complicated. There are lots of different brands, sub-brands of existing brands, and different quality and price points. Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t worry; we got you.

You can’t go wrong if you start a bourbon collection with the following five bottles. And, the best part: you can buy all five bottles for about $100. (Though remember: prices vary based on the region of the country where purchased, so some bourbon will be more expensive in California than it is in Kentucky.)

Off the top, you’ll notice this list doesn’t contain some of the more well-known bourbons like Maker’s Mark, Four Roses, or Knob Creek. You can certainly buy those instead of anything on this list—but even the most novice bourbon drinkers know those brands. Chances are they don’t know, or haven’t tasted the ones below.

So, to get you started, here are five bourbons to begin building your collection for less than $100. (Just click the name of each bottle to learn more about its origin.)

Benchmark No. 8 ($10)  

I know what you’re thinking: How can this be any good for $10? And you’re right, it’s not good for that price—it’s fantastic and the best low-cost buy on the market. You’ll find this whiskey, produced by Buffalo Trace, under its full name—McAfee’s Benchmark Old No. 8 bourbon. It’s light, just 80 proof (40% alcohol) with nice hints of vanilla and a little oak. There’s a lot to like about this bottle. It’s light enough to sip without ice, and if someone wants a mixer, you won’t feel bad about offering this up, given the price point. But, like all of the bottles on this list, using this as a mixer is a waste because it stands so well on its own.

Evan Williams 1783 ($15)

You might be more familiar with the Evan Williams black label. There’s nothing wrong with that one, but I much prefer the 1783. This one comes out of the Heaven Hill distillery and has a lot of character at 90 proof (45% alcohol). The 1783 has the classic bourbon scents with tastes of vanilla, caramel, brown sugar, and oak. Beginners may want a small cube of ice but it’s great on its own.   

Larceny Small Bath ($22)

This is one of my favorite lower-priced whiskeys. Unlike the first two on the list, Larceny, another Heaven Hill product, has more fruit. It’s also softer and that makes sense because it has more wheat than most bourbons (some reports say its mash bill is 20% wheat). At 92 proof (46% alcohol), it’s sweet with apricot, nectarine, a tiny bit of cinnamon, and some floral scents. This isn’t a big bourbon but it’s a delightful, easy drinker.

Ezra Brooks 99 ($24)

This bourbon, a Lux Row Distillers product, doesn’t get a lot of love and I have a hard time figuring out why. I’m a fan of high-proof bourbons and, at 99 proof (49.5% alcohol) this starts to get there. It’s true that Brooks 99 doesn’t have that huge mouth feel that bourbons in this category normally have, but it’s a great bargain. Normally, you need to get into the $30 and above range to get a good, higher-proof whiskey (Old Grand Dad 114, for example, costs about $32). But there’s nothing wrong with this, a smooth drinker with the standard bourbon notes, even if they are a little lighter than they should be. 

Old Forester 100 proof ($24)

The only triple-digit bourbon on this list comes from the Old Forester Distillery. I mean, if you’re going to start a collection you should have at least one 100-proofer on there, right? This version of Old Forester isn’t that heavy, a hallmark of bourbons at this price point. It’s nicely balanced, with some oak, butterscotch, and toffee flavors that make way for light fruit and a little spice. You might think you need a cube of ice—but you don’t.

So, why these five? If you’re just building a palate for bourbon, there’s a range of flavors in each so you’ll get to experience everything from light to more robust. You could even line these up and do a tasting, comparing and contrasting along the way.

Of course, you could also just do what I do: Drink them (responsibly, of course) and enjoy them.

Ray Marcano

Ray Marcano is a longtime, award-winning journalist who has written and edited for some of the country’s most prominent media brands. He’s a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, a two-time Pulitzer juror, and a Fulbright Fellow.

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