Bargain basement whiskeys have a bad reputation for a good reason: many of them are just plain rotgut.
That said, there are some mighty fine sipping whiskeys that go for less than most bottles of above average table wine. The bargains begin with two staples, each with its own legion of devoted fans: Jim Beam (White Label) and Evan Williams (Black Label).
Evan Williams ($13)
A bit stronger (86 proof), a bit older (5 to 7 years) and a bit cheaper ($13 for a fifth bottle), than Beam. I see Evan Williams as having more character, but that is because I think of Beam as my benchmark for what bourbon is supposed to be. Once you get past Beam and Evan Williams, the two best-selling bourbons on the market, four more bottles catch my eye as offering great bang for the buck:
Made from Heaven Hill’s wheated bourbon mash bill, this is the entry-level expression for a series of whiskeys that culminate in ambrosia bottlings like the recently released Old Fitzgerald 15 Year Old Bottled in Bond Bourbon. Using wheat in place of the more traditional rye as the flavoring element in the bourbon grain recipe, it has a softer and more floral flavor profile.
Old Forester Rye ($23)
Introduced in 2019, this is arguably the best bang for your buck rye whiskey on the market today. They chose to buck the traditional style of Kentucky ryes, which call for just enough rye in the mash to qualify, for a 65% rye, 20% malted barley and 15% corn recipe. This meant the spirit was not only quite spicy, but also malt-forward and so also brought out more of the yeast-derived flavor, such as the banana one often gets from Old Forester bourbons.
Old Granddad Bonded ($25)
As the time-honored, go-to premium expressions have become more expensive or scarcer on store shelves, many whiskey fans have turned to the bottled in bond classics. Old Granddad Bonded comes from the same “high rye” mash bill as Basil Hayden, but packs that lighter, dryer, spicier goodness in the stronger 100-proof format mandated by the bottled in bond standard.
Wild Turkey 101 ($22)
The signature of living legend distiller Jimmy Russell, “WT 101” is an incredible bargain. It’s about 6- to 8-years-old and bottled at a hefty 101-proof, and where other standard bearing brands are usually (but not always) a little cheaper, they are also a little less mature and bottled at 80- to 86-proof. Wild Turkey 101 is as reasonably priced as properly matured, strong bourbon whiskey gets.