What's the best bottle of bourbon under $40?
By Dan Cavallari, The Practical Still
If you’re new to whiskey, it’s likely you’ve walked into a liquor store and have stared blindly at the absurd amount of bottles on the shelves, all at different prices, all with fancy labels. Despite the intimidation factor, it’s actually not difficult to find the best bottle of bourbon under $40, as long as you understand a few basics.
What’s the difference between whiskey and bourbon?
I have a great sticker that says, “All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.” All whiskeys are made from grains, and they all age in barrels. But in order for a whiskey to be called bourbon, its mash bill (the recipe, basically) must contain 51% corn.
Bourbon also needs to be aged in new charred oak barrels. The liquid in that barrel needs to be distilled to no more than 160 proof and enter the barrel at 125 proof. There can’t be any additives, flavoring, or coloring in order for it to be labeled bourbon, and it can’t be proofed down below 80 proof. And of course, it must be made in the United states.
What’s the difference between bourbon and rye?
Just as a bourbon’s mash bill must contain 51% corn in order to be considered a bourbon, a rye whiskey mash bill needs to contain at least 51% rye.
Aside from the tech specs, the big difference between a bourbon and a rye is the flavor. Rye tends to taste spicier, with hints of cloves.
Is an old bourbon better than a young one?
Not necessarily. Very young whiskey generally doesn’t have as much complexity or flavors that will wow you. But once you get into the four, five, and six year old whiskeys, it’s absolutely possible to find a bottle that may taste just as good, if not better, than a bottle with 10 year old or older bourbon inside it. It all comes down to flavor.
And keep in mind that not all bottles are age-stated. That’s because distilleries may mix vintages into the same bottles. In other words, you might be drinking a combination of young and old whiskies in the same glass.
So how do I choose the best bottle of bourbon under $40?
Okay, now that we know the difference, and we know you’re looking for a bottle of the best bourbon under $40 and not, say, a rye or a Scotch, let’s narrow it down.
A lot of the whiskey bottles you see on the shelf at the liquor store actually come from the same place. Midwest Grain Products, commonly referred to as MGP, distills its product in Indiana and sells its barrels. Brands can buy the barrels and age them in their own barrels or rickhouses, label it under their own name, and sell it. But you’re still drinking bourbon from the same place: Indiana.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Lots of folks love MGP whiskey and actually seek it out. But if you’re after a bourbon that’s unique, look for a bottle that’s distilled in Kentucky. This information will live somewhere on the label, so just turn the bottle over and take a look on the back to see where it was distilled. If it was distilled in Indiana, it’s MGP. If it was distilled in Kentucky, well, you’re on the right track.
From there, it helps to know one more term: Bottled In Bond. Back in the day, all sorts of stuff that wasn’t bourbon ended up in bourbon. So the government got involved to ensure distillers were producing quality product that met rigorous standards. In order to be considered a bottled in bond bourbon, it must be:
- Aged for at least four years
- Bottled at exactly 100 proof
- Made by one distiller at a single distillery in a single season
- Aged in a bonded warehouse
If you see a bottled in bond designation on a bottle of bourbon, you know it meets these criteria, so at a baseline, you know you’re getting at least a decent bottle.
But there are plenty of other options beyond bottled in bond bourbons, and you don’t have to spend a lot to get them. It ultimately comes down to your taste preferences, and learning what you do and don’t like.
Luckily, The Practical Still can help you choose. Here’s a list of a few bottles we love and recommend without hesitation. If you have no idea what you like but are excited to experiment, you can start with these bottles. They won’t break the bank and we think they’re delicious.
The Practical Still’s recommendation for the best bourbon under $40
This one’s a bit tough to find these days, and its price keeps creeping up. But you should still be able to find it between $25 and $50. It’s aged 10 years, which is awesome for a bottle at this price.
Wild Turkey 101
Wild Turkey has a reputation as a cheap-o whiskey. But it’s actually quite tasty. Wild Turkey 101 is at just about every liquor store, and it costs somewhere around $20. This is a reliably delicious bottle.
Russell’s Reserve 10 year bourbon
Another bottle that’s 10 years old at a great price (usually between $40 and $50), Russell’s Reserve comes from the Wild Turkey distillery. It’s 90 proof so it won’t knock you on your butt. This is a staple of my whiskey cabinet, and it’s readily available at most liquor stores.
Early Times Bottled in Bond
Remember that bottled in bond designation? For $25 you’re getting a good bottle here. It’s fairly mellow, so if you’re new to bourbon, this is a great place to start.
George Dickel Bottled in Bond
Dickel Bottled In Bond is getting a bit more difficult to track down these days. The retail price is right around $40, but as its popularity has grown, so too has the price tag. Stay as close to retail as you can when you buy this one. That said, Dickel has
Heaven Hill Bottled In Bond
Heaven Hill Bottled In Bond is getting a bit more difficult to track down these days too. The retail price is right around $40, but as its popularity has grown, so too has the price tag. Stay as close to retail as you can when you buy this one. That said, if you spot it for $40 or near it, grab it because this one’s fantastic. It’s aged 7 years and has a bit of cinnamon and spice to its flavor profile.
Elijah Craig Small Batch
This is another Heaven Hill product. At 92 proof, it’s smooth with little burn. Usually when I sip on this bottle, I can’t stop thinking about the heaps of vanilla on the tongue. It’s an easy bottle to come by, and the retail price is under $30. This is an easy one to love.
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