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Blind Bourbon Taste Test — Which Affordable Whiskey Will Win?

Finding the best bottle of affordable bourbon is no easy task. God knows we’ve tried. There’s a lot to choose from and at these lower price points you’re going to strike a few clunkers. That being said, quite a bit of the cheap bourbon out there is pretty solid (“it is what it is,” but that’s not bad).

In this blind taste-test, we’re trying six cheap(er) bottles of bourbon whiskey and ranking them according to taste alone. The prices range from $13 for a one-liter bottle of Heaven Hill’s Old Style to $26 for a regular-sized bottle of Wild Turkey 101. Of course, these prices can vary wildly depending on where you’re standing when you hand over your cash — those taxes and transportation fees add up.

As for the ranking, it ended up being fairly interesting. A few bottles I usually dig didn’t really pop like usual, but the overall winner was clear as a bell. Click the prices to order the expressions that look best to you!

Part 1: The Taste

Zach Johnston

Taste 1

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

There’s distinct vanilla next to a musty oak with a creamy pudding cut with brown spice. Then the sip veers back towards that wood, but it’s light. The woodiness becomes almost like dry wicker, with a slightly sweet edge.

The end is slightly spicy and warming but not overly so.

Taste 2

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

This is light yet full of mild oak, vanilla pudding, and … apple stems? Or maybe I mean cores — the un-sweet apple parts. There’s a hint of caramel there, sure. But it’s dialed way back. You’re really left with that apple and the overall thin nature of the sip.

Taste 3

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

This is really soft on the nose with nice nuances of vanilla and molasses (hello, Buffalo Trace). Then there’s this whiff of raw steak. I know that sounds wild, but it was 100 percent there. Imagine you just took a steak out of the fridge to come up to room temp and you’ll get that it’s actually kind of enticing.

On the palate, this is classic Trace — with notes of oak that lead to toffee that lead to cinnamon sticks with a berry fruit end, all while holding onto that lush softness.

Taste 4

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Vanilla, corn husks, and cherry candy (Hello, Jim). That cherry candy serves as the backbone for the sip — balancing the dry corn husk and green grassy nature of the dram. This is very easy-drinking, thanks to the overall lightness.

Taste 5

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

This is really enticing on the nose with subtle hints of vanilla, oak, caramel, and spices leading towards tobacco. Those notes are delivered on the palate, too — as cinnamon sticks mix with brown sugar with a slight fruitiness.

This is just goddamn delicious. So much so that I said those exact words aloud while drinking this dram.

Taste 6

Zach Johnston

Tasting Notes:

Classic bourbon vanilla and caramel with a cornmeal body. That vanilla has a pudding creaminess with plenty of oak next to a slight bite of black pepper. The spice amps up to a tobacco chewiness by the end.

Part 2: The Ranking

Zach Johnston

6. Heaven Hill Old-Style Bourbon (Taste 2)

Heaven Hill

ABV: 40%

Average Price: $13, 1-liter bottle

The Whiskey:

This is Heaven Hill’s entry point bourbon. The stuff is matured (for up to four years) in Heaven Hill’s massive warehouses and blended to be quaffable at a very affordable price.

Bottom Line:

This is very drinkable, though there’s not a lot of “there” there. It’s light, easy, and cheap. It’s definitely a great candidate for mixing cocktails while you’re learning.

5. Jim Beam Black (Taste 4)

Beam Suntory

ABV: 43%

Average Price: $23

The Whiskey:

This used to be Jim Beam 8 but the age statement was dropped. The idea behind this expression is that it’s a blend of Beam barrels that hit just the right note of classic Jim Beam bourbon flavors — with some of those barrels still reaching eight years old and some younger.

Bottom Line:

I didn’t know where to put this dram. I really like this sip. The cherry candy ended up being the dominant flavor note, alongside those corn husks. Which wasn’t bad at all, just a little less enjoyable than the rest.

3 (tie). Wild Turkey 101 (Taste 1)

Campari Group

ABV: 50.5%

Average Price: $26

The Whiskey:

This is a lot of people’s entry point to bourbon. The juice is classic Turkey that’s blended according to their signature flavor profile and then barely cut down to 101 proof with that soft Kentucky limestone water.

Bottom Line:

This is tasty and easy to drink at the same time. The 101 proof also means it’s a great cocktail mixer that’ll pack a punch without getting drowned out by the sugars, water, and bitters.

3 (tie). Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond (Taste 6)

Heaven Hill

ABV: 50%

Average Price: $17

The Whiskey:

Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams is a popular bottle of cheap bourbon with their Bottled-in-Bond expression being a big step up from the entry point bottles. This juice is aged according to strict federal laws which ensure a minimum of four years maturing before watering down to 100 proof.

Bottom Line:

It’s interesting that this and Wild Turkey 101 were tied for me. The higher proof was very enticing and felt familiar. Maybe that was simply because they were positioned as the first and last taste? Anyway, this is a very good bourbon for a very low price that works as a great mixer.

2. Buffalo Trace (Taste 3)

Sazerac Company

ABV: 45%

Average Price: $24

The Whiskey:

This bourbon was created to celebrate the rebranding of George T. Stagg distillery as Buffalo Trace, back in 1999. Distilling legend Elmer T. Lee came out of retirement to create this expression and it’s been beloved since it hit shelves.

Bottom Line:

I went back and forth on putting this at the number one slot. This is a well-crafted bourbon that really shines as a mixer or on the rocks. Still, it was just fine this time around. There was no real “Ah-ha!” moment. It was just solid and very drinkable, which is all you can really ask for at this price point.

1. Bulleit Bourbon (Taste 5)

Diageo

ABV: 45%

Average Price: $25

The Whiskey:

This Diageo bourbon has a high-rye mash bill, with 28 percent of the recipe consisting of the spicy grain. While most of the juice is still sourced, Diageo has converted the iconic Stitzel-Weller distillery of Pappy fame into Bulleit’s new distillery and juice from that facility is starting to get in the mix.

Bottom Line:

This did have that “Ah-ha!” moment. Like I mentioned above, this really hit the spot and stood out thanks to the rye. This is also the bottle that probably varies the most wildly in price, depending on which state you’re buying the stuff in.

Still, no questions: It won the day.

Part 3: Final Thoughts

Zach Johnston

I really was surprised how well Bulleit hit on this tasting. That being said, the only whiskey that really left me “meh” was Heaven Hill. Which, come on, it’s a ridiculously cheap bottle of bourbon. That considered, it’s perfectly fine as a mixer.

Overall, these whiskeys are all perfectly good — caveat coming — for what they are. You have to manage your expectations, but there’s some real nuance in this price range. And while Bulliet was number one with a bullet, it was the Jim Beam Black that drew me back for an extra dram on Sunday night. It’s hard not to enjoy that note of cherry candy in the depths of February.


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