For any bourbon lover, Woodford and Bulleit are two of the biggest names at the premium end of the market. Both brands are well-known for their quality, but which one is right for your taste and budget?
In this article, I’ll compare the smell, taste, finish and value of each brand’s flagship whiskeys to help you make an informed decision. Read on to learn more about the unique characteristics of these entry-level bourbons and how they differ from one another.
Quick brand overview
Woodford Reserve are owned by the Brown Forman Corporation. Their whiskeys are sold as premium Kentucky straight bourbons which are made at their distillery in Woodford County, KY, USA. The distillery was founded by Elijah Pepper in 1812 and led the systemisation of whiskey production including the standardisation of the sour mash fermentation method, pot still distillation and barrel maturation techniques.
Bulleit are owned by spirits and beverages company Diageo. Founded by Tom Bulleit in 1987, they recently opened their first dedicated distillery in 2017 which is located in Shelbyville, KY, USA. Their whiskeys are also sold as Kentucky straight bourbons, consisting of Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey, Bulleit Rye, Bulleit Bourbon 10 year old and Bulleit Bourbon Barrel Strength. Compared to other bourbons, their whiskies are considered to be a moderately ‘high rye’ grain recipe which typically delivers a spiced flavour.
Woodford Reserve vs Bulleit Bourbon
Nose: Leather, spice, honey, oak, cocoa, vanilla & butterscotch
Palate: Spice, sweet, espresso, ginger, rum, almond & rye
Mouthfeel: Thick & full bodied
Finish: Lengthy, malty, spicy & oaky
Age: NAS (6-7 years average)
Barrels: New, charred, white American oak
Mashbill: 72% corn, 18% Rye, & 10% malted barley
Strength: 45.2% ABV / 90.4 proof
Price: £38 / $48
Bulleit Bourbon Frontier
Nose: Oak, vanilla & orange
Palate: Spices, Maplewood, tobacco & orange
Mouthfeel: Bright & light
Finish: Spicy & smooth
Age: NAS (6-8 years average)
Barrels: New, charred, white American oak
Mashbill: 68% corn, 28% rye & 4% malted barley
Strength: 45 ABV% / 90 proof
Price: £27 / $33
A closer look at Woodford Reserve Kentucky bourbon
Known as their ‘classic’ bottling, this Kentucky straight bourbon is the most widely known within Woodford’s range. Compared to the Bulleit grain recipe, this whiskey uses a much higher corn percentage (72%) in it’s mashbill. From this, you can expect a sweeter profile with less rye heat.
If you’re new Woodford Reserve, it’s worth mentioning their dual distillation method by combining triple pot still and column distillation to make their spirits. Usually, most bourbons are made primarily with column distillation with a secondary doubler still or thumper still for refinement. Woodford’s additional pot still method is fairly unusual within the bourbon industry and mimics the process of Scottish whisky distilleries.
Traditional pot stills are known for making heavier but more flavoursome spirits. They tend to retain more of the grains’ character compared to column stills, which are a far more effective (and complicated) way of creating very light, smooth and high proof spirits.
This signature bottle is matured for 6-7 years in charred oak barrels. Slightly more expensive than your average ‘ground floor’ bourbon, it’s certainly a high-shelf purchase which I’ve explored in the breakdown below.
Nose: Taking a deep breath of the Woodford Reserve bourbon, it presents a fragrant and warm aroma. I immediately detect notes of honey, mixed winter spices such as clove, nutmeg and cinnamon. There is also an inviting hint of leather, with cocoa and a very subtle smokiness. With a little swirl in my glass, the oaken notes become particularly pronounced, with creamy vanilla and sweet butterscotch. All in all, it’s an inviting nose that beckons you towards taking a sip.
Palate: On my first sip, I’m immediately greeted with an array of sweet and spicy flavours. There’s a definite sweetness from honey and dried fruit. For me, I can taste caramelised apples, pears and dates. Straight away, this entry-level bottle is wonderfully rich, full bodied and full of flavour. I’m pretty hooked already, I have to say!
As promised from the nosing, flavours of winter spice develop on the mid palate. More of the same cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg and ginger come through, with very little harshness. There’s a mild degree of heat from the rye but it’s tempered beautifully with the sweetness. No need for any water. I’m more than happy with this bourbon neat.
There’s a overall woody flavour going on, with oaky tannins that have a slightly ‘drying’ character towards the end. I personally find this quite an enjoyable contrast to the upfront sweetness prior.
With some more ‘chewing’, I’m pleasantly surprised with slight hints of espresso and a rum-like sweetness. I presume these notes stem from the lengthy ageing of this bourbon. All in all, I’m mightily impressed with Woodford Reserve’s offering – very enjoyable indeed.
Mouthfeel: The texture is creamy and smooth. For a premium bourbon like this, it has a reassuring viscosity that makes it feel luxurious and thick. On the tongue, the warmth of the alcohol and spiced notes are softened by the sweet fruity flavours. For me, the body is robust and bold.
Finish: The finish of the Woodford Reserve bourbon is long. The sweetness fades on the tongue, giving way to a light butterscotch note. Throughout, is the same oaken spice with hints of nutmeg and cinnamon. Chocolatey notes emerge, along with leather and tobacco which leave a slightly dry finish on the palate. At the end, it’s a tasty transition from sweet, to spiced to aromatically dry.
Price: In my opinion, this flagship bourbon from Woodford offer pretty good value for the price. Its smoothness is remarkable and almost unmatched in the entry-level bourbons, with each sip revealing a multitude of great flavours layered underneath. Its robustness and complexity means that it can easily stand up to a variety of drinks, cocktails and dishes.
At US $48/UK £38, it’s an affordable way to enjoy a truly high quality bourbon without having to splurge on the pricier options. Woodford Reserve bourbon is definitely one of those bottles you’ll want to keep in your cupboard for special occasions or when you’re feeling generous with guests.
Woodford Reserve food pairings
For starters, Woodford Reserve bourbon pairs extremely well with smoked salmon. Drank as a highball or mixed with soda, the salty and smoky flavours of the fish are balanced out by the whiskey’s sweet aromas of honey, caramel and vanilla. If fish isn’t your thing, try it with some cured meat. For example, cured ham brings out the winter spice notes in the bourbon, while its sweetness balances any saltiness.
For mains, Woodford Reserve bourbon is particularly delicious when served alongside beef burgers or steaks. The charred oak barrel ageing of this bourbon leaves behind a smoky taste that pairs perfectly with juicy grilled meats. For an added touch of sweetness, serve up a side of caramelised onions – their slightly tart flavour provides great contrast against the whisky’s smoothness.
For dessert, nothing pairs better with Woodford Reserve than a classic sticky toffee pudding. The sticky syrup adds just enough sweetness to compliment some of the same notes found in the whisky (caramel, honey and vanilla). To finish off this indulgent pairing, pour a generous shot of Woodford Reserve over your pudding – the perfect way to end your meal.
Woodford Reserve cocktail suggestion
Instead of brandy, why not try this bourbon based version of a Horse’s Neck? Woodford Reserve’s Kentucky straight bourbon is the perfect base-spirit for this simple but tasty highball. All you need is three ingredients to make this refreshing mixer.
- 50ml of Woodford Reserve bourbon
- 100ml ginger ale
- 2 dashes of Angostura bitters
- Long lemon peel
In an ice-filled highball glass, add the bitters and roll the glass between your hands to ‘lace’ the interior. Measure-in your bourbon and top with ginger ale. Add the lemon peel to garnish. Serve.
A closer look at Bulleit Bourbon Frontier
Compared to Woodford, Bulleit has a much shorter history. Although the recipe and first distillations date back to the 1830’s, the Bulleit brand was only officially founded in 1987. Since then, they’ve become one of the fastest growing whiskey brands in America. This success is mostly due to the mass adoption from bartenders thanks to its strong rye content.
For context, the original 1800’s mashbill of Bulleit was 1/3 corn to 2/3 rye. But to meet modernised bourbon requirements, the recipe was changed to 68% corn and 28% rye – which is still a fairly hefty weighting towards the spicy cereal grain.
Today I’ll examine their flagship bottle ‘Bulleit Bourbon’ which until 2014, was only previously available in the UK at a reduced 40% ABV. With the American strength 45% ABV bottle, I hope to experience more of the ‘truer’ flavours of this widely popular bourbon and see how it stacks up against the Woodford Reserve.
Nose: The aroma of Bulleit Bourbon hits me immediately with an inviting blend of oak, vanilla and orange zest. There’s a smoky tobacco leaf undertone that reminds me of my father’s late night cigars. As I take a deeper breath in, I am filled with the warmth from winter spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. The relitively rich smell is complemented with a mild sweetness that lingers on the nose. The overall smell promises an enjoyable drinking experience.
Palate: On my first sip, I’m immediately treated to a remarkably smooth flavour. The sweetness of ripe oranges is balanced by the warm spices of nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon. This pleasant mix is complemented with more of the tobacco I smelled earlier.
In terms of heat, there’s a slight burn to this bourbon. It’s not overly harsh, but I can certainly taste the rye spice coming through. At 90 proof (45% ABV), it’s on the warm side – I can see certain drinkers wanting to add some water if they wanted to sip this on it’s own. Personally, I’m quite happy drinking this slowly and neat.
Acclimatising and ‘chewing’ on this bourbon, more of the subtleties emerge. There’s a lovely Maplewood flavour which has a sweet and slight floral tang to it. Mixed with orange, it’s a vibrant pairing that balances citrus, spice and syrup notes. For me, it’s a simpler palate than the Woodford, with less variation and nuance. But, it’s still a very pleasant pour.
Mouthfeel: The mouthfeel of Bulleit Bourbon is relitively smooth on the palate. It has a light, airy texture, with notes of spiced oak that provide structure to the drink and a slight hint of creaminess. There’s ample warmth from the rye content which gives a mild heat on the palate. For an entry-level bourbon of this price-point, it delivers good texture, peppered with spice and warmth. Not bad at all.
Finish: The finish of Bulleit Bourbon is mid-length. The lingering notes of spiced oak remain on the tongue and provide a delightful balance to the sweetness of oranges, winter spices, and maple. This combination creates a rich, creamy texture that lingers long after your sip.
After your sip, the rye warmth gently dissipates in your mouth, leaving you with a smooth yet spicy impression. The aftertaste is pretty darn good for an entry-level bourbon of this price point, with reasonable complexity that I’m quite happy with.
Value: For it’s accessible price and age, this bourbon has good depth of flavour. Compared to the Woodford, its got much more rye-heat , tempered with a lovely orange sweetness and vanilla. Compared to Scotch whiskies, the 90 proof is very slightly above average which delivers the sweet and spiced flavours by the bucketload. I personally didn’t feel compelled add water, but with some dilution, you’d open up more of the sweeter nuances.
On the shelf, Bulleit is much cheaper than the Woodford. At $33 dollars (£27 GBP) it’s still within the realm of daily sipping whiskey. Despite that, I honestly think this is one of the best entry-level bourbons on the market. I’m satisfied with the level of depth this whiskey gave and it’s unapologetically spiced flavour. Compared to Jim Beam or Jack, I’d buy this bottle any day of the week.
Bulleit Bourbon food pairings
For starters, Bulleit Bourbon pairs nicely with salty and savoury dishes such as cured meats and aged cheeses. The sweetness of the whiskey compliments the saltiness of the cured meats, while its spice balances nicely with the creaminess of aged cheese. Other great starter snacks include roasted nuts or even popcorn dusted in smoked paprika.
Moving onto mains, Bulleit Bourbon is an excellent accompaniment with Cajun and garlic grilled chicken thighs. Served it with toasted hazelnuts, green beans and drizzled with pomegranate molasses. The sweetness of the whiskey complements the smoky grilled chicken whilst tying-in with the rich, oily flavours of the nuts.
For a veggie option, consider a cauliflower steak with a fragrant chimichurri sauce. The smoky, earthy notes from the whiskey will pair nicely with the char-grilled cauliflower. Be sure to treat your cauliflower with the same tentative care as any cut of meat, basting it with good quality butter and a pepper-generous seasoning.
Finally, for dessert, Bulleit Bourbon works beautifully with warm apple crumble or cinnamon-spiced cakes. Its sweet vanilla flavours are enhanced by these sweet treats while its warmth adds an interesting dimension to dessert plates. For those who like something richer and indulgent, try pairing Bulleit Bourbon with a warm baked chocolate pudding drizzled in salted caramel sauce – a truly decadent end to your meal.
Bulleit Bourbon cocktail suggestion
For a fragrant refreshment, this Mint Hibiscus Tea cocktail is a zesty way to use Bulleit Bourbon. If you’re a fan of this cranberry tasting tea, grab yourself some ice and try this tasty recipe during the summer months. It’s sure to please any tea lovin’ bourbon fan.
- 50ml Bulleit bourbon
- 15ml Fresh lemon juice
- 15ml Simple syrup
- 150ml Hibiscus tea
- Fresh mint
In an ice-filled cocktail shaker, add all your ingredients, reserving the best mint sprig for a garnish. Shake thoroughly for 15 seconds until icy cold and mixed. Strain into a chilled highball glass, top with ice and garnish with the spare mint sprig. Serve.
Woodford Reserve is clearly a more refined, higher-shelf sort of purchase. Although it’s a similar age to the Bulleit, there’s more complexity to this bourbon with it’s woody, sweet and spiced flavours. Whether it’s from the dual distillation method, or the barrel ageing, the oaky flavours offer subtlety and variation with flavours of espresso, chocolate, marzipan, leather and nuts. For a more discerning palate, there’s more going on here compared to Bulleit.
Bulleit Bourbon is a cheerful pour with bold spice and syrupy sweetness. The citrussy flavour adds another dimension to the overall simpler character of this whiskey. Packed with warmth, but not too harsh, I think this is a cracking dram for the money. Compared to other entry level bourbons of the same price, this is a spicy little bourbon I’d recommend to anyone who’s looking to enter the Kentucky category.
If you’re on a budget, go with the Bulleit. With its guilt-free price tag, this ‘high rye’ bourbon is bountifully spiced and delivers great flavour. Neat or in cocktails, it’s a good drinking experience you can play around with.
For something sweeter with rich oaky flavour, the Woodford Reserve is a pricier option. This sort of purchase isn’t quite as accessible in terms of cost, but makes a lovely sipping whiskey for special occasions or when the moment is just right. It’s the better of the two bourbons, which I think is reflected in the cost.