Bourbon Holiday Guide 2021

Something different this week — yes, it’s finally time for a guide on the thorny subject of “I want to buy somebody some bourbon for Thanksgiving / Christmas / the New Year, but what should I get?” It’s been demanded by literally one person. Well, maybe two or three.


a 1.75L bottle of Wild Turkey 101 in the fancy new glass bottle would be welcomed warmly by most bourbon fans. You don’t have to over-think it. But if you do, here’s almost 3,000 words…


One of the nice things about bourbon is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get something decent. If you live within the state of Kentucky, you might be able to find a bottle of 6-year Heaven Hill Green Label. It should cost you between $15 and $20 and is fantastic value for money — it drinks as well as a bottle at least twice the price. It can be a little hard to find these days, but it’s a wonderful thing to get somebody who doesn’t live in the state.

Otherwise, Wild Turkey 101 is where you need to be. A blend of 6-8 year old barrels, it’s the classic bourbon that everybody knows about, made by the same family for over 50 years. While the taste of 101 has changed somewhat over the past few decades (bottles from the 70s and 80s now go for almost $1,000 at auction!), it’s still a bold standout drink, and now comes in a rather swish glass bottle at the 750ml and 1.75l sizes. It’s a mixer, it’s something you can pour out straight, and it is a confident base in any cocktail. You almost can’t go wrong with picking this.

The Heaven Hill Mob

In addition to the 6-year Green Label bottle, Heaven Hill have an assortment of different bourbons (all made from the same recipe!) in this price range that would make wonderful Christmas presents. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the standard bottle of Elijah Craig, but you can often find store picks with a completely unique taste for around $35 (you can find two over at Mash & Grape). I’ve had a couple of these in the past — the one I had at The Aviary a few years ago was amazing. Definitely worth a gamble. If you can’t find a store pick of Elijah Craig, then maybe you’ll see Evan Williams Single Barrel, which might be the cheapest single barrel offering around at $30. Anyway, variations abound again, but it’s a solid choice. Finally, you might luck into the Heaven Hill jackpot — a bottle of Henry McKenna Single Barrel 10-year Bottled In Bond (around $40 - don’t pay more). Having won a few competitions over the last few years, these bottles tend appear and disappear very quickly, but if you see one, it’ll be appreciated by the receiver. I once finished off a bottle of this in a bar in San Francisco and the bartender lamented that they should have bought the entire barrel.


Welcome to the sweet spot! There’s a lot of really great bottles at this price range.

Rare Breed ($40-45) & Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel ($60-70)

Back to Wild Turkey. Rare Breed is the company’s ‘premium’ offering, supposedly a blend of six, eight, and twelve year barrels, bottled at a robust 58.4 ABV. It’s basically the most bourbon of bourbon in a pretty bottle that is welcome on any home shelf.

But, that’s not all from Wild Turkey! They also have a very strong single barrel programme as part of their Russell’s Reserve brand, which allows shops to pick out barrels from their different warehouses, bottling them at 55% ABV and normally in the range of 6-10 years old. These barrels can have massive variations from the ‘traditional’ Wild Turkey taste, so if you see one, it’ll likely be unique and enthusiastically welcomed. I…currently have five different picks in my bar downstairs.

(Wild Turkey actually has another single barrel programme called Kentucky Spirit, which are single barrels proofed down to the traditional 101 proof. The old selling point of Spirit was the amazing bottle it used to come in, but in the last two years, the bottle has been phased out. Unless you know the barrel is outstanding, go for the Russell’s Reserve barrels)

Four Roses Small Batch Select ($60-65)

Four Roses is somewhat unique in the industry in that it has 10 different bourbon recipes (Wild Turkey just has one!). Their cheaper Small Batch ($30) bottle contains a blend of all 10 bourbons, but this Small Batch Select is a little more restrained with just six, each aged for a little longer than the standard batch, and even skips the somewhat standard chill filtering process, resulting in a spicy, full-bodied affair.

Maker’s Mark FAE-02 ($65)

The standard Maker’s Mark release is, well, fine. It’s pretty inoffensive and a little boring. Smooth and dull. But! Don’t write off the entire company! Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is so much better that you’d almost believe it was from a completely different brand, and you can normally find it for around $35, making it a good value buy. But for a seasonal recommendation, see if you can find a bottle of their 2021 FAE-02 release, where the barrels making the batch have had French oak staves inserted into them, bumping up the caramel and vanilla taste profile. I haven’t had it yet (I just found a bottle this weekend and I’m not drinking until December), but the reviews coming in online are really good.

Wild card: WB Saffell ($45)

This is technically a release by Campari, though it was blended by Eddie Russell of Wild Turkey (Campari are the current owners of Wild Turkey, but the Russells have been there for decades). This is a blend of six, eight, ten, and twelve year barrels, and it is one of the best I’ve ever had. There are a couple of catches, though. Firstly, it came out in 2019 as a limited release, so it might be a little hard to find1. Secondly, although it technically costs $45, you only get 375ml for that, whereas all the other bottles listed here are 750ml. So perhaps not the best value, but would make a fun little Christmas present, I’m sure!

The Craft Zone (New Riff $40-60)

Once you get into the $45 and up range of bottles, you may be distracted by all sorts of different labels. You’re entering the craft distillery price point. One of the slightly odd things about bourbon production is that, in comparison to something like beer, the big producers tend to make a much better product than the small distilleries. There’s a number of reasons for this — bigger operations often have a larger range of aged barrels that they can add into their blends, they larger stills and rickhouses, and well, they’ve just been doing it longer and know what they’re doing. Craft bourbon, on the other hand, can vary from good to drain cleaner. Something else to watch out for is if the bourbon they’re selling is ‘sourced’ — check the label to see if it’s distilled in a different state to where the craft company is based. If the label says it was distilled in Indiana…well, as I’ll explain later, it’s probably decent, but you can most likely do better at the same price point.

Anyway, there are a few good craft labels out there (Starlight & Wilderness Trail, for example). But I’ll highlight a local company — New Riff, based just across the Ohio River in Northern Kentucky. Their standard 4-year bourbon is good, their single barrels are great, and apparently their new 6-year Malted Rye is amazing.


This price point is really the final one before things get crazy. Again, you have to be careful about craft distilleries putting very young bourbon in fancy bottles here (_stares at Rabbit Hole_). But there are some really wonderful bottles here if you know where to look…

Barrel Picks

You’ll find the majority of store barrel picks at this price range nowadays. Sadly, they have also been hit by the bourbon boom; whereas once they were plentiful, they now often disappear the day the shop puts them out on the shelves. Still, if you come across a Four Roses Single Barrel pick (they have them for all 10 different recipes!), a Maker’s Mark Private Selection, or a 10+year Knob Creek bottle, you’re almost certainly getting a good deal.

Barrell Seagrass

Barrell are a company that leans in heavily on their blending skills. They have produced over 30 batches of bourbon produced by blending from so many different sources all over the country that they end up with something unique in every batch. And then there’s their specialties, where they take the various different bourbons they’ve bought, stick them in other barrels for further finishing, and then blend them together to produce something wild. Last year, they came out with Armida (imagine a whiskey that tastes of…pears), but this year they’ve excelled themselves with Seagrass. Okay, it’s technically not a bourbon, as it’s a blend of American and Canadian ryes that have been individually finished in rum, Madeira, and apricot brandy barrels…and then blended together to form something else entirely. There’s nothing quite like it, so it’d make a great gift for somebody wanting something a little different.

Elijah Craig Barrel Proof ($70)

Welcome back to Heaven Hill. Three times a year, the company releases a special offering of Elijah Craig, aged 12 years and at barrel proof (which tends to range from 60% to an eye-popping 70.5% ABV. You can’t even take the latter on a plane!). They can sometimes be plentiful, sometimes more like gold dust, but always a dependable choice of a classic bourbon recipe.

Remus Reserve I-V ($90)

About twenty miles from where I live lies one of the biggest open secrets of the bourbon & rye world. In Lawrenceburg, Indiana, there’s a company called MGP and it has a massive distillery that goes back to Prohibition and the 19th century. Until recently, MGP didn’t really sell its products itself — it distilled all sorts of things and sold them to companies that wanted gin, grain neutral spirits, and of course, whiskey. Their rye whiskey is what you’ll find in Angel’s Envy Rye, Dickel Rye, and yes, even Bulleit Rye. Their massive stocks of aged bourbon helped fuel the last decade’s boom as craft distilleries snapped up their 8-12 year barrels to bottle and sell whilst they were waiting for their own bourbon to age (which often ended up being a problem, as the switchover to their own recipe tended to be of lesser quality than MGP’s). These days, MGP doesn’t have quite the same level of stocks of bourbon to sell to others that they once did - it’s more in the 4-7 year range now, and they are getting into the act of selling their wares direct to the customers. The Remus Reserve line is their flagship offering, a blend of 12+year bourbons at 50% ABV, and comes in a lovely Art Deco-style bottle. This year’s bottle, V, is quite hard to find, but you can often find II, III, or IV on the shelves in smaller shops.

Russell’s Reserve 13 Year ($70)

You won’t find this. This bottle is currently being flipped for $400-500 on Facebook, and it’s not worth that. But if you do stumble upon it in a shop that somehow has a bottle, buy it. It’s the oldest mainline Wild Turkey bottle produced since the 90s, bottled at close to barrel proof, non-chill filtered, and perhaps the best bourbon release of the year. I have not found a bottle and it makes me sad.


You should really think twice about spending this sort of money on bourbon — diminishing returns set in very quickly once you break the $100 barrier. Honestly, if you want to spend this sort of money, you’re better off buying multiple cheaper bottles.

Most of what you’ll find on the shelves at this price will be from smaller companies, who have bought bourbon stocks from the major bourbon producers and are selling this (normally 10+ years old) bourbon at a premium whilst the company’s own bourbon is ageing in barrels. And…well, there’s nothing wrong with that, but the days of amazing 15 year old MGP bourbon being available to craft companies are long gone. These days, you’ll likely be buying a something that originally comes from the Dickel distillery in Tennessee, which tends to have a polarising mineral aftertaste. Go and buy a bottle of Dickel 8 Year Old Bourbon instead if you really want that (it’s only $32!).

But what of “Pappy?” sigh Okay, well, first, you’re not going to find it in on the shelves. The only real chance you’ll have of getting a bottle will be to enter and win a lottery from a shop or the state alcohol board (America is weird), and your chances of winning those will be slim. But should you even go to the trouble? The mystique around Pappy Van Winkle is vastly overblown; it’s been over a decade or so since it contained the last stocks of the legendary Stitzel-Weller stocks that its reputation was built on. These days, it’s really not much more than specially chosen barrels from Buffalo Trace. It’s good…but it’s not a life-changing experience and I’d say that most of what you can buy in the $45-100 range can be just as good or better. So, no lotteries, no queuing for ten hours (or more!) outside shops, or descending into the murky world of trying to buy a bottle from a random person from Facebook (fakes are abound, and it is technically illegal within the US to personally sell or buy without some sort of license).

If you absolutely must spend over $100, then I’d look for higher-priced single barrel picks to start with. Angel’s Envy picks are somewhat rare and normally pretty great, so if you can find one, it’s a good choice. You might come across a Master’s Keep expression from Wild Turkey — these used to languish in the corner of smaller shops, so keep an eye out for those. Finally, the annual Four Roses Limited Edition release is always a strong offering; it tends to be somewhat hard to come by in the USA, but you can often get hold of a 700ml EU version from UK suppliers if you keep an eye out around Christmas time.

Absolutely Don’t:


Some of you may have reached this point and are yelling “you didn’t recommend anything from Buffalo Trace???” And no, I didn’t. Because what would be the point? When is the last time you’ve seen a bottle of Eagle Rare or Stagg Jr. on the shelf, let alone anything from the Antique Collection? Yes, BT makes some fine bourbons, but because almost everything they make is so hyped, recommending anything seems a waste of time. But sure, Buffalo Trace is a fine $20 bourbon (but WT101 is better), Blanton’s is a pretty bottle but nothing special, Stagg Jr. is great if you can find it, Weller varieties are fine, but Maker’s Cask Strength is just as good and you can pick that up at almost every shop in the nation. And obviously, the limited annual releases that make up the Antique Collection are almost always great, but your only chance of getting them is trawling Facebook and spending $700+. They’re not that good, and I’d rather not feed their hype any further.

Also, I swear I’m not paid by the word by the Wild Turkey street team…

  1. Hard to find, but not impossible. I think a bunch of distributors found it a difficult sell to their customers, so you still see it turn up every now and again; there’s a bunch of bottles behind the counter at Newport, KY’s big Kroger, for example… ↩︎