..an introduction to good, inexpensive bourbon, and simple tips on how to get hold of your own budget bourbon that's still very much drinkable.
Drinking whiskey is in, and some of the finest out there come in the form of “craft bourbon,” of which there’re numerous new styles. With so many “crafted” beverages these days, it’s no surprise to see craft bourbon hit the market. But must you break the bank to enjoy a decent dram? Or does such a thing as good, inexpensive bourbon actually exist?
Bourbon has traditionally been an outstanding value in whiskey. Until recently, one could expect to pay about half the cost of an equally respectable Scotch whisky for a bottle of bourbon. Prices, however, are rising for both of these amber elixirs.
Even so, there are still some very drinkable budget bourbons available, all at some very affordable prices. Here are some tips for picking them out.
How to pick out good, inexpensive bourbon
1. Make Sure It’s Really Bourbon
Bourbon doesn’t have to be from Bourbon County, Kentucky to be called Bourbon, but it does have to adhere to a very strict recipe. The use of charred oak barrels, at least a 51% corn mash and a final proof of 160 or less are some of the broader qualifications for bourbon makers. Skirting these requirements can save money, so many lower-cost options come under the moniker of “blended bourbon”. Inexpensive they may be, but bourbon they are not.
Don’t get me wrong – blended whiskies aren’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, many people enjoy them! Nevertheless, if it’s true budget bourbon you’re after, make sure the bottle says “straight bourbon” on it. Four Roses Yellow Label is a great example of affordable straight bourbon that still functions as a great sipping whiskey or mixer.
2. Know if You’re mixing or sipping
Most whiskeys that taste good straight will mix just fine, but the equation doesn’t work in both directions. If you’re picky about whiskey, you might think that stooping to a less esteemed bourbon might affect the quality of your drink.
In reality, many bargain bottles will hold up just fine when combined with cola or sour mix. If you’re mixing, you don’t need to be so fussy.
3. Be Ready for Some Heat
One thing that doesn’t make sense about bargain whiskey and budget bourbon is how strong they tend to be. Compared to popular names like Makers Mark and Four Roses, which often arrive between 80 and 85 proof, many very cheap bottles are sold at higher alcohol levels. Wild Turkey 101 is a great example of an affordable whiskey with superior punch.
This partially explains the hint of rubbing alcohol that comes with some of the cheapest bourbon options out there. Still, it’s comforting to know that along with the good deal you’re getting, there’s a little extra kick to help you make your mind up.
4. Just Because it’s From Kentucky Doesn’t Make it Good
Paste Magazine performed a taste test of inexpensive whiskies. Though $10 makes for some of the cheapest bourbon ever recorded, the author does mention that in his home state of Kentucky, whiskey is exceptionally cheap (probably because there’s so much of it).
Evan William’s Green Label won the competition, though Paste notes that you shouldn’t consider its score of an eight as a fair comparison to more expensive bottles. Two bottles, Kentucky Deluxe and Kentucky Dale, each received special mentions for being particularly bad.
It’s all well and good buying budget bourbons, but if you’re going to drink at that price point, it helps not to make mistakes.
5. High rye for a low Price
One desirable characteristic in bourbon is a high amount of rye in the mash. Whiskies that have rye as the second most prominent ingredient next to corn are “high rye” bourbons. Connoisseurs often favor these bourbons for their bolder flavor.
If you’re on a budget, it can be hard to spot a whiskey with this special complexion, but there’re a few out there. Fighting Cock, a six-year bourbon that’s great in an old fashioned thanks to its rye-heavy mashbill, is one example. For a rare treat in this category, see if you can track down some “Very Old Barton’s,” which some people feel isn’t very old at all.
Now, go forth and select your bourbon of choice with the knowledge that you can have quality on a reasonable budget. Perhaps you’ll feel the sacrifice wasn’t worth it, but we think if you stick to these five guidelines, you’ll be surprised at what you find.
3 of the best inexpensive bourbons
Tastes differ and, seeing as you’re drinking budget bourbon here, there’s no reason not to explore multiple varieties (…in time). But where to start?
1. Four Roses Yellow Label
Already mentioned for its notable prowess when sipping and/or mixing, Four Roses Yellow Label is a good starting point.
“You can create mixed drinks with a sophisticated, contemporary flair with this worldwide favorite” says Four Roses,and they’re not wrong.
Smooth, mellow and at home in cocktails, Four Roses Yellow Label is proof that good, inexpensive bourbon exists. One of the best inexpensive bourbons out there.
2. Evan William’s Green Label
Not easy to get hold of, but another example of a budget bourbon that’s still good value. Again smooth, without the bitternesss that can creep into lower-priced bourbons.
This one won Paste Magazine’s taste test and, if you’re prepared to look around, you can often find it cheap as chips.
3. Fighting Cock
While the bottle may not take itself to seriously, the liquid inside does. Fighting Cock is one of the rare inexpensive bourbon expressions that doesn’t skimp on the rye in the mash, and hence has a much bolder flavour than some of its counterparts at the same price point.
The bolder flavour is one that divides opinion but it’s there intentionally and unapologetically. Wild Turkey 101 fans will want to give this a go.
Budget bourbon prices
How much should you be paying?
Most good, inexpensive bourbon falls between to £20-£40 mark but, as with everything, it’s worth steering clear of the bargain basement if you can help it.
You don’t need to spend a fortune to get good bourbon. It’s easy to buy a bad, pricey bottle.
All in all, the key is exploration. Hopefully this guide will get you started in the right direction. The rest is up to you!
Kayla Matthews is a blogger and freelance copywriter who enjoys whiskey and a good book. She writes about self-improvement, life goals and productivity for publications like The Huffington Post and The Daily Muse.
Credit: Jim Kravits via Flick