Overpriced bourbons exist, there’s no denying that. But overpriced bourbons aren’t necessarily over-crowding your local liquor store shelves, either. You can still easily find great bottles of bourbon between $20 and $60 without much effort at any store. Most “overpriced” bottles either have massive MSRPs (sometimes in the thousands) or a secondary market price tag that can feel absurd.
Before we go on, let’s make something clear. Just because something has a huge MSRP or secondary markup doesn’t mean we think it’s a bad product. It’s more that it’s a shame to see it cost so much money. There are a lot of stellar bourbons out there that the average bourbon drinker is never going to get to drink since they’re priced out from the jump. And many spendy bourbons are coming from sources that other, cheaper bourbons also come from. Sometimes those sources put out very similar products under different labels. That’s where the average bourbon consumer can really win.
The ten bottles below are grouped into “overpriced bottles” and “affordable alternative” bottles. We generally kept everything in the family when calling out bottles that cost obscene amounts of money and the bourbons we think you should buy instead. We also tried to match the source, ABV, or even the age (where possible) of the juice so that you’re getting something very similar for a different price.
Sound good? Let’s get into it!
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OVERPRICED BOTTLE: Kentucky Dry State 100th Anniversary Limited Edition
Average Price: $3,332
This brand’s releases are notorious for being very limited and very pricey. This limited release from last year was a 2,000 bottle offer from the Stoli-owned brand. Dixon Dedman, their former Master Blender, reportedly spent years perfecting this blend from mostly 12-year-old sourced barrels with some 17-year-olds in the mix. Since the source of these barrels is “secret,” not much else is known about the whiskey.
The nose on this one runs pretty deep with an apple crumble vibe with plenty of rich and sharp cinnamon next to hefty caramel, a slight hint of banana bread with walnuts, and a hint of fresh but very faint white rose. The palate un-bakes the apple and brings in a tartness that’s covered up by a salted caramel while orange oils drip through a pile of white cotton candy with specks of dark and bitter chocolate creating a counterpoint and mid-palate shift. The finish embraces the mellow sweetness of a Graham cracker while the orange bitterness marries that chocolate on a final slow fade towards a dry and apple-laced tobacco.
Yeah. This is a great pour. It’s also one of Dedman’s last Kentucky Owl releases, which adds a patina to the bottle. But if you’re not a collector, what are you doing with this bottle?
AFFORDABLE ALTERNATIVE: 1792 Aged 12 Years
Average Price: $99
The Barton 1792 Distillery is renowned (by insiders) as the source for a lot of great bourbons that have big price tags. This release is their own brand and blend that highlights the power of that juice. The whiskey is a “high-rye” mash bill (though suspected to only between 15 and 25 percent) that spends 12 long years mellowing at the Barton rickhouses before blending, proofing, and bottling.
The nose is fruity and full of caramel. As you nose further, that fruit breaks off into caramel apples straight from the fairground and an almost savory pumpkin or squash that’s been baked with some winter spices, walnuts, and butter. Interestingly, the sweetness dissipates on the palate as the apple gets woody and tart and the spice really amps up towards sharp cinnamon, white pepper, and maybe a touch of clove. A dry cedar vibe arrives late as a leathery pouch full of dry apple tobacco leaves you almost chewing the backend of this whiskey.
This is not the same thing. No one is saying that. But it’s also not a million miles away either. Where the Kentucky Owl is far sweeter, this is drier. Still, the ABVs are close, the age is close, and it’s possible the stills weren’t too far away from each other.
Plus, you can buy a case of this and still be $400 shy of the MSRP of the Owl.
OVERPRICED BOTTLE: Woodford Reserve Baccarat Edition
Average Price: $2,300
This very premium release from Woodford is all about style and looks. The juice in the bottle is a standard Woodford bourbon (72 percent corn, 18 percent rye, and ten percent malted barley with no age statement) that’s finished in XO Cognac casks for three years.
The real star of the show is the handmade crystal decanter that reportedly takes five whole days to make in Baccarat, France.
This opens with a bushel of spicy stewed dark stonefruits in holiday spices — think plums, figs, dates, and cherry — with a hint of shavings from a 100 percent dark chocolate bar, a touch of old leather jacket from the last century, and old cellar beams from a brie cave somewhere deep below the ground. The stewed berries really amp up and grow bright on the taste as dried figs and leather balance the sweetness and the old wood drives the mid-palate back towards syrupy cherry. The end lets a dusting of white pepper sneak in before the leather, wood, and dark berries fade away.
You’re 100 percent paying for a fancy crystal decanter here. Read on to see why.
AFFORDABLE ALTERNATIVE: Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Brandy Cask Finish
Average Price: $110
This was the eleventh release in Woodford’s famed Master’s Collection. The whiskey in the bottle is a standard Woodford bourbon (72 percent corn, 18 percent rye, and ten percent malted barley with no age statement) that was finished in brandy casks for two years. Those barrels were then vatted, proofed, and bottled.
Spice stewed berries and stonefruit lead the way on the nose with dark cherries and plums at the core of the smell and maybe a hint of tart berry sneaking in as plenty of woody spice mingles with dark cacao and old oak staves. The palate really leans into the berries and spice as the silky texture almost dries out towards a raisin with leathery skin, a touch of cobweb, and hints of old wood. The finish dries out considerably with a hint of pepper as the cherry layers into a very dry tobacco leaf as the sip disappears from your senses.
Same ABV, one year less in a brandy barrel (Cognac is just a regional brandy, folks), and no Bacarrat decanter — over $2,000 saved. I’ve had these side-by-side and they’re close. Very close. Unless you’re a collector of Bacarrat crystal, do yourself a favor and track this release down instead, especially if these tasting notes entice you.
OVERPRICED BOTTLE: Old Forester Birthday Bourbon
Average Price: $1,499
Every year, Old Forester releases their most anticipated whiskey, Birthday Bourbon. This year’s release was a 12-year-old blend created from 119 barrels of the good stuff.
Berries really drive this nose with raspberries in cream next to blackberry compote, Luxardo cherries, and a touch of cranberry bread with walnuts, plenty of spice, and a moist, buttery, vanilla-laden cake vibe. The palate holds onto the syrupy cherry notes but veers more towards vanilla cream with woody spices, buttery toffee, marzipan, and a touch of green pepper pretty far in the background. The mid-palate has an old cigar box feel to it that dries everything out from the cherry to the vanilla, creating a sort of thin pecan cookie vibe with dry spice, tobacco, and berries in the mix.
The berries really drove the taste this year. It wasn’t bad by any stretch but it wasn’t amazing either. That makes the thousands you’ll likely have to pay for this bottle a little harder to swallow this year.
AFFORDABLE ALTERNATIVE: Old Forester 1897 Bottled-In-Bond
Average Price: $52
This whiskey from Old Forester celebrates the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. The juice in the bottle is standard Old Forester bourbon (72 percent corn, 18 percent rye, and ten percent malted barley with no age statement). The bourbon was blended from the best bottles in their bonded warehouse, proofed down to 100 proof with that soft Kentucky limestone water, and bottled.
Bright fruit draws you in with a light berry edge next to stone fruits and orchard fruits with mild touches of cinnamon-spiced caramel candy, a touch of cedar, and mild notes of wet florals. The palate turns the berries into a spiced pie filling as vanilla and caramel battle it out in a sweet vs. spice tug of war on your tongue. The finish arrives fairly quickly with dark berry pie filling, spice, and caramel leading towards a final note of dry wicker reeds.
This feels very “Old Forester” with those dark berry notes next to spice and wood. It’s a really solid bourbon all around and one that you can buy pretty damn easily.
OVERPRICED BOTTLE: Bib & Tucker 12 Year Barrel Proof Barrel Select
Average Price: $150
Bib & Tucker’s barrel picks are always worth chasing down. The juice is a Tennessee bourbon (some say that means it must be Dickel) that’s aged for 12 long years in very lightly charred oak. The whiskey then goes into the bottle after being proofed down (ever so slightly) to 99 proof.
Expect a fairly classic bourbon nose of creamy vanilla, salted caramel apples, and a hint of soft cedar. The palate touches on dark orange oils next to bright red cherry with a vanilla pudding base and a subtle dose of dark spice leading towards salted and almost chalky dark chocolate. The end is quite quick and leaves you with more dark chocolate, orange, and a drop more of salted caramel.
While this isn’t overpriced in the sense that the bourbon hype machine has taken it into the stratosphere, it feels mis-priced. This is a 12-year-old sourced Tennessee whiskey that’s put together at Bib & Tucker. We fully appreciate the power of a good blender. But this just feels more like a great $50 to $80 whiskey and not a $150 one. This leads us to…
AFFORDABLE ALTERNATIVE: George Dickel Bottled in Bond, Fall 2008
Average Price: $45
Nicole Austin has been killing it with these bottled-in-bond releases from George Dickel. This year’s release is a whiskey that was warehoused in the fall of 2008. 13 years later, this juice was bottled at 100 proof (as per the law) and sent out to the wide world where it received much adoration.
The nose on this one is mildly sweet with almost earthy maple syrup next to pecans from a pie with a touch of dried apple and old leather. The taste runs deep with vanilla leading the way next to a touch of apple and pecan crumble. The mid-palate takes a turn away from all of that and dives into a candied cherry that’s dusted with dark chocolate and a ground-up fruit Neco Wafer or Flintstone’s multivitamin (that’s also cherry-flavored) before the finish gets this browned butter vibe with a touch of soft, sweet oak.
Similar proof. Similar age. Frankly, a better build in the bottle. One-third the price. If you’re looking for a Tennessee whiskey, need we say more?
OVERPRICED BOTTLE: Van Winkle Special Reserve 12
Average Price: $899
This is an interesting wheated bourbon. The “Lot B” moniker on the label denotes that these barrels hit their mark at 12 years and weren’t going to hit the right taste marks for the 15, 20, and 23-year-old expressions. So instead of aging further, their cut with that soft Kentucky limestone water to bring them down to a manageable 90.4 proof and bottled.
There’s an orchard fruit sweetness on the nose not unlike a spiced apple pie filling, laden with brown sugar, light leather, a touch of cedar, and hints at corn. The palate builds on that by adding in walnuts, dried fruits, and a drizzle of salted caramel by way of vanilla pudding with a nice, almost eggnog edge. The end is medium-length with a hint of oak next to the sharp spices, more orchard fruit, and sweet vanilla that ties into a light and fresh tobacco in a cedar box.
Never forget the low MSRPs on bottles of Pappy. It’s absurd these have reached these heights. It’s great for the brand, sure. But it’s a shame so few people actually get to try this truly excellent wheated bourbon anymore. Just ten to 15 years ago, it really wasn’t a big deal to open one of these and enjoy it. Now, that’s a very distant memory. That’s a shame.
AFFORDABLE ALTERNATIVE: Weller Special Reserve Bourbon
Average Price: $60
This is Weller’s entry-level expression. The whiskey is hewn from Buffalo Trace’s lauded wheated mash bill. The barrels are hand-picked for their flavor notes. Then the juice is bottled at a very approachable 90 proof.
There’s a nice sense of a slightly salted caramel over a soft-yet-tart apple with a hint of kettle corn lurking on the backend. The taste starts with soft floral honey that peaks with a rich butterscotch candy still in its wrapper before falling away towards a cedar box full of vanilla tobacco leaves. The end of this one is silky with that floral honey circling back around and leaving you with a sweet sensation.
Weller was billed as the “poor man’s Pappy,” and that is barely still true. Every other Weller expression is inflated massively beyond its MSRP these days. Somehow, Special Reserve remains the one bottle you can still (sort of) get without overpaying too much. Look, we’re not saying this is the same thing. But it’s not that far away either (same stills, mash bill, warehouses, etc.). And at least you can find this bottle.