You don't have to start with Jack and Jim if you don't want to, and you shouldn't start with George T. Stagg or Pappy 23, even if you can. Here are ten bourbons, each from a different distillery or recipe, that should give you a good introduction to the bourbon landscape. (They are in no particular order.)
1. Maker's Mark. (Beam Inc.) The brand that made the others possible by showing that you can successfully position bourbon as a quality product on par with any of the world's great distilled spirits. Wheat rather than rye in the mash makes it sweeter and milder than a typical bourbon but it has enough depth and richness to satisfy sophisticated sippers.
2. Knob Creek. (Beam Inc.) Launched more than 20 years ago and the leader in its segment, Knob is Jim Beam juice aged for nine years and bottled at 50% ABV. It has a thick, smoky flavor with touches of anise, clove, and bitter lemon, and finishes surprisingly clean.
3. Woodford Reserve (Brown-Forman) The picturesque distillery in Versailles, Kentucky, uses Scottish-made pot stills but your bottle contains both bourbon made there and at the company's conventional distillery near Louisville. Rich, warm vanilla fudge with plum and white pepper.
4. Eagle Rare Single Barrel (Sazerac) It's ten-years-old, 45% ABV, and single barrel, all packed into a beautiful bottle. The whiskey has a huge mouth feel, lots of caramel and vanilla, with a hint of licorice.
5. Bulleit. (Diageo) It's a family name, pronounced like the projectile. It's bourbon, so mostly corn, but not shy about its rye, containing about twice as much of that spicy and flavorful grain as any other bourbon, giving it an earthy sharpness on top of a silky corn base. No age statement, 45% ABV.
6. Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage. (Heaven Hill) If you want to taste the best whiskey Parker and Craig Beam made in any given year, this is the place to find it. It varies from year-to-year and barrel-to-barrel, but always has a hearty flavor with plenty of tobacco and dark fruit, with a hint of mint. Nine-years-old, 43.2% ABV.
7. Russell's Reserve Bourbon. (Campari America) Named in honor of veteran Master Distiller Jimmy Russell, this bourbon is 10-years-old and 45% ABV. It offers rich, buttery caramel overlaid with earthy pipe tobacco, cumin, lemon, and black pepper, and is probably the best introduction to the Wild Turkey family.
8. Ridgemont Reserve 1792. (Sazerac) Made at the only distillery within the city limits of Bardstown, the self-proclaimed Bourbon Capital of the Known Universe, it is eight-years-old, 46.85% ABV, with a full, round, sumptuous body and slightly nutty flavor that comes from the high percentage of malt in the mash.
9. Four Roses. (Kirin) Known as yellow label to distinguish it from the single barrel and small batch expressions, it is full beneficiary of the distillery's unique practice of making and mixing together ten different bourbon recipes. No age statement, 40% ABV.
10. Weller 12-Year-Old. (Sazerac) Often in short supply, and with good reason, it substitutes wheat for rye like Maker's and Old Fitzgerald, but with a lot more wood time. Good thing, because the wood tannins balance a sweetness that might be too much without them. Bottled at 45% ABV.
If you've already had all these, congratulations. You're no longer a beginner.