There’s a lot of bourbon out there. Walk into a package store, head to the “bourbon” aisle, and you could very well drown with decision fatigue, particularly if you’re new to the “sport” of sipping brown liquor, and haven’t chosen your go-to label yet. You could simply buy the most expensive bottle on the shelf and hope you like it, but those of us without trust funds will probably gravitate toward the collection of cheap bourbon, of which there are a plethora of options. The number of bourbons that fall inside the tidy price range of $30 or less is down right staggering. Again, you’re drowning in a sea of choices.
Fear no more. Help is here. Through my own love of bourbon, package store research, and personal recommendations from some friends who are the best bartenders and bourbon lovers that I know, I am supplying you with a quick and curated list of 10 of the best quality bourbons for under $30.
Editor’s Note: The bourbons are in no particular order, and prices of liquor vary from state to state.
Old Forester Kentucky Straight ( Brown-Forman; Louisville Ky., $18)
Since its beginnings in 1870, Old Forester holds the honor of being the oldest whiskey brand in America that has been continuously produced without interruption. While most distilleries were shuttered during Prohibition, these folks stayed open in part because enough physicians so touted the purity of the bourbon that they received a medical exemption to the ban on alcohol production. So you could think of this one as the “medicinal marijuana” of bourbons. A light, classic bourbon with notes of nut and fruit. Serves as a relatively easy starter bourbon or mixer.
Buffalo Trace (Buffalo Trace Distillery; Frankfort Ky., $26)
In my opinion, this is one of the best bourbons for the wallet and the palate at the same time. A great everyday choice whether it’s neat, on a rock or mixed, Buffalo Trace is a much drier and less sweet bourbon than others listed here. The BT distillery is one of the most historic and awarded whiskey distilleries in the U.S. and definitely worth a visit when in Kentucky.
Elijah Craig 12 Year (Heaven Hill Distilleries; Bardstown Ky., $25 )
Full disclaimer: This is what I am sipping while I write this so apologies in advance if its name subliminally slips out from time to time. For the price this is a fantastic whiskey. Elijah Craig. Carrying a smoky caramel nose, this is a smooth oaky bourbon with a full body and just the right touch of sweetness. Elijah Craig. Named in honor of a Kentucky Baptist preacher from the 1700’s that distilled whiskey, this award-winning small batch is one that you will want to check out. Elijah Craig.
Wild Turkey 101 (Austin Nichols Distilling Company; Lawrenceburg Ky., $23)
I was shocked and pleasantly surprised when I learned that one of the best Manhattans I’ve ever had contained Wild Turkey 101 for the base. Legendary distiller Jimmy Russell and his son Eddie have almost a combined total of 100 years of experience that you can taste in this peppy, high-proof elixir. Striking a perfect balance of sweet and spicy, this rye-forward sipper also makes for an excellent mixer for cocktails.
1792 Ridgemont Reserve (Barton 1792 Distillery; Bardstown Ky., $28)
Identified by the unique scrap of burlap wrapped around the bottle’s neck, this eight-year-old bourbon is the official toasting bourbon of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. So that should tell you something. This is a complex bourbon, with expected rye spiciness and notes of apple and cinnamon on the palate, but with a short and sharp finish. The brand attributes a lot of 1792’s character to its aging warehouse, which sits high on a limestone bluff taking in the perfect amount of summer sun and winter winds.
Bulleit (Four Roses Distillery; Lawrenceburg Ky., $29)
This is the one that brought me back to drinking bourbon three years ago. My refreshing drink of choice during that summer was what Bulleit calls their “BLT” (bourbon, twist of lemon, splash of tonic). Aged for six years, Bulleit has a high rye mash bill, which gives it a touch of spice and is great in cocktails as well as neat or on the rocks.
Old Weller Antique 107 (Buffalo Trace Distillery; Frankfort Ky., $24)
Clocking in at 107 proof, Old Weller Antique brings some heat to the game. A bourbon newbie may want to temper it with a splash of water or a couple of ice cubes which will also help open up even more of its orange and caramel notes. The standout difference from the rest of the list is that Old Weller is a sweeter “wheated” bourbon meaning that wheat is the #2 grain used after corn as opposed to the more common grain of rye.
Four Roses Small Batch (Four Roses Distillery; Lawrenceburg Ky., $29)
Luckily for us here in the U.S., after many years of selling their higher quality products only in Europe and Japan, Four Roses brought their best expressions back to their native soil in 2002. Using a blend of four of their best recipes, the Small Batch is just about as perfect as you can get. Smooth and creamy, I could sip this easily all day and never get tired of all the different flavors that emerge. Also, I am going to cheat and stretch this list to “11” by saying that if you can find Four Roses’ Yellow Label, by all means buy it. For only around $17, it is an amazing bourbon in its own right.
McAffee’s Benchmark (Buffalo Trace Distillery; Lawrenceburg Ky., $15)
Speaking of REALLY cheap bourbon, and to respect all ends of the dollar spectrum, you should know that Benchmark is surprisingly smooth, flavorful and well-balanced. Of course, it serves as a great mixer, but even an anonymous friend told me an entertaining story about bartending a party once where the top shelf premium bourbon was drained quickly. He subtly replenished the gap with Benchmark. Oblivious guests happily and unsuspectingly kept right on requesting it neat and on the rocks for the rest of the evening. So there you go.
Evan Williams Single Barrel (Heaven Hill Distilleries; Bardstown Ky., $29)
Hitting all the right notes of honey, vanilla, caramel, citrus and oak, the Single Barrel is the real winner of the entire Evan Williams line, and one of the best products on the shelf at this price point. Another unique aspect is the fact that instead of an age statement on the label, each bottle comes stamped with a vintage date telling the year it went into the charred oak barrel for aging plus handwritten notes detailing the barrel number and bottling date. Legit.