The conversation surrounding bourbon often revolves around high-priced bottles. Stories of serious aficionados and whiskey taters hunting down unicorns like Pappy Van Winkle, Blanton’s, Elmer T. Lee, and the occasional bottle not produced by Buffalo Trace Distillery are fun to hear if you enjoy the juice, and their pursuits can occasionally lead to good things.
Fortunately for those of us on a budget, good bourbon doesn’t always have to inflict pain on your wallet: There are scores of high-quality, cost-effective bourbons on the market. Because of the sheer volume out there, we asked 14 bartenders and bar industry professionals to narrow the focus down to a handful of essential bang-for-your-buck labels. These bottles might not be liquid assets sold at auctions for thousands, but they are delicious. In the end, that’s what truly matters.
Old Grand Dad Bottled in Bond
Old Forester 100 Proof
Bardstown Bourbon Company Origin Series Bottled in Bond
New Liberty Bloody Butcher Bourbon
Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon
Four Roses Bourbon
Weller’s Special Reserve
Old Forester 86
Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Bourbon
Buffalo Trace Bourbon
Elijah Craig Small Batch
Hirsch Distilling, The Bivouac Straight Kentucky Bourbon
Maker’s Mark 46
Early Times Bottled in Bond
“There are a lot of classifications that can tell you the quality of the bourbon right on the label. The easiest one for me is bottled in bond, meaning it must be aged for at least four years at 100 proof from one distiller at a single distillery in one season, and stored in a government bonded warehouse. What all that means: Bottled in bond means quality. For $25, it is hard to beat the quality of Old Grand Dad Bottle in Bond. Great in highballs and in an Old Fashioned, it’s a wonderful whiskey for an amazing price.” —Alex Barbatsis, bar director, The Whistler, Chicago
“When it comes to bourbon in cocktails, I always reach for Old Forester 100 Proof in a value proposition. It has one of the lightest and most malleable profiles, yet the proof will stand up to the other ingredients.” —Aaron DeFeo, co-owner and bar director, Little Rituals, Phoenix
“One bottle that I love to keep on my back bar is the Bardstown Bourbon Company Origin Series Bottled-in-Bond. This bottle is a little elusive, as it was released from their Origin Series earlier this year. But boy, it is James Bond classy — not to mention 100 proof classy. With subtle sweet tea notes and well-rounded structure, it’s one of my favorites for sipping on its own. With a $45 to $55 price range, it’s got an awesome price point considering the quality.” —Simone Rubio, assistant general manager/bar manager, Malibu Farm, San Diego
“As someone that loves to geek out on whiskey, I’ve tried a fair share of bourbons at varying prices and ages before landing on my favorite value label: New Liberty Bloody Butcher Bourbon. It’s got an interesting pedigree: The label’s name originates from its [sourcing] of local red corn known as the Bloody Butcher variety. Aged 12 months in new charred American oak barrels, this bottle punches far above its weight class at $52 a pop. It’s a dynamic bourbon that can play well in a Manhattan or on its own neat.” —Jonathan Adams, co-founder, Enswell, Philadelphia
“In my book, Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon is the perfect bottle for those looking to explore the world of bourbon without going all-in on an expensive choice. It’s like a hidden gem behind the bar. The reason I love it is that it’s got a fantastic mix of flavors: a bit of sweetness, some vanilla, and a hint of oak. It’s versatile, too. You can use it for cocktails or just sip it straight.” —Chad Michael, director of operations for restaurants and bars, The Robey, Chicago
“Coming in at a whopping $20 from your average bottle shop, I can’t think of a bottle of bourbon I’d rather have by my side than Four Roses. To the best of my knowledge, you can’t find any 5-year-old bourbons for that price and quality. My pick is a bit personal; I grew up in rural Mississippi, and all my uncles had a bottle on top of the fridge. Four Roses was also William Faulkner’s favorite bottle, so I guess us Mississippians know good hooch. It’s a very approachable bourbon with nice fresh fruit notes and a little pepper on the nose. Perfect straight or in any cocktail.” —Dalton Cousar, bartender, Kettner Exchange, San Diego
“Weller Special Reserve has been my go-to bourbon since I started bartending. Although it can occasionally be difficult to source, its price point is around $30 a bottle if you know where to look. It makes an excellent choice for a home bar, and I always make sure to have a bottle on hand. I love a wheated bourbon, and the Special Reserve drinks great on its own, but I never shy away from cocktailing with it. It makes one of my absolute favorite Old Fashioneds, and it’s a great base to experiment with different bitters and sweeteners. It’s also an affordable pour to order from a bartender — if you’ve ordered a dealer’s choice bourbon cocktail from me, this was likely the base!” —Carly Lacoste, bartender and shift manager, Bar Marilou, New Orleans
“My go-to bourbon for most things is Old Forester 86. It’s not the big shocker one might expect, as it’s one of the big names and the oldest continuously made American whiskeys. Today, Old Forester uses the same high-corn mash bill as Woodford Reserve, their sister brand, but the rest of the production is uniquely their own. That process gives it a bit more punch at 86 proof. This makes it great for cocktails without having to hit the 100 proof mark, and it’s light enough to sip neat or on the rocks. Another favorite thing about OF86 is its price: At an $18 to $25 price point depending on the state or market, it’s accessible for any bar program.”—Bradley Stephenson, co-owner, Cereus PDX, Portland, Ore.
“I’m often asked to make an Old Fashioned with the whiskey of my choice, and Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Bourbon is my grab almost every time. A 10 year bourbon at its price point just can’t be overlooked. With its deep cherry wood spice notes, a round and almost oily mouthfeel, and molasses-like sweetness, it is the perfect Old Fashioned whiskey — in your home or at your neighborhood bar, and absolutely at our bar. If you’re looking for cost-effective deliciousness, no need to look any further.” —Janay Jacobson, lead bartender, Paper Plane, San Jose, Calif.
“My favorite bang-for-your-buck bourbon for my home bar is Buffalo Trace. It may be considered on the sweeter side of the flavor wheel for some, but it has just the right kind of roundness and burn for me. It’s my nightcap, the long-awaited reward after a long day or a rough shift. When I’m not drinking this easy sipper, I love to use it for cooking steak and chicken dishes. The distillery itself is amazing and they produce other awesome options, but its namesake label is one that will always be in my home.” —Jenneva Walker, bartender, Midnight Rambler, Dallas
“When friends and family reach out for spirit recommendations, I try to direct them to spirits that straddle the line between interesting enough to stand alone and a good value in a cocktail. When it comes to bourbon, 10 out of 10 times I’ll recommend Elijah Craig Small Batch. Smooth and warm with a toasted, woody finish, Elijah Craig cannot be beaten at its roughly $30 price point. Coming in with a noticeable kick at 47 percent ABV, this bourbon makes for a great slow-sipper on the rocks. At the same time, it’s versatile enough to use in a spirit-forward cocktail; try subbing for rye in your Manhattan. It also works well in a brighter, sour cocktail. It makes a great Whiskey Sour.” —Nik Sparks, head bartender and beverage director, The Wooly, New York
“Buffalo Trace is one of my all-time favorite workhorse whiskies. Its notes of salted caramel and toasted marshmallow come in clutch for turning out an amazing Old Fashioned. And with a price point under $30 retail, you can afford to make them for all your nearest and dearest. That said, if you’re on the hunt for a more elite bottle that boasts quality without the weighty price tags of larger whiskey houses, seek out The Bivouac Straight Kentucky Bourbon from Hirsch Distillery. With a profile of maple pecan, toasted peanut, and dried fruit and only 120 barrels of the label produced each year, this sipper is sure to impress at $59.99. Enjoy it with your favorite baked dessert for a real treat.” —Robin Wolf, cocktail and spirits consultant, SLO Bitter Co., San Luis Obispo, Calif.
“When thinking about a bourbon that gives the most bang for its buck, I can’t really escape talking about Maker’s Mark 46. With the French oak finish and coming in at 94 proof, this bourbon is both robust and nuanced enough to be enjoyed neat or on the rocks. However, don’t count this bourbon out of being included in cocktails, either. The proof isn’t so strong that it will overpower the balance of classic cocktails. While this winter will provide the perfect excuse to include this bourbon in an Old Fashioned or Manhattan, it is also soft enough to include lighter cocktails such as a Paper Plane or classic sour. At a reasonable price point, it would be hard to pass up this bottle for a daily nip.” —Charles Friedrichs, beverage director, The Jones Assembly, Oklahoma City
“Early Times Bottled in Bond. The high level of corn gives it a nice sweetness, and the 11 percent rye gives it just the right amount of spice. At 100 proof, it’s a great bang for the buck and is sure to not get lost in a cocktail. That bottle hits all the high marks for me: high proof, approachable, great bottle design, and more importantly, it gave a strong backbone to the cocktails. Cheers!” —Joseph Frederickson, owner and operator, Society Lounge, Cleveland
*Image sourced from mariusz szczygieł – stock.adobe.com
The article We Asked 14 Bartenders: Which Bourbon Offers the Best Bang for Your Buck? (2023) appeared first on VinePair.