Let’s get one thing straight, there’s usually nothing wrong with bottom-shelf liquor. Especially when it comes to bourbon! So before you turn your nose up at another bottle, go read Ben’s article here.
The biggest problem with bottom-shelf bourbon really is that there are too many options to choose from! How will you know which fits your taste buds best? Fortunately, they aren’t too expensive (that’s part of the point), so you should definitely try a few.
But to give you a head start, let’s look at two of the most common and compare Ezra Brooks and Evan Williams.
Evan Williams and Ezra Brooks: The Main Differences
- Evan Williams (Heaven Hill) distills their own bourbon.
- Ezra Brooks (Luxco) sources their distillate from Heaven Hill.
- Evan Wiliams contains more barley.
- Ezra Brooks contains more rye.
- Evan Williams has a lighter flavor and lower proof bottling.
- Ezra Brooks has spicier flavor and higher proof bottling.
- Neither has any wheat in their mash.
- Both are Kentucky Straight Bourbons.
- Both are historical brand names.
- Both are in the under $15 price range.
What is Bourbon?
Bourbon is a strictly American spirit. America’s Native Spirit, in fact, according to Congress. In 1964 they decreed that Bourbon the drink most representative of America. Which makes sense as you’ll see below.
Then they made a whole bunch of rules about what counts as “bourbon,” so let’s get into those. (I suppose if you list something as emblematic of your country you get to have a little control over what’s involved, right?)
1. It is a whisky
This is an adage everyone knows: “all Bourbons are Whiskies but not all Whiskies are Bourbons.” What does that mean?
Whiskey is a distilled spirit made from fermented grains. Not that difficult to explain. Basically if you take a grain (like wheat, barley, rye, or corn) then ferment it and distill it, you will have made whiskey. See how easy it is? That’s why everyone and their mother makes moonshine or other forms of illicit booze. (Or maybe that’s just my hometown.)
So what sets bourbon apart from its fellows? Well…
2. It is made from majority corn
According to our government, bourbon is whiskey made from majority corn. That means it can have other grains in its mash, but it must have at least 51% corn. This is why bourbon has a reputation for being sweet. Corn is a sweeter, heartier grain and it imparts that flavor to the whiskey. Especially if you put more than 51% into your mash, which is what many distillers do. (Some go up to 81% corn!)
3. Bourbon is stored in specific barrels…
Oak barrels. Actually, charred oak barrels made from only a new oak. This means that no bourbon barrel can be used again to age another batch of bourbon. Which creates a large amount of “waste” barrels. Which is what happens when Bourbon is the #1 American exported spirit. Fortunately, there are other alcohols out there to pick the bourbon mess. (Thank you to rum, Scotch, and even some wines.)
Why do they char bourbon barrels?
We’ll get more into this in the process, but essentially it is to caramelize the wood sugars and impart flavor to the whiskey. Many alcohols like scotch, rum, and other whiskies do this as well. If you want to see a very brief glimpse of how it’s done, check out this video on the Evan Williams website.
4. And only produced in America
Well, I did say it was America’s Native Spirit!
No. It doesn’t have to come from Kentucky. However over 90% of bourbons do, so that’s why you instantly think “Kentucky” whenever you hear “Bourbon.”
A full list of requirements including proof regulations is below:
- Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn mash
- It also must be a product of the United States of America
- Bourbon must be distilled at no higher than 160 proof
- It must be poured in the barrel at no higher than 125 proof
- Bourbon must be aged in new, charred American oak barrels only
- It needs be aged in a government-approved warehouse
- Bourbon must be bottled at no less than 80 proof
- It must have no additives like coloring or flavoring except water
- Bourbon aged less than 2 years must have its age labeled on the bottle, with the age labeled as the youngest bourbon used
All of these seemingly arbitrary and stringent rules are to ensure quality control. So, at least you know what you’re getting. Even if it is bottom-shelf. (Kidding!)
How is Bourbon Made?
Just like whiskey! Except in America. With corn. And aged in new charred barrels. But that doesn’t help you if you’re new to whiskey, does it?
Bourbon follows the basic process of harvest and milling, fermentation, distillation, and aging. But thanks to some developments in 1823, there are a few major technique changes that affect the bourbon-making process like combination mashes (using more than just corn) and sour mash.
- Grains are harvested, dried, and then milled into usable grains.
- These grains are combined with varying proportions, added to water, and cooked. This creates what is known as “mash.”
- A part of the first mash is left out to sour overnight.
- The second batch of mash is created and combined with the sour mash of the day before. Specific yeast strains are added. This is allowed to ferment. The yeast and other bacteria in the mash (or enzymes if barley has been added) will slowly breakdown the grains’ sugars into alcohol.
- The fermented mash goes through distillation twice. Once in a column still that removes the alcohol from the rest of the mash. And again through a copper doubler pot that will enhance the natural flavors of the whiskey and further purify it.
- Distillation produces a white, clear alcohol* called “white dog.” White dog is then poured into barrels to age, develop, and gain more nuanced flavors.
- Bottling is the final step. While it seems obvious that the aged bourbon goes from the barrel into the bottle, there is an intermediary step for some bourbons. Those that go through charcoal filtering or the Lincoln County Process!
Charcoal Filtering a very simple method occurring after barrel aging but before bottling. It just involves running the newly aged bourbon through a charcoal filter to further purify it and remove any unwanted compounds or debris. But it is somewhat controversial.
Many connoisseurs feel that removing those compounds actually negatively changes the bourbon. But others feel the clearer and less-hazy liquid is actually a reason for purity. You’ll have to decide your opinion on your own.
The Lincoln County Process is similar to charcoal filtering, but the filtering process occurs after distilling and before barrel aging. This means that any debris and compounds picked up from the wood remain in the alcohol, but any leftover debris or compounds from distilling are removed. It is similarly controversial, though a little less so since the barrel aging result is left alone!
*Did you know most alcohol is actually clear when it comes out of the still? It’s the aging that adds the color to brown liquor!
What does Bourbon Taste Like?
Sweet and Caramel. Bourbon is notoriously sweet since it is made from the sweetest grain. Even if you’re drinking a flavorful or high ABV version, you’ll detect a hint of sweetness.
And since all bourbon is aged in charred oak, there is a hint of caramelized sugar as well. The toasted wood sugars really do influence the flavor of the bottle, depending on how long they’ve been aged.
Flavors to Look For:
- Fall Spices
- Hot Spices
- Dried Fruits
Know your Mash Bill
A mash bill is the percentage of each grain that makes up the “mash” that eventually goes on to be distilled into bourbon.
Obviously the other grains will have an effect on the flavor of the whiskey you choose. No extra coloring or additives are allowed in bourbon. (Except water, but that probably won’t affect the taste enough to notice.) So other than aging, your biggest affector of taste will be…grains! The corn we know, it’s the base of all bourbon mash bills and contributes to the sweet, hearty flavor of most bourbons. What are the other key components?
Rye is probably one of the most common additions to mash bills. If you’ve ever had rye bread, you can imagine the intense flavor effect it has. Rye whiskey tends to be much spicier and warmer than regular corn. These bourbons are described as “hot,” “spicy,” “intense,” “warming,” and “gives you a kick.” Think spices like pepper, cinnamon, even ginger.
Wheat is the less common addition to mash bills. It’s softer and lighter, much more approachable and gentle. Many wheat bourbons will be much more delicate and have a sort of nutty quality. They add flavors of grains, cereals, and even some apple and pear flavors.
Barley is by far the least common grain used. It’s actually used far less for its flavor and more for its enzymes. Barley is one of the only grains that ferments under its own power without adding any yeast. Adding barley to the mash increases the rate of fermentation and starts the sour mash off on its journey much more quickly! (That’s why other grains are cooked with water. They require some heat and activation to get started.)
But barley still adds some flavors, especially richer notes like toasted nuts, pumpkin pie, eggnog, and sweet cream.
Why are some Bourbons considered “Bottom-Shelf”?
Truthfully, the price. A “bottom-shelf bourbon” is one that is below $25. Pretty affordable, right? They are perfect for mixing in cocktails or adding into recipes, obviously. But don’t be fooled.
There are several that have very unique and pleasant flavors as well and can be enjoyed for their own merit! Which, more importantly, it means they are the perfect starting ground for new drinkers who want to experience whiskey and bourbon without springing for that $90 scotch. (The sweetness of bourbon also makes it an excellent introductory drink.)
What are some Common “Bottom-Shelf” Bourbons?
You may be surprised to realize that most of the common brands you’ve heard of actually are bottom-shelf. Or at least produce a bottom shelf variety. (Which proves my point above: they are worth it!) Notable names:
- Old Grandad
- Four Roses – my personal favorite!
- Ancient Age
- Rebel Yell
The Difference Between Bottlers and Distillers
When buying bourbon, it’s important to keep in mind that not every bottle of bourbon you buy was actually distilled by the label it’s sold under.
What does that mean?
Many bourbon companies buy their distillate from other distilling companies and then “season it” themselves via aging, charcoal filtering, and Lincoln-County-ing. So you may buy a bottle of Ezra Brooks. But Ezra Brooks and its parent company Luxco did not actually harvest, ferment, and distill the grains themselves. They purchased an already distilled bourbon and aged it at their warehouse.
The companies that distill the actual distillate purchased will sell whiskey and bourbon themselves. You’ll find them labeled MGP. (And in some cases, Heaven Hill as well).
Many bottle shelf bourbons follow this same route, but so do several higher-end bourbons. Obviously it’s prevalent among smaller craft distillers who may not have the means to do the whole process themselves. But surprisingly even some of the better-known brands will do it too, even if it is just in one or two of their product offerings.
While this information isn’t integral to enjoying a nice bottle of bourbon, it is something to be aware of if you want to be a connoisseur of the drink!
Ezra Brooks – The Story
You walk into the shop, anxious to try your first bourbon and you find…Ezra Brooks. But what’s in it? What does it taste like? You’ll want to know a little bit about it before you buy!
- Distiller: Unknown, Rumored to be Heaven Hill
- Bottler: Luxco
- Mash Bill: 78% Corn, 12% Rye, 10% Barley (no wheat)
- Age: Around 4 years
- Barrel Proof: 125 Proof
- Cask: Char level 3, New American Oak
- Typical ABV: 45% (90 Proof)
- Special Process: Charcoal Filtering
History and Location
Ezra Brooks is something of a new-comer on the scene, only produced for the first time in 1957. The original owner was the Hoffman Distillery Company, though it went out of just 20 years later.
As with many of these resurging bourbon brands, the 1990s saw a comeback when Luxco purchased Ezra Brooks and began distilling. (Luxco also produces Rebel Yell, Blood Oath, and David Nicholson which are other bottom shelf bourbons.)
In 2018 the distillery moved to its current location on “Lux Row”in Bardstown, Kentucky. Which is a part of “bourbon county.” (It is named Lux Row for the impressive row of trees on the property.) Here they build their first operating distillery and began distilling their own bourbon. The site boasts a 43-foot custom copper still for production and space for around 70,000 barrels total.
While a majority of Ezra Brooks still on shelves is likely sourced from Heaven Hill or MGP, it looks like we’re going to start to see some entirely Luxco-produced bottles in the near future!
Products and Pricing
Ezra Brooks offers a few different options under their brand. Each has their own unique characteristics.
Bourbon Whiskey Black Label
This is the most common variety and the one we’ll review in this article. According to Ezra Brooks it’s “authentic honest bourbon” and it’s marketed as a “rugged spirit” for the adventurers of the world. A classic American bourbon expression, though the taste is definitely not as smooth as wheat bourbons or some higher-end expressions. The price is really what keeps it bottom-shelf. You can get it for under $15 in most parts of the United States. I’ve only ever seen it as high as $18.
Straight Rye Whiskey Green Label
Probably the second most common, though it is not considered a bourbon. The mash is a majority rye whiskey, 95% rye in fact. (With just enough barley to make it palatable.) And bottled at 90 proof. So this is definitely a spicy whiskey for those looking for a kick. Don’t buy this if you want a smooth easy sip. You’re likely to find this under $15 as well.
This is a bourbon liqueur, not a classic bourbon. The base is their Black Label Bourbon Whiskey so there is a strong flavor of spice and caramel and vanilla, but they also add natural cream. I wouldn’t recommend sipping this alone, it’s best in cocktails. Especially for fall and winter coming up soon! The price still stays under $15.
Blended Whiskey White Label
This the softer, more approachable variety since it’s bottled at only 80 proof. As the name says, it’s a blended whiskey so it has a sweeter flavor (though what all is blended in the bottle, I’m not sure.) Try this for a mellow taste. The price remains under $15 in most retailers.
Old Ezra 7 Year Bourbon Whiskey
This is the newest in their collection and definitely a play for high-end bourbon. It’s aged for 7 years, which is nearly double the age of all their other whiskies (and bourbons.) More than that, it’s bottled at 117 proof so it’s their most intense ABV at 58.8%.
It’s surprisingly smooth and has a buttery finish, according to their website. Since this is aiming for the higher-end market, the price steeply increases. You’ll likely find this in the $30-40 range. Its old iteration, the Barrel Proof 7 Year went for a little cheaper at $20-30. But that is largely off the market now. Taste their bottom-shelf options first to be sure you like Ezra Brooks style before opting for a higher-end variety and price!
None of Ezra Brooks current line has any wheat included in their mash (and the barley levels are incredibly low), so you won’t find too many cereal or nutty grain flavors. This means they are generally less approachable, spicier, and hot. The top five flavors you’ll note:
In many ways, Ezra Brooks are classic rye bourbons. Look for sweet, spice, a kick, and a hint of something rich and warming.
With rye bourbons you want to choose cocktails that will highlight their heat and spice. Don’t pair them with anything too delicate or you’ll lose its flavor under waves of alcohol. Ezra Brooks provides their own recommendations on their site here. But below are some alternatives!
- Whiskey Highball – ginger pairs so wonderfully with the already spicy rye
- Apple Cider Cocktail – add a little extra spice to warm you up after apple picking
- Spiced Pear and Bourbon – rye adds a pleasant warming kick to winter fruits and spices
Evan Williams – An In-Depth Look
Our second bourbon is another very common choice. What sets it apart?
- Distiller: Heaven Hill
- Bottler: Bardstown
- Mash Bill: 78% Corn, 12% Barley, 10% Rye (no wheat)
- Age: Around 5-6 years
- Barrel Proof: 125 Proof
- Cask: Char level 3, New American Oak
- Typical ABV: 43% ABV (86 proof)
- Special Process: Long Aging Process
History and Location
There’s a reason Evan Williams is so well known. He opened Kentucky’s very first commercial distillery back in 1783. (Michael Veach, the bourbon historian, disagrees and says evidence points to Evan not arriving in Kentucky until 1994.)
Regardless of how accurate the title “Kentucky’s first commercial distiller” really is, the site where Williams put up his distillery was joined by several other distilleries. By the 1800s it was known as “Whiskey Row,” where distillers would make bourbon and ship it down the Ohio River in oak barrels.
Of course, Evan Williams’ distillery went out of business at some point in the country’s history. The Evan Williams we know today was produced in 1957 using the Evan Williams name. It is owned by the Heaven Hill company which produces their own distillate at their distilleries.
Today it is one of America’s best-selling whiskey and bourbon brands.
Products and Pricing
As you would expect with a company like Heaven Hill that distills their own bourbons, they have a somewhat wider selection. They’re just able to do more and create more diversity in their products on site. Their line ranges from basic bottom-shelf black label all the way up to some vintage varieties as well!
Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (Black Label)
This is the classic bottom-shelf black label. It’s bottled at 80 proof so it’s definitely less intense and more approachable. Evan Williams claims they age “far longer than required by law,” though they don’t specify how much.
(Remember a bourbon only needs to age 2 years legally, so it could just be the standard 4 years.) Because of the longer aging, you’ll find stronger oak, caramel, and vanilla hints. And with higher barley, you get more grain and nut notes. You’ll definitely find it for under $15, more like around the $13 price mark.
Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon (White Label)
Bottled-in-Bond is a special legal designation for bourbons that:
- Are the product of a single distilling season
- Are the product of a single distillery
- Are aged in a federally inspected warehouse for a minimum of 4 years
- Are bottled at 100 proof
The designation was created and the law passed in 1897, so it was one of America’s first product quality protection laws.
Evan Williams’ bottled-in-bond white label is the “upgrade” from the black label. And bottled at 100 proof, it’s a much more intense bourbon. There’s quite a bit more kick and heat, but the classic sweetness is still present. Just expect a bit more spice. The price usually hovers around $15. But sometimes you’ll find it around $18.
1783 Small Batch
Evan Williams created the 1783 to honor their founding year and supposedly it uses their traditional recipes and methods including sour mash and longer aging. They only make 200 barrels of it which is why it’s a small batch bourbon. It’s strongly oak-y but the honey and caramel sweetness finishes very nicely. 1783 Small Batch is a higher-end version so it’s a bit pricier around the $20 to $35 range.
Single Barrel Vintage
Definitely a higher-end bourbon. Each bottle is pulled from a single barrel of a single year that is hand-selected by the master distillers. You’ll notice each bottle is stamped with the “vintage” or the year the bourbon was put into the barrel and the year it was bottled. So you know exactly how long it’s been aged (which is usually around 7 to 8 years.) They also note the serial number of the barrel.
It’s hard to give you a specific taste profile since each year’s barrels will be slightly different. And they are selected for their unique qualities. But with time in oak, you’ll notice more wood spice like vanilla, caramelized brown sugar, and honey. Again, the higher-end variety means the price is still around $20 to $30.
Flavored and Seasonal
Evan Williams also has several flavored and season options. The most common is Honey. But several others include apple, peach, fire, cider, and eggnog.
Evan Williams typically uses rye and barley in their mash, rarely ever wheat. This leads to a higher concentration of pepper and cinnamon spice in addition to nuts and grains. The longer aging times adds strong wood and oak flavors. But remember they have bottled a lower proof in many cases so you’ll find more approachable varieties. The top five flavors to look for (not including the flavored varieties):
- Caramelized Sugar
- Charred Oak
While still spicy, many of the flavors you’ll notice will be fruitier and greener. Still, expect very strong oak spices like vanilla and wood. And don’t be fooled into thinking there won’t be rye pepper as well!
- Evan Williams is also heavy on rye, but the higher barley content will actually add a bit more nut and grain flavor.
- Vieux Carré – a classic New Orleans drink, which may have been where bourbon got its name!
- Spiced Pumpkin Punch – full of fall flavors, rye spice adds extra heat
- Spiced Chocolate Rye – rich and spicy, you do need to infuse the bourbon with cacao first
A Sample Tasting
There are so many different options that both Ezra Brooks and Evan Williams offer. I can’t taste them all for you. So we’re sticking to the classics: Ezra Brooks Bourbon Whiskey Black Label and Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon Black Label.
Ezra Brooks Bourbon Whiskey Black Label
- Eye (Color): Caramel
- Nose: Vanilla spice, Lumber, and charred wood, Deep red fruits and hot pepper.
- Nose with Water: Water brings out much more fruit and chocolate notes, but the burnt wood, vanilla, and caramel stay. There’s also a hint of butterscotch.
- Palate: There is a strong vanilla spice followed by cinnamon and pepper. The sweetness has a bit of a leathery feel to it, but strong caramel and corn nuts pull the flavor back.
- Palate with Water: Water expands the fruity flavor. I taste red fruit and apple cider with a cinnamon kick. There are a few other baking spices, as well as dark chocolate and caramel covered nuts.
Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon Black Label
- Eye (Color): Dark Amber
- Nose: Caramel and Vanilla notes, Obvious corn sweetness stands out, but it’s mingled with something resembling butterscotch and cake icing. Wood spice and heat are vaguely in the background. Just a touch of orange peel as well.
- Nose with Water: More green, herbaceous hints come forward and definitely stronger citrus. A bit metallic, but still very sweet with lovely vanilla.
- Palate: Creamy vanilla, caramelized brown sugar with strong notes of oak spice like hot pepper toward the finish. A bit of a nut character. Is that mint or herbs in the background?
- Palate with Water: The water really brings out green oak flavors and lowers some of the heat. I can taste mint and green grass much more strongly now. The orange makes an appearance with caramel and candied walnuts. Overall very sweet with less heat, pepper, and warmth.
If you’re looking for cheap daily drinking, a perfect cocktail mixer, or are just starting out your bourbon whiskey journey, you’re bound to meet Ezra Brooks and Evan Williams. Before you go into a tizzy deciding which to pick, remember a few tips:
- Ezra Brooks will be darker and spicier.
- Evan Williams will be lighter and more approachable.
You really can’t go wrong with either if you’re looking at the bottom shelf. They are both strong classic American bourbons and perfect examples of hot rye spice!
- We can all relate that you can’t drink an expensive bottle of bourbon all the time, so we have made a list with the Best Bottom Shelf Bourbon, so you can choose a good and yet not yucky bottle of bourbon that you and your friends will love to share.
- Speaking of Evan Williams Bourbon, check here everything you need to know about the Green and Black Label and see if you can make it your choice when it comes to a fine drink.