Bourbon’s having a bit of a moment. For one, September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, which means 30 days of required drinking. Bourbon also led spirit industry revenue in 2014. And the threat of a supposed “bourbon shortage” doesn’t hurt popularity. It does, however, help drive up prices.
Before bourbon-o-philia gets out of hand, with collectors hoarding bottles of every price point like cans of discount soup for doomsday, we thought we’d assemble a list of some of the best, most affordable bourbons out there for those of us with bourbon cravings but maybe not the collector-level cash flow required to, say, join the (overblown) hunt for Pappy Van Winkle.
It’s a wide range, all coming in at under $50, with slightly different styles, ages, and price points that’ll impact flavor profile. (Bourbons are listed from least to most expensive, though prices vary from market to market.)
An almost terrifyingly affordable bourbon whiskey that won’t go down like rotgut. It won’t blow you away with complexity, either, but it’s surprisingly serviceable, and more than just alcoholic heat: some caramel and vanilla with some fortifying oak. Not many dimensions here, but those available won’t disappoint. (In truth, about $15 more gets you Evan Williams Single Barrel, and a lot more complexity. Buy as budget allows.)
Four Roses Yellow Label: Best Mixer Bourbon
After being restored to its rightful bourbon-making ways by Kirin (who purchased the brand in 2002), Four Roses resurrected its Yellow Label—a great starter bourbon at just $19, with 5 years in the barrel yielding a slightly softer character: fruit and floral notes (crisp apple, pear) laced with honey sweetness and subtle spice.
Heaven Hill Fighting Cock: Best High Rye Budget Bourbon
A “high rye” bourbon (meaning the second major ingredient besides the requisite 51% corn is rye), this one’s got a spicy flavor profile, played up by a solid 51.5% ABV. Fruit on the nose tends to yield pretty quickly to an assertive spice and heat on the palate, overlaid with some ribbons of caramel and vanilla and balancing toasted nuttiness. If you want more high-rye complexity check out…
Wild Turkey 101: Best Versatile Budget Bourbon
Wild Turkey may still have kind of a bad rap, and the low price point might suggest it deserves it, but Wild Turkey 101 has plenty to offer the bourbon beginner (or the bourbon regular looking for an affordable fix). The “101” refers to the proof, meaning it’s 50.5% ABV, with a deep-layer char on the barrels imparting depth of color and some toasty oak flavors underlying vanilla-toffee sweetness, supple fruit and a hint of spice.
Another “cheap” bourbon with a maybe undeservedly bad rep, Old Fitzgerald (now owned by Heaven Hill) is a wheated bourbon that’s got something to offer at one of the lowest price points out there. Some Old Fitzgerald, e.g. “Very Old Fitzgeralds,” can command hundreds, but Prime is the way to go for an affordable bourbon that’s good for some on-the-rocks sipping. Softer and subtly sweet, with honey, citrus, and almonds.
Buffalo Trace Old Weller Antique 107: Best Overall Value
A “wheated” bourbon, meaning you’ll get a little extra wheat sweetness in addition to classic bourbon notes of caramel, vanilla, butterscotch. Not candy in a glass, mind you, at 107 proof with 7 years aging in new charred oak barrels, there’s plenty of depth, spice, and alcohol, drying out to balance the sweetness on the finish. A great value, and typically about 20 bucks cheaper than the comparable Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year.
Not surprising that another Four Roses makes the list, this one with a slightly higher ABV (45%) and more sippable depth than what you’ll get out of the Yellow Label. A little bit more oak frames a bourbon rich with berries, spice, and caramel. Mellow with a long finish. A Double Gold Medal in the San Francisco World’s Spirits Competition, for under 30 bucks.
Here’s a small batch, 12 year-old bourbon for around the mid $30s (some prices have it higher). Lots of complexity from those dozen years in the barrel, with spice, fruit, toffee, and vanilla leading up to a slightly palate-drying, subtly smoky, long finish. If the 47% ABV isn’t kick enough, shell out ten more bucks for the 12 Year Barrel Proof, with 67.1% ABV and a flavor profile as complex as much pricier bottles.
Buffalo Trace Elmer T Lee Single Barrel Bourbon: Best Mid-Range Value
Named to honor the guy who saved bourbon—yes—basically by inventing the “single barrel” concept, this is an easy bottle to fall in love with. Complex but still elegant and smooth, with baking spices, butterscotch, and nuts rounded out by dried fruits, wine, and light fruit notes that slip into a leathery, lingering, rich finish.
Any bourbon that beat out Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge is worth a try, right? A decent sipping bourbon, mingling some spice and licorice notes with caramel sweetness and supple, not overpowering, tobacco notes. Slightly harder to find.
Four Roses Single Barrel: Splurge High-Rye Bourbon
The highest rye bourbon on the market, with 35% rye content, you’ll get a hell of a lot of bang for your bourbon buck. (Which is why you’ll tend to see Four Roses on many lists for great budget bourbons). With a potent 50% ABV, it’s actually fairly smooth, swimming with notes of cherry, dark stone fruits, maple, and cocoa beneath the complex, woody spice.
Buffalo Trace Eagle Rare 10 Year: Best Splurge
On the high end of “budget” bourbon, but worth the purchase if you’ve found yourself falling for the category. Ten years in charred oak finds its way to the glass along with dark fruit, orange peel, herbs, leather, and toffee. Dry on the finish, with spice and rich cocoa balancing out a nutty sweetness. Definitely something to drink straight, or with a splash of water.
Another high rye bourbon, coming at you with 90 proof heat, spice, and some quietly layered complexity. Toffee, florals, and sandalwood on the nose with dried fruits, savory notes, and baking spices rounding out a nicely fully body—cut through, of course, by rye spice and oak, with sweetness on the long finish.