The Top 5 Bourbons That Won’t Bust Even The Slimmest Budget
By Richard Thomas
For Americans, one of the best aspects of bourbon is how it offers such excellent value buys, including truly outstanding bargains in premium whiskey. However, sometimes a tight pocketbook means $30 or $35 is too much to spend on a bottle of whiskey, no matter how much bang it offers for the buck. No worries, because the next rung down the ladder still offers good value for the money. These are the top five in the under $20 category.
5. Very Old Barton Bottled-in-Bond, $15
This bourbon comes from the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, a place bourbon fans should get more familiar with on the strength of their 1792 brand. Before and beneath that range is the Very Old Barton brand, topped out by this Bottled-in-Bond (BiB). Made with a 75% corn, 15% rye and 10% barley malt mash bill, the flavor profile fits well within that of the typical bourbon. What makes it special is the BiB part, and the low price tag.
BiB has been a term denoting quality since the end of the 19th Century, describing a whiskey that was made entirely in one distilling season, aged in under Federal supervision, at least four years old, and bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV). The latter pair of points are a large part of why BiB whiskeys are all the rage lately, but another point is the price, and Very Old Barton is among the cheapest. Our deputy editor reports buying it in New York City by the one-liter bottle for around $20 a pop, and the standard fifth bottle is much cheaper.
4. Old Grandad, $17
Old Grandad isn’t what it used to be. At roughly the same time the Beam-owned Maker’s Mark got into trouble for cutting its proof, the proof on Old Grandad fell from 86 to 80 (43% to 40%) without so much as a wimper. Even so, the basic version of Old Grandad remains a real budget buy, and the cheapest bourbon made from Jim Beam’s high rye mashbill. That is a big plus for fans of spicier bourbons. As author Neal Thompson said, it has “just enough of a spicy bite to hit the pallette if I’m not ready to break out the [Basil] Haydens.”
3. Four Roses Yellow Label, $19
This bourbon is the bedrock of Four Roses’ comeback in America, from rotgut blended whiskey to bourbon heavyweight. Yellow Label was the stuff that made Four Roses the top selling bourbon in America before the Second World War, the stuff that survived as an export-only brand even as the American version sank into disrepute. A blend of all ten possible combinations of mashbills and yeasts used at Four Roses, it reflects both the spicy and the floral sides of what Four Roses does in a balanced package.
2. Fighting Cock, $17
Often overlooked because its garish styling suggests a whiskey that is cheap in substance as well as price, Fighting Cock is one of the great overlooked gems in bourbon today. It’s a nice, pleasant enough example of a corn-and-vanilla sweet bourbon, but what makes it such a budget winner is its bold 103 proof (51.5% ABV). It’s the only whiskey to cross the 100 proof line without going too hot while doing it and stay below the $20 price point.
1. Old Forester, $17
When we asked our readers and our outside experts about budget bourbon, the brand that came up the most was, by far and away, Old Forester. It’s a full-bodied, 86 proof (43% ABV) bourbon that achieves a lovely balance between its caramel and spicy aspects.
According to some, it’s even the choice of the family that makes it. Douglas Kenney, proprietor of Old Limestone mixing water, explained, “Here in Kentucky we rub elbows with bourbon people and we get to see what everyone drinks including the Browns of Brown-Forman, of whom they are many. It’s the bourbon the Brown family drinks and the one I love to sip. Old Forester. Before she passed away from an illness one of the daughters just wanted a taste of it and, surrounded by family, she asked for an Old Forester neat. That kind of says it all in my book.”