Bottles that won't break the bank.
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If you’re looking for some really good bourbon to drink, the good news is you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on a bottle. In fact, some of the best bourbons available throughout the country cost less than $50. Sure, there are some rare bottles out there going for triple their asking price on the secondary market, and some of these are exceptional. Still, there are so many dependable and accessible offerings—here are the best bourbons under $50 to try today.
Best Overall: Buffalo Trace Bourbon
While there are some wildly popular and rare bourbons made at Buffalo Trace, there's no better affordable option than the distillery's flagship bourbon. It uses a low-rye mash bill that provides notes of vanilla, caramel and sweet corn. According to Jessica Gonzalez, beverage director at Wonderbar, this should be your go-to bourbon for making an Old Fashioned. “It's priced low enough that I won't send anyone to the poorhouse, and no matter what they usually drink, this won't disappoint.”
Best Wheated: Larceny Small Batch
Wheated bourbons are defined as having a mash bill that uses wheat as the secondary flavoring grain instead of the usual rye (along with corn and malted barley). This imbues the bourbon with a softer, slightly sweeter flavor profile, minus the trademark spice notes of rye. If you have not tried a wheated bourbon before, pick up a bottle of Larceny. Made by Heaven Hill, this bourbon uses one-third more wheat than other similar bourbons, according to the distillery. It’s aged for six years and has notes of honey, caramel and even some stone fruits.
Best High-Rye: Old Grand-Dad Bonded
Jim Beam makes a few different high-rye bourbons, which have a larger percentage of rye in the mash bill than usual—giving the underlying sweetness of the bourbon a spicy kick. Old Grand-Dad is a cheap and tasty high-rye option (close to 30 percent of the mash bill) that comes in three different proofs: 80, 100 and 114. “It is a throwback brand, but the high rye makes it great for cocktails that use bourbon but want to get more spice notes,” says Lynnette Marrero, beverage director at Wonderbar. “I like it as an option for Whiskey Sours.”
Best for Sipping: Michter’s US*1
Michter’s US*1 Bourbon is full of flavors that soar well beyond its under-$50 price point. The brand’s Shively distillery in Kentucky has been up and running since 2015, and its contract-distilled bourbon is delicious, with complex notes of vanilla and some dried fruits. Even more, the rich mouthfeel goes a long way towards making this small-batch bourbon an excellent sipping option.
Best Kentucky: Maker’s Mark Bourbon
Although bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky, the spiritual home of bourbon, most of it is produced in the state—including the esteemed Maker’s Mark (part of the Beam Suntory family of whiskeys). “Such a distinct taste, a tried and true go-to whiskey with subtle complexity,” describes Stephen Kurpinsky, U.S. brand ambassador for Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur. “This wheated bourbon is iconic, won't break the bank, and has a truly unique taste that is instantly recognizable.”
Best Outside of Kentucky: Woodinville Whiskey
Beyond Kentucky, you can find distilleries making bourbon in nearly every state nowadays, from tiny craft operations to larger upstart facilities. One notable distillery is Woodinville Whiskey. Its flagship straight bourbon is aged for five years in central Washington warehouses after being distilled just outside of Seattle. The rich palate of buttery caramel, sweet vanilla and ripe fruits can compete with any bourbon made in Kentucky. It’s bottled at 90 proof, but if you’re looking for something stronger, there's a barrel-proof version offered at the distillery as well.
Best Single-Barrel: Evan Williams Single Barrel
As its name suggests, a single-barrel is a bourbon that comes from one barrel instead of the usual blend of many different barrels that go into a batch. So, each barrel will taste different, although there is usually some consistency that allows you to identify the brand. In the case of Evan Williams, the single-barrel expression always tastes good. “One could say using this in cocktails is almost cheating,” says Gonzalez. “Try it in a Paper Plane or an egg white sour and you won't be disappointed." She adds, "It works stirred as well, especially with lighter ingredients like sherry or vermouth.”
Best Small Batch: Four Roses Small Batch
Although the term “small batch” isn't legally defined in the bourbon market, it generally means it's smaller than the regular batch of barrels that go into bottling. An exemplary bourbon in this category comes from Four Roses. There are 10 bourbon recipes that the distillery makes from two mash bills and five yeast strains. While all of these go into the flagship bourbon, their Small Batch expression uses only four. “I like this in elegant stirred cocktails such as bourbon Manhattans and an Old Fashioned,” says Marrero. “The dried fruit notes pair well with vermouth; it has dried spice notes that give a very long finish.”
Best Value: Old Forester 100 Proof
“I still can't believe they sell it for the price they do,” says Kurpinsky when asked about the Old Forester 100 Proof. Bartenders and drinkers in the know are huge fans of this bourbon, which is part of the Brown-Forman company that also makes Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniel’s. “If you are looking to pick up a bourbon at a good price that you can mix with and not feel like your wallet is burning, this is the bourbon for you," says Kurpinsky. "It's great on its own, awesome in a smash, sour or Old Fashioned, and doesn't get lost thanks to not being watered down.” There’s also a bit of spice on the palate in this bourbon, which complements the sweetness very nicely.
Best Barrel-Proof: Wild Turkey Rare Breed
Barrel-proof bourbon refers to a whiskey that has not been cut with water before bottling to reduce the ABV. The proof will vary from batch to batch, with Wild Turkey Rare Breed often hovering between 116 and 120, which is strong but still approachable. “I get big, rich toffee, caramel, vanilla and wood flavors, and if you like your whiskey on a large rock, this whiskey will stand up to the dilution without losing what makes it so great,” says Kurpinsky. “It's literally one of my favorite bourbons, won't break the bank, and is much easier to find than the overhyped stuff out there.”
Best for Cocktails: Woodford Reserve Bourbon
When looking for the best bourbon to use in cocktails, you'll want to consider a reasonably-priced bottle with a bold palate and a proof that can stand up to mixing. Woodford Reserve satisfies all of these criteria. Their Kentucky straight bourbon is full of notes that define the iconic American whiskey category: slight tannins and vanilla sweetness from the oak, bright cereal notes from the grains, and a bit of spice on the finish. The bourbon pairs well with any classic whiskey cocktail, from a Manhattan to an Old Fashioned to a Boulevardier.
Best Bottled in Bond: New Riff Bourbon
All the whiskey produced at Kentucky-based New Riff Distilling is bottled in bond (aside from the barrel-proof expressions), which means it fits certain requirements: it’s bottled at 100 proof, is at least four years old, and is the product of one distillation season and one distillery. The straight bourbon is made from a mash bill of 65 percent corn, 30 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley, putting it in the high-rye category. This comes through on the palate, which starts with some sticky toffee, eases into ripe cherries, and finishes with some sweet vanilla.
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Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries for the past six years. His work has appeared in many different national outlets covering trends, new releases, and the stories and innovators behind the spirits. His first love remains whiskey, but he is partial to tequila, rum, gin, cognac and all things distilled.