The 10 Best Bourbon Whiskeys for Under $20
Bourbon is made from a grain mix that consists mainly of corn. It is aged in charred oak barrels, which give it its distinctive color and contribute to its taste. My love for bourbon goes back to the 1980s when I was first given a bottle of Jim Beam as a gift. Since then, my enthusiasm for this most distinctive of liquors has grown and grown.
Bourbon whiskey has been around in the USA since the late eighteenth century. It has strong associations with the South in general and Kentucky in particular. It takes its name from an area that was known as "Old Bourbon" in Kentucky. The heart of bourbon production is Bardstown, where the largest concentration of bourbon brands and distilleries exists and where the Bourbon Festival is held every September.
10 Budget-Friendly Bourbons Worth Buying
Here is my list of the 10 best affordable bourbon whiskeys. I go into more detail and explain why I selected each of them below.
- Evan Williams Black Label: Reliable Go-To Whiskey
- Four Roses Yellow Label: Mellow and Rewarding
- Old Forester 86-Proof: Full of Flavor
- Old Grand-Dad 100-Proof Bottled In Bond: Hot and Spicy
- Jim Beam Black Label: Ideal for Newcomers
- Wild Turkey 81-Proof: Smooth and Smokey
- Heaven Hill White Label: Toffee and Citrus
- Benchmark No. 8: Cherries and Oak
- Very Old Barton 80-Proof: Burnt Sugar and Green Grass
- Fighting Cock: Caramel and Toasted Nuts
Evan Williams Black Label: A Reliable Go-To Drink
Evan Williams is one of the most popular straight bourbon whiskey brands. Williams emigrated to Kentucky from Wales and began distilling whiskey in 1783. The Black Label is modestly priced but very drinkable—especially with a mixer like coke. I wouldn't say it's my favorite, but it's always a reliable go-to drink. If you have the means to spend over twenty bucks, I would highly recommend investing in a bottle of the high premium whiskey that Evan Williams produces in limited quantities. My favorite is their nine-year-old single-barrel bourbon.
What Is Straight Bourbon?
Bourbon that has been aged for over two years may be called "straight bourbon" on the label. If it has been aged for less than four years, however, it must be labeled with the number of years that it has been aged. The majority of bourbon has been aged for over four years, and most premium bourbons are aged for considerably longer.
Four Roses Yellow Label: Mellow and Rewarding
The Four Roses brand was established in 1888 and was likely named after founder, Rufus Mathewson Rose, his brother Origen, and their two sons. Four Roses bourbon was popular in the USA in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, but was unfortunately discontinued at the end of the 50s and replaced with a low-quality whiskey blend of the same name.
The original Four Roses bourbon was not sold again in the US until the brand was bought by Kirin in 2002. Their Yellow Label is a mellow and rewarding drink in my experience, and it's a good bourbon for mixing or adding to a punch.
I know folks all have a tizzy about it, but I like a little bourbon of an evening. It helps me sleep. I don't much care what they say about it.— Lillian Carter
Old Forester 86-Proof: Full of Flavor
Old Forester has won many awards over the years and could be said to be the oldest bourbon, in the sense that is has been on the market continuously for over 145 years, a longer uninterrupted period any other brand. It was also the first bourbon to be sold exclusively in sealed bottles. I've always found Old Forester 86-proof to be a flavorsome whiskey to sip and a great choice for a cocktail—especially an Old Fashioned.
Old Grand-Dad 100-Proof: Hot and Spicy
One of the ten best-selling whiskey brands, Old Grand-Dad brand was created by Raymond B. Hayden. The label features a picture of his grandfather, Basil Hayden, Sr., a famous distiller of his time. The family has a long history of whiskey-making, having set up their first commercial distillery in 1840. The 100-proof is bottled in bond. I would describe this whiskey as having a hot first hit but a mild and spicy finish.
I was brought up to believe that Scotch whisky would need a tax preference to survive in competition with Kentucky bourbon.— Hugo Black
Jim Beam Black Label: Ideal For Newcomers
Jim Beam is the world's best-selling bourbon. Multiple generations of the Beam family have been producing bourbon continuously since 1795 with the exception of prohibition. The name "Jim Beam" comes from James B. Beam, who inherited the family business after prohibition ended.
Aged for eight years, their Black Label is a considerable step up in quality from the White Label, which is aged for only four years. The Black Label is generally priced at around $20 and offers a subtle blend of vanilla and caramel flavors with a pleasant hint of woodiness. This smooth-sipping whiskey is an ideal introduction for bourbon newcomers in my opinion.
Wild Turkey 81-Proof: Smooth and Smokey
Wild Turkey is distilled near Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Although bourbon has been brewed in this location since 1869, the name "Wild Turkey" wasn't used until 1940. There are six different varieties of the straight bourbon available in the USA: 81-proof, 101-proof, Kentucky Spirit, Rare Breed, American Honey, and Russell's Reserve.
The 81-proof is lower in alcohol than most at 40.5% ABV, but don't be fooled into thinking it doesn't have tasty punch. Thanks in part to the alligator char in the barrels, the 81-proof has a delicious smokey flavor. I love this whiskey.
A man can take a little bourbon without getting drunk, but if you hold his mouth open and pour in a quart, he's going to get sick on it.— Lyndon B. Johnson
Heaven Hill White Label: Toffee and Citrus
Also bottled in bond bourbon, the Heaven Hill white label offers excellent value for the money and is a far superior drink to their cheaper green label version—it's also stronger. The palate of this whiskey is toffee, dark fruit, and citrus; and the finish is cocoa and peanuts. It's a delicious bourbon that compares favorably with many of its more expensive competitors.
By the way, if you see "bottled in bond" on a whiskey label, it essentially means that the distillers have followed a set of old and obscure rules in its production. Although that doesn't automatically guarantee quality, it generally means that great care has been taken in its distillation.
Benchmark No. 8: Cherries and Oak
The full name of this whiskey is "McAfee's Benchmark Old No. 8 Brand," with the McAfee being a reference to Hancock McAfee, one of the first European settlers to arrive at the site of modern-day Buffalo Trace back in 1775.
This bourbon is cheap, but don't let that put you off. It's 80-proof and aged for at least three years. I taste cherries and oak, with a long but moderate burn when drinking this one. I prefer it straight, rather than with mixers or in a cocktail. All-in-all, it's a very nice whiskey for the price.
How well I remember my first encounter with The Devil's Brew. I happened to stumble across a case of bourbon—and went right on stumbling for several days thereafter.— W. C. Fields
Very Old Barton 80-Proof: Burnt Sugar and Green Grass
A great bottled-in-bond bourbon for a bargain price, this whiskey comes from the Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown. This is the ideal budget bottle to buy for a party when you don't want to spend too much but still want to supply something very drinkable. The palate for me is sugary with corn. A soft and lingering finish of green grass makes this bourbon a pleasure to consume.
Fighting Cock: Caramel and Toasted Nuts
Don't let the name and less-than-stylish appearance put you off. This is an unsung hero among budget bourbons, mainly because it delivers a powerful 103-proof (51.5% ABV) without the overwhelmingly hotness that characterizes most cheap whiskies. It's got plenty of spicinesses, caramel, and toasted nuts in the taste followed by a long fade. It's perhaps a touch too spicy for me, but it's still a bargain.
Questions & Answers
I've had Ancient Age bourbon plenty of times. Is that actually bourbon, or is it whiskey?
Ancient Age is a bourbon whiskey. So it is a bourbon.Helpful 20
© 2011 Paul Goodman