Finding a good cheap bourbon isn’t hard. But finding a great cheap bourbon is, especially if you’re looking at the bottom shelf. Cheap bourbon is just that — cheap. It’s often made from barrels that, for whatever reason, didn’t meet that distillery’s standards for their high-end expressions’ flavor profiles. That spirit doesn’t go to waste, of course, it’s simply blended out into lower-cost expressions where they’ll likely be mixed with Coke or taken as a shot with a beer.
Theoretically, the critics aren’t going to be tripping over themselves to review these bottles. Yet, here I am, about to run a blind taste test and do exactly that. The thing is, there are good bourbon whiskeys on the bottom shelf. But with every other bourbon shelf, the key is filtering out the cream from the crap.
For this bourbon blind, I went to my local liquor store and grabbed all the bourbons from the bottom shelf. Every one of these was between $8 and $14 in Kentucky (they may cost more or less depending on where you are and are priced on more of an average below). I then had my mom line these up for me in a blind taste test and I dove in.
- Very Old Barton 100
- Old Fitzgerald Prime
- Old Crow
- Benchmark Old No. 8
- Evan Williams Black Label
- Ezra Brooks
- J.W. Dant Bonded
- J.T.S. Brown
Let’s see if we can find any gems in this mix!
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Part 1: The Tasting
This has a really nice nose full of buttery caramel, dark berries in a pie, soft oak, and a hint of peppermint. The palate dials those berries into a slice of blueberry pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a dusting of cinnamon and leather. The end is short and sweet but brings back the mintiness but more like menthol tobacco with a dry edge.
This is a pretty solid place to start. I liked this.
This is a bit thinner on the nose with a touch of vanilla and dry cinnamon next to a hint of caramel and maybe a little straw. The palate is fine but feels very average bourbon — orchard fruit, vanilla, wood, caramel — and not much more. The end is a little washed out (this has to be a lower proof) and ends more watery than bourbon-y.
This was a bit disappointing compared to the last pour.
Hum. Fresh Wonder Bread and burnt popcorn lead to buttery caramel and a dab of vanilla oil. The palate is very balanced between a sense of caramel, cherry, and “spice” with a wintry vibe. The end is pretty short and watery with the vanilla and brown spice leading to a dash of dry straw.
This isn’t terrible but it isn’t that good. This feels like a shooter for a strong beer or something you’d bury in Coke or ginger ale for $4 at happy hour.
It takes a minute to find the nose on this one. There’s a touch of lemon honey next to vanilla wafers but that’s about it. The palate is very middle of the road with clear hints of leather, brown spice, cornmeal, and vanilla. There’s a dash of buttered popcorn and caramel toward the end, but the finish is pretty watery overall.
This was a tough one. I’m super reaching for those flavor notes and they are thin AF by the end.
The nose is very light but does meander through apple candy, dry corn, vanilla, and a touch of caramel. The taste stays on a similar path with a hint of brown spice and “oak.” The end is short but does touch on more vanilla and oak with a hint of cherry tobacco way in the background before an ethanol note takes over.
Light nose, boozy end… I don’t know.
The nose on this one is pretty distinct with caramel corn balls, vanilla beans, and wintry spice mingling with wet oak and a touch of sweetgrass. The palate builds on that with a layer of dark chocolate that’s touched by cinnamon and mint before a drop of minerality sneaks in. The end circles back around to that caramel popcorn with a hint of butter, cinnamon, and stewed apple rounding things out.
This felt pretty solid all around.
The nose is thin but does have notes of banana bread with walnuts, plenty of cinnamon and nutmeg, and a hint of brown sugar. The taste has a bit of a No. 2 Pencil vibe next to dry vanilla, salted caramel, and peanuts. The end keeps things nutty and full of dark spices as a whisper of orange oil sneaks in late.
This starts off thin but delivers by the end.
Cream soda with a dash of cherry opens the nose next to dry leather patches, caramel sauce, and a light touch of floral honey. The palate brings forward dry and woody spices with a hint of eggnog creaminess leading toward Graham Crackers and a sweet tobacco chew. The end turns the woody spice into old oak with more vanilla, honey, and leather lingering the longest.
This is another good one.
Part 2: The Ranking
8. Benchmark — Taste 4
Average Price: $10
The juice in this bottle is from Buffalo Trace’s Mash #1, which has a scant amount of barley and rye next to mostly corn. This is the same mash that’s used for bigger hitting brands like Eagle Rare, Stagg, and E.H. Taylor. In this case, this is a standard straight bourbon that’s sort of like a base-level Eagle Rare, in theory, but from barrels that didn’t make the cut and were then proofed all the way down for bottling.
This is very entry-level. There are Benchmark releases just above this — Small Batch, Bonded, Full Proof — that are far better and only cost a few dollars more. Buy those instead.
7. Old Crow — Taste 3
Average Price: $11
This is a classic bourbon that became part of Jim Beam about 30-odd years ago. Until then, it was famed for being the drink of choice of President Grant, back in the 1870s — which gave it a lot to hang its hat on as a brand. The juice in the bottle is a year younger than a typical Jim Beam bourbon — so three-ish years — and it is cut way down to 80 proof for bottling.
This had a nice nose and not much of a body today. That aside, I was shocked that I didn’t rank Old Crow last in this blind. I usually dismiss this stuff. Today, however, it stood out a tiny bit when poured against bourbons in its class. Still, this is a shooter with a beer or a mixer for Coke.
6. Old Fitzgerald Prime Bourbon — Taste 2
Average Price: $11
This is the entry-point wheated bourbon from Heaven Hill to the Limited Edition Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond seasonal releases. Overall, this is the same wheated bourbon as that, just aged far less and barreled at a low 80 proof.
This feels very much in the “fine” category. There was nothing astringent or off-putting, it was just a little washed out by the end thanks to all that proofing water.
5. Evan Williams Black Label — Taste 5
Average Price: $12
This is more of an entry-point for Evan Williams. The juice is a mix of four to seven-year-old barrels of the standard Heaven Hill bourbon. The difference in this bottle is that it’s proofed at a slightly higher 86 proof, giving it a slight edge against Evan Williams Green Label at 80 proof.
This had a really light nose and an okay palate. It’s not bad. It’s just standard stuff with a standard vibe. That’s fine too. Take a shot, sip a beer. You know the drill.
4. J.W. Dant — Taste 7
Average Price: $14
This is the same mash bill as Heaven Hill’s bourbons, like Evan Williams and Elijah Craig. The difference is that the barrels chosen for this brand follow a different flavor profile than the ones for those bottles. This is bottled at 100 proof and bonded, which makes it a slightly cheaper sibling to Evan Williams White Label.
This was pretty good. I can see this working in easy cocktails or mixed drinks without a problem. I’d probably pour this over some rocks with bubbly water on a sunny day too.
3. Very Old Barton 100 — Taste 1
Average Price: $13
This was an old-school “bottled in bond” from the Barton Distillery in Bardstown but they dropped the b-i-b designation. The juice in the bottle used to be at least six years old but today it’s at least four. All of that sounds like deterrents from this bottle but it’s still 100 proof and there are still barrels up to six years old in the mix, meaning this still works well at this price point.
These top three are all winners in my opinion. It’s very likely that if this had been later in the tasting, it would have ranked higher. All of that aside, this is the first one that felt like it could pose as a sipper (on the rocks) or in a cocktail. I’d also be happy with this as a shot on its own.
2. Ezra Brooks — Taste 6
Average Price: $13
Luxco’s Ezra Brooks is a throwback to the Mad Men days of bourbon. The juice is a standard rye-infused bourbon without an age statement. It’s made as a workhorse whiskey that’s easy to find and cheap when you do find it.
This felt legitimate from top to bottom. I could also see drinking this over a rock or two and not feeling bad about my decision-making. This feels like it’d work well in a straightforward old fashioned as well.
1. J.T.S. Brown — Taste 8
Average Price: $13
This is a quality whiskey from Heaven Hill’s expansive bourbon mash bill (78% corn, 12% malted barley, and 10% rye). That means this is the same base juice as Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, several Parker’s Heritages, and Henry McKenna. It’s a bottled-in-bond, meaning it’s from similar stock to their iconic Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond, amongst others on this very list.
This was a quality pour. It might even sip this on a rock in a pinch. Though, I’d probably stick to making old fashioned with this one with plenty of raw sugar, orange, bitters, and cherry in there to really amp up the flavors.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Heaven Hill dominates cheap bourbon. Mostly because, well, they do it well. Four of the top six were all from the distillery. And it tracks. You generally can’t go wrong with Heaven Hill when reaching for the cheaper stuff.
As for the rest, you know, there really wasn’t a terrible one in the batch. I expected a lot more plastic, tinniness, and alcohol burn, but there really wasn’t much of any of that. These all felt and tasted pretty even-keeled and fine for lack of a better term.
And while “fine” isn’t what you’re looking for on a special occasion, it’s perfectly good for an everyday table bourbon. Or a drink you pour when you’re sitting in the garage or your backyard with your crew watching the world go by.
Lastly, when it comes to value, all of these are winners. That said, the value-per-dollar in the cheap stuff comes in on the ABVs. All of the top five had an ABV over 40%. That’s where you find value and taste at this level, folks.