I just can’t help myself, I always seem to go back to this quote by William Faulkner,
“There is no such thing as bad whiskey. Some whiskeys just happen to be better than others.”
This bourbon boom has people searching high and low to collect bottles of Eagle Rare, Blanton’s, Colonel E.H. Taylor, Weller, etc. And for good reason, those bottles are phenomenal. However, I also see many people saying things like, “guess I’ll just have to give up my dream of having one of every Weller product at the same time.”
I’m sorry, but bourbon drinking isn’t Pokemon, you don’t have to collect them all. If that’s your goal, great. Accomplish it, post a picture, and for two days a bunch of people will congratulate you. Heck, I’ll be one of the people that congratulates you. I’ll give you a like on social media, or a high 5 in person, or tell you it’s awesome. I’ll be honestly congratulating you, but only because it’s something that seems to make you happy, not because I agree with the approach.
What makes me happy is enjoying a pour from a damn good bottle of bourbon. And if that’s what makes you happy, I highly encourage you to keep an eye on the bottom shelf just as keenly as you do the top shelf because there is some damn good bourbon on that bottom shelf.
Every now and again, I see people surprised by how good a bottom shelf bottle they found was. Hopefully people eventually stop being surprised by it. There are bottles down there that I’m convinced would match up well, or beat, a $40 bottle in a blind tasting.
I’ve listed six of my favorite cheap whiskies in no particular order. A few of them are often found somewhere other than bottom shelf, but they’re only on a higher shelf due to name recognition or grouping with their product line.
Evan Williams Straight Bourbon (Fair Price – $13) – This is a reliable go-to bourbon. It’s a far more complex bourbon than you’d expect to find at $13. You can sip it, or add it to a mixed drink and not feel guilty (though, I don’t think you should feel guilty about using whatever bourbon you want in a mixed drink).
Four Roses Bourbon (Fair Price – $20) – This is a very smooth and mellow bourbon with a long, soft finish. This is one to enjoy neat, certainly no need to add ice or a splash of water (though you can if you want). It’s a very rewarding bourbon, especially at $20.
Benchmark (Fair Price – $10) – This is a Buffalo Trace bourbon, so even it has been lumped in with the craze and is becoming harder to find. If you see it, grab it and enjoy it neat, you’ll likely notice some orange, oak and cherry. It’s 80 proof, so you likely won’t want or need to add water or ice. If you use it in a mixed drink, add a bit less sugar or syrup as you ordinarily would.
Very Old Barton 80 Proof (Fair Price – $17) – This bottle gets almost NO attention from folks new to bourbon, but if you’ve tasted it, you recognize how excellent of a value this bottle is. It’s well balanced, and far more complex than it should be for $17.
Fighting Cock Straight Bourbon (Fair Price – $20) – This is a spicy bourbon, that is VERY complex. It starts off spicy, then backs off to caramel, dark fruit, vanilla, with a bit of a nutty flavor. The first time you try this one, get your pour and let it sit for 15 minutes, come back to it and sip it neat. On your second glass, do whatever you want, but you HAVE to experience it neat first.
Mellow Corn (Fair Price – $15) – If you know much about me, you should already know that this bottle was going to be on this list. Easily the best bad label in whiskey, and I’ll be pissed if they change it. It’s not a bourbon, it’s a corn whiskey. It’s Bottled-in-Bond, so it’s aged at least four years. This one happens to be aged in used Heaven Hill barrels. Try this one and you’ll taste corn, corn, and more corn plus vanilla, banana, and some oak. This isn’t a complicated whiskey, it’s not one to brag about, but it’s just a light, sweet whiskey to enjoy on a summer evening while imagining you’re smoking a corn cob pipe looking over your fields.
There are of course many other more great pours down there, these are just a few. I encourage you to give them a try.
Oh, and finally, I recently talked with a guy that was ripping on any bottle with a screw on cap. His belief was basically, “Any bottle with a screw on cap is trash.” I had to remind him that until very recently, Weller 12 had a screw on cap. The design of the bottle, the label, whether it has a cork stopper or not might guide your decision on buying the first bottle, but what’s going to determine if you buy a second bottle is what’s inside that bottle. So, don’t be scared of that bottom shelf even if there’s some dust on the bottle. It just shows that some people don’t know what they’re missing.
If you enjoyed this article (or didn’t), or if you have a favorite bottom shelf bourbon, share in the comments below, or give a like.