Blind Bourbon Bottle Battle: Great-But-Affordable Expressions Vs. The Unicorns

It’s blind bourbon battle time! Today, I’m going deep and pitting five unicorn, beloved, and very expensive bottles of bourbon against five easy-to-find, lauded, and more affordable bourbons against each other. The goal? To see if a cheap but very good bourbon can trick the senses and beat out super elite — or “unicorn” — bourbons that command awards, attention, and stacks of fresh hundred-dollar bills due to being almost impossible to find.

The blind tasting breaks down into two price points. On the bottom, we have five bourbons that sit in the $30-$60 range. On the top, I’ve selected bourbons that start at over $160 and reach into the stratosphere (especially on the aftermarket). Look, there’s no way a $20 bottle is going sneak in as a better-tasting option than a $500 bottle of Michter’s or Eagle Rare. Sorry, it’s just not. But there are some true gems in the $30 to $60 price range. It’s the proverbial sweet spot for great-yet-accessible bourbon bottles.

So … maybe?

As for the ranking, well, that’s easy. This is all about the flavor profile. I’m looking for a bourbon that takes me somewhere, has a deep nose and taste, and feels like something. All of that makes the big names listed below pretty hard to beat.

Today’s lineup is as follows:

  • Michter’s Single Barrel 10 Years Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Unicorn Bottle)
  • George Dickel Bottled In Bond Tennesee Whisky (Regular Bottle)
  • Eagle Rare 17 Years Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey BTAC 2022 (Unicorn Bottle)
  • Kirkland Signature Single Barrel By Barton 1792 Master Distillers Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Regular Bottle)
  • Rare Hare 1953 Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in XXO Cognac Casks (Unicorn Bottle)
  • Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Regular Bottle)
  • Weller The Original Wheated Bourbon Special Reserve (Regular Bottle)
  • Bardstown Bourbon Company Chateau de Laubade Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskies (Unicorn Bottle)
  • Booker’s 2022-03 “Kentucky Tea Batch” (Unicorn Bottle)
  • Elijah Craig Small Batch (Regular Bottle)

Okay, let’s see if any of these affordable and findable favorites from the bourbon world can actually beat a stellar pour of bourbon.

Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months

Part 1: The Tasting

Unicorn and Cheap Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Taste 1

Unicorn and Cheap Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

There’s a peppery sense of cedar bark and burnt orange next to salted caramel and tart red berries with a moist and spicy sticky toffee pudding with some brandy butter dancing on the nose. The palate blends vanilla tobacco with salted dark chocolate-covered marzipan while espresso cream leads to new porch wicker and black peppercorns. The end has a pecan waffle vibe with chocolate chips, maple syrup, blackberry jam, and minced meat pies next to old tobacco and cedar with a sweet yet singed marshmallow on the very end.

Yup. This is elite bourbon. There’s so much going on. So much depth. So much confidence in the blend.

Taste 2

Unicorn and Cheap Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

The nose opens with buttery pancakes and maple syrup countered by chili pepper and cumin that leads to mulled wine and cherry vanilla wafers with a hint of almond cookies. The palate has a light maltiness with apple chips, walnut, and winter spices next to vanilla malts (milkshakes) next to blueberry cotton candy, and dark chocolate powder. The end leans back into the woody spices with star anise, clove, and cinnamon sticks leading to marzipan and cherry tobacco.

This was nice and hinted at Tennessee with that vanilla wafer vibe. Overall, this was easy drinking but didn’t have quite the same depth as the last sip. I’m calling this a cheaper bottle but a damn good one … from Tennessee.

Taste 3

Unicorn and Cheap Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Leather and fresh pipe tobacco draw you in on the nose with a medley of dried sour cherry, salted dark chocolate, vanilla pods, and woody maple syrup cut with clove, anise, and cinnamon next to musty old cellar beams and crushed red bricks and a whisper of old oak bark. The palate leans into the maple syrup and buttery toffee with a vanilla pounds caked vibe covered in dark chocolate with orange and salt flakes and filled with dried cranberries. The woodiness comes back late with a spicy edge that’s part apple-cider-soaked cinnamon stick and part salted black licorice with creamy eggnog nutmeg and clove smoothing things out on the dry end full of caramel tobacco packed into an old cedar box.

Well, this is a contender for the top tier. This is fantastic whiskey that has so much going on while still feeling classic. It’s 100% a spendy pour.

Taste 4

Unicorn and Cheap Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

This is deep nose with salted caramel cut with dried red chili flakes, Mounds bar, sour mulled wine full of star anise, clove, and allspice, and creamy malted vanilla ice cream cut with candies cherry and tobacco crumbles. The palate lets those cherries sour toward cranberry as a woody sense of huckleberry arrives with brown sugar and butter next to dark chocolate-covered espresso beans dusted with cinnamon and orange zest. The arrives with burnt orange, marzipan, and woody clove edge as fir firewood bark with a twinge of black soil in it arrives next to cherry-apple tobacco with a buttery and rummy feel.

This is also fantastic and clearly something special and spendy.

Taste 5

Unicorn and Cheap Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

This is Tennessee heavy on the nose with bran muffins and wet grains next to dark fruit leather, rum-raisin, brandy-soaked cherries, and gingerbread. The palate has that same Tennessee vibe with cinnamon candy, orange Starbursts, and black licorice next to vanilla Necco Wafers and old musty oak staves. The end leans toward dark chocolate-covered espresso beans ever so slightly before hitting that graininess again with a hint of peach cobbler and eggnog ice cream eaten in a dank cellar.

This feels like an old Tennessee whiskey. That “oldness” feels more like an additive than a part of the overall complexity of the profile though.

Taste 6

Unicorn and Cheap Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Sour cherries over malted vanilla ice cream pull you in on the nose with toasted coconut and spiced pine cones, buttery vanilla cake, and burnt orange. The palate hit on a rich and moist marzipan with a hint of dried rose next to woody holiday spices, German chocolate cake with a heavy almond cream vibe, and a twinge of cinnamon candy tobacco. The end has an Almond Joy feel that leads to sour cherry and chocolate tobacco with a slight hint of old porch wicker.

This is nice stuff, but clearly cheaper thanks to the Almond Joy and German chocolate cake vibe. It felt like something you’d buy off the shelf at Krogers. I mean that endearingly since this is really tasty overall.

Taste 7

Unicorn and Cheap Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Sweet chocolate with mild spice pops on the nose with a whisper of old oak, sweet cherry, vanilla cookies, and a hint of new leather. The palate has a creamy texture that leads apple pie with ice cream, plenty of cinnamon, and walnut cake countered by Frosted Raisin Bran and cherry root beer. The end has a sense of cherry hand pies, vanilla-laced griddle pancakes cooked in butter, and apple-cinnamon tobacco with a whiff of … Old Spice and cedar?

This is another one that’s really nice but clearly on the cheaper end. Frosted Raisin Bran? Old Spice? Again, it’s like I’m walking around a supermarket here.

Taste 8

Unicorn and Cheap Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

The nose leans into old leather tobacco pouches stored with boxes of toffees, marzipan, sultanas, Nutella, and dates with a sense of nutmeg, mace, cardamom, cinnamon bark, and even some wild sage all making appearances. The palate is lush and full of soft vanilla and rum-raisin next to dried figs and black-tea-soaked dates, gingerbread dipped in salted dark chocolate, and brand-soaked prunes floating in spiced mulled wine with a dash of tart apple stems and skins. The end leans into orchard barks with more soft winter spices, dark and dried fruits, and dried tobacco leaves with layers of plum, clove, and anise next to soft cedar kindling and old musty cellar cobwebs all wrapped up in soft and well-worn leather.

This is not cheap. This is like sitting next to a crackling fire and sipping slowly while cigar smoke wafts past. It’s about a million miles away from the candy aisle at the local grocery store.

Taste 9

Unicorn and Cheap Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Old leather boots and sour cherry mingle with a vanilla cake frosted with cinnamon butter icing, dark chocolate tobacco, and old cedar humidors with a whisper of falling leaves and cold applewood. The palate has a sense of that vanilla cake that leads toward cherry and dark chocolate this time next to orange-laced marzipan, cloves, and old sappy pine with a sense of dried dates and figs over some browned butter and large strips of cinnamon bark. Then comes a huge wave of ABVs that buzz all the senses and eventually fade toward spicy star fruit, pear tobacco, and smoldering cherry bark.

That high ABV was a lot. Still, this is so complex that it has to be a spendy bottle.

Taste 10

Unicorn and Cheap Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

A hint of chocolate pops on the nose with woody apples, caramel, taco seasoning, and some sharp spearmint over vanilla ice cream. The palate has a nice vanilla base that leads to cinnamon and allspice with a hint of eggnog nutmeg over apple pies. The end is lighter and hints at mint tobacco and vanilla woodiness with a touch of chocolate cake cut with stewed cherry and pine.

This was pretty standard overall. It’s a cheaper but classic-leaning bourbon for sure.

Part 2: The Ranking

Unicorn and Cheap Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

10. Rare Hare 1953 Straight Bourbon Whiskey Finished in XXO Cognac Casks — Taste 5

Rare Hare 1953 Bourbon
Playboy

ABV: 55.5%

Average Price: $500

The Whiskey:

The juice in the bottle is a blend of 17-year-old bourbons from undisclosed sources. Those 17-year-old barrels were blended and then re-barreled into XXO Cognac casks (barrels that held brandy for at least 14 years in Cognac, France) for an additional 12 months of mellowing. Finally, that juice is vatted and bottled as-is into 1,953 bottles.

Bottom Line:

This never lands for me. It’s not too Tennessee. It’s more that it feels a bit too built — too meticulous and aimed at winning awards — as opposed to just flowing.

9. Elijah Craig Small Batch — Taste 10

Heaven Hill

ABV: 47%

Average Price: $30

The Whiskey:

This is Elijah Craig’s entry-point bottle. The mash is corn-focused, with more malted barley than rye (12% and 10% respectively). Originally, this was branded as a 12-year-old whiskey. The brand decided to move away from that labeling and started blending younger whiskeys to create this label.

Bottom Line:

Yeah, this felt affordable from the jump. It’s made for mixing cocktails.

8. Weller The Original Wheated Bourbon Special Reserve — Taste 7

Sazerac Company

ABV: 45%

Average Price: $32

The Whiskey:

Buffalo Trace doesn’t publish any of their mash bills. Educated guesses put the wheat percentage of these mash bills at around 16 to 18%, which is pretty average. The age of the barrels on this blend is also unknown as well. Overall, we know this is a classic wheated bourbon, and … that’s about it.

Bottom Line:

Another nice pour but didn’t quite hit the same depth as the big bottles on this list. Again, this felt like a solid bourbon for mixing cocktails.

7. George Dickel Bottled In Bond Tennesee Whisky — Taste 2

Screen-Shot-2021-08-19-at-4.35.35-PM.jpg
Diageo

ABV: 50%

Average Price: $44

The Whisky:

Nicole Austin has been killing it with these bottled-in-bond releases from George Dickel. This release is a whiskey that was warehoused in the fall of 2008. 13 years later, this juice was bottled at 100 proof (as per the bottled-in-bond law) and left to rest. This fall, new releases of that Tennessee juice were sent out to much acclaim.

Bottom Line:

This hinted at Tennessee but overall felt like a well-rounded whiskey that doesn’t cost a fortune, which is the point. Sometimes it’s good to just be great and easy.

6. Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 6

Wild Turkey

ABV: 55%

Average Price: $68

The Whiskey:

This is a high water mark of what standard Wild Turkey can achieve. The Russells select the “honey barrels” (those special barrels that are as much magic as craft) from their rickhouses for single barreling. The juice is non-chill filtered but is cut down slightly to proof with that soft Kentucky water.

Bottom Line:

This certainly had a nice flavor profile but really felt like a standard crowd-pleaser whiskey.

5. Booker’s 2022-03 “Kentucky Tea Batch” — Taste 9

Booker's
Beam Suntory

ABV: 63.25%

Average Price: $599

The Whiskey:

The latest Booker’s is a nod to “Kentucky Tea” which isn’t tea at all. It’s when you add a little whiskey to a glass of water and then that looks like tea. The juice in this case is a blend of bourbon barrels from seven locations across six different warehouses. The final product was bottled without any fussing at cask strength.

Bottom Line:

This was a big whiskey with a huge ABV buzziness that sort of derailed the profile for a moment. That said, this over some ice is where it’s at.

4. Michter’s Single Barrel 10 Years Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 1

Michters Distillery

ABV: 47.2%

Average Price: $554

The Whiskey:

The juice in this bottle is a little under wraps. Michter’s is currently distilling and aging its own whiskey, but this is still sourced. The actual barrels sourced for these single barrel expressions tend to be at least 10 years old with some rumored to be closer to 15 years old (depending on the barrel’s quality, naturally). Either way, the juice goes through Michter’s bespoke filtration process before a touch of Kentucky’s iconic soft limestone water is added, bringing the bourbon down to a very crushable 94.4 proof.

Bottom Line:

This was an easily identifiable upper-end bourbon. Hell, it’s even more of a unicorn this year since the new batch was delayed until next year. I’m kind of shocked it didn’t rank higher but nowhere near as shocked by what did. This leads us to…

3. Kirkland Signature Single Barrel By Barton 1792 Master Distillers Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 4

Costco Bourbon
Costco

ABV: 60%

Average Price: $32 (1-liter bottle)

The Whiskey:

This Costco release is sourced from Sazerac’s other Kentucky distillery, Barton 1792 Distillery down in Bardstown, Kentucky. The whiskey in the bottle is very likely the same distillate/barrels as 1792 Full Proof. However, this is proofed down a tiny bit below that at 120 proof instead of 125 proof, adding some nuance to this release.

Bottom Line:

This blew me away. I would have sworn this was a high-end bourbon. I called it as such. Yet, here we are. This had a clear complexity with a real depth that felt old, nuanced, and super refined.

2. Eagle Rare 17 Years Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey BTAC 2022 — Taste 3

Eagle Rare 17
Sazerac Company

ABV: 50.5%

Average Price: $3,999

The Whiskey:

Back in the spring of 2005, a humble bourbon was made with Kentucky distiller’s corn, Minnesota rye, and North Dakota barley. That hot juice was then filled into new white oak from Independent Stave from Missouri with a #4 char level (55 seconds) and stacked in Buffalo Trace’s warehouses H, K, and L on floors one and four. It was left alone for 17 years, which allowed 70% of the whiskey to be lost to the angels. In 2022, the barrels were batched and the bourbon was proofed down to 101 proof and was bottled as-is.

Bottom Line:

No matter what I said about the bottle above, this was miles ahead. This is a damn near-perfect whiskey. No notes!

1. Bardstown Bourbon Company Chateau de Laubade Blended Straight Bourbon Whiskies — Taste 8

BBC Bourbon
Bardstown Bourbon Company

ABV: 53.5%

Average Price: $160

The Whiskey:

This bourbon is a blend of 12-year-old, low-rye bourbon from Kentucky and 10-year-old, very-low-rye bourbon from Tennessee. The whiskeys were re-barreled into Armagnac casks from the famed Chateau de Laubade. One set spent two years mellowing on the bottom floor of the rickhouse while another set spent 16 months mellowing on the top floor. After that, the barrels were vatted and bottled as-is.

Bottom Line:

This was such a nice departure while also feeling so freaking refined and complex and fun. This is one of those once-in-a-year pours that sticks with you until you find another pour or the next batch is released next year.

Part 3: Final Thoughts

Unicorn and Cheap Bourbon Blind
Zach Johnston

Costco strikes again! I was truly astonished it presented as a high-end and spendy bourbon so clearly. I didn’t question that it wasn’t at all. But I can logic it out. It’s a single barrel, high-proof bourbon from an elite distillery. It’s not rocket science, it’s just math. The crazy math is how the Sazerac Company (Barton 1792 Distillery’s parent company) and Costco are able to pull that off for only $30.

I think it’s time to hit up Costco, folks. After that, you need to head over to Bardstown Bourbon Company and try and snag at Chateau de Laubade. That bottle is phenomenal. Unless, of course, you stumble across an Eagle Rare 17, then buy that for sure.

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