Bourbon is hands down the best value to be found in whisk(e)y in the US today. Quality is high – very little of your grandfather’s rotgut can be found on contemporary shelves. And the prices, while rising far faster than inflation, can’t be beat – especially when compared to Scotch whiskies of similar quality.
Following are my favorite American whiskies that can be found for under $20 per 750ml bottle. Prices listed are current on the linked retailers’ web sites as of 15-December-2009. (By the way, WordPress’ thumbnail creator is cruel, chopping off lots of the images – if you click on them, you can browse the full labels and photos in all their glory.)
Jim Beam Black Label (bourbon, $16.99)
Jim Beam Black is one of my favorite bourbons at any price. Vastly better than the standard white label stuff. Big and rich tasting, but relatively little alcohol burn given its quite assertive character. In fact I think this whiskey might be from the same batches used for Booker’s – another favorite of mine – though in this case they make sure it’s least eight years old (+), dilute it down to 86 proof (-) and filter it (-). So what? Jim Beam Black is not just good – it’s great.
Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond (rye, $19.99)
The world has found out about this great whiskey bargain, so the producers and distributors have kicked up its price from $12 a few years ago to over $20 in some markets. Oh well – Rittenhouse Rye 100 proof Bottled in Bond is still the best rye for the money available today. And it’s a nice introduction to the style generally. Rittenhouse BIB showcases the unique spiciness and fruitiness of rye grain without becoming edgy like some of its competitors. Drinks beautifully on its own, but also makes a wonderful cocktail. (Be careful not to confuse this with the 80 proof Rittenhouse Rye, with the tan label. I’ve compared them only once, but much preferred the 100 proof version, which is worth the extra couple of bucks over its little brother.)
Very Old Barton Bottled in Bond (bourbon, $12.99)
I love this hard-to-find bourbon so much that I wrote an entire blog post about it here. What are you waiting for? If Binny’s will ship to your state, call them up (or click on the price above) and have them send you a bottle. Even with shipping costs you’re still well under $20 to try this gem.
Elijah Craig 12 Year Old (bourbon, $19.99)
Sigh – another one whose price has skyrocketed in the past few years. I remember buying Elijah Craig for just $11.99 in 2002 – in New York City, even! Now it’s very hard to find under $20, though still not overpriced if you like its idiosyncratic flavor. Elijah Craig shares with many of its fellow Heaven Hill bourbons a minty overtone that I often like (but occasionally loathe). Your mileage will also vary, but at this price the risk is low.
With Elijah Craig 12 Year Old you also get some nice oaky tastes uncommon in younger, less expensive bourbons. The distillery that used to make Elijah Craig burned down some years ago, so the current bottlings come from a different distillery (owned by the same company, using the same recipe and warehouses). Of course various Internet conspiracy theorists and curmudgeons claim the older stuff was better, but I’ve no idea how to tell from the label which distillery a particular bottle came from. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Beautiful bottle and cork stopper (the only whiskey on this page I would recommend giving as a gift), distinctive taste, still nicely- though not super-bargainly-priced.
Don’t forget, you can click these images to get a better sense of what each label or bottle looks like.
And a few runners-up in the category:
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon (bourbon, $19.99)
An unabashedly rye-heavy bourbon made by Jim Beam. Old Grand-Dad Bonded (like all bonded bourbons, this is 100 proof) tastes wonderful to me – full of grain, confident in its old-school personality. But the texture is just a little too thin for it to make my top list in this price range. The Old Grand-Dad 114 is much richer on the palate (and comes in a fancier bottle), but sells for 25% more.
Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey (bourbon, $21.99)
Diageo’s answer to Beam’s Knob Creek brand. I much prefer Bulleit to its hipster competitor. Though the (excellent) packaging implies this is a rough-and-tumble whiskey, it’s actually quite gentle. Floral, with lots of the fruit that I associate with rye-heavy bourbons. Listed as a runner-up only because I can’t find it consistently under $20 (sometimes dips to ~$18 in California when there’s a mega-sale on).
Jim Beam Rye (rye, $14.99)
With its former bright yellow label and super-low price, Jim Beam Rye was the sort of thing you might skip over at the corner bodega. But you would have been wrong – in its day this stuff was downright great. Meaty, sizzling, in your face (in a good way). Unfortunately this whiskey seems to have fallen on hard times in recent years. Even before Beam switched to the gentler beige label shown here, I tasted several bottles that were too young. Lots of banana esters and other immature unpleasantness, though with an overall reticence unbecoming of this former muscleman. Still, if you’re on a dark street corner and the shady liquor shop has Jim Beam Rye, then it’s worth taking a chance on.
Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey (rye, $14.99)
Another Jim Beam product, Old Overholt seems pretty much synonymous with rye whiskey in every bar. It is absolutely fine for a Manhattan or Old Fashioned – preferable to even high-end bourbons in those particular drinks. I’ve tried it neat only a couple of times, but found the finish too quick. So while I wouldn’t recommend it on its own, you shouldn’t hesitate to try it as the base of your cocktails.
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