Picking A Good Starter Bourbon

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Choosing The Right Bourbon For Beginners

By Richard Thomas

Starter bourbon menu

Decisions, decisions. What bourbon to start with?
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For many whiskey enthusiasts, a common question from friends and family is “I want to try this bourbon thing, so where should I start?” Yet that question is not always so easily answered. Other people don’t know a diehard bourbon fan they can ask, and are left finding their own way through the myriad brands available blind.

Most experts recommend a tasting or putting together a flight including several bourbons, a sure way to provide a broad range of experience for the novice. Another way to introduce someone special to bourbon is to pick a bottle and give it to him or her as a gift. Or a novice can go to the bar, pick bourbons off the shelf, and put together their own starter experience. Whatever route is taken, The Whiskey Reviewer has recommendations to guide you, drawing on the advice of whiskey experts, food bloggers and notable enthusiasts.

Don’t Reach For The Top Shelf
The central rule of bourbon for beginners is to not go for the pricey premium stuff, and couple of reasons support starting with reasonably priced whiskey. The first is that avoiding rarefied whiskey means staying within the realm of what is approachable for novices. “You want people to have a sense of what bourbon is about and, if they like it, a way to get it,” said Steve Ury, the blogger behind Sku’s Recent Eats. “That means nothing cask strength or too obscure.”

Although she insists “starter” shouldn’t be synonymous with “cheap,” singer-songwriter Katie Buchanan warned “The higher you go, the more intense character you’re likely to find, which isn’t the greatest for a starter.” What constitutes “reasonably priced” is a matter for debate, but staying within the $20 to $40 range works for everyone we spoke to.

Basil Hayden Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey

Basil Hayden, a sound choice for a starter bourbon
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Another reason to stay with reasonably priced whiskey is to encourage follow-up. As Los Angeles-based food and drinks blogger Jenn Wong put it, ” I don’t want to turn someone on to something that is difficult to find or is so expensive that they’ll only think of it for special occasions. […] Then when they’re hooked they can try to seek out other brands & feel like they ‘discovered’ it.” The bottom line is that if a bourbon is affordable and readily available, the beginner who likes it will come back to it.

In terms of characteristics, the emphasis should be on keeping things simple and easy-going. Katie Buchanan described the starter flavor as “Smooth and balanced: nothing too sweet, nothing too smoky, nothing too anything really.”

“A good starter bourbon tends to be lower proof with an abundance of vanilla and caramel notes which are more approachable to the novice bourbon drinker,” said Patrick Garrett of Bourbon & Banter.

That is not to say there isn’t a place for Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Old or Four Roses Mariage in all of this. “At the end of every tasting, I’ll break all of these rules and bring out something special, just to give people a taste of what’s out there,” said Steve Ury. So as part of a larger experience, a little taste of some super premium bourbon might be appropriate, but only in that larger context.

Starter Bourbons By The Experts

Basil Hayden: This member of the Jim Beam Small Batch Collection is noteworthy within that group as the one with the lowest proof (80, or 40% abv) and the lightest body, two qualities that will make it more approachable to the novice drinker. Another selling point for making this a starter bourbon is that it is an example of a “high rye bourbon,” or bourbon with a boosted rye content in the mashbill (30% in this case). As part of a starter flight, Basil Hayden is a good candidate for showing how the grains used in making bourbon play out in the flavor.

Eagle Rare: The reason for using Eagle Rare, the 10 Year Old single barrel from Buffalo Trace, as a starter bourbon is simple. It’s a fine example of a middle of the road (90 proof) bourbon, one that is enormously popular with casual whiskey drinkers and enthusiasts alike.

Maker’s Mark: Like Eagle Rare, Maker’s Mark has the advantage of a middling proof of 90 (45% abv). The bourbon is also one of the easier brands to get, both in the United States and abroad. Finally, the whiskey is one of the most familiar brands around that uses a wheated mashbill, where red winter wheat replaces rye in the grain recipe.

Wild Turkey 101 bourbon

Wild Turkey 101, our strongest starter bourbon
(Credit: Richard Thomas)

Wild Turkey 101: As with Maker’s Mark, part of the reason for starting a novice on Wild Turkey 101 is because it is so readily and widely available. The particular contribution this whiskey makes as a starter bourbon is it represents a step up in strength, with a 101 proof (50.5% abv). Indeed, Turkey 101 is the strongest of the mass market bourbons, and as such it can show how stronger whiskey doesn’t necessarily mean harsh or overwhelming.

Woodford Reserve: Part of the argument for using Woodford Reserve is the same as with Eagle Rare: it is very popular stuff. Another part is the same as Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey 101. Drinkers in U.S. should never have trouble finding it, and internationally it has a good presence as well, if not as good as Turkey and Maker’s.

The final reason is that Woodford Reserve is the only major bourbon around made using Scottish style pot stills, instead of the more efficient column still. The argument goes that column stills usually take some of the taste out of the whiskey, and most experts agree that the use of those Forsyth’s copper pots to distill Woodford has a real impact on the flavor.

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24 comments

  1. I find that Jim Beam Black is a good starter for people. It doesn’t do one thing extraordinarily well but dies a lot of little things well in balance. It also has a nice finish. I think the “burn” is what turns a lot of people off.

  2. Come to think of it, maybe my go-to of Knob Creek isn’t that great a starter. It’s a strong as Turkey 101, but not nearly as mellow. I never thought of it that way before.

    • yeah, Knob Creek is not for beginners. I speak from experience there. I tried it early on, in one of those mini bar size bottle collections and did not like it at all. I found it to be nothing but burn and really harsh. I did not try it again until last year, maybe a 6 year gap, and now it is a main stay in my rotation.

  3. I agree, I think Jim Black is a good starter, easy to find, good character, a nice entry level that maybe feels kind of special because it is “Black” not the regular Jim.

    I also recommend 1792 to my friends. I find it to be exceptional especially for the price.

  4. Can’t go wrong with Buffalo Trace. Its my usual go to.

  5. I’ve found that Eagle Rare generally pleases a first time bourbon drinker. My wife’s opinion on bourbon changed after trying Eagle Rare. Now she drinks Blanton’s.

  6. IMO Buffalo Trace is an excellent bourbon all the way around!

  7. After completing the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, my favorite is Four Roses. Even their yellow label is excellent. I like Woodford reserve, but would pay the extra for double oaked. More intense oakey/sweet flavor. My favorite wild turkey (I do get a bottle of 101 once in a while), is their “Rare Breed”. It is cask strength so it’s 108 or 112 proof (depending on the batch), but smooth for being a little high in alcohol. And yes, pretty much anything from Buffalo Trace is excellent.

  8. Cheap dose not always mean bad. Even williams black label is a great starter high corn content and heavy oak makes it a great whiskey. Most beginners wont be able to identify the differences between the brands listed and will choose it by burn. The other thing to note is while boubon is enjoyed neat the better stuff is designed to have a little water in it to truly open up all levels of flavor.

  9. I’m new to the bourbon scene and was wondering if there were any suggestions for a less intense experience. I’ve drank bourbon many times but the one thing that sets me off is the taste of the alcohol itself. I’d like to taste more of the drink and less of the booze.

    • i’m new to bourbon too-just tried it for the first time last week-evan williams 2005 single barell. it’s too “alcoholy” for me. i may have to try the basil hayden next.

    • Try Woodford reserve rye. It’s smoother and just enough boldness and you will forget you are drinking a whiskey

  10. This is great advice. I used it last night to draw up a “novice tasting party” at my neighborhood bar, and the flight I put together for my friends was a big hit.

    Aaron — I suggest you look to four of the five bourbons recommended. WT101 is obviously stronger than you want. Basil Hayden might be your best bet.

  11. The first burbon I tried that I liked was called booker I believe. I never really thought of myself as a burbon person before I tried it

    • Bookers is a whiskey I like to call a “sucker puncher.” It’s so mellow you really don’t know how potent it is until you stand up!

    • Yeah I really can’t think of a better way to put it. It is strong but it’s what really turned me onto it. Next I’ll be trYing WL weller 12 year. A buddy at work recommended it to me.

  12. I would recommend trying Benchmark 8 as a great starter Bourbon.

    • My local purveyor made this recommendation to me about a year ago and I was so amazingly surprised at how it was easily as enjoyable as a number of the bourbons mentioned here, but in my opinion, has a better finish. Who knew? Give it a try.

  13. I’ve only just stepped into the bourbon realm about a few years ago. Tried Makers years ago and couldn’t finish it. I found StillWrights Straight Bourbon Whiskey after going on a distillery tour. It’s a local product distilled in Ohio and I love it. Full of flavor and color. Great nose. I have tried others but this one is my staple and daily sipper after a long day.

  14. Evan Williams Black or White labels are good for starters. Easy sips that are smooth and cheap (I still keep one of these bottles around at all times). If you want that next step, go with Basil, Eagle Rare or Buffalo Trace. For something special, start with Engels Envy or Woodford Reserve Double Oaked if you are new to bourbon whiskey. The Double Oaked is so good, but Four Roses SB is a real treat for expanding your horizons.

  15. I was lucky working at bar I had (freeish) access to about 20 or 30 different whiskeys to sample. Out of all of them two from your list were my favourites: Woodford Reserve and Makers Mark. Also Balvenie 16 was up there with them as well.

  16. I am a scotch malt drinker and several years ago wanted to try a Bourbon and went to Woodford Reserve (Charlie Harper made me do it). Did not like it at all. Too nail polishy. I then tried some Canadian rye, which I liked (Masterson’s, Lot 40, Wiser’s 18) but none too exciting. Now I gave Basil Hayden a try and I agree, this is a good place to start. Quite scotch like in a way. The presentation is also nice, something I cannot say about the majority of Bourbons on the shelves in Ontario.

  17. I would consider myself an intermediate whiskey drinker. I find basil to be very one toned, and lacking some complexity. However, there was a lot of talk about Buffalo Trace, and although I agree this is a good one, I would have to say Mitcher’s is a formidable opponent and stays stocked in my house.

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