Okay, so all you want is to be able to drink good bourbon. But you can’t afford to spend up to $100 on a bottle. Or maybe you can afford it, but you just don’t want to.
The only reason any bourbon enthusiast would opt for Bottom shelf bourbons is nothing more than “price.” And you know what? Contrary to the erroneous belief that “cheap” means “trash,” or low-quality, you will be amazed at the quality bourbons in this category. Therefore, welcome to this article, where the best bottom shelf bourbons will be discussed in detail.
Why Bottom Shelf Bourbons?
There was a time when bottom shelf bourbons were classified under the rotgut category. “Rotgut” simply means alcoholic liquor that is potentially toxic and of inferior quality. And of course, that is more than enough to make people cringe when they hear the word “bottom-shelf.”
But then, some bourbon enthusiasts would instead refer to bottom shelf bourbons as either “value” or “budget” bourbon. But soon enough, the government came down hard on producers of cheap liquors. These days, you would hardly hear any spirit referred to as “rotgut.”
Bottom Shelf Bourbon: Price
Although “price” is the #1 reason why most people search for the best bottom shelf bourbon online, it is not always the case. The truth is that many bourbon lovers have been taken in with the age and price of a particular liquor. As far as such individuals are concerned, age combined with high price signifies high-quality bourbon.
But this is far from the truth. In reality, there are more than a few bourbons with prices that are well above average. These bourbons have been proven to maintain their quality for eons.
But then, there was a time when bottom shelf bourbons held the forte while seemingly premium bottles sat on shelves for months.
In other words, some of these bottom-shelf bourbons were esteemed favorites at one time. And that was because of the value and satisfaction that people derived from them. Not all high-priced bourbon is great. Many enthusiasts can attest to the fact that they consumed expensive but average bourbons at one time or the other.
And not all great-tasting bourbon is pricey. But then, premium bottles appear to be the norm these days. Only a few bourbon lovers are willing to get their hands dirty in search of bourbons relegated to the bottom shelf in the liquor store.
Bottom Shelf Bourbons: Beginners
One of the most offensive words in our world today is “beginner” or “newbie.” And no one wants to be called a beginner, at least not when it has to do with drinking bourbon.
To appreciate most sought-after and rare bottles as a bourbon newbie, you need to lay the groundwork. This will help you to fully understand why some bourbons are highly regarded while some are not. And since it is practically impossible for a neophyte to drive a car correctly the first time, you shouldn’t go for premium bottles at first.
You need to learn everything about bourbon and drink some of the classics viz. the best bottom shelf bourbons. It is a highly essential step for beginners. You will discover their iconic and pleasing flavors. And you will also learn both the cultural and historical significance of each display.
Knowing about – as well as appreciating – these characteristics are essential as you begin Bourbon 101 education.
The Best Bottom Shelf Bourbons
And so, without wasting too much of your time, here are some of the best bottom shelf bourbons out there. Most of them are less than $30 per bottle. But they can hold their own even among premium brands today:
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon is a good bourbon that offers a lot of value. It may be categorized as a bottom shelf spirit, but the same cannot be said about its taste. The liquor is made from the same mash bill used in producing the more high-priced Basil Hayden’s bourbon.
However, Old Grand-Dad Bonded bourbon has a much higher proof. This translates to a bolder – and much bigger – flavor. This liquor has the “Bonded” designation which is an indication that the alcoholic beverage is at least 4 years old and 50 percent ABV.
It also indicates that one distiller makes the bourbon at a particular distillery throughout a single distillation season. The “Bottled in Bond” Act was passed in 1897, and its designation was to differentiate it from fakes. And today, that designation is still understood as a mark of high quality.
This spirit is a more assertive version of White Label even though it has a high-rye content. It is also made from a mash bill that is different from White Label. Old Grand-Dad is rich with a corny sweetness and comes with overstated notes of rye spice. This makes the bourbon much wilder than its Jim Beam cousin. Overall, Old Grand-Dad does not disappoint when it comes quality and taste.
Wild Turkey 101
First off, Wild Turkey is nothing but a steal at this price. It is one of the classic whiskeys that many bourbon lovers took for granted several years ago. Only the thrifty and the young can authoritatively tell you that Wild Turkey’s price tag has nothing to do with its quality. That is to say that only a few of the lower-shelf bottles out there can stand side by side with this bourbon.
Wild Turkey is a bourbon produced by Jimmy Russell, master distiller for more than six decades. His son, Eddie, is a co-master distiller himself. Between them, they churn out high-quality bourbon that even loan-strapped students can get at, any time.
Wild Turkey is much more aggressive and spicier than the majority of the entry-level bourbons out there. But it is still versatile enough for beginners to sip on ice neat or in cocktails.
Early Times Bourbon
Typical bourbon should be left to mature in newly burnt or charred oak barrels. But that is not the case with most of the distillate in Early Times bourbon. This is because some of the distillate is aged in used bourbon oak barrels. These used barrels do not impart as much flavor or color as new, charred barrels.
Early Times bourbon has smooth drinking characteristics, though. It has a straight-forward approach and honeyed sweetness that some tasters find enjoyable. A few bourbon enthusiasts may be put off with the slightly sour and tannic quality of the oak.
This is why you shouldn’t be surprised when some tasters referred it to as a “super basic bourbon” while others say it is “plainly drinkable.” Early Times bourbon may be a mellow sipper, but it is still one of the tolerable bourbons that any beginner can consume.
Old Crow was said to be the favored spirit of legends like Hunter S. Thompson and Mark Twain among many others. This bourbon is produced from the same distillery that churns out Jim Beam products.
So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Old Crow is based primarily on the same bourbon mash bill and yeast profile of Jim Beam White Label. However, Old Crow is blended to give the spirit a taste profile that is lenient enough for beginners to try.
Old Crow is young on both the nose and palate, which may not be easy for a newbie to tell. Most Beam bourbons tend to take much longer to age anyway. So, Old Crow appears to be a much younger – and watered-down – version of Jim Beam White Label.
Peanuts and rye bread dominate the nose, leading into aggressive grassiness, graininess, and pepper on the palate. The alcoholic beverage is light-bodied with a conservative alcohol burn. Distinct notes of fresh grass – and somewhat musty graininess – can be perceived. Although these characteristics may have knocked off some points on many tasters’ list, Old Crow still has more character compared to the more homogenous Jim Beam White Label. So, it is a matter of preference or personal taste.
Fighting Cock is one of the numerous Heaven Hill brands that fall in the bottom shelf category. According to one of Heaven Hill’s brand ambassador, Fighting Cock was released to the bourbon world to challenge Wild Turkey 101, another bottom shelf bourbon.
Fighting Cock used to bear a 6 year age statement designation. But in 2015, it was removed. The alcoholic beverage now comes as a NAS (non-age stated) variant. Otherwise known as the “kickin’ chicken,” Fighting Cock is portrays fruit-forward banana, walnut, light vanilla on the nose and oak in the background.
The spirit does not have any complex aroma, but it is inviting nonetheless. It also comes with zero ethanol. Fighting Cock is sweet on the palate with mixed white and black pepper combination along with a little heat. The peppery heat goes on to the finish, though it is joined with leather and oak to form an overall, drier finish profile. Fighting Cock may not have too much of a bite, but it will deliver an easy drinking experience for the inexperienced noob.
Heaven Hill 6 Year Old (Green Label)
Heaven Hill Green Label is one of the cheapest Bottom shelf alcoholic beverages on this list. It is so scarce that you can only find it in Kentucky. The only reason why it is even produced is for the benefit of Kentucky residents who don’t want to spend too much money on liquor.
Many reviewers and tasters rate this rare bourbon high on their list. However, a few of them state that it leaves a bad taste on their tongues. Despite being sold in limited quantities, Heaven Hill Bourbon is well-loved for its perfect balance of cinnamon and burnt sugar finish.
So, why not gear up and take a trip to Kentucky to get a case for yourself? It will be worth it in the end, you’ll see.
Ten High Bourbon
Ten High is, without doubt, the cheapest spirit on this list, and is one of those alcoholic beverages that are of questionable quality. Although some tasters believe that Ten High bourbon is much better than Kentucky Gentleman, there’s really not much to prove it.
This is because both spirits share the same construction, i.e. 51 percent bourbon mixed with 49 percent neutral spirits. However, Ten High bourbon is not as watery or thin as Kentucky Gentleman. Ten High is relatively palatable, super sweet but unremarkable. It also features sufficient flavors of vanilla, black cherry, corn as well as a surprising banana note on the nose.
This is a bourbon for beginners or those who are severely cash-strapped but need to consume some booze.
Maker’s Mark is the perfect example of a wheated bourbon. You will easily come across this bourbon on the shelf, unlike several others. It has debuted in 1958. The bourbon came with a low-price tag that attracted the attention of bourbon lovers back then.
Maker’s Mark was also the most sought-after bourbon at a period when the American whiskey industry endured the doldrums of the ‘70s and ‘80s. At the time, many had turned to drink vodka and other related spirits. But the smooth and sweet flavor profile of Maker’s Mark brought them around.
The flavor profile of this spirit makes it easy to neophytes to sip, making it a crowd-pleaser. So, don’t be put off by its low price; Maker’s Mark is one of the best bourbons out there.
Smooth Ambler Contradiction
There was a time when most people – especially newbies – thought that bourbons could only be produced in Kentucky. But no rule backs such a statement up. The law says as long as the spirit is produced within the borders of the United States – and follows the standard production procedure – it can be called bourbon.
But technically, Smooth Ambler Contradiction is a blend of bourbons from West Virginia and the liquid obtained from the MGP Distillery in Indiana.
The MGP provides whiskey for several dozens of different brands. Smooth Ambler Contradiction comes at 46 percent alcohol by volume. This bourbon is a perfect demonstration that shows how a young product can be enhanced with an older, more refined whiskey.
In most cases, the younger product is not so good on its own. But when combined with the older one, the resulting product wows everyone!
Ancient Age is one of the old brands that has been around since virtually forever. Bourbon hipsters may not have reclaimed it just yet, but there is no doubt that it is one of the great-tasting bourbons on this list.
Ancient Age is produced from Mash Bill #2, the same that is used for making the Buffalo Trace bourbon. The Mash Bill#2 has more rye in the grist compared to its counterpart, Mash Bill #1. The Mash Bill #2 is also used in the production of Elmer T. Lee and Blanton’s. But Ancient Age is way different. It is a legit straight bourbon, all right with at least two years of aging.
Ancient Age is light on the palate in addition to some rye bread, light cinnamon, minty herbal flavor, pepper, and honeyed sweetness. It is somewhat watery but milder than a few other bottom shelf bourbons. It may also portray a hint of green oak, but nothing else. Any friend you gift the Ancient Age bourbon will appreciate it, nonetheless.
Henry McKenna Straight Bourbon
This is not the henry McKenna Single Barrel (10-Year-Old) that won the “Best Bourbon” in 2018 at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. And since then, the alcoholic beverage has been somewhat scarce. Henry McKenna Straight Bourbon is not as old or highly regarded as the Single Barrel variety. But it is still pretty great, according to bourbon connoisseurs.
This alcoholic beverage is also highly divisive. While many tasters fell in love with it the moment that they took a sip, a few others had some reservations. This discordancy may be attributed to the radically distinctive profile of Henry McKenna. It could also be that they loved more rye-forward, thinner bourbon or weren’t happy since it wasn’t as vicious or sweet as expected.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Henry McKenna Straight Bourbon is in a class of its own. This is evident as it is somewhat lighter on the palate compared to other bourbons. It has a rye-forward profile even though the rye in the mash bill is average.
Black pepper spiciness, green apple, and citrus yields to lots of crusty rye bread and grainy flavors. The bourbon exhibits a mild touch of brown sugar sweetness along with a moderate alcohol burn. Tasters who thought little of Henry McKenna Straight Bourbon believed it was too watery on the palate.
But advocates appreciated the bourbon’s deviation from the standard or norm. Many bourbon drinkers agree, however, that this drink is excellent for mixing basic whiskey cocktails. So, you are free to experiment with the Henry McKenna Straight Bourbon. Make a Manhattan or other mixed drinks to see how it goes.
Zackariah Harris Kentucky Straight Bourbon
The Barton 1792 Distiller produces one of the best bottom shelf bourbons in the world today. Zackariah Harris Straight Bourbon is usually released to the public after it has been left to age for a couple of years.
This alcoholic beverage has only been in existence since 2011. But it is a high-quality straight bourbon, albeit unrecognized. No one knows why its producers prefer to allow it to fly under the radar.
Zachariah Harris comes with a fruity nose along with a vanilla and banana custard note. This fades into baking and grass spices, namely anise and cinnamon. This alcoholic beverage is well hidden to the surprise of many bourbon enthusiasts. Many of them believe that the Zackariah Harris Kentucky Straight Bourbon tastes better than Ten High or Kentucky Gentleman bourbons.
The drink is nicely spicy on the palate and exhibits an impressive display of savory rye notes, baking spices, and woody “green” notes. The green notes typically suggest its lack of age. However, Zackariah Harris Kentucky Straight Bourbon is packed with a lot of character. And the price point is astonishing for its high quality.
Which is Better: Premium or Bottom Shelf Bourbons?
No one likes paying more for a commodity when they can get it for less. Oh, some people believe it is much better to pay more for a premium bottle of bourbon than to buy a bottom shelf option.
It is true that pricey premium spirits are entirely made of natural ingredients and undergo painstaking distilling and aging processes. So, such extreme carefulness in the production of bourbons warrants higher price tags. But the truth is price cannot be used as a perfect measure of quality.
During the production of bourbon, distillers may opt for either agricultural or industrial routes. Some may use molasses, an industrial product as against using pressed sugarcane, an agrarian ingredient. It also makes a lot of sense that high-quality ingredients produce better results, especially when it comes to choosing the recipe or variety of grains to use in the mash bill.
Aging is another factor that matters when determining the prices of these premium bottles. Bourbon requires the use of toasted or freshly charred oak barrels for aging. The level of char goes a long way in determining the type of flavors it portrays at the end of the aging process. Most premium bourbons exhibit varying notes and aromas of caramel, oak or vanilla.
However, you mustn’t confuse some factors with premium quality. Some premium drinks may even be virtually tasteless, yet cost an arm and a leg. It is all about perception and marketing. So, in other words, premium spirits are not necessarily better in quality or taste. They are perceived that way based on the quality of the entire production process and marketing as well.
There you have it: the best bottom shelf bourbons out there today. Remember that a high price tag is not equal to quality. Some of these bottom-shelf bourbons are relatively scarce, though. So, you may have to take a trip outside your state to secure a crate or two. A friend or two can tag along for the joyride and a fun-filled weekend with cheap booze!