Bourbon isn't just for the Kentucky Derby anymore. This amazingly versatile spirit has jumped in popularity over the past few years, leaving vodka and gin in the dust. Whether you prefer a single barrel bourbon with a cask you can taste or a long, strong age statement, you don't have to shell out big bucks for a quality Kentucky bourbon or American whiskey.
We explored the difference between bourbon, whiskey, scotch, and rye and discovered that distillation in Kentucky isn't technically a requirement. Bourbon is any whiskey that is distilled from at least 51 percent corn and aged in new American oak barrels. These strict rules mean its quality can't be questioned, but the remaining 49 percent of the mash allows for plenty of innovation.
You can spend hundreds (yes, plural) on a bottle of bourbon these days, but is it really worth it to spend that much? We dove into the world of bourbon to check out our favorites, all available for less than $50.
1. Bulleit Bourbon
Bulleit is arguably one of the best bourbons on the market and at one of the most affordable price points. The larger-than-normal percentage of rye in the mash bill makes it spicy and nuanced, layered with sweetness and flavors of wood.
2. Old Forester
Old Forester is America's original bourbon, created around 1871. It didn't stop production during Prohibition as it was authorized for "medicinal purposes." It is the perfect starter for bourbon fanatics at only $20.
Its caramel forward flavor is laced with cinnamon, citrus, and a little spice from the rye. It finishes smooth and silky, making it my go-to when I'm in the mood for a Whiskey Sour.
3. Four Roses
Four Roses has a wide variety of products on the market, with many of them qualifying in the hundreds of dollars category. If you're in the market for a splurge that's still under $50, pick up Four Roses Single Barrel. Four Roses Small Batch clocks in under $30 for a mellow sip that has more hints of berries than most.
Finally, the iconic Yellow Label bottle can be found for around $20 and packs all the flavor you would expect from a high-quality bourbon. Light, crisp, and honeyed, this is my favorite choice for an Old Fashioned.
4. Wild Turkey Rare Breed
Wild Turkey 101 is famous, but the Rare Breed is where it's at. It's a blend of 6-, 8-, and 10- year barrel-proof bourbons, which means it goes straight from the barrel to the bottling.
If you're looking for a complex, spicy, toffee-forward bourbon for around $50, Wild Turkey Rare Breed is a good choice. At almost 113 proof, I like this high-alcohol bourbon on the rocks.
5. Buffalo Trace
Buffalo Trace is the home of the famous (and expensive) Pappy Van Winkle, but available for a much lower price point. The company is expanding like crazy, adding new warehouses to keep up with demand.
Sweet notes of brown sugar, molasses, and vanilla warm your palate (and your heart). At about $25, it won't break the bank and it won't disappoint. Make yourself a Mint Julep and you'll be a happy camper.
6. Jim Beam Double Oak
Jim Beam is a Kentucky staple. They have used the same formula since 1795, making them one of the oldest producers of bourbon in the country. While classic Jim Beam is always a good choice, Jim Beam Double Oak ages the bourbon in the original barrel and a second new barrel, amping up the wood and vanilla flavors.
It's full flavored and quite a bargain at around $25. These flavors pair perfectly with ginger beer, so make yourself a Kentucky Mule!
7. Maker's Mark 46
Maker's Mark is classic. That red wax top is simply iconic on the shelves. In the past few years, they've gone outside the box and produced several new lines, including Makers 46.
It's aged longer, giving it the time to mellow and deepen its sweetness. This $40 bottle makes an excellent Whiskey Collins.
8. Woodford Reserve
Woodford Reserve is one of the youngest players on the bourbon game, coming on the scene in 1996 and making a huge bid to sponsor the Kentucky Derby. Their claim to fame is small batch bourbon, which is hand crafted for ultimate quality.
For $40, you'll get fruit-forward acidity and intense nuttiness. This one is definitely my choice for a Brown Derby.
9. Knob Creek 9 Year
This small batch bourbon is produced by Jim Beam. Each barrel is aged for 9 years in traditional style, resulting in big oak flavor.
You might think this big flavor comes with a big price tag, but Knob Creek slides in right around $35. This super toasted bourbon has nuanced flavors of sweet caramel and fruit, making it a perfect Boulevardier.
10. Evan Williams Single Barrel
Evan Williams is one of Kentucky's oldest distilleries, and it's also one of the finest. They are one of the only companies that still stamp the date each batch went into oak, right there on the bottle.
Single Barrel aged with hints of caramel, vanilla, and orange, this $23 bottle goes down smooth. I like pairing these flavors with mint in a Bourbon Smash.
11. 1792 Bourbon
Made from their signature "high rye" recipe, 1792 Bourbon has an expressive and elegant flavor profile. For only $29.99 this bottle can be yours!
Special Mentions: How lucky we are to live in a time of great bourbon under $50! Since this post was originally published in 2017, we've added a few more must-haves to our list. Heaven Hill Evan Williams Black Label has a strong flavor profile of baking spices (in a good way, y'all!) if you're tight on budget for Evan Williams Single Barrel. Heaven Hill's Elijah Craig 12 Year has a long finish on a short price tag.
If you're hankering for something a little pricier without breaking the bank, Buffalo Trace Distillery's Eagle Rare 10 Year is too easy to drink straight, like all good bourbons. Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bourbon ages for 10 years, six years past the federal four-year requirement for bottled-in-bond bourbon.
What am I supposed to drink these in?
Glad you asked! We here at Wide Open Eats have a lot of thoughts and feelings about whiskey-drinkin' glassware. We believe you should be able to store away your whiskey materials so when you crack open that case, you feel like you're on vacation even in your own living room.
This gift set comes with two glasses and eight granite whiskey stones for under $30.
Spice up your bar cart with these stylish whiskey glasses. Your guests will be wondering where you got them from.
You'll feel like you're on the set of Mad Men drinking from these glasses.
These reusable whiskey stones are necessary for anyone who enjoys a chilled nightcap.
Bring your inner outlaw out with these bullet whiskey stones.
This post was originally published on October 19, 2019.