Go to Kentucky and you’ll quickly learn that bourbon has pretty much always been for sipping, whether that’s neat, on ice or in a so-called “Kentucky tea” (served in a tall glass with ice and water added). It also used to be that the best of the best bourbon was typically under $50. Then Pappy-mania hit.
Over the last decade, distilleries began putting out well-aged and high-proof “LEs” (limited editions) with astronomical MSRPs (manufacturer’s suggested retail price). Suddenly, it was hard to know what was actually worth the price. Even the companies that generally keep their suggested retail costs down have seen the secondary market decide what things should really cost. So yes, Buffalo Trace may suggest that Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Old be priced at $80, but good luck finding it for under $800.
Still, amid this boom of high-end bourbon, there’s still plenty worth seeking out under $50. In fact, more than any other spirit (save for perhaps rum), bourbon is a category where, for the moment, there are plenty of quality products available at an affordable price. Why exactly is that?
It’s perhaps because, at its heart, bourbon has always seen itself as a very simple, down-home product. Unlike, say, mezcal, it’s not particularly hard to source the necessary ingredients, or to produce the spirit. Unlike Scotch, which needs at least a decade of aging, bourbon can feel pretty mature at just six years old. And unlike tequila, vodka or even Japanese whiskey, bourbon doesn’t need ornate packaging or hand-blown bottles to move.
Still, a wrongness continues to swirl about what makes bourbon bourbon. No, it need not be made in Kentucky, though it does have to be made in America. It must be 51-percent corn and must be aged in new oak barrels. Do that, and you’ve got bourbon. Nevertheless, even if there are by now hundreds of distilleries across the country making bourbon, it’s just seven distilleries in Kentucky that continue to dominate the industry in both the breadth of products on the market and the quality of them, too.
There’s Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Heaven Hill and Brown-Forman. Many of their bourbons have been around since before Prohibition, and are still produced in high enough quantities, coupled with significant brand recognition and loyalty, that they’re able to keep the prices low. It’s no wonder that much of what was called for under $50 by folks throughout the industry comes from these distilleries.
For this tasting, PUNCH’s editorial staff was joined by Contributing Editor, Robert Simonson, and Aaron Goldfarb, a frequent PUNCH contributor on the topic of whiskey. We blind-tasted 22 different bourbons, including a few craft options from outside of Kentucky. Below are our top five picks.
Note: The entire Weller line (Weller 12 Year, Old Weller Antique and Weller Special Reserve) performed extremely well in our tasting, with Weller 12 unanimously taking our top slot. Ultimately, after a debate, we decided not to include them because, though their MSRPs are all under $50, their association with Pappy Van Winkle (Buffalo Trace’s same wheated mash bill) has likewise made them tricky to find, and well over $50 in most markets.
Elijah Craig Small Batch
Once a 12-year-old product, Elijah Craig’s Small Batch dropped its age statement in 2016; today it’s said to be a blend of eight- to 12-year-old barrels. The nose is packed with baking spices—nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon—followed by a spicy, rye-like profile on the palate, backed by the slightest hint of vanilla bean. The finish is long with a pleasant sweetness.
- Price: $28
- ABV: 47 percent
Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage
While most brands’ single-barrel products are released at cask-strength, Evan Williams is bottled at 86.6 proof. It works in this case, making for a bourbon (typically aged seven to eight years) that’s more accessible in both price and profile. The flavor is woody and round, with notes of creamed corn and honey-dipped apples, while the finish is spicy and lean, adding a crucial counter to its sweetness. The Heaven Hill mash bill here is the same as Elijah Craig’s.
- Price: $31
- ABV: 43.3 percent
Henry McKenna Single Barrel (10 Year)
Yet another Heaven Hill offering, and yet another single-barrel product, this is said to be the oldest bottled-in-bond bourbon on the market today. On the nose it shows notes of toffee, brown sugar and a subtle minerality akin to baking soda. It’s followed up by a super-concentrated mouthfeel dominated by flavors of fig, bitter orange and walnuts (think oloroso sherry) and a long, complex finish.
- Price: $32
- ABV: 50 percent
Old Grand-Dad 114
Long seen as the highest-proof entry in a bottom-shelf line, today “OGD” is owned and distilled by Jim Beam, and its profile is slowly being elevated (the long-time plastic caps have even been replaced by corks). A big nose of green peppercorn, cinnamon and straight ethanol leads into an unquestionably high-rye body (it clocks in at 27 percent of the mash bill). While its high proof might be a turnoff to some drinkers, it’s easy to tamp some of the heat with a hit of water.
- Price: $28
- ABV: 57 percent
Wild Turkey Rare Breed
One of the few limited offerings in our tasting, Rare Breed is nonetheless pretty easy to find. Packaged at barrel strength (116.8 proof, in this case), this is unquestionably boozy, though it drinks less hot than OGD 114. Said to be a blend of six-, eight-, and 12-year-old barrels, the nose is fruity and estery with notes of caramel (one taster likened it to Bananas Foster). It wears the heat well on the palate, showing complex notes of dark maple syrup, old leather, chili pepper and a touch of oak.
- Price: $44
- ABV: 58.4 percent