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If you’re looking for some really good bourbon to drink, the good news is you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on a bottle. In fact, some of the best bourbons available throughout the country cost less than $50. Sure, there are some rare bottles out there going for triple their asking price on the secondary market, and some of these are exceptional. Still, there are so many dependable and accessible offerings—here are the best bourbons under $50 to try today.
Best Overall: Buffalo Trace Bourbon
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Caramel, Sweet corn
While there are some wildly popular and rare bourbons made at Buffalo Trace, there's no better affordable option than the distillery's flagship bourbon. It uses a low-rye mash bill that provides notes of vanilla, caramel and sweet corn. According to bartender and beverage consultant Jessica Gonzalez, this should be your go-to bourbon for making an Old Fashioned. “It's priced low enough that I won't send anyone to the poorhouse, and no matter what they usually drink, this won't disappoint.”
Best for Sipping: Michter’s US*1
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Sweet corn, Peach, White pepper
Michter’s US*1 Bourbon is full of flavors that soar well beyond its under-$50 price point. The brand’s Shively distillery in Kentucky has been up and running since 2015, and its contract-distilled bourbon is delicious, with complex notes of vanilla, sweet corn, peach, and some dried fruits. Even more, the rich mouthfeel and white pepper finish go a long way towards making this small-batch bourbon an excellent sipping option.
Best for Cocktails: Wild Turkey 101
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50.5% | Tasting Notes: Maple, Cinnamon, Charcoal
Along with one or two fine sipping bourbons for special occasions, it's crucial to make sure your liquor cabinet is also stocked with a solid workhorse bourbon that you won't lament mixing into a cocktail. It needs to be a robust and well-crafted bourbon, though, one that won't get lost in your cocktail's melange of flavors—and it's hard to imagine a bottle that over-delivers on these attributes more reliably than Wild Turkey 101.
Crafted using the same high-rye mash bill that legendary distiller Jimmy Russell stubbornly adhered to even during the wheated bourbon craze of the '80s and '90s, Wild Turkey's flagship whiskey boasts assertive notes of cinnamon, maple, old leather, white pepper, and charcoal (along with the well-integrated alcohol quotient you'd expect from a 101-proof spirit). And although Wild Turkey 101 will deliver a bold presence in classics like the Manhattan and the Boulevardier, this economically-priced bourbon is balanced enough to sip neat or on the rocks—as long as you don't mind a little heat.
Related: The Best Bourbons for Manhattans
Best Value: Old Forester 100 Proof
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Toasted oak, Pecan, Baking spice
“I still can't believe they sell it for the price they do,” says Stephen Kurpinsky, U.S. brand ambassador for Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur, when asked about the Old Forester 100 Proof—which has the distinction of being the first bourbon to be sold in sealed bottles, rather than barrels.
Bartenders and drinkers in the know are huge fans of Old Forester, which is part of the Brown-Forman company that also makes Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniel’s. “If you are looking to pick up a bourbon at a good price that you can mix with and not feel like your wallet is burning, this is the bourbon for you," says Kurpinsky. "It's great on its own, awesome in a smash, sour or Old Fashioned, and doesn't get lost thanks to not being watered down.” There’s also a bit of spice on the palate in this bourbon, which complements the sweetness very nicely.
Best Kentucky: Woodford Reserve
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Honey, Butterscotch, Winter spice
Bourbon does not have to be made in Kentucky—all that's required is a mash bill of at least 51 percent corn (with the remainder made up of any combination of other grains like rye, wheat, and malted barley), plus a period of aging in charred new oak barrels, and a few requirements regarding proofing. But Kentucky is the spiritual home of bourbon, and a great deal of it is produced in the state—including the iconic Woodford Reserve. Their Kentucky straight bourbon is full of notes that define the iconic American whiskey category: slight tannins and vanilla sweetness from the oak, bright cereal notes from the grains, and a bit of spice on the finish.
Best Outside of Kentucky: Woodinville Whiskey
Region: Washington | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Caramel, Crème brûlée, Tropical fruit
Beyond Kentucky, you can find distilleries making bourbon in nearly every state nowadays, from tiny craft operations to larger upstart facilities. One notable distillery is Woodinville Whiskey. Its flagship straight bourbon is aged for five years in central Washington warehouses after being distilled just outside of Seattle. The rich palate of buttery caramel, sweet vanilla and ripe fruits can compete with any bourbon made in Kentucky. It’s bottled at 90 proof, but if you’re looking for something stronger, there's a barrel-proof version offered at the distillery as well.
Related: The Best Whiskeys
Best Wheated: Larceny Small Batch
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Honey, Caramel, Stone fruit
Wheated bourbons are defined as having a mash bill that uses wheat as the secondary flavoring grain instead of the usual rye (along with corn and malted barley). This imbues the bourbon with a softer, slightly sweeter flavor profile, minus the trademark spice notes of rye. If you have not tried a wheated bourbon before, pick up a bottle of Larceny: made by Heaven Hill, this bourbon uses one-third more wheat than other similar bourbons, according to the distillery. It’s aged for six years and has notes of honey, caramel and even some stone fruits.
Best High-Rye: Redemption High Rye
Region: Indiana | ABV: 46% | Tasting Notes: Pepper, Mint, Ginger, Caramel
Every bourbon must be made of at least 51 percent corn, but distillers have the option to split the remainder between additional corn, wheat, malted barley, or other grains. Historically, the top "remainder" grain would've typically been rye, and if a contemporary distiller uses rye as the majority of their remaining mash bill, the resulting sturdy and spicy bourbon is often referred to as "high-rye."
Very few distillers will actually put this phrase right on the bottle, though—but in the case of Indiana's Redemption Whiskey, who market a bourbon in which rye makes up a whopping 36 percent of the mash bill, why not? Redemption's High Rye Bourbon is a fresh and highly aromatic bourbon in which a bouquet of mint and oregano leads into a vibrant palate featuring notes of black pepper, fennel, caramel and ginger.
Related: The Best Rye Whiskeys
Best Small Batch: Rowan’s Creek
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Spicy, Woody, Molasses, Chocolate
Although the term “small batch” isn't legally defined in the bourbon market, it generally means it's smaller than the regular batch of barrels that go into bottling. Rowan's Creek, named after the actual creek that flows through the historic and family-owned Willett Distillery, is an excellent small-batch bourbon that's won multiple gold medals at the San Fransisco World Spirits Competition. Bottled at just a hair over 100 proof, Rowan's Creek beckons one into the glass with playful aromas of spice and mint, while the palate is rich and woody, featuring sumptuous notes of molasses and chocolate.
Take a moment to admire the dark amber color—unlike their colleagues in Scotland, distillers of Kentucky straight bourbon aren't permitted to add artificial coloring, so the whiskey's robust hue is solely the result of the years of aging in charred barrels.
Best Single-Barrel: Evan Williams Single Barrel
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Baked apple, Dried nuts, Cinnamon
As its name suggests, a single barrel is a bourbon that comes from one barrel instead of the usual blend of many different barrels that go into a batch. So, each barrel will taste different, although there is usually some consistency that allows the discerning imbiber to identify the brand. In the case of Evan Williams, the single-barrel expression always tastes good.
“One could say using this in cocktails is almost cheating. Try it in a Paper Plane or an egg white sour and you won't be disappointed. It works stirred as well, especially with lighter ingredients like sherry or vermouth.” — Jessica Gonzalez, bartender and beverage consultant
Related: The Best Gifts for Bourbon Lovers
Best Bottled in Bond: New Riff Bourbon
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Toffee, Cherries, Vanilla
All the whiskey produced at Kentucky-based New Riff Distilling is bottled in bond (aside from the barrel-proof expressions), which means it fits certain requirements: it’s bottled at 100 proof, is at least four years old, and is the product of one distillation season and one distillery. The straight bourbon is made from a mash bill of 65 percent corn, 30 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley, putting it in the high-rye category. This comes through on the palate, which starts with some sticky toffee, eases into ripe cherries, and finishes with some sweet vanilla.
Best Barrel-Proof: Maker's Mark Cask Strength
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 55% | Tasting Notes: Orange peel, Cherry, Tobacco
"Barrel-proof bourbon" refers to a whiskey that has not been cut with water before bottling to reduce the ABV, resulting in a proof that may be well over 100. And while there are a number of quality high-proof bourbons offered for under $50 (e.g. Old Grand-Dad 114 and 1776 Full-Proof), it can be difficult to find a true, undiluted barrel-proof bourbon in that price range. The introduction in 2020 by Maker's Mark of a barrel-proof (or "cask strength") version of their iconic bourbon offered budget-minded consumers the opportunity to finally enjoy a full-bodied, high-octane take on their timeless flavor profile of caramel and stone fruit.
The darling of the bourbon category in decades past, Maker's Mark has largely been eclipsed in the affections of today's generation of connoisseurs by a dizzying range of cult bottlings and hard-to-find special releases. But those discerning buyers who make the wise choice to try the Maker's Mark Cask Strength will be rewarded by a rich and assertive palate bursting with flavors of orange peel, vanilla, cherry, and tobacco, as well as enough structure and body to stand up to being served on a big piece of ice—all at a fraction of the cost of the cult whiskeys du jour.
Related: The Best American Whiskeys under $50
In today's craft whiskey renaissance, any reader in America may well have a local distillery making bourbon not far from home, and we encourage all aspiring aficionados to sample the in-state offerings and patronize their local distillers. But it's always useful to have a classic benchmark or two against which new entries to the category may be measured—and as far as standard-bearers in the $50-and-under range go, it's hard to do better than Michter's US*1 (view on ReserveBar) for a smooth and elegant sipping bourbon or than Wild Turkey 101 (view on Drizly) for a bold, robust, cocktail-friendly offering.
What's the difference between bourbon and other whiskeys?
Bourbon is a category of whiskey that's defined by several different types of regulations (geographical, grain composition, aging, proofing, etc.), just like scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, Japanese whisky, etc. Specifically, bourbon produced for consumption in the U.S. must comprise at least 51 percent corn, must be aged in charred new oak barrels (for a minimum of two years to be called "straight bourbon"), must be distilled to no more than 160 proof, must be entered into the barrel at no more than 125 proof, and must be bottled at 80 proof or more. It is not the case, though, that all bourbon needs to be produced in Kentucky, despite the well-circulated rumor.
Is the quality reflective of the price?
Within any fine beverage category, there's at least some correlation between price and quality—but for bourbon, more so than many other spirits, that general rule really ceases to apply on the extreme ends of the scale. On the budget end, there are some excellent bottles available for half the price you'd expect to pay for a scotch or a Japanese whisky of similar quality (see all the entries above!), while in the upper echelons of cost, there are a handful of cult-status bourbons whose exorbitant prices reflect their scarcity and their "status symbol" appeal far more than the baseline quality of the juice inside.
What's the best way to drink bourbon?
A rich, high-proof bourbon loves a big, gorgeous piece of ice, while a more elegant bourbon will shine with just a few drops of water, or might even be best served neat. Meanwhile, your economy-priced bourbons will often beg to be mixed into a cocktail: you can go classy and whip up a full-bodied Old Fashioned or Manhattan, but let's not forget the simple pleasure of a bourbon-and-cola enjoyed while watching the sunset on a humid summer's evening.
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This article was edited by Jesse Porter, who finds that keeping a bottle of bourbon on his desk next to his computer helps improve his overall workflow and thus writes it off monthly as a business expense.
Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries for the past six years. His work has appeared in many different national outlets covering trends, new releases, and the stories and innovators behind the spirits. His first love remains whiskey, but he is partial to tequila, rum, gin, cognac and all things distilled.
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