The Most Overrated Bourbons, According To Bartenders

Bourbon is quite possibly America's kindest contribution to the distilled spirits industry. It's exclusively made in the United States, sanctioned via an official resolution by Congress that passed in 1964. What makes bourbon so amazing is the creativity distillers use while still adhering to a regimented algorithm, including a grain mix that has to hit at least 51% corn, a pre-barrel alcohol content that is capped at 62.5%, and an aging minimum of two years in the barrel (per Bull and Bourbon).

In a word, bourbon is special. That, however, does not ensure all bourbon is good. And who knows where to draw that good, better, best bourbon demarcation better than bartenders? As the boots-on-the-ground aficionados that we count on to get us the good stuff, bartenders can read pretty quickly which caramel and smokey notes are a win and which are a miss. 

Whether you're looking for a wheat finish, a high rye flavor, or a tasteful malted barley, there are a lot of options out there. Let's cover a few bourbons that bartenders want patrons to steer clear of and why they haven't won bartenders over.

Palate plus price makes Van Winkle a non-starter

VinePair asked multiple bartenders to address which bourbons are overrated and why. The bartenders were happy to oblige, assigning the top three most overrated bourbons in terms of the essentials: price, taste, and availability. First up, Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 23 was nudged off its high-value perch, ruled generally overhyped and under-satisfying.

One bartender laid blame on its woodiness (overpowering) and its price (over five grand). The Whiskey Shelf agrees that the Van Winkle line, despite being perfectly drinkable, has made barrel selections or recipe moves with its grain mash that have subtly diluted the taste into a merely adequate flavor, fragrance and profile. And this bourbon comes with an additional faux pas: its price. It seems to have drummed up a name for itself by way of its limited availability. 

Turns out, scarcity is not what makes a bourbon exceptional.

Competitors have caught up

Next on VinePair's overrated chopping block is Blanton's. One bartender acknowledged that it comes with a cool bottle design, but after that, it doesn't measure up to its high rye competitors. Bourbon & Banter agrees. Though the horse toppers are novel, you can buy them as a set for about the same price as one bottle of the bourbon, which was the first Single Barrel Bourbon sold commercially. That made it special in its inauguration back in the '80s; not so much today. One bartender noted that while it has a tasty high-rye bourbon flavor, in the current market, other bourbons are delivering a higher rye count in their grain combination.

The third and final cudgel lands on the all too-subtle delivery of taste that is Jefferson's Ocean bourbon. Mix it in a cocktail, and you'll lose its flavor altogether, say bartenders. This may be a bourbon that can stand up neat or on ice, but The Fred Minnick Show recommended that consumers start with a simple taste test of it before investing in a bottle. 

With so many amazing bourbons that offer density, flavor, and a real vitality, there's no reason to splash out big money on a bourbon that fails to deliver. From purists who like bourbon neat and room temp, to bourbon fans who integrate it into everything from cocktails to classic bourbon marinades, take it from bartenders who know: It's worth it to go for the good stuff.