Bourbon is awesome. It is distinctly American. It is full of flavor. And despite its historic popularity, it remains among the most affordable styles of whiskey on the planet. In fact, as any self-avowed expert will tell you sans solicitation, the best bourbons are often the most reasonably-priced ones. I’ll prove it through the exceptional examples below: all priced under $100, all poised to make fantastic gifts this holiday season, and all readily available at, or near, their suggested retail cost.
Sadly that last point disqualifies some of my personal favorites, including the latest Booker’s release, “Kentucky Tea Batch.” Jim Beam’s masterful line of cask strength gems are meant to sell for no more than $90. And yet nowadays once they reach the secondary market they are irretrievable at less than 3x that. It’s even more jarring with EH Taylor, George T. Stagg, and, well, just about any name associated with Buffalo Trace. The aforementioned bottles are world class liquids, both of which are supposed to hit shelves south of $100. Yeah…Good luck with that.
Anyhow, I digress. Beautiful bargains persist against all odds. Catch them while you can.
It defies reason that you can still find this wheated wonder for under $30. But here we are. A round-bodied sipper with measured edges of butterscotch and toffee, Larceny fades with clove and baking spice, demonstrating a complexity that punches well above its weight class. To wit, the label’s age-stated older sibling—Old Fitzgerald—often sells for 10x the price, while exhibiting many of the same characteristics. At the end of the day, it’s hard to go wrong with any liquid coming out of Heaven Hill distillery.
One of the leading names in ultra-premium American whiskey, Michter’s is also quite adamant about retaining quality liquids at accessible price points. The US*1 series is a case in point. It’s creamy in the mouth, tickling the tongue with vanilla before opening up the spice rack in a sustained finish. Elegance is accomplished here through a lower barrel entry proof as well as a commitment to actual small batching: the Shively, Kentucky-based distillery team combines its bourbon into holding tanks that can hold no more than 20 full barrels. Without the ability to blend out inferior casks, you know that each and every component has to be up to snuff.
This ruby-hued 90-proof liquid was matured for five years in virgin American oak prior to a 6-month finish in port barrels. The secondary aging affords a berry blast in the nose and palate. But the most pleasing element of this juice might just be its luscious mouthfeel. It coats the tongue like maple syrup and keeps you thirsting for more.
The fourth offering in the brand’s ongoing Wood Finishing Series is actually a dual release. BRT-01 evokes the flavors that you’ll find from barrels near the top of the Maker’s rickhouse in Loretto, Kentucky. BRT-02 takes its cues from casks near the cooler bottom. Both are bottled at an exacting 109.4-proof. Taken together, they are a study in contrast. But the former takes the cake as a tongue-tingling brown sugar bomb.
Sugar, spice and everything nice. It’s your ideal holiday dram, folks. You might even perceive a touch of toasted marshmallows in that lingering finish. No wonder this one remains a perennial fan favorite; it holds all the hallmarks of a crowd pleaser. Proofed to perfection at 115, anyone who advises you against this release either has questionable taste in bourbon or is trying to hoard bottles for themself.
Speaking of crowdpleasers, this one is crème brûlée in bottle form. Although with any single barrel offering, you’re guaranteed some variation from batch to batch, the Russell family know the characteristics they’re trying to dial in with this mark…And they hit it time and again—rich, creamy and clocking in at 110-proof whenever you uncork a bottle. It’s the sort of consistent excellence accrued from a combined 110 years worth of whiskey-making between Wild Turkey’s legendary father and son tandem, Jimmy and Eddy Russell.
This sourced-yet-sophisticated Kentucky cask strength juice is finished in fine, French oak. It results in a tasting profile that’s somewhat foreign to a more traditional bourbon: gingerbread, menthol, tobacco spice. Sensationally they sing to thee. “What makes this expression so special is that we don’t blindly dump bourbon into a barrel for finishing,” explains co-founder Michael Lahalih. “Prior to the juice going into that second barrel, every drop is sampled and blended with other barrels offering similar tasting notes and profiles. This is done to ensure that there are no competing flavors and it can live up to its maximum potential.” Mission accomplished.
As a card-carrying Kentucky Colonel it pains me to admit it: the hottest name in craft American whiskey right now hails not from the Bluegrass State. The honor belongs to Frey Ranch—a grain-to-glass operation out of Fallon, Nevada. Everything they’re releasing these days is downright delicious, so it’s hard to pick one above the rest. I’m giving the nod to this high-octane dram because it’s so assertive and so complex, taking your tongue on a journey from custard to cardamom. The single barrel series ranges in strength from 120 to 137, with a minimum age of 5 years. I was especially enamored with a 6.5 year old selection bottled at a walloping 62.67% ABV. If the bourbon lover in your life likes it cask strength, this is what they’ve been waiting for.