What's in my Home Bar: My Go-To Budget Bourbons
The following is the first post in a new series I'm dubbing, "What's in my home bar." In each post, I'll be sharing some tips and recommendations geared for the new bartender, whiskey lover, or person setting up their first home bar. Or simply, for that person who needs gift-giving ideas. It's not gospel, but simply things I've learned and picked up in the last few years from my travels, tastings, and cocktail making. Check back regularly, when I'll be sharing tips on stocking a home bar, must-have cocktail tools, product recommendations, and more. Or simply sign-up here to get these posts directly in your inbox. Today, it's all about my go-to budget bourbons.
What's your favorite whiskey? This is perhaps the question I get more than any other. I mean the word is in the name of my website after all. However, the question of my favorite whiskey doesn't come with a one-sentence answer. Are we talking Japanese, Scotch, Irish, or American whiskies? Rye, bourbon, blended, or single malt? Neat, on the rocks, or in a cocktail?
The fact is, that I like every type of whiskey, even if my friends probably call me a "bourbon guy." Take me to a bar 10 times, and I'll probably order whiskey 10 different ways. However, for those who are new to whiskey, or aren't bartenders, whiskey collectors or enthusiasts, it can be quite daunting settling on a whiskey or two for your home bar.
But never fear, the bourbon guy is here. Just kidding, I'm not here to review whiskies. Believe it or not, there are already some amazing websites that do that already, such as Breaking Bourbon, Modern Thirst, The Whiskey Jug, and Drinkhacker. However, I do want to tell you about a few of my favorite go-to budget bourbons, share with you their stories, and tell you why they are among my favorites and great value bourbons. But enough chitchat. Let's get to my favorite budget bourbons.
7 Budget Bourbons under $30
I used a number of factors in determining the bourbons that I chose below. First and foremost, all of these are bourbons that you could find at $30 or below per bottle. That's not to say that at some stores, you'd pay more for some of these, but by and large, you could find these at major retailers for less than $30. Which brings me to the next factor, which is accessibility. I didn't include any rare, regional, or hard to find bourbons. If I had, then you'd find W.L. Weller right at the top.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, these budget bourbons couldn't suck. And believe me, there are a lot of bourbons that suck. But doesn't mean that there aren't those who won't like some of the bourbons I list here. At the end of the day, these are simply good bourbons for a good price which you could enjoy by themselves or in traditional bourbon cocktails.
Four Roses. Four Roses is my go-to bourbon under $30, and the bourbon whiskey I'm likely to order at a bar in a whiskey cocktail. It's probably not going to blow anyone's mind, yet Four Roses is such a smooth, well-balanced bourbon, and what I think is a great gateway whiskey for those just getting into bourbon. Hailing from Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, the distillery itself is on the National Register of Historic Places, dating back to 1910, and one of the only distilleries allowed to operate during Prohibition (for medicinal purposes, of course). The bourbon itself is crafted from 10 unique bourbon recipes and is aged on average for several years. It's my opinion that Four Roses is the single best bourbon value out there, with bottles often available for at little as $20.
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Buffalo Trace finds itself here if for no other reason, than because it's one of the most award-winning distilleries (and also the oldest continuously-operating distillery in America). Awards aside, a number of their bourbons are simply among the best you'll find, such as one particular bourbon you've probably heard of, Pappy Van Winkle. Aged for 8 years, Buffalo Trace's perhaps most unique characteristic is that barrels are hand-selected at the conclusion of the aging process for bottling. What results is a complex and robust, yet very drinkable bourbon with a smooth finish. While some places may charge more than $30-$40 for it, you should be able to find bottles between $20-$30, making it a steal for the quality of a bourbon that it is.
Elijah Craig Small Batch. Elijah Craig Small Batch, formerly Elijah Craig 12, is yet another bourbon steal that is wonderfully flavorfully, yet smooth, at a great price point for the quality of bourbon (right at $30). As the name presumes, it honors Elijah Craig, a Baptist preachers from the 1700s, who some credit with inventing bourbon. Produced by Heaven Hill, Elijah Craig Small Batch doesn't have an age statement any longer, but each bottle is considered between the 8-12 year range. While I don't think this version stands up to the 12, it's still a solid bourbon, probably the bourbon from this list that I would recommend more than any other.
Wild Turkey 101. I can just hear the collective sigh by bourbon purists. For some, Wild Turkey is just another "house" bourbon that dons the shelf of every bar in America. But long-standing and common as it may be, Wild Turkey 101 is a solid bourbon for the price. Not to mention that it comes from Jimmy Russell, who is perhaps the foremost master distiller in America (if not the world), who's been making whiskey for 60 years. 60 years! With its 101 proof and level of spice, Wild Turkey 101 is probably not for the first-time bourbon drinker, but is great in cocktails, especially in an Old Fashioned. Compared to other bourbons, it has a high rye content, which I like for use in cocktails that'd often call for a rye whiskey.
Old Grand-Dad Bonded. Old Grand-Dad was a last-minute addition, in part because I was enjoying it last night while writing this post, and realized how nice it is for the price. I think part of my enjoyment stems from it being yet another bourbon with a high rye content. Yet for the percentage of rye and proof (100 proof), it doesn't have the heat behind it that you may expect. It's simply a nice, balanced, smooth bourbon. Plus, it's great to have a budget "bonded" bourbon on the list, which means it was distilled by a single distiller at a single distillery in a single distillation season, aged for a minimum of 4 years and bottled at 100 proof.
Old Forester. Rounding out the list are a couple bourbons you may not be familiar with, beginning with Old Forester, which has a number of different bourbons they produce. According to Old Forester, they are the only bourbon continuously distilled and marketed by the founding family before, during and after Prohibition. Their base bourbon, Old Forester 86 is a nice intro to bourbon, especially for use in cocktails, albeit aged just four years. The price, however, is as good as you'll find, for no more than $20. However, when you come across it, I'd pay a few extra dollars for Old Forester 100, aged a little longer and bottled at a higher proof. I find it to simply be a more well-rounded, flavorful bourbon that's still in the budget bourbon value range.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel. Last, but not least, is Henry McKenna, which straddles the line right at about $30 per bottle. However, by spending a few dollars more than some of the others on this list, you get a bourbon that's aged longer (at 10 years), and as complex of a budget bourbon as you'll find. While it could be said that some of the bourbons on this list are boring or not complex enough, that can't be said for Henry McKenna, which has a lot going on. As such, I'd recommend this bourbon more for the bourbon sipper than the cocktail lover.
What are your favorite budget bourbons?