Whether you are just starting out with bourbon or have been at it for many years, this list contains what I believe are the eight best bourbons under $20, and I believe that everyone should have at least two of these bottles on the shelf at any given time.
One thing to remember is that whiskey pricing is going to vary greatly around the country, so some of these bottles may be more expensive for you, but in my area, I can buy any of these for under $20 any day of the week.
*While making your way through this list you may start to realize that I really love Heaven Hill brands, as this distillery bottles five of the eight bourbons on the list.
8Evan Williams Black Label Bourbon ($11.49)
Evan Williams Black Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is distilled and aged by one of my favorite distilleries, Heaven Hill. Heaven Hill, as with seemingly most things related to Kentucky Bourbon, was founded by members of the famed Beam family. But you don’t get that classic Beam funk in any of their whiskey, instead, they have a flavor profile all their own. Evan Williams Black Label is a great whiskey neat or on the rocks, but at 86 proof you want to keep the ice to a minimum, or if you are a fan of whiskey stones, this is a great option.
86 proof whiskey has already been cut significantly from barrel strength, and while water can open up a whiskey giving you new and interesting flavors, too much and this whiskey washes away. But at $11.49, it is the most budget-friendly bourbon on this list, and it truly deserves a place on your shelf.
7W. L. Weller Special Reserve ($19.99)
The first of two wheated bourbons on this list, W. L. Weller Special Reserve is a budget bourbon that tastes more refined than the price would lead you to believe. Now, some of you may be wondering why I have this bottle listed here, well, in my neighborhood I have a store that sells Special Reserve for $19.99 every day. Some of you happen to live near stores that instead mark up Weller products far beyond MSRP, why?
For those of you that aren’t aware, the Weller brand is owned by Buffalo Trace Distillery, which is known for distilling and bottling some very well-known and well-loved brands including the Pappy Van Winkle line. Now, most of the bourbons that Buffalo Trace releases are made from one of two rye mash bills, a low-rye, and a mid-rye mash bill, but the Weller brand is a wheated bourbon and uses the same mash bill as Pappy Van Winkle. This means that the wheated bourbon in this bottle is the same distillate as Pappy. So stores will mark up bottles due to this connection, but I will say it here, W. L. Weller Special Reserve is not worth any more than $20 to $25. It is not a premium bourbon and does not deserve the premium price tag, but for the retail price, it deserves a space on your shelf year round. The wheated mash bill is soft and is the perfect pour neat, especially for those just starting out since the bourbon is bottled at 90 proof.
6Evan Williams 1783 Bourbon ($16.99)
The second Evan Williams bottle on this list, and not the last, is their 1783 offering. A few years ago I was stocking up for a gathering at my place and knew that I needed to get some bourbon that I wouldn’t mind being consumed all in one evening. This meant a few handles in this case. I took this as a chance to try something new and along with a couple of old standbys, I grabbed a bottle of Evan Williams 1783. I was not disappointed.
Evan Williams 1783 is an “extra-aged” Evan Williams Black Label, so the mash bill and proof are both the same. The extra-age brings out a nuttiness in the 1783 that I really enjoy, and it has just a bit more oak flavor on the front of the palate. But all in all it is quite similar to the black label, so if you enjoy black label I would say give the 1783 a try.
5Old Grand-Dad Bourbon Whiskey ($14.99 – $19.99)
Distilled by the Jim Beam Distillery, Old Grand-Dad comes in several variations including an 80 Proof, 100 Proof (Bottled in Bond) and 114 Proof. While my favorite is the Old Grand-Dad 114, it breaks the $20 rule, though not by much, so I’ve opted to list the other two variations here as a single item. Depending on where you are in your bourbon journey, you may want to start with a lighter 80 proof whiskey, or if you know you like more punch and flavor the Bottled in Bond variation gives you everything the standard release has to offer and more.
Now who exactly was Old Grand-Dad, or is he just another bourbon marketing gimmick? In this case, no. Old Grand-Dad is in fact Basil Hayden (namesake of another, more premium, Beam product). Colonel R.B. Hayden began distilling Old Grand-Dad and decided to name it after his grandfather, the first distiller in the family. Old Grand-Dad is a high-rye mash bill, so it has a bit more spice and complexity than low-rye or wheated bourbons, so if you are looking for a solid evening sipper or a bourbon that can hold up in a cocktail, Old Grand-Dad has you covered.
4Old Fitzgerald Prime Bourbon ($11.99)
The second wheated bourbon on this list has a long and storied history. Old Fitzgerald began in 1870 and continued through Prohibition, one of the few brands that was given a license to distill and age medicinal whiskey. Soon after Prohibition the Old Fitzgerald brand was sold to the Stitzel-Weller Distillery (home of W. L. Weller and Pappy Van Winkle) where wheat was added to the mash bill for the first time to keep in line with the bourbons already being produced by Stitzel-Weller. The brand continued until Stitzel-Weller shut down in 1992. Old Fitzgerald then made its way to the Diageo owned Bernheim Distillery until the distillery and brands were sold to Heaven Hill who continues to make Old Fitzgerald today.
Heaven Hill has continued to distill the Stitzel-Weller wheated mash bill instead of the original rye mash bill. Heaven Hill has begun to bottle the same mash bill as Larceny which is a wonderful bourbon in its own right, but for less money the Old Fitzgerald Prime offers the best bang for your buck, not to mention it has a pedigree that is formidable and a future that is bright as long as the team at Heaven Hill continues to release bourbon under the Old Fitzgerald name (such as the new Old Fitzgerald 11-Year Bottled in Bond, which sadly is not going to make the list coming in at over $100 a bottle).
3Four Roses Yellow Label ($19.99)
Four Roses Yellow Label was one of the first bourbons I ever bought, and for that it will always have a special place in my heart and there will always be room for a bottle on my shelf. Four Roses is a unique brand in bourbon history. Four Roses was the bourbon of choice in post-World War II America and was popular for many years. In the mid-1950s the brand was purchased by Seagrams who decided to discontinue the Four Roses brand in the US, but continued to sell their bourbon overseas where it has been a very popular product for decades.
Fast forward to 2002 when Seagrams sold the brand to Vivendi who sold it to Diageo who finally sold it to Kirin Company, a Japanese brewery. It was under the ownership of Kirin and the leadership of legendary Master Distiller Jim Rutledge that Four Roses was reintroduced to the American market, hopefully for good.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Four Roses is their dedication to distilling bourbons from 10 different yeast strains with the Yellow Label being a blend of all 10 of these recipes. With a great nice, balance, sweetness and a little bite, Four Roses Yellow Label is a great introduction to proper Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey.
2Evan Williams White Label Bottled in Bond ($18.99)
The final of three Evan Williams bottles on this list, and the best of the three by far in my opinion (though you really should try all three to see which you like best, I mean, at these prices what do you have to lose). Not only is Evan Williams White Label one of the best bourbons under $20 these days, but it is simply one of the best bourbons on the market period. Big flavor, with a sweet caramel bomb both on the most and on the palate, but the finish is long and has a balance of oak and sweetness that is complex and satisfying. Being bottled in bond, the white label is bottled at 100 proof, one of the highest proofs on this list and if you know me at all you’ll know that I prefer high-proof whiskies these days, so the white label hits the spot for me.
1Virgin Bourbon 101, 7 Year Age Stated ($12.49)
The final bourbon on this list is the Virgin Bourbon 101, 7 Year. It is the only age-stated whiskey on this list and likely the oldest. Buffalo Trace says that the Special Reserve is aged for around 7 years, but without an age statement we have to assume that it is aged for less time than Special Reserve was in the past before the age statement was dropped, and most of the other bourbons on this list come in around 4 – 5 years each.
But back to Virgin Bourbon 101… Virgin Bourbon is not a popular brand, and it isn’t available everywhere in the US, but I seriously think that anyone who enjoys whiskey should track down a bottle to see what they think. Over the years I have drug out my bottle for blind tastings and more often than not it beats out bourbons that are many times its price, and fares well against just about any $80+ bourbon we have put it against.
That does it for the Top 8 Bourbons Under $20. Let me know what your favorite budget bourbons are in the comments below, and if you disagree or think I’m crazy, let me know that too!