The 10 Best Bourbon Whiskeys for Under $20

Updated on December 8, 2017
PaulGoodman67 profile image

Paul has been a passionate fan and drinker of bourbon whiskeys for over thirty years. Born in the UK, he now lives in Florida, USA.

An array of bourbon brands on display at a typical US liquor store. The range of choices available can seem overwhelming to those unfamiliar with all the different brands. In this article I look at the best affordable bourbon whiskies available.
An array of bourbon brands on display at a typical US liquor store. The range of choices available can seem overwhelming to those unfamiliar with all the different brands. In this article I look at the best affordable bourbon whiskies available. | Source

My love for bourbon goes back to the 1980's when I was first given a bottle of Jim Beam as a gift. Since then my affection 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 are based and where they hold the Bourbon Festival every September.

Bourbon is made from a grain mix that consists mainly of corn. It is aged in charred oak barrels, which give bourbon its distinctive color and contribute to its taste.

My 10 Best Bourbon Whiskeys For Under $20

Here are my ten best affordable bourbon whiskeys.

  • 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

I go into more detail and explain why I selected each of them below.

Types of Bourbon

Bourbon that is aged over 2 years can be called ‘straight bourbon’ on the label. If it has been aged less than 4 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 4 years, however, and the premium ones are usually aged for considerably longer.

Evan Williams Black Label: Perhaps not my favorite budget bourbon, but always very drinkable. It offers good value for the buck. If you can stretch over $20 I would certainly go for  their nine-year-old single barrel bourbon, however, it's delicious.
Evan Williams Black Label: Perhaps not my favorite budget bourbon, but always very drinkable. It offers good value for the buck. If you can stretch over $20 I would certainly go for their nine-year-old single barrel bourbon, however, it's delicious.

Evan Williams Black Label: A Reliable Go-To Drink

Evan Williams is one of the most popular straight bourbon whiskey brands. Evan Williams arrived in Kentucky after emigrating from Wales and began distilling whiskey in 1783.

Their Black Label is modestly priced, but very drinkable, especially with a mixer such as coke. Perhaps not my favorite, but always a reliable go-to drink.

If you have the means to spend over twenty bucks, then I would highly recommend investing in a bottle of the high premium whiskey that Evan Williams also produce in limited quantities. My favorite is their nine-year-old single barrel bourbon.

Four Roses bourbon was popular in the 1940's and 50's before it was discontinued in favor or an inferior bourbon with the same name. Luckily it came back as a quality drink. Mellow tasting and easy going, it's also a great mixer.
Four Roses bourbon was popular in the 1940's and 50's before it was discontinued in favor or an inferior bourbon with the same name. Luckily it came back as a quality drink. Mellow tasting and easy going, it's also a great mixer.

Four Roses Yellow Label: Mellow and Rewarding

The Four Roses brand was established in 1888 and is 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, 1940s and 1950s, but was unfortunately discontinued at the end of the 50s in favor of a low quality whiskey blend with 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, as well as 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 is an excellent Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey that won't break the bank. A flavorsome sipping drink on its own, it also works well in cocktails.
Old Forester 86 proof is an excellent Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey that won't break the bank. A flavorsome sipping drink on its own, it also works well in cocktails.

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 continuously on the market for over 145 years, a longer period than for 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 whiskey for cocktails, such as an Old Fashioned.

Old Grand-Dad 100 proof. This old bourbon is one of America's most popular. It has a hot first hit, but a subtle finish of vanilla and spices. The brand was created by  Raymond B. Hayden and refers to his grand-dad, a famous distiller of his time.
Old Grand-Dad 100 proof. This old bourbon is one of America's most popular. It has a hot first hit, but a subtle finish of vanilla and spices. The brand was created by Raymond B. Hayden and refers to his grand-dad, a famous distiller of his time.

Old Grand-Dad 100 Proof: Hot and Spicy

One of the top ten best-selling whiskies, the brand was created by Raymond B. Hayden and the label features a picture of his grandfather, Basil Hayden, Sr., who was a famous distiller of his time. The family have a long history of whiskey-making, setting up their first commercial distillery in 1840.

The 100 proof is bottled in bond. I would describe this whiskey as having a hot first first hit, but a mild 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. A much more subtle and complex whiskey than the White Label, thanks to a large degree to 8 years of aging. Jim Beam is the world's biggest selling bourbon and a great introduction to bourbon drinking.
Jim Beam Black Label. A much more subtle and complex whiskey than the White Label, thanks to a large degree to 8 years of aging. Jim Beam is the world's biggest selling bourbon and a great introduction to bourbon drinking.

Jim Beam Black Label: Ideal For Newcomers

Jim Beam is the world's biggest bestselling bourbon. Multiple generations of the Beam family have been producing bourbon since 1795, with only prohibition interrupting them.

Aged for 8 years, in my opinion and experience their Black Label is a considerable step up in quality from the White Label, which is aged for only 4 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.

By the way, the name "Jim Beam" comes from James B. Beam who revived the family business after prohibition ended.

Wild Turkey 81 proof. Bumped up to 81 from 80 proof, this is a flavorsome drink with a smokey taste. Slightly less alcoholic than most bourbons, this has a delicious punch.
Wild Turkey 81 proof. Bumped up to 81 from 80 proof, this is a flavorsome drink with a smokey taste. Slightly less alcoholic than most bourbons, this has a delicious punch.

Wild Turkey 81 Proof: Smooth and Smokey

Wild Turkey is distilled near Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Although bourbon has been brewed in the location since 1869, the name "Wild Turkey" wasn't used until 1940.

There are 6 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 (40.5% ABV), but don't be fooled into thinking it doesn't have tasty punch, thanks in part to Alligator Char in the barrels, which adds 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. Aged for six years, this bourbon offers excellent value for money and is a superior drink for its price range.
Heaven Hill White Label. Aged for six years, this bourbon offers excellent value for money and is a superior drink for its price range.

Heaven Hill White Label: Toffee and Citrus

Another bottled in bond bourbon, the Heaven Hill white label offers excellent value for money, and is a far superior drink to the cheaper green label version in my opinion, as well as being stronger.

By the way, bottled in bond essentially means that distillers have followed a group of old and obscure rules in the production of the whiskey. Although that doesn't automatically guarantee quality, it generally means that great care has been taken in its production.

The palate of this whiskey for me is toffee, dark fruit and citrus, the finish is cocoa and peanuts. A delicious bourbon that compares favorably with many much more expensive ones.

Benchmark No.8 was originally created by Seagram's back in the 1960's as a luxury bourbon. Sazerac bought the brand name in 1992 and now markets the whiskey as a cheaper alternative to Jack Daniel's.
Benchmark No.8 was originally created by Seagram's back in the 1960's as a luxury bourbon. Sazerac bought the brand name in 1992 and now markets the whiskey as a cheaper alternative to Jack Daniel's.

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 who was one of the first European settlers to arrive at the site of modern day Buffalo Trace back in 1775.

This bourbon is cheap to buy, 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 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. The best thing about this bourbon, apart from the exceptionally affordable price, is the silky smooth sugary taste, followed by the lingering soft finish.
Very Old Barton 80 Proof. The best thing about this bourbon, apart from the exceptionally affordable price, is the silky smooth sugary taste, followed by the lingering soft finish.

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. The ideal budget bottle to buy for a party when you don't want to spend too much and yet still supply something very drinkable.

The palate for me is sugary with corn, turning to a lingering soft finish of green grass.

Fighting Cock. An overlooked bargain bourbon, probably due to the name and the less than stylish appearance. This whiskey is non-the-less an excellent buy and one of my favorites in the under $20 price range.
Fighting Cock. An overlooked bargain bourbon, probably due to the name and the less than stylish appearance. This whiskey is non-the-less an excellent buy and one of my favorites in the under $20 price range.

Fighting Cock: Caramel and Toasted Nuts

Don't let the name and less than stylish appearance put you off. This is an unsung hero of budget bourbons, mainly because it delivers a powerful 103 proof (51.5% ABV) without the overwhelmingly hotness that characterizes most cheap whiskies.

Plenty of spiciness, caramel and toasted nuts in the taste. A long fade. Maybe a touch too spicy for me, but still a bargain.

© 2011 Paul Goodman

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    • Brandon E Newman profile image

      Brandon E Newman 

      3 years ago from North Texas

      Advertising sells whiskey. It could be pure piss and still sell. By the way, most of it is. Woodford reserve? Please. Got some at an employee Xmas party. Tasted like pure poison mixed with turpentine. The distiller is definitely just in it for the $$$ and doesn't even know what good whiskey is.

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