8 BUDGET BOURBONS UNDER $20– PART 1 

If you’re finding the “Tax Man” has been a little trying this year or you’re just trying to reign in your bourbon spending, here are some mini-reviews of lower-priced bourbons that won’t break the bank. I hesitate to call these “bottom shelf” as many are very mainstream and solid middle-shelf and are worth a pour most any day.

The Method

For this budget-conscious tasting, we drew samples from the following bourbons:

BrandDistillerCost
Benchmark Sazerac (Buffalo Trace) $12
Jim Beam White Label Beam Suntory $14
Jim Beam Black Label Extra Aged Beam Suntory $19
Heaven Hill Green Label 6 Year Heaven Hill $11
Old Charter Sazerac (Barton) $12
Old Grand-Dad Beam Suntory $12
Old Fitzgerald Heaven Hill $10
Very Old Barton Sazerac (Barton) $12

And, we tasted these blind. I was joined by my trusty sidekick (daughter) as we sampled these by a blind draw and noted our thoughts. While I recognize many tasters would think nothing of tasting a number of samples all at once, we’re going to sample responsibly and break this into two tastings – the “old ones” and, well, everyone else.

Let’s start with the rest …

Benchmark

The label states “McAfee’s Benchmark Old No. 8 Brand” and is bottled at 80 proof. In a clever marketing technique, the number 8 is front and center, causing the casual onlooker to perhaps mistake it for an 8-year age statement.  No such luck here – the bottle carries no age statement (NAS).

Eye: Very light, like a light caramel.
Nose: Grains, candy corn and caramel – similar to a younger Buffalo Trace.
Palate: More candy corn, spice, and oak. Sidekick says “fruit snacks”.
Finish: Short, with spice and oak.  
Overall: Not bad as a bargain-shelfer. There are certainly worse, but as a “younger Buffalo Trace”, it’s not awful.  

Jim Beam White Label

JB White is synonymous with bourbon, and this flagship product serves for many as an initial entry point into the bourbon experience. Bottled at 80 proof and without an age statement (though most say it’s in the 4-year range), Jim Beam White has a mashbill of 77% corn, 13% rye, and 10% malted barley.

Eye: Very very light in color.
Nose: Spice, corn, caramel and loads of vanilla.
Palate: There is a lightness, corn sweetness and vanilla that really come to the surface.
Finish: Short-to-medium with more vanilla.  Very smooth and mellow.
Overall: This was one of the few I could pick out of a blind tasting. I can only describe it as “classic Jim Beam notes”. While this isn’t one that surfaces as overly complex or sophisticated, it’s not unlike staying at a Hampton Inn or grabbing McDonalds for lunch. It’s reliable, consistent, and overall a good deal.  

Jim Beam Black Label Extra Aged

If you’re going to grab a bottle of Jim Beam, this might be the one to grab. It wasn’t too long ago that this brand carried a 9-year age statement, and I was fortunate enough to spy a dusty bottle about a year ago. It carries the same mashbill as Jim Beam White (77% corn, 13% rye, and 10% malted barley), but is aged “extra long” (said to be in the 6-year age range) and bottled at 86 proof.

Eye:  Light caramel [darker than it’s younger brother, Jim Beam White].
Nose:  Spice, grains, more vanilla and caramel.
Palate:  Light and smooth, with a taste of oak and vanilla.  
Finish:  Medium with oak, spice, and char.  
Overall:  For the price, this is a fine bourbon to keep in the house.  It has a little more character than its younger sibling, and the higher proof holds its own with ice or in a cocktail.   

Heaven Hill Green Label 6 Year

If you’re wondering why you haven’t stumbled across this one, don’t worry, you’re not alone. HH Green Label and its former Bottled-in-Bond sibling are the subject of many internet posts. From its vintage 1950’s era bottle design, HH Green Label is a throwback to simpler times, when “good” and “cheap” were one in the same. This product has a very limited distribution area – I find mine consistently in Kentucky, but rumor has that it has been sighted in some of the adjoining states. Bottled at 90 proof, it DOES carry a 6-year age statement and a mashbill of 78% corn, 10% rye, and 12% malted barley.

Eye:  Amber. Much darker than the other competitors. Can this really be a bargain-shelfer?
Nose: Vanilla. Caramel. Still more vanilla.  
Palate: Corn and vanilla. Nicely balanced with notes of complexity, including some brown sugar, baking spices and oak, but none overpowering the others.   
Finish: Medium-to-long with spice and vanilla tones.  
Overall: Oh, for the money, this is one of the best bourbons out there. The color, nose, palate and the price have wowed many of my friends when I’ve conducted a blind tasting. With a 6-year age statement (a rarity in these times) and with one of the lowest prices of its competitors, this belongs in everyone’s cabinet. In my house, this is my “cooking bourbon” – great for adding bourbon notes to meat, fish, grits, or baked goods. Until some of the new micro-distilleries can beat this, I’ll keep buying this product every time I’m in the Commonwealth.

Overall Thoughts

My sidekick may have summed it up best – “At least we didn’t go blind with our blind tasting”.  Along the way, we made a new friend, met a couple of old friends, and discovered that there is some fine bourbon found in “low places”. Many of these were low-proof, but the tastes and complexity definitely improved as the proof rose to a sweet spot in that 86-92 proof range.

Be sure to catch Part II where we check out some of our “old” bargain-shelf friends.

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