12 Bargain Bourbons That Celebrate the Spirit's Golden Age

Enjoying the golden age of brown spirits doesn’t necessarily require a lot of gold.

Bourbon, it’s safe to say, has gone bonkers. Or let’s say collectible bourbon has — but when even a relatively mundane bottle like Weller Special Reserve can bizarrely start vanishing from shelves at three times the official price, what defines “collectible” is a good question.

This wasn’t always the case. From the 1970s to the early 2000s, bourbon sales were in a steep decline; the era of Cosmopolitans and Appletinis was not kind to brown spirits. But then, things reversed course—and how. The first release of Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old, back in 1998, sold for about $125 a bottle. Now, Pappy 23 is over $5,000 a bottle, if you can find it. Or take Michter’s, a revered but defunct Pennsylvania-based brand that entrepreneur Joseph J. Magliocco resurrected in Kentucky in the late ’90s. Knowing that bourbon was in a slump, Magliocco had the smart idea to buy aged barrels of whiskey from established distilleries; at the time, they were only too happy to ditch the stuff. His first release was a 10-year-old bourbon that sold for $50. Today, a bottle of Michter’s 25 Year Old Single Barrel Rye sells for about $35,000. At $1,380 an ounce, that’s one pricey Manhattan. Clearly, we’re in the bourbon (and rye) era. Craft bottlings abound. Ditto “single barrel,” “limited edition,” “small batch,” and other designations that signify scarcity (and, in theory, quality) and usually translate to “very high price.”

Yet when you get to the basic process of making it, the difference between an affordable bottle of bourbon and a spectacularly expensive one isn’t all that great. I remember talking to Jimmy Russell, the legendary master distiller of Wild Turkey, quite a few years ago. We were having lunch near the distillery, both of us enjoying and/or clogging up our arteries with a classic Louisville hot brown (an open-faced turkey and bacon sandwich covered in Mornay sauce — cheese and cream, basically, because the thing isn’t lethal enough to begin with). I asked him about all the single-barrel and limited-edition bourbons that had been popping up around then, and he said, “Man, it’s most of the time all the same spirit. Just goes in different barrels and stays there different amounts of time.” Words to keep in mind.

He was talking bourbon, of course; rye, by legal definition, is a somewhat different spirit. Bourbon must be distilled in the U.S. (or Puerto Rico) from a mash bill that’s at least 51% corn (wheat, rye, and barley can be used for the other 49%), aged in charred new oak barrels, and bottled at 80 proof (40% alcohol) or more. Rye, which tends to be lighter in body and spicier in flavor, has one difference: The mix of grains must be 51% rye instead of corn. The nuances of quality reside in the details: how long it’s aged, the specifics of the mash bill, and so on — but the truth is that you don’t need to pay a fortune to get a good bottle of bourbon.

So sure, buy that Pappy if you have five grand burning a hole in your pocket. But otherwise, consider these 12 excellent, affordable bottles that you can take home and enjoy for a whole lot less.


1792 Small Batch Bourbon ($30)

The high-rye mash bill gives this a lot of spice up front, shifting into graham cracker and mocha notes. It’s full-bodied at 93.7 proof; try it in an old-fashioned or straight with a dash of water.

Redemption High Rye Bourbon ($30)

This flavorful, toasty bourbon’s mash bill leans heavy on rye (60% corn, 36% rye, and 4% barley), giving it a subtle hit of spice; with a little water, it also takes on an appealing viscosity.

Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select ($35)

Woodford remains one of the best big-name bourbons with its sweet, liqueur-y oak notes; toffee and toast flavors; and just enough bite.

Hirsch the Horizon Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($40)

Hotaling & Co. has revived this historic name to incredible success. It’s caramel-toasty to start, with enough bite to give it presence.

Wild Turkey Longbranch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($40)

This mellow (86 proof), creamy bourbon is filtered partly through mesquite to give it a lightly smoky note on the finish.

Bardstown Bourbon Company Origin Series Bottled-in-Bond ($50)

Bardstown’s new, more affordable Origin Series is terrific. This wheated version has apple, sweet hay, and piecrust notes.

Best bargain bourbons

Frederick Hardy II / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Christine Keely


Old Forester Kentucky Straight Rye ($27)

This 100-proof rye packs a punch and also plenty of flavor: apple and fig notes, toffee and vanilla oak, and an intensely spicy end. Sip it straight on a cold winter night.

Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey ($28)

Want a mellow rye ideal for either sipping or mixing? This 90-proof version is a great option. There’s rye spice up front, along with a faint orange note, melting into a supple finish.

Rye & Sons 2022 Straight Rye Whiskey ($30)

The multitalented André Mack (wine, restaurants) has now branched into whiskey. This gentle rye offers sweet vanilla oak and warm baking-spice notes.

Great Jones Straight Rye Whiskey ($40)

Great Jones is the first Manhattan distillery since Prohibition. The oak here has an herbal character that’s very appealing, as is the whiskey’s mouth-coating texture.

Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Straight Rye ($44)

Russell’s Reserve, named after Wild Turkey’s legendary Jimmy Russell, lives up to his reputation. Think fragrant oak followed by vanilla and black pepper notes.

Michter’s US1 Single Barrel Rye ($50)

Michter’s, which makes some of the most collectible whiskeys on the market, also makes this sweetly spicy, toasty, lightly peppery rye. It’s a stellar deal.

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