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Sometime around Easter, my friends’ questions start to trickle in: Are there any new bourbons this year for the Kentucky Derby? Are there any special limited-release bottles to consider? And my favorite—are there good value buys that I should be thinking about?
In short: Yes, yes, and obviously yes.
And this year is no different. Everyone wants to know what they ought to be drinking while they tune in to watch the 147th Run for the Roses, which is finally happening on its traditional date of the first Saturday in May, after the pandemic gave them no choice but to postpone last year’s festivities to September—the first time the highly anticipated event has been deferred since the mid-1940s.
And so to better service these queries without my own personal bias, I reached out to Samara Davis, the founder of Black Bourbon Society, which she started in 2016 as way to elevate the importance of diversity and inclusion in a predominantly white (and male) industry by hosting curated informative tastings and educational trips. And she’s doing one helluva killer job—because she’s the real deal.
“My bourbon journey began on a family trip to New Orleans. At the recommendation of a store clerk, I purchased my very first bottle—Four Roses Small Batch—and made cocktails with it. I then began to drink it neat and fell in love with its unique flavor characteristics,” says Davis. “Almost a year later, I had the opportunity to plan bourbon events for an agency in California. It was from there that I began to question why there was very little direct consumer marketing geared towards consumers of color. In response, I created Black Bourbon Society—to challenge traditional direct consumer marketing standards by curating experiences that genuinely engage our unique demographic—and advocate for diversity and inclusion through speaking engagements and consulting within the spirits industry.”
Davis, who was named one of Wine Enthusiasts’ 40 Under 40, is also the founding executive director of Diversity Distilled, a nonprofit geared towards identifying and addressing the DE&I (diversity, equity, and inclusion) problems that exist in certain companies within the industry. Beyond that, she organizes Bourbon Boule—an annual conference for more than 20,000 members of the Black Bourbon Society.
So I had tremendous confidence in what she had to say about the bourbons that every enthusiast should have on hand at any given time—from hard-to-find bottlings on the higher end of the curve to some serious (but superb) deals for those who’re in a budget: “I picked these expressions because they are all my favorites or have some significant meaning to me,” says Davis. “Bourbon is all about flavor. I love rich oak notes with hints of leather, clove, tobacco, vanilla, and baking spices. For me, 10-year bourbons are the sweet spot for aging and the higher the proof the better! I don’t have a favorite bourbon per se, I just pick a bourbon I like based off of my mood at the time.”
Here, Davis listed her top picks of off-the-radar bourbons—with a few value staples that are perfect for your daily five o’ clock pour. In any case, every seasoned drinker and soon-to-be enthusiasts should consider all of these. The roster is a good mix of high and low—with one common denominator: excellent flavor.
Best Bourbons to Sip on This Kentucky Derby Season
“Maker’s Mark has truly mastered stave finishings,” says Davis. “This expression is traditional Maker’s Mark—enhanced with 10 finishing staves that magnifies the flavor profile exponentially. The vanilla and baking spice notes explode out of the glass, making it an amazing bourbon to enjoy neat or in a cocktail.”
“I must admit, this wheated bourbon really impressed me,” says Davis. “Bold flavor notes jump out of the glass before you can even sip it. And although it’s high proof, this bourbon settles warm in the chest. There’s no bite or burn with this one. Just a punch of flavor!”
“Blue Run may sound like the name of a winning Kentucky Derby horse, but it’s one of the industry’s newer labels that everyone is searching for,” Davis points out. “Launched in October 2020, Blue Run has taken this industry by storm with a 13-year release selected by the highly respected master distiller Jim Rutledge. Put this on your radar as a ‘bourbon company to watch!’”
“This is, by far, my favorite bourbon on the planet. Even though ECBP is seasonally batched, each expression is impressive. High proof, bold flavor. The bourbon literally dances on your tongue.”
“This is the best $14.99 you will ever spend! I love Evan Williams Bonded because it’s easily accessible and perfect for someone just beginning their bourbon journey,” says Davis. “It’s also a favorite amongst bourbon connoisseurs and collectors. I always include this expression in blind tastings and surprisingly, it always wins ‘best bourbon’ in the flight!”
“I love making cocktails with this expression! This bourbon was made for your favorite rendition of a whiskey sour!”
“As master distiller Chris Morris says, ‘When they don’t have your favorite bourbon on the shelf, pick Woodford Reserve instead!’ And I completely agree with him,” says Davis. “It’s smooth with traditional bourbon tasting notes. I love to pair this with food—it complements any dish! I also bake with it. And, of course, I make cocktails with it too!”
“I’m loving the rebrand of this expression,” says Davis. “Rich robust flavors with a blend of bourbon that is at least nine years old. The oak notes make me think there’s some 12- to 13-year barrels blended with this expression to give it the rustic warm characteristics of tobacco, leather, and clove.”
“The best 10-year bourbon on the market! Rich leather, tobacco, vanilla, and caramel notes with a mouthfeel so thick, you can chew it. All of Michter’s expressions are amazing but the 10-year bourbon and rye are my absolute favorite.”
“Put this on my ‘daily sippers list.’ It packs a heavy cinammon note that makes you forget all about the ills of the world,” says Davis. “This also makes a fantastic boulevardier: One part Russell’s Reserve 10-year with one part vermouth and one part Campari makes for the best nightcap ever!”
“For sentimental reasons, this is a very special pour for me,” says Davis. “I first tasted this last year on my wedding day. Ever since then, whenever I luck up and see a bottle, I buy it! This is also the last expression in the Whiskey Barons series produced by Wild Turkey. Old Ripy and Bond & Lillard make the first and second expressions and are equally great, but this takes the (wedding) cake!”
“Another expression brought to you by Michter’s, I always look out for the annual Shenk’s release. I pull this bourbon out to toast special occasions—especially on my birthday!”
“Whenever I feel a cold coming on, I make a hot toddy with this,” says Davis. “This uncut barrel-proof bourbon will knock out the sniffles at first sight! Take a two finger pour of Rare Breed with a big cup of tea, lemon, and honey—and call me in the morning!”
“My favorite expression in Old Forester’s Whiskey Row series! It’s twice barreled, so the flavor is twice as rich, bold, and delicious!”
MAKER’S MARK BLACK BOURBON SOCIETY PRIVATE SELECT
“It won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition! Created in 2018 and replicated twenty-plus times over in several markets across the country, my husband and I think this is the best Maker’s Mark Private Selection ever created. Wink-wink. Good luck if you can still find one of these on the shelf because they sold out quickly. But, you’re in luck! We will be releasing a new stave combination in celebration of the Black Bourbon Society’s fifth anniversary later in May. Stay tuned for details!”