Cocktail Queries: What Are the Best Values in Bourbon Today?

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Cocktail Queries: What Are the Best Values in Bourbon Today?

Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.

What are the best values in bourbon today? It’s a simple question, and every drinker would like to know the answer, if only to save on their next trip to the package store. But it’s also something of a complicated topic, as any query about “value” ultimately tends to be.

“Value” is notoriously hard to define, given that every consumer has their own idea of what constitutes good value, and what they’re willing to pay for various products. And when it comes to bourbon, drinkers who have been around the scene for a long time may find it difficult to accept that any of the whiskeys around right now constitute a great value. That’s thanks to the fact that the price of whiskey has soared in the last decade, as the nation’s rediscovery of brown spirits led to an emerging market for luxe, ultra-premium spirits to cater to the high-rolling whiskey aficionado. These high price tags, in turn, seemed to have a gravitational effect upon the budget brands of yore, pulling them steadily upward. Although attention and debate have often been directed toward the $100 and beyond bottles, it’s been the creep of $10 bottles into the $20 and $30 range that is arguably a bigger deal in the long run.

Suffice to say, we’re living today in a bourbon market that has matured from a pricing standpoint, with only the older drinkers left to remember the halcyon days of the early 2000s, when spectacular bottles of well-aged bourbon routinely could be had for relative pocket change, and spending more than $50 seemed like an insane proposition.

Any debate on “value,” then, must be built around the relative price points of the entire industry, to give it context. Nor does “value” only exist in budget bourbon, either—it can be found on the bottom shelf, the mid-shelf and the top-shelf, if you know where to look. One bottle of $60 bourbon may represent a MUCH bigger value than another, when compared against the rest of the stuff on the shelf.

Here then, are some of our picks for the best values in bourbon today, broken up into three different price tiers—five bourbons per tier.

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The Best Budget Bourbon Values

MSRPs: Less than $20

The bottom shelf is probably what you think of first, when you imagine “value” in bourbon, and indeed there’s plenty of whiskey here that stacks up very nicely against bottles that cost twice as much. There’s also some pretty foul whiskey in this price tier, however, so it behooves you to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff. You can spend $13 on a bottle of bourbon and be rewarded with something that your friends grudgingly agree is “surprisingly good!”, or something that is total rotgut. It’s a gamble, is what we’re saying.

Unsurprisingly, the bigger distilling companies—the most recognizable names in the industry—are able to offer a greater degree of budget bourbon value, benefitting as they do from economies of scale. Craft bourbon can’t really compete at these prices, nor should they try to.

You will likely recognize some of these picks as ones that we enjoyed during our blind tasting of 13 bottom-shelf bourbons that cost less than $15, but there are a few more here as well that push the price point slightly higher.

Benchmark Old No. 8 Bourbon

Distillery: Buffalo Trace
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $10

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Buffalo Trace is arguably the most rabidly popular and sought-after American bourbon distillery today, and that unfortunately does not correlate with “value” in most cases. Even products such as the flagship Buffalo Trace Bourbon have often seen their prices jacked way up in response to demand, but there’s one product that has remained BT’s secret weapon: Benchmark. Whereas other value bourbons from BT such as Ancient Age are made with the distillery’s #2 mashbill that is higher in rye, this is the softer, richer #1 mashbill, and at 10 it’s an outrageous value. You might even find this one for less than a single Hamilton! As we wrote when tasting it before:

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.


Evan Williams (black or white label)

Distillery: Heaven Hill
ABV: 40-50% (80 or 100 proof)
Price: $10-15

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Heaven Hill is a distillery with no shortage of high-value bourbons and ryes, with the Evan Williams family essentially serving as the public face of its “bang for your buck” reputation. It doesn’t matter if you select the flagship Evan Williams black label (80 proof) or bottled-in-bond “white label” (100 proof) here—each is simply a riff on the same flavor profile, at differing strengths. Many bourbon geeks understandably opt for the white label for its increased strength, especially given that it often costs only a couple bucks more at the package store, typically hanging around the $15 range. Of note: Evan Williams Single Barrel is also available at $25, and is one of the best values in single barrel bourbon as a result.

As we wrote the last time we tasted Evan Williams white label, in particular:

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.


Very Old Barton

Distillery: Barton 1792
ABV: 40-50% (80-100 proof)
Price: $12-20

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The winner of our bottom-shelf bourbon blind tasting wasn’t exactly a whiskey we were expecting, but that’s par for the course when it comes to Barton, which perpetually seems to be underestimated in the eyes of whiskey geeks. This distillery, despite being one of the old Kentucky stalwarts, has a way of flying under the radar despite the fact that they make some very good bourbon and routinely win awards. That’s just sort of become part of the distillery’s identity, so Very Old Barton is a perfect budget flagship, although it’s not the most widely available on this list.

Very Old Barton is available in different states/markets in a confusingly wide variety of proofs, which includes 80, 86, 90 and 100 proof versions, but they’re all the same liquid, aged on average 4-6 years, though it lacks an official age statement. All the versions are winners, although it’s the 90 proof that won our hearts in our blind tasting. As we wrote at the time:

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.


Wild Turkey 81 or 101

Distillery: Wild Turkey
ABV: 40.5-50.5% (81 or 101 proof)
Price: $15-20

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Old-school whiskey drinkers know that Wild Turkey has always been a destination for both value and quality. Modern bourbon geeks have sometimes ignored that value, thinking of the likes of Wild Turkey 101 as a “party” whiskey lacking in sophistication, but that doesn’t stop it from continuing to perform very well in taste-offs. The price has crept up as a result, and it may be harder to find it for $20 or under now, but WT 101 is still out there for less than a Jackson if you have access to a competitively priced package store.

If you don’t, of course, there’s always the less frequently seen Wild Turkey 81, which is sometimes relegated to bar wells, but is just as fine a product as the better-known 101.

Wild Turkey packs classic Kentucky bourbon flavors of caramel corn and honey, with earthy rye, char, hints of mint and a fairly dry finish—more lean and less desserty than some of the competition. This is bourbon for the bold; always has been and always will be. It even has a higher average age than most of the other bourbons in this category, and its humble appearance helps it continue to retain its value.


Four Roses Bourbon

Distillery: Four Roses
ABV: 40% (80 proof)
Price: $20

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Four Roses can boast one of the most “complete” and well-rounded 80 proof bourbons on the market, competing handily against whiskeys that are either older or stronger with the complexity lent to this bourbon by the distillery’s famous blend of yeast strains and mash bills. All 10 disparate Four Roses recipes are typically used to make any given batch of the flagship Four Roses Bourbon, which yields a product that is considerably more complex than most of the other stuff you can find for $20 or less.

The combination of two high-rye mash bills (and five yeast strains) yields a flagship product that is defined by a delicate interplay of fruit, spice and floral notes. It’s not a very oak-forward whiskey; rather it’s on the richer, sweeter and softer side despite the herbal rye spice, with additional juicy red fruit notes and subtle wildflower freshness. You could consider it a gatekeeper in this category, as it straddles the dividing line between the true budget bourbons and the mid-shelf, but Four Roses Bourbon (as with most of their products) is a crowd pleaser in just about any application.

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The Best Mid-Shelf Bourbon Values

MSRPs: $20-50

The bourbon mid-shelf can be difficult to define, consisting of brands that have moved past the “introductory” or “extreme value” category. These brands are often flagships for their distilleries and represent major movers of product. From a distillery like Heaven Hill, that would be the likes of Elijah Craig Small Batch or Larceny (for wheated bourbon). For Barton 1792, it would be their namesake 1792 Small Batch. From Buffalo Trace, it would include both the namesake Buffalo Trace Bourbon and the fancier Eagle Rare, although some of these brands have seen their prices inflated in recent years. In general, this mid-shelf category usually offers at least decent value, at least compared to the splurgier end of the market.

Still, the type of bourbon you can acquire at $20 is pretty different from what comes along at closer to $50, so just be aware that this category is really just scratching the surface of what is available here.

Old Forester Signature

Distillery: Brown-Forman
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Price: $25

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Brown-Forman is another distillery with no shortage of good value plays, whether it’s on the budget side of things (Early Times Bottled-in-Bond) or the mid-shelf, but if you ask us, it’s the Old Forester line where the most value can usually be found. That brand’s flagship, 86 proof namesake bourbon is always a very good value at $15-20, but we’re more likely to shell out a few extra bucks for the upgrade to Old Forester Signature around $25. In exchange, you get a full hundred proof and a more explosive flavor profile that is more suitable to cocktails that need that extra oomph.

This particular offering is one that sometimes gets overlooked these days, given that Old Forester has been expanding its line with a lot more special releases (like the Whiskey Row series, and revamped Single Barrel offerings) in recent years. That’s probably what helps it remain an excellent value. What you get is a good expression of the Brown-Forman/Old Forester flavors you expect—cornbread and cinnamon, spicy rye and char, with hints of fruit that drinkers are equally likely to detect as cherry or banana on any given day. It’s a versatile cocktail bourbon with a friendly pricetag.


Old Grand Dad 114

Distillery: Jim Beam
ABV: 57% (114 proof)
Price: $25-30

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Jim Beam, monolith that it is, has no shortage of extreme budget bourbons, but we’ll be frank when we say that we’re not always fans of the Beam flavor profile for really young or low-strength whiskey, as is found in brands such as Old Crow or the standard Old Grand Dad. OGD 114, on the other hand, is one of the most extreme values in the entire bourbon market, once you factor in the proof and a respectable amount of aging, rumored to be 5-6 years. It’s very, very hard to beat this from a “bang for your buck” perspective, and it’s old enough and strong enough that the Beam flavor profile is rounding into form, yielding a flavor bomb that can often be yours for as little as $25. Try finding another moderately aged bourbon close to cask strength for $25—it’s not going to happen.

The Old Grand Dad lineup is made with Beam’s high-rye (27% rye) mash bill, which yields a spicier and slightly wilder whiskey than the juice that goes into the standard white label, with pronounced notes of citrus, pepper and slight leather, along with the corny sweetness and roasted peanuts you expect from younger Beam bourbons. This is an excellent way for drinkers to make a first foray into overproof bourbon in general, to perhaps dip a toe into the more bombastic side of the spectrum before exploring more barrel proof whiskeys. It’s not the only Beam bourbon we’ll be talking about on the mid-shelf, either.


Bulleit 10 Year

Distillery: Bulleit
ABV: 45.6% (91.2 proof)
Price: $35-50

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This one is a bit of an interesting case on several levels, because it’s a sourced product from Bulleit (stock this old is likely still from Four Roses, but it’s hard to say for sure), but it also has a price tag that seems to be much more inconsistent than most. You can find this online for as little as $35 in many places, but you’ll also see it positioned at $50 or even beyond. Our advice: Find a place to buy it for less than $40, and consider that some excellent value, comparable to buying Four Roses Single Barrel, albeit at a reduced proof.

Regardless, I’ve always found this to be a substantial upgrade over the standard, non-age-statement Bulleit Bourbon, but one that curiously doesn’t seem to attract a lot of attention. The additional few years of aging (at least) brings out a much richer profile that is redolent in baking spices, with notes of cinnamon sugar, clove, star anise and candied ginger, which play well with the high-rye background of Bulleit. In fact, I’d argue that Bulleit 10 Year is a generally underrated product in general, although if I was buying it, I’d feel compelled to seek out a price point similar to the $37 I’m seeing on Total Wine at the moment.


Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve

Distillery: Jim Beam
ABV: 60% (120 proof)
Price: $45

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The mid-shelf truly is where Beam’s economies of scale shine the brightest, and where they’re able to offer values that almost no other competitor can match. The Knob Creek range in general is full of value—the 100 proof flagship 9 Year just regained its age statement in 2020 and has an MSRP of $35, which means serious value for a well-aged Beam bourbon. But drop another $10 and you can get Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, with its 120 proof that is more or less cask strength! This is simply the best value way you can dip a toe into well-aged, overproof bourbon, and it can get even better if you’re able to find store picks, which can have age statements as high as 14 or 15 years.

The extra 20 points of proof transforms the Knob Creek flavor profile nicely, drawing out deeper notes of maple syrup and molasses in many of these single barrel bottles, while also highlighting jammy red fruit notes and a rainbow of caramelized sugar impressions. For less than $50, it’s very hard to find something else that is as rich and characterful.


Wild Turkey Rare Breed

Distillery: Wild Turkey
ABV: Roughly 57.5% (115 proof)
Price: $45-50

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Not to be outdone by Beam, Wild Turkey also offers consumers a chance to dip a toe into barrel proof bourbon for less than $50 via Rare Breed, a whiskey that the true bourbon geeks know and love. This one is a showcase for the brand’s low barrel entry proof, which is a technique that some distilleries believe yields a more potent flavor profile. That means this small-batch mingling of 6, 8 and 12-year-old bourbons drifts a bit in terms of proof, although it’s usually around 112 to 117, and that is true barrel proof for this distillery—no added water at all.

This yields a classic Wild Turkey flavor bomb, which echoes some of the flavors of the flagship 101, but also transforms them substantially via additional aging and proof. This can be a very spicy and rich dram, with lots of vanilla, caramel and citrus that is made more complex with notes of mint, leather and tobacco/cigar wrapper. It packs a huge amount of flavor into that particular proof point, and is capable of going toe-to-toe with significantly bigger bourbons. Wild Turkey stakes a claim to being one of the best bourbon distilleries in terms of value by producing whiskeys that are exemplary additions in each of these price tiers.

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The Best Top-Shelf Bourbon Values

MSRPs: $50 and above

Trying to determine “value” gets much harder, once we’re talking about bottles in the $50-plus range, simply for the fact that there are always cheaper options of very high quality out there. If you want to drink world-class bourbon, you thankfully don’t have to spend more than $50 to do it—at least not yet, anyway.

With that said, you can still call a $60 or $70 bottle of bourbon a good value pick if its specs and flavor profile reflect attributes that usually cost even more, in the $100 and beyond range. These whiskeys typically won’t be great values in comparison with the budget or mid-shelf picks, but they’re shining examples of value when compared directly against some of their other competitors on the top shelf. This is all about getting the most bang for your buck, when it comes to grabbing a bottle for a special occasion or a gift.

Of course, there are always exceptions, and here more than anywhere else it all comes down to the retailer’s choice in pricing. If your retailer is actually honoring MSRPs, they may put out some Stagg Jr. from Buffalo Trace at $55, and that is an awesome value. On the other hand, they may try to charge $150 or $200 for that same bottle! The picks on this list are ones that thankfully don’t fluctuate so much in terms of price.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength

Distillery: Maker’s Mark
ABV: Roughly 55-57.5% (110-115 proof)
Price: $50

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The standard Maker’s Mark Bourbon is itself a very good value ($20-25) as an introductory level wheated bourbon, standing alongside Heaven Hill’s Larceny as one of the two most obvious and affordable ways to explore wheated bourbon without having to shell out the sadly (and pointlessly) inflated prices for Buffalo Trace’s W.L. Weller. But Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is arguably an even bigger value, being one of the most affordable cask-strength bourbons on the market. Like Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark uses a lower barrel entry proof, which means this one isn’t quite the beast that some other distilleries release as their cask strength offerings, but that fits well with Maker’s reputation for being approachable and friendly whiskey.

The barrel proof expression of Maker’s takes the familiar wheated bourbon flavor profile and sends it into overdrive, yielding massive amounts of sweet vanilla, butterscotch, red fruit, creme brulee, cream of wheat and banana bread. This is a big, decadent sort of bourbon that you might drink alongside a scoop of vanilla ice cream, or a pile of Nilla Wafers and banana pudding.

Moreover, in the $70-80 range you can also find bottles of Maker’s Mark Private Select, which are cask-strength bottles that are additionally conditioned on a variety of “finishing staves” to impart exotic new flavors. They’re a bit more expensive, but if you enjoy the Cask Strength this adds a whole new layer of variation to them.


Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style

Distillery: Brown-Forman
ABV: 57.5% (115 proof)
Price: $55-60

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You won’t have to look far to find whiskey geeks who adore this particular bourbon, which seems to have been anointed by most as the crown jewel of Old Forester’s Whiskey Row series. That’s not just down to taste, but also value—this one combines an attractively high proof point with explosive flavors and a price tag that is pretty generous to boot. It begs to be used in special occasion cocktails, although be warned that doing so may put you on the floor very quickly.

All the bourbons in the Old Forester family are made from the same mash bill and essentially the same barrels, being defined by different periods of aging, proof points and positions within the Brown-Forman warehouses. The 1920 Prohibition Style just seems to be a sweet spot—it packs almost all the flavors that people love about the distillery’s yearly Old Forester Birthday Bourbon releases, but at a far more affordable price. You get tons of brown sugar, juicy maraschino cherry, baking spices, cocoa and marshmallow, all for giving up a specific age statement. And when it tastes this good, we don’t mind doing that one bit. Here’s hoping this one never gets jacked up in price, because as the bourbon market continues to get more expensive, 1920 Prohibition Style has only seen its relative value increase in the last 5 years.


Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel

Distillery: Wild Turkey
ABV: 55% (110 proof)
Price: $55-65

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We’ve already noted in this piece that Wild Turkey has a lot of very solid-value bourbons. They’re interestingly contained in a pretty tight range of price points—between $20 and $65, you have Wild Turkey 101, the sometimes underrated Russell’s Reserve 10 Year, the aforementioned Rare Breed, and also Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, a single barrel bourbon. But then there’s also the single barrel version of Russell’s Reserve as well.

The Russell’s Reserve line is named for legendary Master Distiller Jimmy Russell (and son Eddie Russell), who between them have more than 100 years of whiskey experience at Wild Turkey. The promise here, then, is that each of these bottles are the result of “honey barrel” picks from none other than Jimmy Russell himself, and there isn’t another man in the entire bourbon industry who is more qualified to make those picks.

As you would expect, these near-cask-strength (for Wild Turkey) selections are truly delightful, being full-flavored but also impeccably balanced, redolent in toffee and creamy vanilla. It’s a nuanced, thoughtful bourbon that drinks easier than you would expect for the proof, often with lovely fruit notes of apple or stone fruit, delicate spice/tobacco and honeyed sweetness.


Elijah Craig Barrel Proof

Distillery: Heaven Hill
ABV: Roughly 60-65% (120-130 proof)
Price: $70

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Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, or simply ECBP, has long been recognized as one of the best pure values in bourbon, and that’s still true, even after the price has crept up in recent years from the $50 range (man, those were the days) to more like $70. Despite that, there’s still very few barrel proof offerings that represent such a good value, particularly when you include the 12-year age statement and proofs that are occasionally 130 or more.

Released in three different batches every year, there’s a fair amount of variation in every ECBP release, but they’re pretty much all awesome in their own ways. Some are hotter, or more oak forward, but all have an intense caramelization and forever-lasting finish that explodes with every baking spice note imaginable. For our money, the last two releases (A120 and B520) are both particularly excellent, conveying rich, sweet brown sugar intensity. As I wrote when reviewing B520 not too long ago:

On the palate, this entry is quite sweet, with a prominent “orange vanilla cream” note, which segues into heaps of brown sugar and spice—my notes at one point say “heavily browned sugar cookies with orange zest.” The alcohol level has been tamped down a bit from previous batches, and that really allows the richness to come out here, amping up decadent sweetness and baking spice notes of ginger candy, cloves, cinnamon and allspice. There’s also a sweet nuttiness—a bit of peanut butter—and no shortage of rye spice either.


George Remus Repeal Reserve

Distillery: MGP of Indiana
ABV: 50% (100 proof)
Price: $75-85

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For this last pick, I wanted to give some recognition to the source of so much U.S. whiskey, especially in the craft whiskey scene: MGP of Indiana, one of the country’s largest distilleries. For decades, they were the contract source of many popular bourbon and rye brands, but had no house brand of their own, but that finally changed in the last few years with the introduction of their George Remus line of bourbons. It has long been no secret that MGP makes wonderful bourbon and rye, and this product line gives the consumer a chance to buy it directly from the source, rather than from a distillery halfway across the country that contracted MGP whiskey and did nothing but bottle it themselves.

Now, in terms of pure value this can’t compete straight-up against something like the aforementioned ECBP. It does have the big age statement (12 years in the most recent George Remus Repeal Reserve IV), but a lower 100 proof. However, with so many other distilleries buying similarly well-aged MGP juice and then selling it for $100 or more as their own special releases, this is a solid value for MGP whiskey in comparison.

Moreover, it’s just very, very tasty, projecting big “classic bourbon” notes that feel bigger than its 100 proof. Big caramel and substantial oak give way to waves and waves of citrus and vanilla, with toffee and roasted nuts. Candied oranges are big on the palate—this is a very citrusy bourbon, with clementine/mandarin orange sweetness and additional notes of candied ginger and considerable rye spice and mint on the finish. It’s a classic high-rye cocktail bourbon if I’ve ever seen one.


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

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