Five Great Bourbon Whiskeys for $50 or Less
Premium Tastes at Affordable Prices
by J. M. Pressley
First published: March 20, 2013
With dozens of brands to choose from, here are five great bourbons that you can enjoy without breaking your budget.
Bourbon is as American as apple pie and baseball. Born from the distilling tradition of the pioneer settlers in Kentucky, its origins are steeped in legends that vary in credibility, to put it mildly. Whatever the truth may be, bourbon as we know it evolved in the 19th century into the signature American distilled spirit.
What makes whiskey a bourbon? As defined by U.S. law, to be labeled bourbon, the whiskey must be "produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume in charred new oak containers." Contrary to popular perception, that definition does not require that the whiskey be distilled only in Kentucky, nor does it require that the whiskey be aged for at least two years. Regardless of where it originates, bourbon has become big business, generating $2.2 billion in revenues last year alone (Distilled Spirits Council, 2012 Industry Review).
Quality and prices can range widely, and there are dozens of brands to choose from. But after years of careful research, I've hit on five choices that offer outstanding quality and taste without breaking the budget.
Louisville Distilling, approximately $45-$50
One of the newest bourbons to hit the shelves, Angel's Envy comes with an impressive pedigree (the creation of renowned distiller Lincoln Henderson) and a unique aging process involving 4-6 years in charred white oak barrels followed by 5-7 months of finishing in port barrels imported from Portugal. The result is a remarkably smooth, 87-proof bourbon of coppery hue and spicy, fruit-infused flavor derived from the port. The combination has been described as silky and "dangerously drinkable."
Jim Beam Distillery, approximately $35-$40
This 8-year-old bourbon is one of my personal favorites. One of the Beam Distillery's small batch collection, Basil Hayden's is a light, peppery bourbon that starts smooth and finishes light and dry. An above-average rye content contributes to the spicy flavor. It's 80 proof, so the alcohol content doesn't tend to overwhelm the palate. Overall, this is a bourbon that's easy enough on novices while offering a taste that enthusiasts can enjoy.
Buffalo Trace Distillery, approximately $45-$50
Blanton's Original Single Barrel doesn't provide ages on its signature bottles. It's also an unblended bourbon; although the 93 proof is consistent, there are subtle differences between each barrel. In fact, Blanton's was one of the first commercially successful single-barrel bourbons on the market back in the 1980s. Blanton's features a ruddy amber hue, a toffee-caramel aroma, and a taste equal parts oak and citrus fruit. And, like the others on this list, it can satisfy just about any palate. Best enjoyed neat as a sipping bourbon.
Four Roses Single Barrel
Four Roses Distillery, approximately $39-$44
Four Roses is a small batch, single barrel offering with a roller-coaster history. The brand was the top-selling bourbon in America in the early 20th century. Seagrams bought Four Roses in 1940 and promptly ran it into the ground, only to have Kirin of Japan rescue the brand (and original quality) in 2001. Aged 10 years and bottled at 100 proof, this deep amber bourbon offers a lot for the enthusiast. The nose is a rich mixture of maple, vanilla, and spice. The taste is a little sweeter than most bourbons, with a fruity flavor that asserts itself early on, maintains intensity throughout, and finishes strong with a close of spice and nut.
Woodford Reserve Distillery, approximately $35-$40
Woodford Reserve is a 90-proof, small batch bourbon, aged 6-7 years, that has earned its makers consistent accolades from industry groups and drinkers alike. Despite being a relative newcomer to the table—it's only been around since 1996—the brand is a unique blend of aggressive marketing and good quality. A spicy, toffee aroma gives way to full-body, tangy flavor with a surprisingly smooth finish. This is a great bourbon for drinking straight or mixing in traditional southern cocktails.