Bourbon and rye in this price range offer a lot of value. It is great place for beginners to start their journey. Proof trends a bit higher here as this price range includes several barrel strength expressions. These bottles are not widely considered to be mixers, so you should expect them to stand on their own.
#1 Stagg Jr
Stagg Jr. is a much younger expression of the coveted George T. Stagg from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. Stagg Jr is barrel proof, uncut, and unfiltered. It shares the same mash bill as Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, and Colonel EH Taylor. The actual ABV varies by batch, but consistently weighs in around 130 proof. This will blow the doors off of even the most experienced bourbon connoisseur, so feel free to add ice or a splash of water to tame it down. While the MSRP is $44.62, be prepared, most retailers charge significantly more due to strong demand. Even at a 20% to 30% premium Stagg Jr still presents a good value proposition, but you may have to move down this list to stay within budget.
#2 Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch Bottled-in-Bond
EH Taylor Small Batch BiB is the entry level for a product line that pays homage to Colonel E.H. Taylor, a giant of bourbon history. The Buffalo Trace suggested retail price is $35.70. In my experience, the price range runs $40-$50 when you can find it. Its packaging includes an antique themed label, faux tax stamp, and packing tube. A great presentation. Inside the bottle, however, is where EH Taylor Small Batch really shines. This is a bottled-in-bond product, so you know it meets the most stringent regulator standards in whiskey. As a bottled-in-bond product, you’ll also find an ABV suitable for Goldilocks, not too hot, not too cold, at 100 proof. Demand for Buffalo Trace products has reached a fever pitch, so you may have trouble locating this bottle regularly. Availability can also depend upon region, so keep an eye out when you’re traveling.
#3 Four Roses Single Barrel
The Four Rose Single Barrel flavor is sophisticated, and so is its packaging. As a single barrel bourbon, each release is nuanced, but this bourbon will always deliver big value. The rye content of the standard Four Roses Single Barrel mash bill is much higher than most bourbons. The flavor is complex and has a creamy texture. Their standard single barrel release is readily available from most liquor stores. It is always the proprietary OBSV recipe; however, Four Roses actually produces ten different bourbon recipes resulting in ten unique flavor profiles. Bars and bottle shops who participate in the Four Roses private barrel program can select an alternative recipe to be bottled and sold exclusively on site. These “store picks” are bottled at barrel strength, and typically sold for a significant premium as well. Four Roses is a distiller lauded by bourbon geeks for their transparency, and understanding the detail provided on the label can help prevent buyer’s remorse.
#4 Wild Turkey Rare Breed
Rare Breed is the barrel strength expression of Wild Turkey bourbon. Wild Turkey has a bold flavor profile, and Rare Breed is no exception. Wild Turkey’s barrel entry proof is relatively low resulting in an ABV just below 60% for Rare Breed. It is a lower proof barrel strength bourbon, but this does not belie its flavor. This is a full palate experience. Its long finish truly lives up to the “Kentucky hug” moniker. Like most Wild Turkey products, it is commonly available, and it is all too easily overlooked. Don’t fall into this trap. Rare Breed is a wonderful bourbon, well worth the price of admission.
#5 Editor’s Choice: Marker’s Mark Cask Strength
For an MSRP around $40 I’d be doing a disservice if I failed to mention Marker’s Mark Cask Strength. When you consider the only alternative nationally distributed, barrel strength, wheated bourbon is the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection unicorn William LaRue Weller, then you’ll begin to understand what a bargain Marker’s Mark Cask Strength represents. WL Weller is double the retail price of Maker’s Cask Strength (and good luck finding it). You’ll have to fight the hoards, win a lottery, or know a retailer well enough to even have the good fortune to buy it.
(Please note: While it is true Maker’s Mark 46 Select is also a barrel strength, wheated option, it is a finished bourbon. The flavor profile ranges widely depending upon the staves selected. Unless you live near the Maker’s gift shop in Loretto, this is not routinely available nation-wide.)
Like Wild Turkey, Maker’s also has a barrel entry proof lower than most distilleries. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength ABV is lower than most barrel proof bourbons as a result, and possibly due their aging process as well. That said, there is plenty of heat. Give it some time to oxidize and it will open up nicely.