With the holidays behind us, it's time to scale back, tighten the belt, buckle down, and engage in other cliches that mean spending less money on booze. This week, we'll start considering the best ways to save a little cash and still drink well, one spirit at a time.
Today, I'm covering bourbon. We're lucky, as bourbon drinkers. The bourbon industry has the resources and capacity to make massive quantities of corn juice, and the expertise to do it well. This means that you can find plenty of good bourbon on a budget. Now, that's not to say every budget bourbon is good, heck no. Some of it is dreck. But look around, and you'll find the good stuff easily enough. Here, I'm going to discuss 10 of my favorites.
In a world where most hooch is sold at an industry-standard 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume), you might notice how many of these are at a higher proof. When you compare these to top-shelf bourbons that charge you $45 for an 80-proof bottle, they seem like an even better deal.
How do I define "budget"? Well, that's going to change from time to time. You can find some damn good bourbons for under $20, for example, but you won't find many good Scotches in that price range. So for today's post, I peg "budget" at anything $20 and under. All prices noted here are for 750-milliliter bottles, though prices will vary depending where you live.
Fighting Cock (103 proof, $18)
I love this bourbon. This six-year-old high-rye bourbon is a great value for the price, and it simply tastes good. I'd say it compares to Wild Turkey 101—it's very similar, in fact, but about five bucks cheaper. When I have the five extra bucks, I go with the Turkey instead of the Cock, mainly because I feel kind of like a frat boy when I buy Fighting Cock. Still, the name aside, Fighting Cock is perhaps my favorite on this list. Makes a killer Old Fashioned and an equally good Manhattan. It's one of the most versatile bourbons on this list—it's great for sipping and for mixing.
Old Fitzgerald Prime (80 proof, $14)
Old Fitzgerald is a wheated bourbon, with a soft, smooth, mildly sweet flavor. As a wheater, it tastes similar to Maker's or W. L. Weller: mellow, with hints of citrus and tree fruit. It mixes well, and it's a decent sipper. Although I think Weller is by far the best wheated bourbon on the market, I like Old Fitzgerald a little better than Maker's, especially given the price difference.
Jim Beam Black Label (90 proof, $20)
The 8-year old expression of Beam (its white-labeled brother is 4 years old) shows the benefit of longer barrel aging. I'm not a fan of the white-label release; I find it a little one-note. But the black label is just what you want bourbon to be: smooth, with just the exact amounts of vanilla, caramel, and woodiness you want from good bourbon whiskey. If I were going to select a bourbon to give to someone who's never had bourbon before, I think I might pick the Beam Black. It does what bourbon should, and its proof level isn't so high it would scare anyone off.
Evan Williams Black Label (86 proof, $14)
Aged 5 to 7 years, Evan Williams is a solid bourbon, and it rightfully appears on most lists of the best budget whiskeys. I can usually get a 1.75L handle of it for about 25 bucks, and it lasts ... well, let's not about how long it takes me to drink through a handle of bourbon. But if you don't need that much bourbon around at any one time, 14 bucks for a 750 is a pretty darned good deal. I prefer Evan Williams for sipping more than for mixing; I think it's a little flat in cocktails, except perhaps for an Old Fashioned.
Very Old Barton Bottled in Bond (100 proof, $14)
I tried very hard to limit this list to bourbons that are widely available, but I had to throw Old Barton in here. It's somewhat hard to find outside of Kentucky—apparently, the Bluegrass State prefers to keep the good stuff mostly to itself. Hey, I won't judge. What you've got here is a bonded bourbon whiskey that has some age on it and still retails for fourteen bucks. If you don't like that, I can't help you. VOB is a flavorful bourbon, packed with fruit and spice and a hint of rye. You can mix with it, and you can sip it, but either way, I think you'll enjoy it. Incidentally, I used to get mine at LeNell's in Red Hook, Brooklyn, way back when. Now that she's in Alabama, I'm not sure how to get it in New York aside from ordering it online. If you ever happen to see a bottle, though, buy it. If anything knocks Fighting Cock from the top of my list, it would be the VOB.
Old Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond (100 proof, $12)
Here's just one more that might not be super-widely available, but I need to include it because it's such a good value. Old Heaven Hill is a basic bourbon, from the company that brings you Evan Williams, Fighting Cock, and Old Fitzgerald (sound familiar?), plus Elijah Craig and Rittenhouse Rye. Here's a 100-proofer for 12 bucks. It's not a super-complex bourbon, but what do you expect for the price? It's good on ice and it's also good in cocktails, especially an Old Fashioned.
Old Crow Reserve (86 proof, $13)
Old Crow Reserve is a bump up from regular Old Crow. It's 86 proof, compared to Crow's 80, and it's four years old instead of three. I found that I liked it more in cocktails than I did on the rocks, so if you like your Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, but you want to economize, this is a good way to go.
Old Grand-Dad (80 proof, $17)
You remember last year when Beam Inc. planned to lower the proof of Maker's Mark? Remember the backlash? At about the same time, Beam dropped the proof on Old Grand-Dad (from 86 to 80), and hardly anyone noticed. Nevertheless, I think it's still a bargain at $17. It tastes a little spicier to me than anything else in Beam's low-cost portfolio, implying that it might be a little more rye-heavy. I like this on the rocks and in cocktails, too.
If you want to drop a few extra bucks, and if you can find them, Grandpa also has a bonded version ($21) and a 114-proof ($25), both of which are better than the original. But they're just outside my price range for this piece, so I'm going with the OG.
Four Roses Yellow Label (80 proof, $20)
Four Roses made the top-selling bourbon in America until just after World War II, and thanks to the perambulations of American servicemen during and after that conflict, it became popular in Japan, as well. Seagram's bought the company and turned it into a blended whiskey, mostly grain neutral spirit with a bit of bourbon added for flavor. So the top-selling brand in America became cheap rotgut. But only in America. Japan still got the good stuff.
In 2002, the brand was purchased by Kirin Brewing of Japan, and the Kirin folks decided to discontinue the blended product. Kirin took the step of purchasing back all blended bottles of Four Roses still on shelves in the United States and destroying them. Then the brand got quiet for a time in the U.S., until it slowly started rolling out its small-batch and single-barrel releases.
The yellow label, though, was still associated in consumer minds with rotgut, so Four Roses bided its time, and finally reintroduced the yellow label years later, this time as a true bourbon whiskey.
What you find with the small batch and single barrel releases are bourbons that are very expressive in certain distinct ways. Maybe one release is a little fruitier, for example, or spicier. With Yellow, what you get is a bourbon that is just the basic Four Roses style of bourbon, consistent from year to year and from batch to batch. It's never going to surprise you the way the fancy limited releases might, but it'll also never disappoint you. I mentioned earlier that Beam Black might be the one bourbon I'd pick to introduce someone to bourbon. Four Roses Yellow is the other choice I'd offer, both for mixing and sipping.
Benchmark Old No. 8 (80 proof, $10)
A high-rye bourbon from Buffalo Trace, Benchmark is a good, solid bourbon for just $10. The rye gives it a little spice and kick, but it's still a pretty smooth sipper. I wouldn't necessarily serve it to guests, but it's fine when you have only a little money to spend, and you need something reliable. It's fine to sip or just to mix into a highball. Depending on where you are, you might even find a 1.75L handle for $20, which puts even the big guy in the 'budget' range.
Share Your Picks!
Tell me, what are your go-to budget bourbons? What would you add to this list?
More Bourbon on Serious Eats
The Serious Eats Guide to Bourbon
10 Bourbon Terms You Should Know
Five Essential Bourbon Cocktails
Serious Eats Goes Behind the Scenes at Maker's Mark
Stocking Your Home Bar: Bourbon Advice from the Experts
What's Your Favorite Bourbon Cocktail?