Your expectations should be very high when paying over $50 for a bottle of booze. When it comes to bourbon and rye, you can find super premium whiskey in this price range, but you can also find some drain cleaner. This is the price range where the Bourbon Analysis tool could save your butt from buyer’s remorse, or help you find a gift that leaves ‘em knowing you really care.
For context, this price range is about where quality entry level scotch prices begin. This is the beautiful thing about bourbon and rye in the United States, and why everybody should take a pilgrimage to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail to pay our respects.
#1 Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
Non-chill filtered and uncut, this 12 year old bourbon is a gem in the premium bourbon category. It is not as ubiquitous as Elijah Craig Small Batch, but Barrel Proof can be found throughout the year. Ask your local liquor store owner to order a bottle for you. Most are happy to do so. ABV varies by batch, but is typically in the hazmat zone (north of 130 proof). The real value of barrel proof bourbon is it allows you to proof it to taste with ice or water. Bourbon geeks will actually source limestone filtered water from Kentucky. The Elijah Craig product line received a face lift in 2017, and the packaging now suits this world class whiskey. You may be able to find older bottles on store shelves in the remote corners of the world, but don’t let this put you off. The last few batches in the retired packaging are among the best.
#2 High West A Midwinter Night’s Dram
It’s hard to recommend a ‘finished’ whiskey when the purity of bourbon is what draws so many of us to the category. But, give credit where credit is due. High West delivers a masterpiece by mingling old and older rye that have never been chill or carbon filtered. The blend is finished in both port and French oak casks resulting in the world’s best companion to a roaring fireplace on a cold winter’s night. What sets High West apart they are starting with a premium whiskey, and then finishing it. Be wary of distillers ‘finishing’ to cover up substandard products. High West packaging is on point, in general. Midwinter’s label just might be their best example.
#3 Booker’s Small Batch Straight Bourbon
Bourbon the way God intended. Complex, bold, and hot. It is, admittedly, very difficult to recommend a bourbon that has increased in MSRP by roughly 40% within one year, but one must, again, give credit where credit is due. A tough pill to swallow nonetheless, but Booker’s was underpriced at around $50 retail. Legendary distiller Booker Noe (like Mount Rushmore of bourbon, legendary) once gave bottles straight from the barrel to friends and family as Christmas gifts. With this heartwarming story as a backdrop, Booker’s is now a quintessential gift to carry on this tradition. Beam ships the black wax dipped wine bottle in a handsome wood display box. It’s a small but effective touch. Booker’s is bottled at barrel strength, and is an eye-opener for the uninitiated. It benefits from air, so take your time. Good times and whiskey are gone too fast… and occasionally together. Let it breath. This adds some anticipation to the ritual anyway.
#4 Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style
Brown Forman released their third edition of the Whiskey Row series in 2016, and it didn’t take long for critics to recognize Old Forester 1920 Prohibition Style as a potential whiskey of the year. It’s hard to believe this bourbon wasn’t available just a short time ago, which speaks volumes to its quality. At 115 proof 1920 is a near barrel strength expression of Old Forester. No age statement is provided, but the barrels must come from a very special area of the warehouse if it’s no older than the standard Old Forester Signature release. The flavor falls right into the Old Forester profile, but it is quite approachable when you consider it’s nearly 60% ABV. 1920 is included on this list because it offers something for critics, connoisseurs, and novices alike.
#5 Editor’s Choice: Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel
Jimmy Russell at Wild Turkey is the greatest living master distiller. The “living” qualifier may not be necessary. Jimmy and his son, Eddie, have built Wild Turkey into a powerhouse. They’d humbly credit their unwavering commitment to maintaining the same process, but they sell their abilities far too short. As a single barrel, there is some inherent variation from each release. Bars and bottle shops that participate in Wild Turkey’s private barrel selection program offer the best value. Ironically, the off-flavor profile bottles are the most desirable. Where legal, a reputable store owner should give you a sample of their private barrel select before bottling. Prepare yourself for the 55% ABV, because there is a lot to love beyond the initial punch.
Bourbon and rye whiskies are a bargain relatively speaking. Many of us, however, wonder how long it will last. Prices have risen dramatically in response to global demand over the past ten years. Many worry bourbon and rye prices are destined to rival scotch. Some distillers have ratcheted down quality to stay in their lane price-wise by dropping age statements. (Be cautious of these labels, but not dismissive.) As you can see, several high quality options are still available to us in the $50 to $100 price range. Unfortunately, there are many, many more recent market entrants that do not meet this standard.