I have a close friend who’s pretty wealthy. He owns a furniture manufacturing business, and travels around the world making big-time deals. And, almost invariably, major contracts are celebrated with a gift of expensive, sometimes super-expensive, booze. Sometimes it’s the country’s traditional liquor — things like akvavit, grappa or slivovitz — but more often it’s whiskey because the worldwide consensus seems to be that nothing beats whiskey.
He has cupboards full of the stuff, but saves it for guests and special occasions. That’s because he’s an unpretentious guy, and the allure of fancy stuff tends to escape him anyway. It’s not that he lacks the palate for a $300 bottle of Islay’s finest, it’s just that he knows that a $26 bottle of bourbon from a warehouse in Kentucky will make him just as happy. So, let’s toast my old pal and celebrate the joy of low-cost bourbons. Below are our picks for the 7 best bourbons under $50.
Evan Williams Single Barrel
Purists will be delighted that every bottle of this stuff comes with hand-written note that records its barrel number and bottling date. But this isn’t a bourbon for purists, although they’d almost certainly be pleasantly surprised by it. I’ve found that it benefits from a little breathing time, which works out well because it is equipped with a long-lasting nose that features oak, cinnamon and just a touch of sweet vanilla. Because of its high rye content, it’s not as thick and creamy as many of the others on this list, and it has some of the sharpness rye brings. But it works well with the toffee sweetness, citrus and smoke that come with it. The finish is surprisingly mature and refined for such a low-cost whiskey, with oak, toffee and citrus tones reprising. This is a whiskey than can stand an ice cube or a few drops of water (but doesn’t need it), and is a nice warm weather alternative to beer or mixed drinks.
We all know a scotch drinker that claims not to like bourbon. But what is a bourbon had all of the things scotch drinkers love — like malt, smoke and an edgy dryness — what then? Well, Buffalo Trace can help you pose that question in a glass. Start by opening the bottle in front of your intended convert. It’s unlikely that its malty, cinnamon and clove scent won’t at least get him or her to consent to a taste. A bit of sweetness will follow, but nothing overwhelming, especially because it’s offset by the complexity of apple, brown sugar and dark chocolate tones. That’s followed by a lasting spicy finish. Serve this when you’d ordinarily think scotch.
My wife picked up a bottle of this stuff on a lark without knowing much about it, and it quickly became my current favorite daily drinker. An artisanal mix of 60 percent corn, 30 percent rye and 10 percent barley aged in the mostly lightly charred barrels, it’s distinct almost to the point of unique. Uncork it, and you’ll wonder how a mixture of vanilla, toffee and oak could be so delightfully sharp. On the tongue, it is thick, creamy and warming without any fire. Then there is a stunning parade of flavors, including caramel, red berries, cardamom, honey and sweet citrus. The finish is long, but subtle, with dulce de leche and butter jockeying for supremacy. At any price, this gem of a bourbon would be a bargain; for what it sells for, it’s a steal.
You want cheap? This stuff is really cheap. Well, let’s say inexpensive because it’s actually pretty good — excellent when its price is taken into account. Most of it will end up in mixed drinks, and that’s a shame because it’s a good sipper. Be prepared for a subtler than you’d expect nose dominated by maple syrup and corn. That’s followed by a traditional bourbon smoothness that’s saved from the cloying corn sweetness many bargain bourbons are plagued with by a sharp rye retort. Even the finish is smooth with the smoke from charred barrels making peace with a strong cinnamon snap. It presents the temptation to serve it to and then tell them “you won’t believe what you’re drinking.”
Wild Turkey 81 Proof
People (including ourselves) go on and on about Wild Turkey 101 Proof, but there’s a lot to be said about the more complicated — and smoother — experience you get with the 81 Proof. It’s Wild Turkey, so you get the expected high rye content and heavily charred barrels the brand is known for. You get a hit of rye in the nose, but it floats in on a bed or honey, so it’s all good. And here’s what makes it special — while the 101 Proof is surprisingly smooth, the 81 Proof is shockingly so. The rye is slowly replaced by corn that brings more honey, cinnamon, cappuccino, oak and thick smoke along. The finish is long and satisfying with many of the previous tones mixing with — yep, I’m going to say it — chocolate chip cookies. Let the other pay more for the 101 Proof, the 81 is actually the superior product.
Four Roses Small Batch
While many bourbons in this price range and simple and sweet — including some in Four Roses lineup — the Small Batch is more complex. Its high rye content adds spice without endangering its smooth character and its barrel-char smoke adds a surprising maturity. The nose is dominated by fruit, especially cherry, some vanilla and definite allspice overtones. That continues on the palate with cinnamon and toffee joining in. Its sweetness and high alcohol can be tempered by an ice cube or a couple of drops of water. And it all ends with a floral hint over red berries and vanilla.
They say this bourbon hasn’t really changed since the 1870s, so they must be doing something people like. Count me in. The heady nose reveals its high rye content recipe, with allspice and citrus notes over a deep vanilla backdrop. Dryer than many of its rivals, the primary flavor is dark chocolate with rye-influenced spices like cloves and nutmeg. Oak smoke and tobacco round out the orange peel finish. Too often, this is a whiskey that finds itself in cocktails, and that’s a too bad, because it should be enjoyed for its own substantial merits.