Cheap bourbon is getting better and better as the whiskey boom drives into its second decade. These days, you can find pretty killer bottles between $10 and $25 on pretty much every shelf around the country. Just to be clear, these aren’t going to be bottles stacked with unique flavor profiles or insanely high ABVs. But they will be perfectly drinkable, mixable, and crushable.
Honestly, what more can you ask for at this price point?
In our never-ending endeavor to better understand bourbon and share that knowledge with you, we decided to blind taste test and rank some cheap bourbons. We’re adding a twist this time though, I’m going to try and call out the brand of each of these bottles — completely blind. A lot of these bourbons are mainstays on my shelf for weekend mixing, so I feel like I know them pretty well. That being said, some of these bottles were pretty dusty when I pulled them down, so clearly I don’t reach for them that often.
Our lineup today is:
- Evan Williams Green Label ($11)
- Benchmark Old No. 8 ($11)
- Early Time Old Reserve ($14)
- Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 ($17)
- Jim Beam ($13)
- Buffalo Trace ($24)
- Wild Turkey 101 ($22)
- Bulleit Bourbon ($24)
I know I can spot Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Evan Williams from across the room. The other four on this list are a little less of my jam, so let’s see if I can logic this all out based on taste alone. If you want to try this challenge yourself, just click on the prices to grab your own bottle.
Let’s dive in!
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- The Best Bourbon Whiskeys To Drink Neat, From $50 On Up
Part 1: The Taste
This has a solid layer of vanilla, caramel, and dry corn — think unpoped popcorn. The taste is pretty slight with notes of orange candy next to cornmeal, a touch of spice, and the idea of oak.
I’m using this as a calibration. I’ll start guessing brands on the next dram.
This has a lemon candy nose with a touch of honey and then … nothing. The palate is classic vanilla and spice notes next to a slight buttery edge with a warm honey tobacco end.
This isn’t too bad but I don’t really recognize it. So I’m going with being Benchmark or Early Times for now.
This opens with vanilla, butterscotch, and very light spice. The palate is warm but thin with a hint of dry wood next to the bitterness of apple and pear pits and maybe seeds. The end is thin and fades almost instantly.
Again, this is pretty new to me. So, I’m going with either Benchmark or Early Times again since those remain the two I’m least familiar with.
Huge notes of buttery vanilla and rich cherry candy greet you on the nose, and this is Jack Daniel’s, baby! The palate is a balance of cinnamon spice, wet oak, dry corn, and banana bread with a slight walnut vibe. Still, the big fruit notes dominate this whole experience.
The nose gives this away immediately with all that bold cherry. But it’s really the texture of this sip that is undeniably more refined.
This opens with a note of sweet corn next to caramel apples, a touch of cherry Coke, and a nice hint of spice. The taste is all about the wood with a dry edge leading towards caramel corn candy, a touch more spice, and a short and sweet cherry end.
This is Jim Beam through and through. That corn+cherry+wood makes this brand the world’s favorite bourbon for a reason. Admittedly that is a very similar flavor profile to the JD above, but this is much rougher (a lot woodier) and less “bam!” on the palate, comparatively speaking.
Raw leather, Caro syrup, and eggnog spices? Hello, Buffalo Trace. That raw leather note drives the palate towards a nice mix of those spices next to bright red berries, rich vanilla, a touch of wet cedar bark, and a final sweet honey note.
That raw leather note is hard to get past and gives this one away immediately.
Creamy vanilla, cedar notes, and a holiday cake spice and candied fruit matrix immediately mark this dram as Wild Turkey. The palate of rich vanilla pudding, brunt sugars, fruity tobacco, and butter toffee only confirms that fact.
This is also really complex and deep comparatively.
This opens with vanilla next to damp oak, mild brown spices, and a touch of leather (meaning it’s certainly a little more expensive). The cinnamon drives the palate towards salted caramel apples with a hint of masa lurking in the background. The end is sweetened with brown sugar and a touch of buttery toffee.
I’d say this is Bulleit.
Part 2: The Ranking
First of all, I’m going to call out each brand for each taste.
- Taste 1 is Evan Williams. Though this was thinner, it still had that Evan vibe.
- Taste 2 is … I’m going to say this is Benchmark since the Buffalo Trace (taste 6) also had that same honey note.
- Taste 3 has to be Early Times then. I don’t know this well enough for it to be anything else.
- Taste 4 is Jack. There was no question.
- Taste 5 is Beam. See above.
- Taste 6 is Buffalo Trace. That raw leather on the nose really gives this away.
- Taste 7 is Wild Turkey. This is one of my favorite cheap bourbons and probably one that I know the best (besides JD).
- Taste 8 has to be Bulleit then.
8. Early Times Old Reserve — Taste 3
Average Price: $14
This is an interesting whiskey. The brand was just sold to Sazerac but Brown-Forman is still distributing the bottles (and this juice is from the Shively plant in Kentucky for now). Still, this isn’t a “straight” bourbon and was aged in both new and used oak, meaning that it’s more a blended whiskey at the end of the day.
“Meh…” was the main reaction to this. It’s perfectly fine for a cheap bourbon and will kill in bourbon and Coke or bourbon and ginger. But that’s about all there is to say.
7. Buffalo Trace — Taste 6
Average Price: $24
This is the whiskey that heralded a new era of bourbon in 1999. Famed Master Distiller Elmer T. Lee came out of retirement to create this bourbon to celebrate the renaming of the George T. Stagg distillery to Buffalo Trace when Sazerac bought the joint. The rest, as they say, is history — especially since this has become a touchstone bourbon for the brand.
My reaction to this is kind of like when Kurt Russell told Leo in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood “I just don’t dig him,” about Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth. I can’t get past that raw leather vibe. The rest of the taste is fine but this is one of those bottles that collects dust on my shelf.
6. Evan Williams Green Label — Taste 1
Average Price: $19 (1.75-liter bottle)
This is Heaven Hill’s signature bourbon mash bill with a touch of rye: 78 percent corn, 12 percent malted barley, and ten percent rye. That mash is the same for their much-beloved Elijah Craig and Henry McKenna labels. This juice is aged for four years before it’s proofed all the way down to 40 proof with soft limestone water.
This is fine. It’s a little thin, but that’s the point. This is built as a cheap mixer for the Kentucky market.
5. Jim Beam — Taste 5
Average Price: $13
This bourbon has a low-rye mash bill. It’s aged for four years before the barrels are blended and it’s cut down to 80 proof. This is a lot of folks’ entry point into the wider world of bourbon because it’s a quaffable whiskey that’s very affordable and on pretty much every liquor store shelf right at eye level.
This is, again, perfectly fine. It’s made for mixing and shooting. So stay in that lane when drinking it and you’ll be set.
4. Benchmark Bourbon — Taste 2
Average Price: $11
The juice in this bottle is from Buffalo Trace’s Mash #1, which has a scant amount of barley and rye next to mostly corn. This is the same mash that’s used for bigger hitting brands like Eagle Rare, Stagg, and E.H. Taylor. In this case, this is a four-year-old bonded that’s sort of like a proto-E.H. Taylor Small Batch.
This wasn’t bad — a testament to Sazerac’s ability to elevate even the cheap stuff over at Buffalo Trace. Don’t get me wrong, this is a mixer through and through but it’s a nice one at that.
3. Bulleit Bourbon — Taste 8
Average Price: $24
This whiskey embraces a high-rye mash bill that’s comprised of 68 percent corn, 28 percent rye, and four percent malted barley. The juice is then rested for six years before blending, cutting down to proof, and barreling.
I rarely reach for this and I often forget why. This really hit nicely today. Maybe I should move it to the front of the shelf.
2. Jack Daniel’s — Taste 4
Average Price: $17
Nathan “Nearest” Green and Jack Daniel’s created this Tennessee whiskey after the Civil War, thanks in part to Green utilizing the Lincoln County Process when making his whiskey. The low-rye (eight percent) sour mash is made with that iconic soft limestone water and then filtered, drop by drop, through ten feet of sugar maple charcoal. The juice is then aged for at least four years in new oak.
Hopefully, we’re starting to get past the too-cool-for-school whiskey drinkers slagging off this juice. It’s goddamn delicious and really hits that workhorse vibe perfectly as a great shooter, on the rocks pour, highball base, and mixing whiskey.
1. Wild Turkey 101 — Taste 7
Average Price: $22
A lot of Wild Turkey’s character comes from the hard and deep char they use on their oak barrels. 101 is a high-rye and high-ABV bourbon that leans into the wood and aging, having spent six years in the cask. A little of that soft Kentucky limestone water is added to cool it down a bit before bottling.
The fact that this is around $20 is kind of a miracle. This is a really solid bottle of booze that’s as sippable as it’s mixable. It’s also the deepest flavored and most well-rounded of the whiskeys on this list. Where Jack is eye-opening and bold, this is subtle yet deep. It’s just damn good.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
As someone who drinks upwards of 200 drams a month (or more), a lot can get lost in the mix. Cheap bourbon is often what gets lost and it really shouldn’t. There are some real gems in this ranking. That being said, I wasn’t surprised at all with it. I love Jack Daniel’s and Wild Turkey for very different reasons but I do drink a lot from those two brands.
As for calling out the brands, I scored 8/8.
What can I say? I do this for a living and live and breathe this stuff on a day-to-day basis. Even when I’m on vacation, I’m usually meeting up with friends in the industry who are collectors or bar owners and I still find myself trying and drinking new whiskey. It truly never ends. So, yes, I can call out a lot of brands on nose alone — that’s just part of the job. Still, it’s fun logic-ing out the ones that I don’t know and finding those small nuances that make each brand unique.
It’s a fun gig, passion, and life. Hopefully, it makes for some fun reading, too!
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