When the George T. Stagg distillery first released Blanton’s in 1984, it was priced at a then-jaw-dropping $30—double or triple the cost of most other bourbon on the shelves. At the time, the industry was still in the midst of a decadeslong tailspin, a glut of barrels accumulating in Kentucky warehouses as Americans focused their attention on vodka, wine coolers and any cocktail made with peach schnapps. So why release a luxury product?
“[Elmer T.] Lee had nothing to lose,” claimed The New York Times in its 2013 eulogy of the legendary master distiller. By then, however, his distillery was known as Buffalo Trace and Blanton’s was on the verge of becoming a unicorn, with a market price of $300—that is, if you could actually find it. Today, the idea of a world-class bourbon for under $50 seems downright laughable.
And yet, there is a lot more out there than you might think.
If the focus of bourbon enthusiasts, especially “taters,” today seems exclusively homed in on allocated LEs (limited editions) that sell for hundreds if not thousands of dollars, MSRP be damned, the industry stalwarts continue to release plenty of exemplary bourbon at a great price. There is simply an economy of scale that allows the massive, multinational conglomerate–owned distilleries like Wild Turkey (a Campari subsidiary), Jim Beam (Suntory) and Four Roses (Kirin) to continue to offer top-shelf liquid at bottom-shelf prices. As one of our tasters bluntly figured:
“If you’re aging a spirit, you’re not going to spend all that time just to make something shitty.”
Nonetheless, this was a fairly challenging tasting due to an overriding sameness from bourbon to bourbon. Unlike, say, single malt whiskeys, rum or agave spirits, bourbon has a much narrower profile for what it can actually taste like. Strict production rules dictate that it be predominantly corn-based and aged in new charred oak, and the next thing you know, you find yourself swimming in a sea of caramel, vanilla and baking spice sameness.
Of course, there were a few standouts.
For this tasting, Punch’s editorial staff was joined by Aaron Goldfarb, a frequent Punch contributor on the topic of whiskey. We blind-tasted 15 bourbons, almost exclusively from Kentucky’s largest distilleries, though a few economically priced craft options were also included. Below are our top five picks.
Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old
When the bottle was revealed, tasters were stunned that Wild Turkey’s higher-end line was actually eligible for an under-$50 tasting; it certainly has the dimensions, layers and sophistication of a pricier offering. Dry and a bit savory with pronounced spicy and herbal notes, including green peppercorn and cloves, this was the unanimous favorite.
- Price: $38
- ABV: 45%
Michter’s US★1 Small Batch
This Kentucky distillery is a resurrection of a Pennsylvania distillery that was once America’s oldest, before shuttering in 1989 (hence the “US★1” designation). Wood is the predominant note, though not in a harsh, tannic fashion. In fact, pleasant cedar and palo santo aromas hit the nose, before being backed by a more expected palate of toffee and spice, with a slightly smoky finish.
- Price: $44
- ABV: 45.7%
Elijah Craig Small Batch
The only bourbon to return to the medals stand since our last tasting in 2017, Elijah Craig Small Batch doesn’t quite have the complexity of, say, Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old, but its singular flavor note, which tasters described as banana pancakes drenched in maple syrup, still delivers. “This is what people are looking for when they drink bourbon,” said one taster.
- Price: $30
- ABV: 47%
Four Roses Single Barrel (Barrel 47-1L)
This Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, distillery is atypical in offering 10 different bourbon recipes spun from five yeast strains and two mash bills. One of the few widespread single-barrel releases still found at a decent price—and always made with recipe OBSV, denoting a particular mash bill and yeast strain—this bourbon was exceptionally balanced at the proof. There’s a bit of peanut on the nose, with a palate oscillating between sweet and spicy. (Different barrel numbers will vary slightly in profile.)
- Price: $45
- ABV: 50%
Wilderness Trail Small Batch Straight Bourbon Whiskey
The only craft bourbon to make our list, and the only “wheater” as well—that is, wheat is the secondary grain of the mash bill, not the more typical rye. Unsurprisingly, given that Wilderness Trail’s purveyors are likewise industry yeast providers, yeasty notes prevail on the nose. The palate, meanwhile, leans toward red apple, baking spices and oak. Despite the higher proof, it drinks lean though a tad hot, and might benefit from a drop or two of water.
- Price: $50
- ABV: 50%
Depending on the retailer, this bourbon occasionally drifts above the $50 mark.