By Richard Thomas
Although the world’s whisk(e)y boom has brought more choices than enthusiasts have ever had, the heightened demand has also led some prices to rise. It’s a fundamental market mechanism taught in macroeconomics: when supply and demand are out of balance, prices will change until the balance is restored.
Thankfully, plenty of good, affordable whisk(e)ys are still out there. In fact, some very drinkable expressions can be had dirt cheap. If you doubt that, check out these bottom shelf options the next time you are in the liquor store. You should be able to pick up a whole bottle for what a shot or two costs at your favorite whisk(ey) bar!
Evan Williams Black Label ($13): This classic is arguably the best of the mass market Bourbons, and if you want to be one of the people who argues that point, consider this: nearly all the peers of Evan Williams Black Label are bottled at 80 proof, but this one is bottled at 86. All other things being equal, the stronger Bourbon is usually better. It’s smooth and can be had at truly bargain basement prices.
Old Grand-Dad ($17): Although a few bucks more expensive that Evan Williams Black Label and about half the other whiskeys in the mass market category, this is the cheapest you can go for a nice high-rye Bourbon. It’s the basic version of the increasingly popular Basil Hayden, so if you are looking to go for inexpensive Bourbon while changing up the flavor profile to something spicier, this is the way to go.
Two Stars Bourbon ($20): Would you like to take a crack at 1792 Small Batch for a third of the price? Well, it’s not quite like that, but Two Stars Bourbon comes from Barton 1792 too and it’s a lot cheaper than it’s (probably older, more selectively batched) cousin. A review for this whiskey appeared today on the website, so check it out.
Canadian Whisky is, sadly, synonymous with ultra cheap whisky, and almost as synonymous with ultra cheap bad whisky. This is an unfair assessment, because while there are certainly wretched imports from Canada out there, every category of whiskey has its rotgut entries. Here are some ideas for finding your way to drinkable Canadian Whisky for way below $20 a bottle.
Canadian Club ($15): This stuff is the fuel that drove the Prohibition era speakeasies, which is probably why it featured so prominently in the opening sequence of Boardwalk Empire. All the other big names in Canadian Whisky are either dramatically inferior or much more expensive, making this the bottle that occupies the middle ground of bargain basement whisky from north of the border.
Black Velvet ($11): Now let’s say $15 bucks is too expensive for you. A fifth of Black Velvet is markedly cheaper, but you should spend the money you save on a two-liter of Coca Cola, because it’s strictly mixer-grade whisky. Alternately, you could spend $15 on a 1.75L bottle of Black Velvet. Yes, it really is that cheap.
Rich & Rare Reserve ($13): “Canadian Rye” is a misleading term, because “Rye Whisky” and just plain “Whisky” are interchangeable in Canada, and most Canadian Whiskies are blends. That said, some of those blends manage to show a higher proportion of Rye than others, and this is a prime example. It’s just plain good for a whisky costing as little as it does, and it’s the cheapest way to get a good crack at the Canadian Rye profile.
Ever since the Rye Craze of earlier in the decade, when even the humblest Ryes were sometimes in short supply, Rye Whiskey has become at least slightly more expensive than comparable Bourbon. You’ll see that reflected in the prices below.
Old Overholt ($18): If you are shopping for the Rye Whiskey with the lowest price, go straight to Old Overholt. There really isn’t much to this 80 proof, Kentucky-style, Beam-made Rye. It’s in no way extraordinary, but perfectly drinkable, and it’s the cheapest version of the same basic juice that appears in Jim Beam Rye and Knob Creek Rye.
Ezra Brooks Rye ($19): For just a buck more in most places, you can do a trade off on Old Overholt. In exchange for getting a stronger, 90 proof whiskey, you give away a couple of years in the maturity department. However, Ezra Brooks Rye is also, like everything in the Ezra Brooks line, charcoal-filtered after the barrels are dumped. That helps mellow the whiskey a bit, taking the edge off the youthful whiskey.
Rittenhouse Rye ($20): Remember how I said Old Overholt was as cheap as it gets when it comes to Rye? Rittenhouse 80 proof Rye is the evidence. This is Heaven Hill’s counterpart to Old Overholt, being of similar age and strength, but it costs two bucks more in most places. Still, it has more fans among diehards than Old Overholt, as does the Heaven Hill Rye flavor profile. So, if you want the cheapest version of the same Rye that goes into Pikeville or the older versions of Rittenhouse, this is the one.
Other American Whiskeys
If you want to get seriously cheap, one way to do that is to reach for blends and whiskeys aged in used barrels.
Early Times ($11): How do you make a whiskey even cheaper than mass market offerings like Jim Beam White and Evan Williams Black? Why you dispense with the expense of aging in new oak barrels, and that is what Early Times does. It’s not as good as those mass market Bourbons, of course, but it’s passable and costs a few dollars less. You can get a whole bottle of Early Times for what a middling shot of Bourbon costs in any bar in America, and that is a bargain.
Fleischmann’s ($13): To beat out Early Times, a shopper needs to enter the dubious realm of American blended whiskeys. One safe bet in that category is Fleischmann’s, which is a decent mixer-grade whiskey if nothing else. It’s main selling point, beyond not sucking, is that that $13 price tag is attached to a one-liter bottle.
Scotch is often synonymous with higher prices, and in the premium range that is largely true. However, down on the mass market end there are some interesting possibilities to be had for dirt cheap prices.
Cutty Sark ($16):
Some of the mass market blended Scotch whiskies just aren’t very good, while others have flavor profiles that lean strongly in one or another direction. For a light bodied, flavorful, general purpose blend that won’t cost you very much, pick up Cutty Sark.
Shieldaig Highland “Peaty” Single Malt ($16):
Let’s say you want to lean away from the middle of the road and into peaty whisky territory. You aren’t going to find a peaty, smoky, drinkable Scotch Whisky cheaper than Shieldaig Highland Peaty Single Malt. Although it’s origins are unknown, it’s a single malt from somewhere in the Highlands and it costs the same as bargain buys like Cutty Sark.
Famous Grouse ($19):
If you want to take that flavor profile into a woodier direction, you’ll need to spend a bit more money. Still, there is a blended Scotch Whisky that fits the bill and costs less than twenty bucks, Famous Grouse. It’s the most popular Scotch in Scotland for a reason: strong flavor and low price.