Wine News The World's Best Bourbons

The World's Best Bourbons

After a year like 2020, we all need to embrace the joys of Bourbon.
© | After a year like 2020, we all need to embrace the joys of Bourbon.
All Bourbon is good, and some are better – but which Bourbons are the best?
By Don Kavanagh | Posted Thursday, 08-Oct-2020

The phrase "less is more" is cruelly overused, but sometimes it hits the nail on head – like when it comes to Bourbon.

Our series of the "The World's Best..." is not simply a collection of personal favorites, even when it comes to listing the 10 best Bourbons in the world. That would be a foolish endeavor indeed, especially given the subjectivity of taste – if you asked 1000 people to name their favorite whiskeys, you'd end up with 1000 different lists.

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Instead, we rank the entries on these lists according to score and that's where the big differences emerge between wine and whiskey – compare the scores in our World's Best Barolos article with the scores below and you'll see what I mean. Wine tends to be scored much higher than whiskey does, which probably says more about the relative merits of criticism in each sphere.

Wine writers are already contemplating the end of the supposedly definitive 100-point scale and arguing over whether it should become a 110-point or even 200-point scale. The proliferation of 100-point scores continues to accelerate (check out all eight pages of 100-pointers just from the Wine Advocate here) as critics vie for attention (and relevance) in an ever-more-crowded arena. Wines are frequently overrated – just compare scores from 10 years ago with today for proof.

Whiskey, by comparison, takes a more sober approach to scoring. Ever since whiskey writers first started using the 100-point scale back in the 1980s, they have been more realistic about what the scores actually mean.

One of the earliest adopters of the 100-point scale was the late, lamented Michael Jackson (not that one), whose Malt Whisky Companion guide – the best-selling whiskey book ever – employed it. Jackson's scoring notes recommended that anything scoring less than 75 was probably best used for blending, but anything above that was worth purchasing. His highest score was 95, a huge whiskey score, but a fairly run-of-the-mill wine score.

And it's a nice illustration of where wine and whiskey sit in relative scoring terms; most whiskey drinkers wouldn't be offended if offered a whiskey that scored 79, whereas a winery receiving that kind of score from a critic would be thinking of reaching for the lawyers.

A note about our critic scores, by the way. Wine-Searcher collates scores from a wide range of critics, all adjusted for the 100-point scale. To generate a wine's aggregate score, Wine-Searcher uses a Bayesian methodology to calculate a weighted average, since not all critics are equal.

Since there are fewer people writing about and scoring whiskey, there are fewer scores and, consequently, those scores tend to be lower, given the more realistic outlook of their authors.

Then there is Bourbon. The sad fact is that most whiskey writers still tend to obsess about Scotch, and single malts in particular. This means Bourbon gets less of the limelight and even fewer scores, which drags the average score down a little more. That will change as Bourbon continues to boom in popularity, and the number of people writing about it increases too, but the smaller number of scores allows for a little more volatility, as we shall see when we look at the whiskeys on the list.

The World's Best Bourbons on Wine-Searcher:

Let's talk about that volatility. Last year when we ran this list, the Evan Williams was sitting proudly, if improbably, on top, with an aggregated critic score of 93; this year it has dropped two points and three places on the list. That's to be expected; as I said, as more credible people start reviewing and scoring Bourbon, those dramatic jumps will become fewer and farther between.

However, you could make an argument for stability across the past 12 months, too – seven of the whiskeys on this year's list also appeared last year. The new ones, the William Larue Weller, the George T Stagg and the Elijah Craig are simply reflecting their respective performances across the past year, with all three making waves among consumers.

Producer-wise, the Buffalo Trace Distillery has increased its dominance at the top end of Bourbon, with six of this year's top 10, up one from last year. Heaven Hill maintains its two places (Evan Williams, with Elijah Craig replacing last year's Parker's Heritage Collection bottling), while Wild Turkey and Four Roses maintain one entry apiece.

A word on price: with the exception of the Evan Williams – which maintains its admirably affordable average price tag – all the whiskeys on this year's list have gone up in price, although only one substantially – the Weller has risen by around 60 percent in the past year.

Certainly worth more investigation as a gruesome year comes to a welcome close.

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