By Richard Thomas
It’s been four years since The Whiskey Reviewer tackled the subject of the best budget bottles of bourbon, and seeing as how we’re 10 months into a world of pandemic culture that has seen tight household budgets and increased drinking, now looks like a good time to revisit this subject. Yes, vaccines are making the rounds and the light is at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still months away from this marathon coming to a close. Besides, some things have changed since the last time around, with new options coming into play and price increases eliminating others.
The Top 5 Budget Bourbons:
1792 Small Batch: I’ve been calling Barton 1792 the sleeper of Kentucky’s legacy distilleries, lying as it does so deep in the shadow of its Sazerac stablemate of Buffalo Trace, for several years now. Despite my efforts, I find their standard bearing 1792 Small Batch remains underappreciated (although 1792 Full Proof attracts some buzz). It’s a lovely, robust bourbon priced right at our $30 price limit.
Early Times Bottled in Bond: Don’t confuse this expression with the standard Early Times, which is a bourbon-ready new make whiskey aged in used barrels, and thus a “Kentucky Whiskey” and not actually a bourbon. This really is a bourbon, and a bonded one at that. Best of all, it comes in one-liter bottles (that is an extra five shots worth!) for just $25 a pop.
Wild Turkey 101: The flagship expression of the house that Jimmy Russell built is the bedrock of quality, reasonably priced bourbon whiskey. The way to look at WT101 is to compare it not to the classics of the small batch era — Knob Creek, Elijah Craig, Woodford Reserve — as so many do, but to compare it to its true peers: Jim Beam White, Evan William Black, Four Roses Yellow, etc. It’s more expensive than those bottles, but at $25 a bottle it is hardly pricey, and it’s somewhat older and a good deal stronger. You get far more than what you pay for here.
Maker’s Mark: Whenever I meet a bourbon enthusiast who scoffs at Maker’s Mark, I’m left shaking my head. Although I leave plenty of room for taste being taste and people having their favorites, not liking that stuff in the bottle with the red wax seal makes no sense. The revival of the whole business was, in no small part, carried by that wheated bourbon made in Loretto, where they go to a lot of trouble to produce a consistently good product for a very reasonable $25.
Old Grandad Bonded: The high rye, spicy and dry bourbon on this list is the bottled in bond version of Old Grandad. Although Old Grandad 114 often appears on lists of this type, very few people in the United States can actually buy it for even $30 a bottle; I see it routinely priced at $32 or $35, and knowing that I think it is inappropriate (if not ignorant) to list it so. The next best choice in this line, based on the same stock that Basil Hayden draws from, is its bottled in bond option: 100 proof, four years old, just $25.