13 of the Best Bottom Shelf, Cheap Bourbons, Blind-Tasted and Ranked

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13 of the Best Bottom Shelf, Cheap Bourbons, Blind-Tasted and Ranked

This list is part of a Paste series of bottom shelf liquor and craft beer style tastings. Click here to view all entries in the series.

When we launched the first of these bottom-shelf liquor blind tastings by sampling 10 gins for $15 or less, there was one major point I felt we needed to get across. It’s this: There’s no shortage of lists online that purport to tell you about the best “cheap booze.” But most of those lists do a lousy job of it. Whether it’s drastically misunderstanding the conception of what is actually “cheap” to the average consumer (“budget” bourbon isn’t $50 and under, folks), or not actually conducting a blind tasting of the entire field, it was clear that a definitive listing of the best genuinely cheap liquors was something we’d have to do ourselves. And so we did!

May we present, then: A legit blind tasting of 13 bottom shelf heroes from the world of bourbon. Everything on this list is either genuinely bourbon, or at the very least bourbon adjacent—several of the cheapest in this category can’t genuinely call themselves bourbon by the U.S. definition, but are still lumped into the same category by distillers and consumers. With that said, you won’t see any other varieties of whiskey here: No ryes, no Irish, no scotch, no Canadian. Those will all get their own blind tastings in the future.

We set out to answer a question: For $15 or less, what’s the best genuine bourbon you can buy for neat sipping or budget old fashioneds? Which bottle contains the secret best value, when you’re tasting blind and all preconceptions and brand loyalties are stripped away? Which bottle of cheap bourbon should earn you the most street cred when you walk into a party bearing it? We tasted, we assessed, and we found the truth.

So let’s get to it.


Rules and Procedure

— This is a tasting of bourbons, with a strict price limit of $15 or less for a 750 ml bottle. Some of the bottles we used in the tasting were merely pints, but every brand on this list was available for $15 or less on Total Wine at the time of purchasing. Please note: The hard, $15 cut-off means certain mid-shelf brands such as Old Forester (86 proof) or Four Roses Yellow Label missed the tasting, as they can no longer reliably be had for under $15. Likewise, former bottom-shelf contenders such as Old Fitzgerald or Heaven Hill White Label are no longer being manufactured. All in all, the members of this field are all firmly in the Plastic Cap Club.

— All bourbons were tasted neat, over the course of two days.

— All bourbons in this tasting were acquired directly from liquor stores in Georgia.

— Bourbons were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines.


The Rankings: All 13 Bourbons, Ranked From Worst to Best

13. Kentucky Gentleman
Distillery: Barton 1792 Distillery (Sazerac Co.)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $8.49

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Well, someone had to be last, but Kentucky Gentleman pretty much went out of its way to earn that distinction. This is one of several in this tasting that can’t genuinely qualify as “bourbon,” and instead exist in a parallel, Bizarro World dimension as this genre’s “other.” As the label reads: “A blend of Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey and spirits from the finest grains,” which is to say, a product that is 51% straight bourbon (aged at least two years in newly charred barrels) and 49% neutral grain spirits (essentially vodka or moonshine). We’d be lying if we said that always made for a completely offensive combination—we actually didn’t mind one of the quasi-bourbons in this tasting—but here? Yeah, it’s pretty offensive.

“Not very pleasant on the nose, with a distinct rubbing alcohol waft,” begins the score sheet that is arguably the most generous toward Kentucky Gentleman. “Raw booze lingers on the aftertaste.” Thin of texture, with sweet, waxy notes of apple and mint straining to get through the alcohol burn, you wonder how the booze makes itself so felt in a product that is only 80 proof—probably because there’s so little flavor to cover it up. All in all, this tastes obviously cheap in a way that is apart from almost everything else, even in a blind tasting of bourbon bottles under $15. Unanimously the most disliked whiskey of the tasting, there’s absolutely nothing “gentlemanly” about this stuff. Even as a mixer, we’d go out of our way to avoid this.


12. Rebel Yell
Distillery: Heaven Hill (for Luxco)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $12.99

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This placement will almost certainly piss some people off, because unlike the likes of Kentucky Gentleman, Rebel Yell is a brand that has some ardent fans out there—we’ve just never been among them, and we’re certainly not now, after tasting it blind. Sweet and predominantly corny on first inspection, there’s an off quality to Rebel Yell that various tasters perceived in different ways, but all agreed that it didn’t quite work. What one taster perceived as bitter peanut shells, another called “burnt popcorn,” while one tasting sheet describes it as “shot whiskey for sketchy campus bars.” There’s an almost artificial quality to the sweetness in particular, a butterscotchy note on the finish that feels like something that came out of a test tube. No oak is present, certainly. Heaven Hill obviously makes some fabulous bourbon (Elijah Craig for life!), but this one they’re distilling for Luxco is not one of them. If this is your favorite bottom shelf bourbon pick, we encourage you to try it blind alongside a few of the ones higher on this list.


11. Ten High
Distillery: Barton 1792 Distillery (Sazerac Co.)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $6.99

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This is what I was talking about when I wrote above that some of the pseudo-bourbon was borderline tolerable. For being the cheapest bottle in this entire tasting, at a ridiculous $6.99, Ten High can at least claim to be markedly better than Kentucky Gentleman, although it shares its same construction (51% bourbon, mixed with 49% neutral spirits). In fact, some of the tasters actually found this fairly palatable, in an easy-drinking sort of way. Predominantly sweet and unremarkable, it’s not as thin or watery as the KG, and features some decent flavors of black cherry, vanilla, corn and an unexpected banana note on the nose. Still, that wasn’t enough for several tasters, who cited “it drinks easy, but with no depth,” and one who complained of a raw, rubbing alcohol note on the nose—probably not too far off. But if you absolutely have no money to spend and are looking for something to dump in a punch bowl or two liter of Coke? You can most definitely do worse than this, when you’re on an extreme budget. With that said, though, you can also do much better.


10. Early Times
Distillery: Brown-Forman
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $8.49

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In the cheap whiskey world, Early Times is basically as close as you can possibly get to being bourbon without technically being able to call yourself bourbon. Why not? Well, “bourbon” has to be aged in newly charred oak barrels. And indeed, the majority of the distillate in Early Times is, but not all of it—some is instead aged in used bourbon barrels, which don’t impart as much color or flavor. And thus, you have Early Times—a spirit intended as a “mellow sipper,” but ultimately not a product with much character to it. Some tasters were willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, citing its easy drinking qualities, honeyed sweetness and straight-forward approach. Others were put off by the tannic, slightly sour quality that the oak imparted in this very young spirit, which contributed a lingering astringency. The compliments ranged from “plainly drinkable” to “super basic bourbon,” while the naysayers felt there was something subtly artificial about the whole experience. Once again, they weren’t exactly wrong.

Note: This is what I am sure is the highly coveted “fisherman’s edition” of the Early Times bottle, as we were unable to find the regular bottle.


9. Old Crow
Distillery: Jim Beam (Beam Suntory)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $8.99

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Ah, Old Crow, a mythology-steeped brand of yore, and one I’ve drank a hell of a lot of in the past. The favored whiskey of Mark Twain and Hunter S. Thompson among others, there’s undeniably a certain hipster cache to bellying up to the bar and ordering a shot of Old Crow as the accompaniment to your PBR tall boy. Being a Beam product, it’s not surprising that this is based on the same classic bourbon mash bill and yeast profile as the flagship Beam White Label, although the description hilariously admits it is blended to “a more lenient taste profile before bottling.” Yeah, we’d say that sounds about right.

On the nose and palate, you can tell this stuff is pretty young—Beam bourbons seem to take longer to mature anyway, which translates here into a wilder, unbuttoned version of Beam White Label. Rye bread and peanuts are present on the nose, leading into assertive grassiness, pepper and especially graininess on the palate, like chewing on a strand of wheat. Light of body, with a moderate alcohol burn, it’s a little bit rowdy but not out of control. The most distinctive notes are fresh cut grass and that slightly musty graininess, which knocked the score down a bit for a few tasters, but Old Crow arguably has more “overall character” than the smoother, more homogenous Beam White Label. Which you prefer is more a matter of personal taste.


8. Ancient Age
Distillery: Buffalo Trace (Sazerac Co.)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $11.99

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This is about the point in the blind tasting where we ascend from “okay in a pinch” to “decent bourbon, for the price.” Ancient Age is another one of those weathered-looking old brands that looks and feels like it’s been around forever, but unlike some of the others on this list, it hasn’t really been reclaimed by the bourbon hipsters just yet. Still, that didn’t stop the fellow who sold me this bottle at the package store from predicting that Ancient Age would win the whole tasting—yeah, not quite.

This stuff is made from the Buffalo Trace Mash Bill #2, which has a bit more rye in the grist compared with Mash Bill #1. It’s the same mash bill that gives us Blanton’s and Elmer T. Lee, but this stuff ain’t that. It is at least a legitimate straight bourbon, though, which means it can claim at least two years of age. On the palate this one is on the lighter side, with some minty herbality, rye bread, pepper, light cinnamon and honeyed sweetness. It’s milder than some of the others and a tad on the watery side, but other than a slightly sour twang of green oak, there’s no big detractions. If you handed this to a friend, they’d say something like “yep, that’s a young, cheap bourbon,” but they’d have no other reason to complain.


7. Jim Beam White Label
Distillery: Jim Beam (Beam Suntory)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $13.99

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You know it; you tolerate it; it’s White Label! Jim Beam’s flagship bourbon essentially functions as the gatekeeper of the bottom shelf—you’ll sometimes find a 750 ml bottle priced at more than $15 these days, but it’s still not very hard to get it for a couple bucks less. Its profile is one that is instantly recognizable and perfectly homogenous—every bottle of White Label tastes alike, which is to be expected from the best-selling bourbon in the U.S. (let’s not even talk about Jack Daniels in this space). At four years old, it’s certainly older than just about everything else on the bottom shelf, but it counters by being quite mild in terms of flavor profile. How Beam manages to produce something so gentle and easygoing (and lacking in assertiveness) with four years of aging, I’ll never know.

White Label tastes like a template for every basic bourbon: Predominantly corny, with light caramel, vanilla, toasted nuts and a lingering note of musty grain that is its signature. It’s very light and inoffensive, smooth and easy drinking, moderately sweet, with a tactfully integrated alcohol presence and very light burn. It’s a bourbon clearly designed for mass appeal and approachability, whether you’re drinking it with Coke or slugging it back in shot form. Suffice to say, there’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s also nothing really memorable about it. It gets by on brand recognition and how easy it is to drink, but if you only drink White Label and have never explored the rest of the bourbon sphere in the sub-$15 space, you’ll probably be surprised by just how much more interesting cheap bourbon can get.


6. Henry McKenna Straight Bourbon
Distillery: Heaven Hill
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $14.29

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Note, this is the regular “Henry McKenna Straight Bourbon,” not the 10-year-old Henry McKenna Single Barrel that won “best bourbon” earlier this year at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and has now become hard to find as a result. This whiskey is nowhere near that old, but it’s still pretty good. In truth, this may have been the most divisive of all the bourbons in the tasting—half the tasters liked it a lot, and the other half had some reservations. I suspect that the difference of opinion boils down to the unique profile of Henry McKenna, and whether tasters appreciated a thinner, more rye-forward bourbon, or were instead expecting something more sweet and viscous.

As suggested above, the stock Henry McKenna is lighter on the palate than most of the other bourbons in this tasting, with a much more rye-forward profile than we would expect for the average level of rye in the mash bill. Green apple, citrus and black pepper spiciness give way to lots of crusty rye bread/grainy flavors, with a touch of brown sugar sweetness, but mild alcohol burn. Tasters who criticized the Henry McKenna thought it was watery on the palate, but its proponents (myself included) appreciated its deviation from the norm. This strikes me as particularly good bourbon for mixing basic whiskey cocktails (it might be interesting in a Manhattan) and mixed drinks, so consider it for those purposes.


5. Old Grand-Dad (80 proof)
Distillery: Jim Beam (Beam Suntory)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $14.99

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Of all the “old” brands out there, Old Grand-Dad feels like the one that has had its stock most inflated in recent years by the whiskey geek literati. Perhaps that’s why the price has so consistently been on the rise—there’s no real reason why Old Grand-Dad should cost this much, but it’s probably the most expensive bourbon on average in this tasting, hovering around the same area as Jim Beam White Label, and often exceeding $15. I will no doubt be receiving a few reader emails telling me that we should have instead included the 100 proof Old Grand-Dad Bottled in Bond, but that brand has also seen its price inflated—it’s going for $24 per 750 ml on Total Wine right now. That’s not “bottom shelf” by any estimation; that’s solidly in the middle shelf. Is it better than the 80 proof? Yeah, but it’s an apples and oranges scenario.

This bourbon, meanwhile, is a high-rye (27 percent) offering from Beam, which feels rather like a more assertive and characterful version of White Label, despite the substantially different mash bill. Sweeter and richer in comparison, with amplified notes of rye spice, it feels a bit wilder and funkier than its Beam cousin, which we could appreciate. Still, it’s the corny sweetness that makes itself felt most strongly, which earned it the description of “old school, old man bourbon” on one score sheet, which seems fitting. Another score sheet described it as pretty close to a platonic ideal: “Smells like what I think people imagine when they think ‘bourbon.’” Ultimately, Old Grand-Dad isn’t quite top tier for the bottom shelf—and it’s the most expensive of all that qualify under our criteria—but there’s a pretty good baseline of quality.


4. Zackariah Harris Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Distillery: Barton 1792 Distillery (Sazerac Co.)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $8.99

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Zackariah Harris is good enough to make me question why anyone, anywhere, would buy the likes of Kentucky Gentleman or Ten High when the Barton 1792 Distillery is also manufacturing something so much better for exactly the same price. It also makes me question how Zackariah Harris, a straight bourbon with at least two years of age, manages to be priced at the same level as 51% whiskey mixed with 49% neutral grain spirit, to which I can only shrug and be thankful for small wonders.

Regardless, this feels like the first “find” of this particular blind tasting—a relatively unheralded straight bourbon that has only been around since 2011, flying under the radar, with an unexpected degree of quality. The nose is predominantly fruity, with a banana custard and vanilla note, which fades into grass and baking spices (cinnamon, anise), and surprisingly well hidden alcohol for something so young. On the palate it’s nicely spicy, with an array of baking spices, savory rye notes and some young, “green” woody notes that suggest the lack of age. Still, this bottle is impressively packed with character, especially for the price point. It’s a genuine bargain, and one that more people should know about.


3. Evan Williams Bottled in Bond
Distillery: Heaven Hill
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Price: $13.99

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Evan Williams has functioned in recent years like the opposite of Old Grand-Dad, in the sense that I can scarcely believe you can still regularly find not only the flagship Evan Williams Black Label but the 100 proof White Label for less than $15. That might very well make it the only bottled in bond (at least 4 years, 100 proof) bourbon you can regularly find under the $15 mark, and unsurprisingly that kind of pedigree results in quality. Full disclosure: This particular bottle of Evan Williams we were sampling came from my own home bar, where it’s one of my well bourbon go-to’s.

Both on the nose and the palate, it was immediately clear to all tasters that this was a significantly more assertive, fiery bourbon that most of the other stuff on the table. The nose is pretty classical, with loads of sweet caramel and vanilla, with a touch of roasted peanuts. Toffee sweetness on the palate gives way to hot cinnamon candy, toasted oak and burnt sugar. It’s not exactly “complex,” per se, but it’s strong, classical bourbon that would make a dynamite, highly intoxicating old fashioned without a doubt. Ultimately, I ended up wondering whether the flagship Black Label might have performed even better, as being the only 100 proof bourbon of the field may have left a few tasters shocked by the higher level of alcohol. Regardless, to be able to get a bonded bourbon at all for $15 or less represents an unmatched value. Here’s hoping that Evan Williams never gets more expensive.


2. Benchmark Old No. 8 Bourbon
Distillery: Buffalo Trace (Sazerac Co.)
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $8.49

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Whereas the earlier likes of Ancient Age are made from the higher rye Buffalo Trace #2 mash bill, “McAfee’s” Benchmark Old No. 8 is made from the unusually low rye Buffalo Trace #1 mash bill—purported to be less than 10 percent rye, but no one really knows for sure. Regardless, this is the same mash bill that makes regular Buffalo Trace bourbon, as well as Stagg and E.H. Taylor, and you can expect a sweeter and richer distillate as a result of having more corn and barley in the mash. And indeed, that’s exactly what Benchmark delivers—and at a pretty serious value.

This bourbon comes across as sweet, oily and rich, but pleasantly approachable and easy drinking at the same time. A bit fuller in texture than most, it presents flavors that you might expect to find in a wheated bourbon: Cherry and dark berries, molasses, light florals, vanilla bean and a slightly cereal/cream of wheat graininess. Viscous and full bodied, at least in comparison with the other 80 proof bourbons in this tasting, it prompted one taster to write that it “punches well above its weight” on his score sheet. For less than $10, I’m not sure you’re going to find a better bourbon for neat drinking than this. Benchmark is a rather incredible bottom shelf value, and one that can be found at almost any package store.


1. Very Old Barton (90 proof)
Distillery: Barton 1792 Distillery (Sazerac Co.)
ABV: 45% (90 proof)
Price: $12.99

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The oddest thing about the Very Old Barton line isn’t anything to do with age (although whiskey purists are still displeased that this brand was stripped of its six-year age statement a couple years ago), but the fact that it’s offered in so many different proofs: 80, 86, 90 and 100. Really? An 86, and a 90? Regardless of the reason, almost all of them can be found for less than $15, and as we quickly found out, this stuff is the real deal. All versions of Very Old Barton (or VOB, as it’s often called) are made from a classic bourbon mash bill that includes about 15 percent rye, and are aged for four to six years. And make no mistake, in a field full of two-year whiskeys on the bottom shelf, that extra age can definitely be felt.

On the nose, this feels like a classical, decently aged bourbon: Plenty of caramel, vanilla, some oaky char and a good amount of baking spices (cinnamon, ginger, clove). On the palate it feels slick and moderately viscous, with plenty of peppery rye spice and a growing hint of black cherry that swells on repeated sips. Dare we say, this one actually tastes a bit older than it is, especially in terms of the oak and spice complexity that is present. It has a nice rye character without seeming like a rye whiskey, because it never loses its fullness of body or corny sweetness, all of which make it a joy to drink neat. At 90 proof, it packs a little bit more volume of flavor than most of the 80 proof whiskeys in the blind tasting, but its alcoholic heat is nicely restrained and integrated, especially in comparison with the Evan Williams BiB. All in all, this is quite frankly a delightful bourbon to drink neat, and you can probably find a bottle at your local package store for $12-14.

So really: What are you waiting for? We set out to find the best bourbon available for less than $15, and I’m pretty sure we found it.


Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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