In the seven years since I turned 21, I have witnessed a drastic increase in both the variety and the price of bourbon on the market. When I go to the store now, I see dozens of new brands from a variety of micro-distillers, all selling their wares for $35+ a bottle. Worse, the old standby brands, once reasonably priced, seem to have adjusted upwards to milk the new demand for bourbon. I remember when I could get a bottle of Maker’s Mark for around $22; Now that same bottle costs me nearly $30.
As someone on a very limited budget, value counts for me. I love bourbon, but a large part of the appeal has always been its cheap(ish) price tag. With prices escalating, the mid-priced bourbon market seems to be shrinking. Other than a few holdouts (I like Four Roses Yellow Label), it can be hard to find a quality bottle for under $20.
Usually if pressed to choose between price and quality, I will grudgingly pay a little more to get a drinkable whiskey. What, I wondered, would happen if I swung the other direction? The results, though varied, were surprisingly encouraging. I sampled nine bourbons for this list, all of which retail for under $10 for a 750ml bottle in my state. I have singled out five that I think are worth buying if you are looking to cut costs, and two that you should steer clear of, no matter how desperate.
A few quick methodological notes. These prices are based on my local stores. I live in Missouri, which has some of the lowest liquor prices in the country, so some of the more expensive bottles on the list might cost you a little more than $10 (though certainly not much more). It’s also important to note that not all of the whiskies on my list are technically “straight bourbon” whiskies. Not surprisingly, it is hard to get your hands on a bottle of straight bourbon that costs so little, so I supplemented with a variety of blended whiskies (blended whiskey can contain a mix of real whiskey and neutral grain spirits).
I tried each whiskey three ways to get a full sense of its potential. First came a neat tasting, then one on the rocks, then mixed with cola to see how it fared as a mixer (without wasting the ingredients for an actual cocktail). Regarding my grading, this 10-point scale should definitely be regarded as an adjusted one. The highest rated whiskey earned an eight, but this does not mean it would stack up favorably against the world’s better bourbons. When you are working with less advanced students, sometimes a curve is the way to go.
Old Crow illuminates many of the problems inherent in creating a straight bourbon for so little money. The relatively scant aging time means the whiskey still has a fair burn to it, though in the case of Old Crow, that burn actually falls on the lighter, crisper side of the spectrum. The flavor won’t win any awards, unless there’s an award for tasting like a tongue depressor (the unique, musty flavor I detected when putting it on ice). There’s even a nasty little acrid aftertaste to it, especially when drunk neat.
Still, for what it is, Old Crow performs admirably. It has a nice nuttiness to go along with the mustiness, which lends itself especially well to an Old Crow and cola. Aside from the bitter aftertaste, there’s nothing too offensive about this whiskey, which honestly is saying something. I would not go out of my way to acquire a bottle of Old Crow, but if you are in a pinch there are much, much worse whiskies out there.
Ten High was for me the surprise of the tasting – it’s the only blended bourbon to crack the top five. With good reason: while many of the cheaper blends go as low as a 20/80 bourbon/grain spirits split, Ten High features a full 51% straight bourbon. This works to its benefit, as it has more flavor than most blends, but also comes out super smooth, the grain spirits neutralizing the unholy fire that accompanies many cheap straight bourbons. Honestly this one struck me as closer to a Canadian whisky than a bourbon, with its smoothness and straightforward flavor.
Given the hit or miss nature of cheap bourbon shopping, Ten High was a welcome surprise. It comes in a full dollar cheaper than Old Crow, the next lowest priced whiskey on this list. It mixes well with cola, which brings out some cinnamon notes, though you should avoid drinking it on ice, which brings out the rubbing alcohol taste of the grain spirits. Ten High won’t change your life, but it’s a good choice if you need a smooth, cheap option.
Early Times is the whiskey responsible for starting me down the path to making this list. Inspired by the main character in the novel I was reading, who made it his drink of choice, I went out and bought a bottle to try. At that time, ingénue that I was, I thought Early Times was all fire and brimstone, burning all the way down. Well friends, I’ve been to the mountaintop since, and in the grand scheme of sub-$10 bourbons, Early Times’ burn is nothing special – it’s practically a lightweight. Absent most of the flavor signifiers of a typical bourbon, like vanilla and oak, Early Times has a fairly forward, slightly alcohol taste.
Perhaps because of its oddball status on this list – it’s a straight whiskey but not technically a bourbon, hence the compromise term “Kentucky whiskey” – Early Times sticks out by not sticking out. It’s probably the most balanced bourbon on this list, with more flavor than Ten High but less burn than most of the others. It improves dramatically on ice, gaining overtones of butterscotch, though it gets swallowed up in cola. Early Times will always have a special place in my heart as the gateway to cheaper things, but it also stands as an example of just how tolerable cheap whiskey can be.
Zackariah Harris comes from the Claremont Distillery, whose awesomely named Kentucky Tavern I also tried for this tasting. Zackariah Harris runs circles around its blended counterpart; It brings real straight bourbon punch and melds it with one of the most unique flavor profiles I have encountered in a bourbon. Completely abandoning the usual kingdom of vanilla, Zackariah Harris pushes boldly into the land of… banana? There’s definitely a dominant banana profile in both the nose and the taste, though it tends toward the fake, circus peanut variety. It actually reminds me quite a bit of certain Trappist ales in that regard.
Being a straight bourbon, Zackariah Harris has plenty of burn, but it comes across more as a gradual warming sensation than the scorched earth dynamic of many other cheap bourbons. On the rocks it loses some of that special burn, and I’d avoid putting it in cola, which brings out a bitter aftertaste in it. In the end, I think, it’s a little more interesting than it is good, but it sure is interesting, and worth a try.
After waves and waves of distilleries that specialize in cranking out the cheap stuff, it almost feels like cheating to turn to an established company like Evan Williams for super cheap bourbon (not that they produce great stuff, but they are at least in the Jim Beam zone of cheapish but still drinkable). Still, this was by far the best of the batch I tried. Though still faintly reminiscent of rubbing alcohol (that’s pretty much par for the course with these whiskies) there’s also plenty of oakiness and even a hint of apple to the whiskey.
It pairs incredibly well with cola; it was the only whiskey I tried that felt like it complemented the soda, like a dance partner, rather than just hiding behind it or overwhelming it. A Green and Coke would be the perfect cheap fall mixed drink, as the soda brings the apple flavors to the forefront, with a touch of cinnamon even. Though it’s the priciest whiskey on this list, Evan Williams Green still feels like a steal at $10, with a much better flavor than many I have tried in the $15-20 range.
Kentucky Deluxe has been my personal referent for “bad bourbon” since college, when a friend invented the grossest cocktail imaginable with it (Kentucky Dew, equal parts KD and off brand Mountain Dew). Now I know why: it’s a blended whiskey, emphasis on the blended (80% neutral grain spirits!). Somehow this influx of grain spirits does nothing to calm the flames of Kentucky Deluxe’s rage. The moment it hits your tongue it commences a symphony of pain. I imagine it does to your digestive tract roughly what paint remover does to paint, except instantaneously.
Nor does the flavor make up for it. KD traffics exclusively in medicinal flavors, starting with the overpowering aura of rubbing alcohol that greets your nostrils upon smelling it. Not even cola can mask the taste; Interestingly, the combination tasted more like a gin and cola than a bourbon – albeit the cheapest, grossest gin you can imagine. Kentucky Deluxe should be avoided at all costs, unless you really dig the taste of medicine, in which case… nope, you’re better off downing a bottle of witch hazel.
I have to admit, between the name and the cost, I selected Kentucky Dale with the purpose of firmly establishing the bottom of the bourbon barrel. In this regard only, it did not disappoint. I can’t in good conscience say that this is the worst liquid I will ever taste. After all, there’s still plenty of time for me to accidentally ingest antifreeze. But it is the least bourbon-like substance that tries to pass itself off as bourbon that I have ever had the “pleasure” of sampling.
With notes of rotting raisins, Kentucky Dale tastes more like a bottom shelf brandy than a bourbon. It balances this raisin profile with strong hints of vomit. To be fair, it’s a sweet vomit, like the result of eating too much cotton candy at the fair. Somehow it gets even worse on ice, its relatively subdued heat when served neat gets replaced by an intense, sputter-inducing burn. Cola manages to salvage it, especially if you pour in enough to make you forget there’s any Kentucky Dale underneath. You should never ever buy a bottle of this, even as a joke gift for someone you secretly hate. Even they deserve better.