It’s estimated that there are over 3,500 historic brands of bourbon in the United States. Roughly 1,000 are currently active. That includes retailer specific brands. Notwithstanding the number of bourbon brands, however, and the veritable explosion in craft producers, now close to 2,000 operating distilleries, over 95% of all of the bourbon made in the United States is produced by 13 large distilleries owned by eight major beverage companies. Here are some Exceptional Bourbon Values you may have never heard of.
Ninety-five percent of all of the bourbon distilled in the US is made in Kentucky. At the end of 2018, Kentucky had over 7.5 million barrels of bourbon being matured, along with 600,000 barrels of other spirits. Kentucky’s population is 4.3 million people. That works out to 1.75 barrels of bourbon per resident or over 500 bottles of whiskey per capita. Sounds like a pretty good reason the move to Kentucky.
The bourbon business is dominated at retail by a handful of national brands. That leaves lots of expressions of excellent bourbon, many made by those same national producers, which are available only on a regional basis or have limited distribution. Many of these regional brands were ones gobbled up by the big distillers in the consolidation that followed Prohibition in the US or they are expressions that were left out of the marketing campaigns that created the big national brands.
Below are 8 brands of bourbon that retail for less than $50, many are under $30, that represent excellent values and that you have probably never heard of.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel, 10 YO, 50% ABV, is bottled by the Heaven Hill distillery. It’s based on a mash bill of 75% corn, 13% rye and 12% malted barley. The bourbon is bottled-in-bond (BIB), which means it is the product of a single distillation by a single distiller at a single distillery, and has been aged for at least four years under US government supervision. Additionally, BIB whiskey must be bottled at 50% ABV (100 proof).
McKenna has a classic bourbon nose of caramel, vanilla and charred oak. As the bourbon opens up, rye spice emerges along with a pronounced alcohol burn. On the palate, there is caramel and brown sugar, along with vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and charred oak. The finish is medium length, sweet, with caramel, vanilla and spice notes and a persistent pepperiness. Some expressions have a characteristic leather aroma, although this is not true of all of the bottlings.
At $30 per bottle, this is an outstanding value for an aged, over-proof, classic bourbon.
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, NAS, 50% ABV, was the nickname of a distiller named Basil Hayden. He’s pictured on the bottle. His bourbon incorporated a large percentage of rye, giving the whiskey a spicy and powerful flavor. The bourbon is made by Jim Beam, and retails for around $20 per bottle. This whiskey is also BIB and is bottled at 50% ABV. The whiskey is NAS, but is believed to be four to eight years old. There is also a 57% ABV (114 proof) version that is priced under $30. The whiskey is based on a mash bill of 62% corn, 28% rye and 10% malted barley.
This is another classic bourbon with a distinctive caramel and vanilla aroma on the nose. There is some alcohol burn, especially on the 114-proof version, along with sweet honey notes, candied citrus zest, brown sugar and that cooked tropical fruits.
On the palate, you have caramel, brown sugar, candied nuts, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, cooked corn sweetness, some mint and a lingering pepperiness. The finish is long, caramel-sweet, with a lingering cinnamon and a cooked cereal note. Try it on the rocks.
Old Forester Signature Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, NAS, 50% ABV, is the oldest bourbon brand in the US and the first bourbon to be sold in bottle. The whiskey is produced by Brown-Forman. The mash bill consists of 72% corn, 18% rye and 10% malted barley.
On the nose, the whiskey offers sweet caramel and candied cherries, along with a persistent oak note in the background. On the palate, there are pralines (candied pecans), orange zest, along with caramel, maple syrup, some mint and spice notes of cinnamon and clove. Give the whiskey a few minutes to open up and for the alcohol burn to dissipate.
The finish is rich and powerful, with classic bourbon notes of sweet caramel, dried fruit, vanilla, cinnamon and pepper, with a slight but persistent bitter note on the end. At $30 per bottle, this is another excellent value for a classic bourbon.
I W Harper Kentucky Trail Straight Bourbon Whiskey, NAS, 41% ABV, is based on a mash bill of 73% corn, 18% rye and 9% malted barley. The whiskey carries no age statement but is believed to be a blend of whiskeys between four and 20 years old.
I W Harper was widely popular in the 1950s and 60s, and was exported to more than 100 countries around the world. The brand was withdrawn from the US market in 1997, but continued to be exported. It is a top selling bourbon in Japan.
The brand was resurrected by Diageo in 2015 as both a NAS and a 15 YO version. The 15 YO, and possibly the NAS version, are distilled at the Bernheim distillery, now owned by Heaven Hill, and matured in the Stitzel-Weller warehouses in Shively, Kentucky.
On the nose, there are faint notes of vanilla, and cooked corn, along with some caramel and oak notes. On the palate, the whiskey has a cooked corn sweetness, with notes of honey, dried peach, tropical fruit, vanilla, caramel and burnt sugar, along with some faint strawberry notes.
The finish is medium length, sweet and spicy, with notes of dried stone fruit, vanilla and caramel, along with spice notes of nutmeg, clove and allspice. A rich leather note, along with some pepper, emerges at the end and lingers.
The 15 YO version is similar but far richer and complex. Although it is more expensive at $88 per bottle, it is a far better value than the $30 NAS version. The NAS version would be better with a little more age and at a higher proof. Either way, I W Harper is a brand in transition and one well worth watching.
Russell’s Reserve Bourbon, 10 YO, 45% ABV, is produced by Wild Turkey. It is a small batch barrel selection based on casks hand-picked by Wild Turkey’s father and son master distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell. The mash bill consists of 75% corn, 13% rye and 12% malted barley.
The whiskey has already won an impressive array of awards. Jimmy Russell is the world’s longest tenured master distiller. His son, Eddie Russell, took over as Wild Turkey’s Master Distiller in 2015, after 35 years with the company. There is also a Russel Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon that is bottled at 55% ABV, and is matured in barrels that have been toasted to a #4 “alligator char.” The 10 YO sells for around $35 per bottle, while the single barrel expression sells for around $55.
On the nose, there is a creamy sweetness, along with cinnamon, vanilla and a little bit of charred wood. On the palate, there is sweetness, candied orange zest, semisweet chocolate, along with cinnamon and cloves.
The finish is long, sweet, with maple syrup and brown sugar notes. A leather note emerges and lingers at the end. The Russel Reserve Single Barrel has a similar aroma and flavor profile. It’s a little smoother and feels softer on the palate.
John E Fitzgerald, Larceny, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, NAS,
46% ABV, is a small batch bourbon assembled from 200 barrels or less, handpicked by Heaven Hill’s master distiller. The bourbon is believed to be approximately 6 YO. Fitzgerald was one of the first wheated bourbons. The brand was owned for a while by Julian P “Pappy” Van Winkle, and is considered the inspiration for the Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Indeed, some bourbon historians believe that Pappy began as barrel selections of Old Fitzgerald, and was later chosen from hand-picked barrels of W L Weller.
Larceny is based on a mash bill of corn, wheat and malted barley. The exact percentages are undisclosed, although it is widely believed it shares the same mash bill as the various Pappy expressions. The original Stitzel-Weller mash bill was 75% corn, 20% wheat and 5% malted barley.
On the nose, Larceny is sweet, offering fruit notes of peach and apricot along with candied citrus zest, and cinnamon. On the palate, there is a distinctive honey sweetness accompanied by cinnamon and nutmeg.
The finish is long, honey sweet, with cinnamon and maple syrup notes. This is a smooth, almost delicate whiskey, and makes an excellent sipper. At retail prices between $20 and $30, it is among the best priced wheated bourbon currently available.
Medley Brothers Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, NAS, 51% ABV.
Medley Brothers bourbon is made by the father and son team of Charles and Sam Medley. Charles is a 50-year veteran of the Kentucky distilling industry and his family’s history is closely intertwined with Kentucky bourbon. The whiskey sells for around $25.
This is a NAS Straight bourbon, so it is at least four years old. The bourbon is distilled under contract by various Kentucky distillers. The current distiller is rumored to be Heaven Hill. It is based on a mash bill of 77% corn, 10% rye and 13% malted barley.
On the nose, there is caramel, cooked corn sweetness and pralines (think almond roca candy), along with plenty of cinnamon and clove spice.
On the palate, there is caramel, sweet cooked corn, almond pralines, along with vanilla, oak, spice and pepper notes.
The finish is medium length, smooth, showing caramel sweetness and pralines, along with spice and some oak notes. This is an easy drinking whiskey with a classic bourbon nose and taste and a smooth mouthfeel. A touch of water brings out more sweetness
Medley also makes a 12 YO expression bottled at 43.4% ABV, which is outstanding. Similar to the straight version, it is smoother, with a little more citrus on the nose and palate and a little dried peach on the finish. This was a single release of only 2,500 bottles. At a retail price of under $50, however, it is an outstanding value, although very difficult to find.
W L Weller, Special Reserve Bourbon, NAS, 45% ABV, is produced at the Buffalo Trace Distillery by Sazerac. This whiskey is much better known then the expressions cited above. It is a wheated whiskey, that shares a common DNA with Old Fitzgerald and the Pappy wheated bourbons. Weller Special reserve has much in common with its more famous cousins, but sells, at least officially, at an average price of around $30—a fraction of the cost of the Pappy expressions.
Weller, and to a lesser extent Old Fitzgerald, has been caught up in the cult frenzy that now surrounds Pappy Van Winkle. The result is that both the W L Weller Special Reserve and the Old Weller Antique Original 107 brand straight wheated bourbon whiskey often sell at three times or more of their list price.
The mash bill is undisclosed, but is believed to be the same, or very close, to that of Old Fitzgerald and the Pappy expressions. All of the Weller expressions share the same mash bill.
On the nose, there is a distinctive sweetness, along with ripe apple, caramel and a little vanilla. On the palate, the whiskey is smooth and sweet, with vanilla and caramel and a little dried fruit.
The finish is long, creamy smooth and sweet, with a persistent caramel and brown sugar note and a lingering note of bitterness at the end. At $20 per bottle, this is a fantastic bourbon and an excellent introduction to wheated bourbons. If you find it, buy it. Buy as much as you can as this price isn’t going to last.
There is no shortage of good bourbon available today, although prices keep rising and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. There are plenty of expressions of excellent bourbon priced under $50 from the national brands. If you are interested in exploring the lesser known brands however, and in the process learning a little more about the lore and history of classic bourbon brands, then this list is a good place to start.
Bottoms Up and Happy Hunting