If you are a bourbon aficionado, times have never been better. Global demand for the spirit that for decades was deemed inferior on the world whiskey stage has never been higher. This has led to an explosion of new distillers; there are over 800 in the United States nowadays, producing exceptional bottlings that continually redefine fine bourbon.
But, it has also led to abundant riches; back bars and liquor store shelves are loaded with offerings. There is so much great bourbon that laying your hands on the “best” bottles can be challenging. To help narrow down the field, we turned to the experts at the most significant international spirits competitions this last year to see what they deemed the best bottles in 2023.
By assembling a field of industry experts and blind taste testing often hundreds of bottles, these competitions attempt to level the playing field and discover the best bourbons in existence. Any one of these five bottles would be a fantastic addition to any collection or a perfect gift for a bourbon lover.
As one of the most selective and oldest whiskey-only competitions on the planet, the World Whiskies Awards are famous for uncovering often overlooked gems. In 2023, over 200 judges tasted 1,400 whiskeys and named The Representative the World’s Best Bourbon. It’s a small batch bourbon made by industry legend David Schmier at Proof & Wood in Connecticut. The judges called out its intense flavors and nose in their comments. A delightful nose of candied orange peel, oak, caramel, and dark fruit leads to a soft palate of roasted nuts, crème brulée, cinnamon, spiced wood, and dried fruit. Nicely balanced with good complexity and a lingering sweetness on the finish.
15 Stars Sherry Cask Finished
Being named the World’s Best Bourbon at the New York Wine and Spirits Competition in September put the finishing touches on a stellar year for 15 Stars. It won double gold at the San Francisco International Spirits Competition and was awarded 95 points at the International Wine & Spirits Competition. That’s quite the run for a brand that’s less than two years old. A blend of thirteen and ten-year-old straight bourbon whiskeys from Kentucky and Indiana, it is finished in sherry casks from southwest Spain to add a layer of flavor for each sip. Rich flavors of plums and cinnamon are prevalent throughout.
Heaven Hill Bottled-In-Bond
As one of the newer additions to the international spirits award circuit, the Bartender Spirit Awards aim to give a voice to most drinker’s favorite person, their bartender. By compiling a panel of some of the most renowned names in the U.S. bar trade, they aim to highlight the spirits that are poured daily. This year, they awarded the World Whiskey of the Year title to Heaven Hill Bottled-In-Bond. A Kentucky bourbon, it was distilled to pay tribute to the earliest days of Heaven Hill in 1939 when they first released a version of the bourbon. It balances sweetness with a subtle rye spice note that pairs with enough oak and char to round out the flavors.
Never Say Die Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey
Launched in 2008, The Global Spirit Masters is a unique event that brings a wide swath of industry experts together to judge its entrants. Journalists, retail buyers, bartenders, and educators taste alongside expert judges to determine the best bottles. This year, they deemed Never Say Die Small Batch Bourbon the best American whiskey. A slightly controversial pick, it is the first bourbon to be distilled in Kentucky and then shipped to England to mature. Billed as an “English take on the American Dream,” the judges noted its soft nose, good character, woodiness, and stone fruits.
William Heavenhill 9th Edition 15-Year-Old Small Batch Bourbon
If there is one bottle on this list that you should lay your hands on, it would be this one. It had a stellar year, sweeping several prestigious awards, including being named Best of Class Straight Bourbon at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the Bourbon Trophy at the International Wine & Spirits Competition. A limited edition bottling, it highlights the skills Heaven Hill’s master distillers and blenders have accumulated during its long history. The judges at IWSC were wowed by its flavors, as evidenced by their tasting notes. “Deep caramel, cigar box, leather, and rich red fruit combine to make for an enticing and expressive nose. Notes of furniture polish, toasted grains, and hedgerow berries, too, layered and complex with a lingering savory, smoky finish. Fabulous.”