Bourbon is the quintessential American spirit, with a long and storied history that predates the Civil War. Though there are high-shelf bourbons costing upwards of $300, you don’t have to break the bank to find greatness. We compiled a list of 14 bourbons under $50 at four different price levels, with flavor profiles to suit every taste.
Best Bourbon Under $20
Evan Williams Black Label
Evan Williams Black Label is ubiquitous among young drinkers because it’s cheap and easy to find. That said, it’s a decent bourbon if you're not looking for something too complicated. Though it has a respectable 40 percent ABV, it only has a slight alcoholic burn to it.
The nose is subtle, with dark sweets, vanilla frosting, corn, and dark fruit. It has a smooth taste of caramel, corn, dark fruit, and citrus, ending with a medium finish that adds a little spice and nuttiness. Evan Williams Black Label is a good entry-level bourbon, as it’s reasonably easy to drink and it’s very affordable.
Wild Turkey is a well-known brand with a colorful history. The company used to be owned by a non-distiller producer, meaning different bourbons were bought from other distilleries and repackaged with the Wild Turkey name. The original distillery was purchased by Wild Turkey in 1970 when they began making their own bourbon.
Wild Turkey 101 has been around for over 60 years and is popular for its robustness. Another high-rye bourbon, it’s got a balanced flavor of toasty oak, vanilla sweetness, supple fruit, and a hint of spice. Wild Turkey 101 is excellent for cocktails because its strong profile is still noticeable even when it’s mixed with other spirits.
Wild Turkey 101 is widely available in the United States and is worth trying due to both its history and its unique, bold flavor.
Rowan's Creek is a bourbon named for the creek that runs through the distillery grounds. It has an oddly specific 50.05 percent alcohol and has a unique minty smell. This velvety, sweet bourbon has notes of vanilla, caramel, and herbs, with a little floral flavor underneath.
A long spicy, woody finish contains just a hint of lemon, leaving you feeling refreshed. Rowan’s Creek is less known than other bourbons on this list, but it’s a respectable choice with a sweet, smooth body.
If you are looking to splurge....
Rebel Yell Kentucky Straight Bourbon packs a very unforgettable taste. Made by the W.L. Weller family it is one of the few bourbons made from wheat instead of rye. It has an amazing taste that has been refined through the test of time.
A bourbon that really needs no introduction. CNBC's The Edge called it "a bourbon of historic proportions." I've always like history and I like it even more now. I mean come on people they roll their barrels by hand still. Makers Mark is Proof: 90 Aroma: Woody oak, caramel, vanilla and wheat prevail in the nose.
Taste: Sweet and balanced with caramel, vanilla and fruity essences. Finish: Smooth and subtle.
Knob Creek small batch smacks your senses with a "full-bodied" taste of rich vanilla and caramel. With an earthy smell and rich finish this bourbon grabs all the senses. 90 Proof.
Best Bourbon Under $20
Four Roses is known for crafting high-quality bourbon, and their entry-level Yellow Label doesn’t disappoint. Yellow Label is made from a mix of at least eight Four Roses bourbon recipes, which combine into a smooth, easy-drinking bourbon.
It has a very typical bourbon nose of spice, caramel, honey, and corn. Yellow Label’s flavor is light without being weak, with caramel, vanilla, and spice dominating. It has a short finish of toffee and soft oak. Four Roses Yellow Label is of higher quality than most bottom-shelf bourbons and is a great way to dip your toe into the world of Four Roses bourbon.
Buffalo Trace is the oldest continuously operating distillery in America (according to their website), and it has a massive variety of bourbons, a few of which appear later on this list. Their eponymous straight bourbon has a sweet, oaky nose with hints of caramel and citrus.
The taste starts off with burnt wood, then turns to sweetness with a hint of coffee flavor. It finishes off smoothly, with a subtle woody character that’s gone too soon. Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon is an excellent introduction to their famous line of bourbons. It’s smooth and easy to drink, and subtler than many of its competitors.
Old Grand-Dad’s namesake is Basil Hayden, a famous pre-prohibition distiller. After prohibition started, Old Grand-Dad’s new owner was able to get it classified as a “medicinal whiskey,” meaning it was legal as long as a doctor prescribed it. It’s another high-rye bourbon that’s strong and bold, with an astringent nose that eventually gives way to caramel, vanilla, honey, and brown butter.
The taste is more of the same, with a little cinnamon and peppery spiciness. It finishes with a surprising hint of vanilla and grain and lingers on the tongue long after you’ve set it down. Old Grand-Dad is a strong bourbon that packs a punch. If you can handle a bit of alcoholic burn, it could be a great daily bourbon to sip on after a long day at work.
Best Bourbon Under $30
Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig 12 Year was named after a Baptist preacher who invented “true Kentucky bourbon,” being the first distiller to age his bourbon in charred oak barrels. The bourbon itself has a fruity nose and a sweet, slightly spicy taste with hints of vanilla, caramel, and brown sugar. Though it isn’t a complex bourbon, Elijah Craig 12 Year is well-balanced and exciting, with its unusual fruitiness.
If you’re looking for something on the sweeter end of the spectrum, Heaven Hill Elijah Craig 12 Year is a perfect choice.
The Bulleit distillery was founded in 1839 by Augustus Bulleit, who mysteriously vanished from the historical record 30 years later. It wasn’t brought back until 1987 when Augustus’s great-great-grandson Thomas E. Bulleit Jr oversaw the creation of a new distillery. Frontier Whiskey’s high rye content gives it a sharp, strong profile, though its nose is deceptively smooth and woody.
The flavor itself is biting and tangy, with an intense alcoholic burn. However, that burn gives way to a sweet, long finish that balances the bourbon out and gives it a unique character. Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey is not a smooth sipping bourbon, though its sharp flavor can be mellowed out with some water or ice.
Heaven Hill is another ubiquitous brand with a vast variety of bourbons at any price point. Henry McKenna Single Barrel is a wheated bourbon that’s aged ten years. The complex nose is a blend of wood peppered with vanilla, caramel, rye spice, cinnamon, clove, and butterscotch.
The flavor contains a hint of dark fruit, red licorice, and cardamom, giving it a spicy kick that isn’t usually found in high-wheat bourbons. Heaven Hill Henry McKenna Single Barrel is a complex, balanced bourbon with a long finish that you can enjoy straight or on the rocks.
Best Bourbon Under $40
Buffalo Trace’s Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel bourbon was named in honor of the man who created the single barrel distilling process. Elmer T. Lee served in WWII as a Radar Bombardier before starting his distillery and making whiskey history.
The bourbon gives you a sweet smell of honey, vanilla, and cherries, which carries over to the taste. Fresh apples and old leather can be detected beneath the smooth flavors, giving it a coy complexity. The long oaky finish has a moderate warmth to it, making the drinking experience a cozy, Christmas-y feeling.
If you’re looking for a good example of single barrel bourbons, why not start with one named after the inventor? Buffalo Trace Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel is a complex but smooth bourbon that should be sipped in a comfortable armchair in front of a roaring fire.
Evan Williams is best known for their bargain brand Black Label, but their Single Barrel variety is a solid mid-range bourbon. It has a pure nose of oak, vanilla, and butterscotch, but its flavor gets a little more interesting with hints of dry citrus peels, cinnamon, and baked apple.
Evan Williams Single Barrel has just a slight burn to it and a short finish that leaves behind a brief taste of orange. Evan Williams Single Barrel is a great every-day sipping whiskey.
One of the only bourbons on our list that isn’t made in Kentucky, Ben Milam Single Barrel is bottled in Blanco, Texas, but distilled in Tennessee. It’s named for Ben Milam, who was involved in the Texas Revolution. Unfortunately, he took a bullet to the head during the battle in San Antonio.
His descendant, music producer Marsha Milam, was inspired to create the Ben Milam distillery after touring the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Ben Milam Single Barrel is sweet and smooth, with a nose and palate of brown sugar, vanilla, and caramel.
Ben Milam Single Barrel is from a young distillery, but it makes a significant impact with its mellow, sweet flavor that’s good for sipping or mixing.
Best Bourbon Under $50
Willett Pot Still Reserve comes in a unique bottle that’s shaped like a pot still, making it a popular gift choice for bourbon lovers. It has a sweet nose with hints of corn and caramelized sugar. The taste starts with citrus, caramel, and pepper, then opens up with caramel and hint of dry oak. A medium finish with some light citrus and oak flavors gives this bourbon a satisfying end.
Whether you’re purchasing it for yourself or as a gift, Willett Pot Still Reserve is an excellent value for a sweet and pleasant bourbon.
Rare Breed is one of Wild Turkey’s mid-tier bourbons, and it tops our list of the best bourbons under $50. It contains a shocking 58.4% abv, giving it a lot of heat. Despite all that alcohol, Rare Breed has a fruity scent with notes of caramel. Its flavor is complex, with dark maple syrup, old leather, and chili peppers mingling with just a touch of oak.
If you want some complexity but would rather stick with a familiar brand, Wild Turkey Rare Breed is a great choice.