Even when your bourbon budget is tight, the liquor store shelf beckons like a boozy vending machine. Bourbon, despite going off like a bomb this past decade, remains an affordable man’s game. But it’s also tough. If you have, say, a twenty and a fiver in your pocket, you are spoiled for choice. And while there are no right or wrong picks on the path to loving bourbon, some decisions might be wiser than others. Here are some of the best bourbons to reach for, all $25 or less.
Distillery: Maker’s Mark
King of the Affordable Wheaters: The red wax seal; the Scottish spelling of “whisky.” It’s easy to love Maker’s and its quirks. Particularly easy, since it’s an affordable wheated bourbon. It’s got a big name, which sometimes pushes its price up — but in California, I find mine for $20 at Trader Joe’s. That’s hard to beat.
Distillery: Wild Turkey
Bang for Your Buck: Wild Turkey bourbon has been around for a long time, since the 1940s; its master distiller, Jimmy Russell, has too (his son Eddie Russell is a master distiller now too). Wild Turkey also makes an 80-proof bourbon, but the 101 is its true flagship. It has a mash bill that’s “high rye” (75 percent corn, 13 percent rye, 12 percent malted barley) and is aged in barrels with a deep char, then bottled at near barrel-proof. The result is a flavor bomb.
Distillery: Old Forester Distilling Company
Classic Flavor Profile: Old Forester is indeed an old brand — at 150 years and going, it’s the longest-running bourbon brand. It’s so old that its big innovation was being sold only in sealed glass bottles. In the past few years the brand has gained some lost ground back in prestige, and the 100 proof is part of that. It’s a rich, flavorful bourbon with a mash bill that’s 70 percent corn, 18 percent rye, and 10 percent malted barley. In his 2019 Bible, Jim Murray called the Old Forester 86 “criminally under-rated,” and the same thing can be said for the 100-proof.
Distillery: Brown-Forman / Sazerac
Price: $25 (1L bottle)
Party Bourbon: Early Times, recently acquired from Brown-Forman by Sazerac, is one of the best kept secrets on the bottom shelf. Firstly, it comes in a one-liter bottles that are perfect for keeping as your home bar's well bourbon or, even better, a bourbon to pull out when a crowd comes over. It's also a really balanced bourbon that weds price, proof, age and flavor profile nicely.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
The Alternative Wheater: Heaven Hill’s budget wheated bourbon took over for its Old Fitzgerald line of whiskies around 2012 (Old Fitz is available now in limited runs at high prices). Heaven Hill's mash features 20 percent wheat, which is a slightly higher percentage than Maker's. It’s an excellently balanced wheater, with notes of baking spices and lemon peel; the bottle I bought in place of my $20 Maker’s Mark has been emptied quickly.
Distillery: Buffalo Trace
The Benchmark: Buffalo Trace’s flagship bottle is an industry standard — so much so that it often feels less exciting than its affordable competitors. But there’s much to be said for plain old quality. The juice in the buffalo bottle is aged at least eight years, according to BT, and it’s a younger version of some of the stuff that finds its way into some of bourbon’s most sought-after bottles. Its flavor isn’t as unique or punchy as some other bottles on this list, but it’s a great benchmark for simple, delicious “bourbony” flavors.
Distillery: Jim Beam
Big Fat Bourbon: A quote from my editor, unedited: “OGD114 is the fullest, meatiest, fattiest cheap bourbon you can buy.” Don’t just take it from him: the stuff has a cult following. As it should. It’s cheap, it’s got huge flavors, and, if you sip it neat, it’ll get you drunk. With a mash bill of 63% corn, 23% rye, and 10% malted barley, it’s a study in the power of secondary grains.
Distillery: Heaven Hill
Single Barrel Beauty: Single barrel whiskey is fun. You’re not drinking the blender’s best shot at bourbon — you’re sampling the boozy fruit of a single tree, which tends to have distinct flavor characteristics. But then, that depends on the barrel you get, doesn’t it? The problem: that sort of delicacy costs you more money. Evan Williams must have a brilliant barrel program, because it does a solid job with this affordable version, with barrels that are usually between seven and eight years old. You can give it a taste and decide for yourself if you like what Evan Williams does with their whiskey.
Distillery: Four Roses
The Solid Blend: Bourbon dudes clamber for the small batch and single barrel versions from Four Roses. But this baseline bottle is made combining barrels from two high-rye mash bills, making it a balanced sipper or an excellent base for a cocktail.
Distillery: Jim Beam
The Beam Upgrade: It’s pulled from a single barrel of Jim Beam’s bourbon, which means you never know quite what you’re going to get. Overall though, it’s known as a steady-on whiskey, and a fun alternative version of your normal old black label Jim.