Bourbon is booming. The American whiskey, also known as “America’s native spirit,” has entranced more and more drinkers in recent years—and according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, people aren’t buying it from the bottom shelf. Instead, discerning drinkers are overwhelmingly choosing high quality American whiskies, both craft and commercial.
If you fancy yourself a bourbon lover, you may have noticed this trend—and taken note each time this rise in popularity sparked concerns of a potential shortage of your favorite bourbon (a frightening time for us all). You’ve probably also noticed that this desire for the good stuff is causing prices to creep higher and has inspired the growth of cult followings, like that for the elusive Pappy Van Winkle.
But the great thing about bourbon is that for each high-end bottling that costs $100-plus, there are at least as many that go for less than half the price—with exceeding quality. We asked a handful of bourbon experts—from distillers and bartenders, to those who write about whiskey for a living—to weigh in on the best bottles that won’t induce sticker stock. Whether you’re looking to mix up a Mint Julep, sip on a dram of straight hooch or just want to pick up a wallet-friendly bottle for your bourbon-loving friend, you can’t go wrong with one of these six expert-recommended bourbons that cost less than $50.
“For me, Evan Williams Single Barrel is about as good a deal as there is. Typically under $30, it is a 10-year-old whiskey, so each year the expression can be different than a previous vintage. It is as delicious on its own as it is in a cocktail. It’s versatile, mighty tasty and very accessible.” — Allen Katz, director of spirits education and mixology for Southern Wine & Spirits of New York, as well as co-founder of New York Distilling Company
"Picking a bourbon under $50 has become an extremely tough decision. The selection of quality whiskies has exploded over the last decade. One of my go-tos is the Evan Williams Single Barrel. A delicious bourbon that can be sipped neat or mixed in drinks." — Noah Rothbaum, author of The Art of American Whiskey and editor of The Daily Beast's Drink + Food section
"I'm not a fan of spending over $100 for whiskey, but always look out for good sipping bourbons that balance heat with sweetness—I like Old Weller Antique. This bottle can be difficult to find, so I always grab it when I spot it." — David Szlam, founder and CEO of Virgil Kaine Lowcountry Whiskey Co.
“From the legendary Buffalo Trace Distillery comes this rare example of a wheated bourbon, with its notes of vanilla and baking spice. It may take some searching to find a bottle of this stuff, but it’s still fairly unknown and an absolutely tremendous value.” — Jim Kearns, bar director and partner at The Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley
“There's so much spice and caramel [in Four Roses Single Barrel] that it overloads the palate with goodness. Don't tell them, but they could charge $75, and it would still fly off the shelves.” — Fred Minnick, author of Bourbon Curious and Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch and Irish Whiskey
"I love this unfiltered 100 proof bourbon for its smooth floral characteristics and big rye spice. It makes the best Manhattan I have ever had, but is still quite pleasant to sip on its own or with a touch of water." — David Shenaut, director of operations & beverage director at Raven & Rose
“While I’m waiting for our newly made Tennessee whiskey to age up, I’ve been enjoying Buffalo Trace Bourbon. It’s so versatile—it’s great straight but also fabulous in a cocktail.” — Allisa Henley, distiller at Sazerac Company
“This bourbon retails around the $30 range in most markets and hits all the hot buttons: age stated, bonded and single barrel. Being a single-barrel release, the flavor profile varies a little from barrel to barrel, so it’s kind of a crap shoot. But they're always great at this price, and occasionally you find a ridiculously good barrel.” — Larry Rice, proprietor of The Silver Dollar and El Camino
“Elijah Craig Small Batch bourbon is one of my favorites. Produced at the family-owned and operated Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, this whiskey retails for under $30 a bottle. With that, you get a well-rounded, easy-drinking bourbon filled with the flavor characteristics you would expect—vanilla, caramel, candy corn, toasted oak and toffee. I typically drink it neat or on the rocks—but at this price you can use it in your favorite cocktail without guilt.” — Tommy Tardie, owner of Flatiron Room and Fine and Rare