Straight bourbon whiskey is America's own unique contribution to the world of whiskey. The boom in premium whiskies has led to a growth in the variety of bourbon labels on the market, ranging from poor quality, mass-market bourbons to the rare, straight-from-the-cask single barrels. The plethora of options gives the consumer a great deal of choice in what kind of bourbon to buy and how much to pay for it.
The minimum standards for bourbon whiskeys are set by law. These require that the alcohol must be made from a mixture that contains at least 51 percent corn, it cannot be distilled to higher than 160 proof, and it must be aged in new charred oak barrels for at least 2 years. Bourbon whiskey does not necessarily need to be made in Kentucky, although most of it is. The limestone groundwater of Kentucky lends quality to the taste of Kentucky-made bourbon, and this is not generally found elsewhere.
Bourbon can generally be divided into two broad categories: mass-produced, mass-market bourbon and premium bourbon. Mass market labels include such well-known bourbons as Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, Old Grandad and others. There are then two basic types of premium bourbon: single barrel and small batch. Both terms are descriptive. A small-batch bourbon is literally drawn from a small batch, which reflects the greater craft that has gone into making it. However, small batches are blended, just as mass-market bourbon is. Single barrel means that the whiskey has been bottled from the contents of just one barrel, and is not blended. Examples of premium bourbon labels include Black Maple Hill, Booker's, Basil Hayden and Elijah Craig.
Most companies that produce the well-known and widely available mass-market bourbons also produce specialty, premium labels. For example, the Jim Beam company has a small batch collection comprising Baker's, Booker's, Basil Hayden and Knob Creek.
Mass-market bourbon should never cost more than $25 per bottle. For example, regular Jim Beam can be found on the Internet for as little as $12, and in the stores for never more than $18. A fifth of Maker's Mark, which defines the dividing line between mass-market and premium bourbon, typically runs between $20 and $25.
Premium bourbons can be had in the $30 to $60 price range. For example, Woodford Reserve is a solid middle-of-the-road bourbon that should usually cost $28 per bottle, and never more than $33 per bottle. Blanton's, the hallmark single-barrel label, typically runs around $50 per bottle.
Bourbon above $60 per bottle begins with Noah's Mill, an aged, cask-strength small batch that typically runs about $65 per bottle. However, it may be significantly marked-up in your local liquor store because of distribution costs. Beyond bourbons of this type is the rarefied world of the very aged, straight-from-the-cask, very craft-intensive bourbon. George T. Stagg will run upwards of $125 per bottle, depending on the year in question. Ben Nevis produces a 31-year-old label that runs at least $275 per bottle. These bourbons can give even the finest scotches a run for their money.