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A Whiskey Writer Shares His Favorite Bottom Shelf Bourbons

Christopher Osburn has spent the last fifteen years in search of “the best” — or at least his very favorite — sips of whiskey on earth. In the process, he’s enjoyed more whiskey drams than his doctor would dare feel comfortable with, traveled to over 20 countries testing local spirits, and visited more than fifty whiskey distilleries.

Just because you aren’t willing to pay the equivalent of a car payment for a bottle of booze, that doesn’t mean you need to settle for low-level whiskey. The whiskey world (and specifically the bourbon market) is ripe with affordable deals. Sure, you might want to enjoy a glass of the likes of Pappy, Weller, and Blanton’s, but you should also be able to sip on a glass from a bottle of bourbon that costs less than $20.

Since this month is National Bourbon Heritage Month, we figured that the time was right to highlight our favorite bottom shelf (or closer to the bottom than the top) bourbons to enjoy this and every other month of the year.

Jim Beam White Label

ABV: 40%
Distillery: Jim Beam, Clermont, KY (Beam Suntory)
Price: $18.99

The Story:

There’s a reason Jim Beam White Label is the #1 selling bourbon in the world. It’s cheap, easy to drink, and the same every time you crack open a bottle. This high rye mash bill bourbon is distilled at low temperatures and matures in new, charred American oak barrels for four years before finding its way into the iconic white-labeled bottled.

Tasting Notes:

There’s a chance you’ve never nosed Jim Beam before drinking it. Well, we’re here to tell you that you should. If you do, you’ll be met with subtle rich vanilla, charred oak, and sweet corn. The first sip brings forward more toasted wood, leather, butterscotch, and sweet cream. The finish is sweet, long, and ends in a peppery flourish.

Bottom Line:

You might buy this bottle for mixing, but you shouldn’t sleep on it as a bargain sipper. It’s mellow enough to be enjoyed with a few ice cubes.

Old Grand-Dad

ABV: 40%
Distillery: Jim Beam, Clermont, KY (Beam Suntory)
Price: $20

The Story:

You might have sipped on a glass of Basil Hayden’s in the past. This premium bourbon from Jim Beam has a strong connection with the much cheaper Old Grand-Dad. That’s because the man who adorns the bottle is none other than Basil Hayden himself. Old Grand-Dad is one of Jim Beam’s “Olds” expressions along with Old Tub, and Old Overholt.

Tasting Notes:

The first sniff brings forth peppery spice from the high-rye content as well as cinnamon and sweet vanilla. From the first sip, you’re met with dried fruits, toasted oak, rich caramel, and hazelnuts. The finish is long, warming, and ends in a mix of spice and subtle smoke.

Bottom Line:

This is definitely a bargain bourbon. But, it might be a little too spicy for some novice drinkers. It’s best mixed into an old fashioned or Manhattan.

Heaven Hill Green Label

ABV: 45%
Distillery: Heaven Hill Distillery, Louisville, KY
Price: $12.99

The Story:

The biggest knock against Heaven Hill Green Label is the fact that it’s only available in Kentucky. While you can find random bottles in other states, this Bluegrass State-exclusive is as mysterious as it is drinkable. If you’re one of the people who have even tried this 6-year-old bourbon, consider yourself lucky. But, if you can find it, you’re in for a bargain at under $15.

Tasting Notes:

You might not want to nose this super cheap bourbon. But, if you do, you’ll be greeted with sweet vanilla, rich oak, and the musty, nostalgic smell of a barrelhouse. The first sip brings forth caramelized sugar, cinnamon, corn sweetness, and a hint of maple syrup. The finish is long, bursting with warmth, and full of charred oak and butterscotch flavors.

Bottom Line:

Use this bottle for mixing. Sure, you can sip on it, but that’s not really what it’s for. Mix it into a Mint Julep, put your feet up, and just enjoy the evening.

Evan Williams Black Label

ABV: 43%
Distillery: Heaven Hill Distillery, Louisville, KY
Price: $16.99

The Story:

Legend says that Evan Williams opened the first distillery in Kentucky in 1783. This bargain bourbon bears his name in remembrance of the man who changed the alcohol world on the banks of the Ohio River. While it’s inexpensive, it’s not noticeable in the flavor. Due to the whiskey spending longer than necessary in the barrels, it has a mellowness that far surpasses its price tag.

Tasting Notes:

The nose is full of herbal, sweet vanilla, and salted caramel aromas. The first sip brings forth a symphony of butterscotch, cooking spices, pecans, licorice, and dried orange peels. The finish is medium in length and long in heat with a subtly spicy finish.

Bottom Line:

Even though this whiskey is cheap, it’s smooth enough to fit the bill as a sipper on a chilly fall evening. Toss in a single ice cube and enjoy the changing of the seasons.

Very Old Barton

ABV: 40%
Distillery: Barton Distillery, Bardstown, KY
Price: $12.99

The Story:

Likely the best bargain in the bourbon world, Very Old Barton’s name is as confusing as its price tag. While it has “very old” in the title, it’s not very old at all having been aged for between four and six years at the Barton Distillery and comes in 80, 86, 90, and 100 proof. Even with all of the other bourbons Barton’s produces, you definitely shouldn’t sleep on its highly rated, much cheaper relative.

Tasting Notes:

This high corn content is noticeable from the first nosing. You’ll be met with fresh corn, sweet cream, and charred oak. The first sip yields an immediate vanilla sweetness that moves into a rich chocolate, spicy cinnamon, and dried fruits. The finish is long, sweet, and warm with a subtle hint of pepper at the very end.

Bottom Line:

Get a bottle of old Barton’s and make it a mainstay on your home bar. You definitely won’t regret stocking a bottle for mixing or sipping. It works well for both.

Four Roses Yellow Label

ABV: 40%
Distillery: Four Roses Distillery, Lawrenceburg, KY (Kirin Brewing)
Price: $19.99

The Story:

Four Roses is well known for its Small Batch, Single Barrel, and Small Batch Select. But, while these are great bottles, none of them is a bargain like Four Roses Yellow Label. For under $20, you can get a bottle of bourbon made up of whiskeys aged between 4 and 12 years. How this high-quality, award-winning, supremely mellow, highly sippable bourbon remains so affordable we’ll never know.

Tasting Notes:

From the first nose, you know that you’ve opened a special bottle. You’re immediately met with aromas of rich honey, cinnamon, and toasted oak. The first sip brings up cinnamon apple, brown sugar, and caramel along with creamy butterscotch. The finish is long, warming, and ends in a pleasing hint of spice.

Bottom Line:

Four Roses Yellow Label is another great bottle to stock your bar. That’s because it’s a dual-threat. It’s perfect for slow sipping and shines in your favorite whiskey cocktail.

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