Whiskey, wherever it’s produced, is made out of fermented grain and aged in wood. Storied whiskeys rest in barrels stacked in rickhouses for many years. All that storage space and coopered wood can be expensive, and collectors can drive prices up on older bottles.
But not all whiskeys cost a small fortune. There are plenty of great, everyday bottles for your home, and some of them come from producers of those pricey collectibles. These less costly bottles are just more numerous; their production runs are larger. Or they’re not as long-aged. Some come at a relative bargain.
“Distilleries have realized that they need to put forward an affordable entry-level [whiskey], and a variety of them,” says Flavien Desoblin, owner of New York’s The Brandy Library and Copper and Oak. “What you expect from such whiskey is you could be both sipping and mixing. It’s almost a prerequisite that it can be enhanced by ice and water and also a good base for cocktails."
Read on for the best affordable whiskeys you can get right now, based on industry input.
The Busker Triple Cask Irish Whiskey
Region: Ireland | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Vanilla, Toffee, Tropical fruit
An award-winning introduction to the Irish whiskey category, the brand-new Busker is busting out all stops with this bottle combining blending their single malt, single grain, and single pot whiskeys in one. A combination of bourbon, sherry, and marsala wine casks adds smooth, fruity elegance to this mellow spirit. “The Busker is an apple among oranges,” says the Clover Club’s Julie Reiner. “This is a whiskey that will perform excellently in craft cocktails.”
Rittenhouse Straight Rye
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting notes: Spicy, Herbal, Red berries
This six-year-old go-to for bartenders is “great on ice but also lends itself to the best rye Old Fashioned,” says Desoblin. If the producer just made less of it, they could “literally overnight double the price, and people would still be happy to grab it,” in his opinion. For its balance of fruit and spicy, savory, herbal notes, “it’s a simple pleasure that enhances our lives, Desoblin says. In other words, “it’s a no-brainer.”
Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 43.3% | Tasting notes: Honey, Spice, Oak
Some whiskey drinkers might shy away from this bottle, says Desoblin, because they associate the Evan Williams name with the lowest prices and quality. “But this is the high end of that brand, and it is absolutely gorgeous,” he says. Long aging—8 or 9 years—helps its flavors mellow and develop. “It’s delicate, gentle, and fruity,” adds Desoblin, “and its elegance is not be dismissed.”
Runner-Up Best Bourbon
Old Bardstown Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting notes: Roasted nuts, Honey, Citrus
From Drew Kulsveen, the fifth-generation distiller behind the coveted Willet brand, this easy, everday sipper starts off like a Butterfinger—sweet, buttery, and honeyed, with roasted peanut undertones. But it finishes with a citrusy tang that makes you coming back for another slug. It’s the perfect summer highball whiskey.
Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch
Region: Canada | ABV: 45% | Tasting notes: Spice, Chocolate, Dates
At a whopping 91 percent rye whiskey, this blend delivers savory oomph. But the rest of the mix—8 percent bourbon and 1 percent sherry—balance the dominant grain spirit with sweet, silky notes. Desoblin calls this “a great, great Canadian whiskey, rich in dark fruits and chocolate with a spicy kick and a warm finish.” He likes it on the rocks as well as in Old Fashioneds.
Best for Manhattan
Four Roses Yellow Label
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Apples, Pears, Spice
At Four Roses, the art is in the blending with this entry-level whiskey that is the result of a careful melding of ten different bourbons each with a unique mash bill. Together, they make “fruity, easy-going” magic, says Desoblin. “It’s gentle, but it hits the spot,” he says, “if you don’t want a really powerful bourbon in your Manhattan.” Plus, it’s available just about anywhere, and it’s good to know you can grab something that you can trust in a pinch.
"You're as likely to find Four Roses at a dive bar as you will a fancy craft cocktail bar. It's well made, respected in the industry, and makes a lovely, approachable Manhattan."
— Prairie Rose, Editor
Related: The Best Whiskeys for Beginners
Best for Sipping
Monkey Shoulder Blended Scotch Whisky
Region: Scotland | ABV: 43% | Tasting notes: Honey, Orange, Vanilla, Oak
Here’s a bottle that touts itself as “made for mixing,” and indeed, it is. This whisky has the character to carry a cocktail but without the peated profile that wallops the rest of the drink’s ingredients. Desoblin is a fan of this gentle bottle’s “honeyed” flavor and “silky” texture. “It works great on ice as your everyday whisky, as well as in any scotch cocktail that does not require smoke.”
Best for Old Fashioneds
Old Grand-Dad 114 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 57% | Tasting Notes: Citrus, Caramel, Oak
This is a whiskey-drinker’s whiskey. A high-ABV, rye-focused cousin to Basil Hayden’s, with whom it shares a mash bill, this potent bourbon is as good sipped neat with a finger of water or poured over one large ice cube as it is in cocktails. Rich and robust, it’s the perfect foil for the bitters in an Old Fashioned, where the orange peel amps its sweet zing. It’s a barrel-strength bargain if there ever was one.
Two Stacks Dram in a Can
Region: Ireland and the United States | ABV: 43% | Tasting Notes: Honey, Peat, Apples
Here’s a spirit that’s perfect on the go. Sold in 100ml containers tucked into a compact four-pack, the world’s first Irish whiskey in a can was, unsurprisingly, dreamed in the States, at Minnesota’s High Road Spirits. But it’s distilled and aged in Ireland.
Going into the blend is a wide-ranging array of dark and light grains matured in virgin oak and ex-bourbon casks, double and peated malts that have rested in old bourbon barrels, and pot stilled whiskey aged in sherry butts. The result of this varied blend is an incense-like aroma with a honeyed apple mid-palate and a nice, peaty finish. It goes down smoothly, even straight out of the aluminum.
Related: The Best Irish Whiskeys
If you’re looking for a spicy, savory spirit, rye-heavy whiskeys like Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch (view it at Drizly) and Rittenhouse (view it at Drizly.com) are your sips. If you’re a fan of sweet, caramelly flavors, go for bourbons like Old Bardstown (view it at Drizly) or Evan Williams Single Barrel (view it at Caskers).
What differentiates whiskeys from one another?
There are many things that differentiate whiskeys. For one thing, there’s where a whiskey is made. Scotch comes from Scotland and only Scotland. Irish whiskey is from Ireland, Canadian whiskey from Canada. But there’s also the mashbill, i.e. the grain recipe that gets fermented and distilled to make the spirit. Is it rye-heavy? Then it’s a rye. If it’s corn-based, it’s probably bourbon. Scotch is based on barley malt. Each of these grain recipes has its own flavor. Also, there’s the aging process. Younger whiskeys tend to be less complex and intense.
Is cheaper whiskey made differently? What makes it less expensive?
The whiskeys in this article are not made differently than more expensive ones. They’re just younger. They take up less room in pricey barrels and warehouses. Or they’re a brand that has a much bigger production run than a more expensive whiskey.
What to Look For
Entry-level Bottles by Storied Producers
Kentucky, especially, has distilleries that put out many bottles at a range of prices. Some are quite reasonable and nearly as delicious as the higher end. Old Bardstown from Willet is an example. So is Old Grand-Dad 114. It’s made with the same mash bill, or grain recipe, as its tonier cousin, Basil Hayden, but it’s a fraction of the price for a higher ABV.
A well-made whiskey will go down easy. Harsh and off-flavors, and too much burn, are signs of spirit that wasn’t distilled or aged with care. Even at under $30, a whiskey should have elegance.
“An inexpensive whiskey needs to do the job of the every day,” says Desoblin. “You cannot ask for great complexity, but it has to be well-balanced and versatile. You shouldn’t have problem having it your way: with ice, neat, or mixing it with sodas or in other cocktails.”
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Betsy Andrews is a freelance journalist specializing in food and drink, travel, and the environment, and has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Eating Well, The Wall Street Journal, SevenFifty Daily, VinePair, Wine Enthusiast, Travel & Leisure, and more.
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