If you want to drink good bourbon whiskey, you’re going to have to shell out anywhere from $30 to $60. You might get lucky and find a hidden gem for around $20 but that’s the exception, not the rule. Then there’s the genuinely expensive stuff that starts off around $100 and reaches into the thousands of dollars, either by virtue of it being a very rare whiskey or the aftermarket dictating a hefty price inflation.
But is the expensive stuff really that much better than the (relatively) cheap bourbon these days? How much better can it honestly be? That’s where a blind taste test comes into play.
For this exercise, I’ve grabbed five bottles that fall into the $25 to $60 range (with one beloved budget bottle thrown in) and five bottles that start off above $100 and soar ever higher in price. The ranking is simple, what tastes best when sipped blind? Spoiler alert: It was a far more mixed bag than even I thought it would be.
Our lineup today is:
- Uncle Nearest Master Blend Edition Blend no. 012 Tennessee Whiskey
- Heaven Hill Old Style Bourbon 6 Years Old
- Maker’s Mark
- Michter’s Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 10 Years Old
- Puncher’s Chance The D12TANCE Aged 12 Years
- Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel
- Weller 12
- Knob Creek Small Batch Aged 9 Years
- Eagle Rare 17 Years Old 2021 BTAC
Okay, let’s dive in and see if you really need to spend a mortgage payment on a bottle of whiskey.
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Bourbon Posts Of The Last Six Months
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- The Best-Known Basic Bottles Of Bourbon, Blind Tasted And Ranked
- All The Double Gold-Winning Straight Bourbons From This Year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition
Part 1: The Tasting
There’s a lovely sense of sourdough old-fashioned doughnuts dusted in cinnamon on the nose with a hint of brown sugar, nutmeg, pecan, and cedar/tobacco with a warm edge. The palate layers those pecans into a waffle with plenty of butter and maple syrup next to dried sour cherries with old leather, dried corn cobs, and spiced cherry tobacco next to dry black dirt with a hint of sweetness to it. The end lessens the cherry and leads to peppery tobacco with a warm finish full of dry firewood, more of that woody maple syrup, and a dash of vanilla cream underneath it.
Well, this is a great whiskey. I can’t fathom it being too cheap.
Light wicker and a hint of dried mint lead the way on the nose with a touch of brown sugar and orchard fruit and bark. The palate lets that orchard wood sweeten as a hint of espresso bean cuts the woodiness and allows lush vanilla to arrive with a hint of pancake batter. The end rounds back to the wicker with a twinge of cherry cream soda next to a thin line of mineral water.
This was really solid up until the watery finish. I’d bet it’s affordable, generally speaking.
The nose is soft with a sense of sour cherry, porch wicker, dry cornmeal, caramel sauce, and a supple vanilla foundation. The palate holds onto those notes and builds toward salted caramel over tart apples with a winter spice mix stewing it all down into a buttery and spicy apple crumble with a hint of plum and date. The end gets a little mineral-y and eventually waters down the rich spices, vanilla, orchard fruit, and old wicker.
This was so close but just missed sticking the landing on that watered-down finish.
The nose draws you in with big notes of fresh leather, sweet cedar bark, tart cherries and currant, burnt orange, salted caramel, spiced Christmas cake, and a hint of blackberry jam on a stack of sourdough pancakes grilled off in butter (or maybe I’m just hungry for breakfast?!). The taste leans into a lush vanilla tobacco warm with dark chocolate-covered espresso beans next to marzipan, orange blossoms, and brandy-soaked cherries with a hint of black pepper spice. The finish is velvety and supple with a black cherry and cinnamon/nutmeg spiced tobacco leaf braided with old wicker canes and dry cedar bark next to orchard wood and burnt marshmallows.
Well, this is a winner. This is basically a perfect bourbon with incredible depth. It must be pricey.
Hello, Tennessee! The nose opens with a sense of cherry Tums next to soft grains, dried sage and thyme, and a hint of smoked pork fat. The taste leans into that Tennessee whiskey vibe with soft grains next to vanilla Necco Wafers, old cellar floors, and a good dose of sharp winter spices. The finish lets the cherry chine with a hint of old glove leather, apple pie filling, and a sour sense of butter with a garden center earthiness.
I really like this. It’s not overly done but hits some seriously nice notes that vibe.
Sticky toffee pudding with a hint of sour grapes, sweet red berries, old oak staves, vanilla husks, and salted toffee all mingle on the nose. The palate has almost bitter cinnamon and cherry bark vibe that smooths out toward creamy nutmeg-heavy eggnog with a hint of clove next to dried cedar bark and raisins. The end mixes wild berry jam with a sense of buttermilk biscuits, brown butter, sultanas, dates, and winter cake spices as old wine-soaked oak staves add a gentle woodiness to the finish.
This is delightful. It’s a tiny bit thin on the finish (I’m guessing around 90 proof?) but that’s barely a diss.
The nose brings the vanilla pods, cinnamon/clove/anise/allspice winter spice matrix, a hint of fresh cedar kindling, and a menagerie of raisins, dates, prunes, dried cranberry with a whisper of worn leather tobacco pouches. The palate leans into the dark and tart berries with a dry edge that then leads to an old boot leather vibe next to lush marzipan touched with orange blossom and dark chocolate creaminess. The finish gently warms your sense with a nutty chocolate/spicy/dried fruit tobacco leaf rolled with old wicker, cedar bark, and sweetgrass.
I wrote, “perfect” in my notes. So you can guess where this is going to land. That doesn’t necessarily mean this is an expensive whiskey though. Time will tell.
Peach and pear skins lead to pancake batter, marzipan, orange oils, old leather gloves, a hint of wool sweater on a cold day, and a whisper of old porch wicker. The palate balances cherry wood that’s just been lit next to tart dried cranberry, a touch of buttermilk biscuit, and salted toffee. The end amps up the woody Christmas spices and barks with more orange next to pound cake, hot apple cider, and a creamy line of dark chocolate over lush marzipan.
This is another winner that just tastes great. The end is a little thin (I’m guessing this is another 90-proof) but, overall, this was excellent.
The nose on this feels classic with a bold sense of rich vanilla pods, cinnamon sharpness, buttered and salted popcorn, and a good dose of cherry syrup with a hint of cotton candy. The palate mixes almond, orange, and vanilla into a cinnamon sticky bun with a hint of sour cherry soda that leads to a nice Kentucky hug on the mid-palate. That warm hug fades toward black cherry root beer, old leather boots, porch wicker, and a sense of dried cherry/cinnamon tobacco packed into an old pine box.
This was pretty freakin’ good. More importantly, it was nicely balanced between the (marginally) higher proof and flavor profile.
Woah. There’s a lot going on with this nose from dark and moist Christmas cake with spices, nuts, candied fruits, and brandy butter to Black Forest Cake with plenty of dark chocolate and stewed cherry with a hint of smoked salt to old cellar beams and oak staves smoldering under some toasted marshmallows. The taste leans into the spices with a good warmth supported by sharp ginger, allspice, a hint of sassafras, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg that leads to a creamy nog countered by salted black licorice and Cherry Dr. Pepper. The end leaves the spices behind and gently lands on old cherry tobacco leaves, fresh nasturtiums, and a hint of sweet black potting soil mixed with dry straw.
Yup, this is excellent.
Part 2: The Ranking
10. Maker’s Mark — Taste 3
Average Price: $24
This is Maker’s signature expression. It’s made from red winter wheat with corn and malted barley and then aged in seasoned Ozark oak for six to seven years. This expression’s juice is then built from only 150 barrels (making this a small batch, if you want to call it that). Those barrels are blended, proofed, bottled, and dipped in red wax.
If this had a little more proof to it (and less water), it would have been way higher. This is good whisky at a great price. But because of that watery end, you kind of need to build this into a cocktail to plaster over that thin finish.
9. Heaven Hill Old Style Bourbon 6 Years Old — Taste 2
Average Price: $13
Heaven Hill’s Old Style Bourbon is always affordable and very palatable. This expression adds an extra two years (or so) of aging to Heaven Hill’s other entry-level juice(s). Beyond that, we’re talking about a very standard bourbon that’s meant to be mixed, shot, and enjoyed without breaking the bank.
This was another super solid bourbon that just couldn’t land the finish thanks to those low ABVs. That said, this has way more depth to it than it should for this price point.
8. Puncher’s Chance The D12TANCE Aged 12 Years — Taste 5
Average Price: $129
This sourced whiskey is a 12-year-old Tennessee straight bourbon whiskey. Those barrels are emptied and the juice is refilled into old Cabernet Sauvignon casks for a final maturation before proofing and bottling.
This was very “Tennessee whiskey,” in a great way. There was depth and nuance. Again, it was a tad thin on the end (thanks to that proofing) but great otherwise.
7. Knob Creek Small Batch Aged 9 Years — Taste 9
Average Price: $46 (one-liter)
This is Jim Beam’s small batch entry point into the wider world of Knob Creek. The juice is the low-rye mash aged for nine years in new oak in Beam’s vast warehouses. The right barrels are then mingled and cut down to 100 proof before being bottled in new, wavy bottles.
This was just classic from top to bottom. It didn’t blow me away or change the way I think about whiskey but it certainly got the job done.
6. Weller 12 — Taste 8
Average Price: $299
Weller is made from the exact same mash bill as Pappy Van Winkle. This expression of Weller rests in the warehouse for 12 long years, in the same barrels and warehouses as Pappy. The difference between this and Pappy 12 is pretty simple actually. If the barrel doesn’t hit the exact flavor profile needed for a Pappy, it’s sent to the blending house to become a Weller (as long as it hits that flavor profile, of course).
This was so well-made. It was deep and engaging while still feeling drinkable and easygoing. That said, that lower proof pushed it down this ranking a bit.
5. Uncle Nearest Master Blend Edition Blend no. 012 Tennessee Whiskey — Taste 1
Average Price: $150
While Uncle Nearest is distilling their own juice these days, this is still the work of Master Blender Victoria Eady Butler with carefully sourced Tennessee whiskey barrels. In this case, Eady Bulter hand-selected the best-of-the-best from their inventory to create the perfect whiskey to exemplify the brand and Tennessee whiskey traditions.
This was really nice overall. There was no fault in any of it. The only reason it’s a little lower today is that I really wanted to pour this over a single rock to calm down those ABVs and let the deep flavors bloom in the glass.
4. Legent — Taste 6
Average Price: $47
This bottle from Beam Suntory marries Kentucky Bourbon, California wine, and Japanese whisky blending in one bottle. Legent is classic Kentucky bourbon made by bourbon legend Fred Noe at Beam that’s finished in both French oak that held red wine and Spanish sherry casks. The juice is then blended by whisky blending legend Shinji Fukuyo.
This was just freakin’ delicious. Again, the lower ABV is the only thing I can think to ding. Because of that, I immediately wanted to mix this into a killer Manhattan.
3. Eagle Rare 17 Years Old 2021 BTAC — Taste 10
Average Price: $2,308
This whiskey was produced in the spring of 2003. Since then, it lost 73 percent of its volume to the angels as it rested in warehouses C, K, M, and Q on various floors. The barrels were then vatted, proofed down, and bottled.
I would have put money on this or the next entry to have won. They’re both perfect bourbon specimens that are hard to beat. The proof here was a little warm but didn’t take away from the depth of the flavor profile. I simply liked the balance on the next one a tad more.
2. Michter’s Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 10 Years Old — Taste 4
Average Price: $512
The juice in this bottle is a little under wrap. Michter’s is currently distilling and aging its own whiskey, but this is still sourced. The actual barrels sourced for these single barrel expressions tend to be at least ten years old with some rumored to be closer to 15 years old (depending on the barrel’s quality, naturally). Either way, the juice goes through Michter’s bespoke filtration process before a touch of Kentucky’s iconic soft limestone water is added, bringing the bourbon down to a very crushable 94.4 proof.
Again, this is a perfect whiskey. Plus, it has this great balance between the warmth and the palate that just works.
1. Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel — Taste 7
Average Price: $59
Jimmy Russell hand selects eight to nine-year-old barrels from his warehouses for their individual taste and quality. Those barrels are then cut down ever-so-slightly to 101 proof and bottled with their barrel number and warehouse location.
I was kind of surprised to see this win. I was also kind of… not surprised. I love this whiskey and actually drink it at home. It’s so good, nuanced, flavorful, and balanced that it’s almost too good to be true — especially at $60 a bottle.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Well, there you have it. The expensive bottles were not inherently better tasting than the affordable (even cheap) ones. Hell, even the budget bottles (Maker’s and Heaven Hill) really only ranked last because of their thinner finishes, thanks to the proofing — not the taste of the whiskey.
Overall, all of these whiskeys are worth seeking out for one reason or another — mixing drinks, shots, perfecting a cocktail, neat pours on cold nights, etc. — but it’s the top four or five that really shine the brightest.
I’d recommend the Legent, Knob Creek, and Wild Turkey if you’re looking for a great everyday pour that also mixes a great cocktail. The Eagle Rare and Michter’s are also great but maybe only break those out for holidays and big occasions. Turns out you’re not missing that much between the bottles after all.