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Cheap Bourbons, Ranked

Each year around mid-August, publicists start burying everyone in the food journalizing racket with ideas for Thanksgiving coverage. Most of their emails concern ways in which a client, usually a lesser television chef or an agricultural marketing board, can enhance your stuffing with this or that upscale mushroom or obscure nutmeat. Over in our soggy corner of the booze-writing ghetto, the pitches tend to feature recipes for gibletinis and butternut squasharitas or threats of cinnamon-sage vodkas and gravy liqueurs.

A curiously high percentage of these publicity pleas center on the need to "survive Thanksgiving," as if our nation's greatest holiday were something to be endured rather than cherished. Thanksgiving's easy. There are no gifts to buy or faiths to fake. The TV takes care of the entertainment by way of inflated rubber Snoopies and multiple football games, and if you come from the right kind of family you probably have all-day access to both light and dark dinner rolls. What's to survive?


I suppose the social aspect can be tricky if you lack autonomy, nerve, or access to an oven, but even then you can just drink your way through the pain. And you needn't complicate your medication by overthinking wine and food pairings or inventing sweet potato cocktails. Just go with a good version of your normal drink. I don't know most of you, but I'm going to make the stupid assumption that you are honorable men and women with discerning palates, in which case your normal drink is probably bourbon. And since rent's due four days after Thanksgiving and you haven't even bought your turkey Lunchable yet, you're probably dealing with a tight budget. No problem. I've ranked cheap bourbon.

First, the pedantry: To officially qualify as bourbon, a distilled spirit must be American (though, contrary to myth, not necessarily Kentuckian), consist of at least 51 percent corn, and be aged in new charred oak barrels prior to bottling. Whiskey changes, usually for the better, the longer it ages in the barrel, but most of a bourbon's personality comes from the composition of the grain recipe, or mash bill.

Damn near everything we eat is half corn anyway, so forget about that part; it's the other stuff that influences the final taste. Once the requisite 51 percent corn is accounted for, you can tweak your mash by adding wheat to make it smooth or rye to make it spicy or chicken paste to make it a McNugget. Even at the low end, bourbons are a lot more variable than you might expect.

The following list deals with domestic whiskies that are either officially bourbon or very bourbon-like and cost less than $15 per 750mL bottle in my expensive city.


10. Old Thompson American Whiskey. This mean bastard is a blend of whiskey and neutral grain spirits (i.e., tanker-truck vodka), and it's utterly worthless. OT is the rare American whiskey that doesn't even show off any cheap corn sweetness. It's monotonously evil in a way that's hard to describe other than by noting it's earthy in the bad way, like a shiny mud puddle or a pissed mattress.

9. Ten High. This faux-bourbon blend isn't quite good, but it's leagues ahead of Old Thompson. It smells like subprime caramel in a way that evokes the guts of a Milky Way that's old enough for the crust to have turned kinda gray around the edges but not too old to eat. It tastes like it smells, plus some lemon. Ten High isn't good enough to drink straight, but its flaws can be hidden in a whiskey sour.


8. Early Times Kentucky Whisky. This isn't technically bourbon, either, but not for the same scummy reason Old Thompson and Ten High aren't. Early Times doesn't add any bullshit neutral spirits to the whiskey, but they age it in used rather than new barrels. The "Official Whisky of the Kentucky Derby" (who cares) smells a little bit like unwashed hair, and it tastes like when you drop a vanilla ice cream cone and it hits your knee on the way to the ground and then you throw yourself upon the earth in despair and then you get up and lick your grass- and dessert-stained sweatpants.

7. Ezra Brooks. I like this even though it's charcoal-filtered, like Jack Daniel's, and I find whiskies of this kind to be a little sugary. Ezra compensates for the sweetness with a high-rye pepper kick, although the pronounced vanilla finish throws things a bit off balance. Bonus points for being 90 proof.


6. Old Crow. For years I claimed this as my favorite cheap bourbon, and while more comprehensive testing has moved it down a few notches, I still have a soft spot for the alleged house whiskey of U.S. Grant and Mark Twain. It smells like candy corn and sweet orange tea, and it tastes like margarined toast. It has a really short finish that encourages the next sip. Old Crow is owned by Jim Beam now, and word on the street is it uses the same mash bill and yeast strain as the entry-level Beam bottling, in which case any taste differences would come from barreling factors. White-label Beam is pretty good and Old Crow costs $8 less.

5. Evan Williams. I couldn't figure out where to put this, so I just stuck it in the middle. On the one hand, EW is sometimes referred to as the poor man' s Jack Daniel's, which would make it the down-market version of something I detest. But although the packaging is similar and both are charcoal-filtered sour mashes, I don't taste a strong similarity. Jack, for better or worse, has a unique cinnamon and licorice profile, whereas Evan Williams tastes more mainstream, and many reputable sources cite it as their favorite cheap bourbon. Malt Advocate named it Best Buy Whiskey of the Year in 2003 and 2011, for chrissake.


Evan Williams has a good pedigree for the price, with five to seven years of barrel aging (the standard is three or four) and a respectable 86 proof. It's a straightforward bourbon that tastes like slightly medicinal cereal grains, which a lot of people either like or pretend to like because it makes them feel like a big strong man. Either way, Evan Williams is decent in my book and great in a lot of better books.

4. Rebel Yell. This sweet and gentle wheat-heavy bourbon starts out with a honey taste that evolves into vanilla cream and orange. Rebel Yell is really good, and even better if you convince yourself it's named after a Billy Idol song rather than a Confederate battle cry. This is highly recommended to the Maker's Mark drinker who's looking to save $18 a bottle.


3. McAfee's Benchmark Bourbon. This has a fairly standard vanilla-honey aroma, but come drinking time Benchmark's distinguished by an interesting sour orange note. Have you ever had a Boulevardier? It's like a Negroni but with bourbon in the gin's place. It's a great drink, but you have to make it at home lest you find yourself pronouncing "Boulevardier" in public. Lucky for us Benchmark is the ideal budget whiskey to mix with Campari and sweet vermouth.

2. Old Fitzgerald Prime. This is another high-wheat offering in the Maker's Mark mold. Old Fitz manages to be both complex and smooth, with honey, citrus, and almond flavors that go down without a hitch. Hell, I found an old review where I even said it had a faint green-apple note, but in retrospect I should admit that was probably bullshit. At any rate, Old Fitz is a little light to mix—it's bottled at 80 proof and I'd love to try a more concentrated formula—but that doesn't matter because it's plenty good enough to take straight.


1. Old Crow Reserve. You've got to respect the humility of a brand whose deluxe version costs $14 a bottle. OC Reserve is aged for four years to the stock model's three, and it's bottled at 86 proof rather than 80, but these fancifications don't hide the quick and sweet caramel character of the original. The Reserve is set apart by a light dose of cinnamon and a dark fruit edge that make it ideal for breakfast, dessert, and all meals in between.

So it turns out that 85 percent of cheap bourbons are perfectly useful and at least half of them are down right good. See, Thanksgiving's easy.


Related: 36 Cheap American Beers, Ranked


Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.


Find lots more food and drink stuff at Image by Sam Woolley.

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