Editors pick five smart bourbons under $20

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The capital city isn't what you might call a bourbon town -- not yet. But it is changing. Step into Batch 13 liquor and wine shop on 14th Street, and you'll see a dizzying array of bourbons and ryes for sale. There's Masterson's. Over there is Whistle Pig. And you'll find a batch of Michter's bottles that would make home bar proud. Prices of $75 and up aren't uncommon. 

But try finding a cheaper bourbon that it's the ubiquitous Jim Beam or Wild Turkey in Batch 13 or any of the other nicer liquor stores in DC's trendier neighborhoods and you're going to be looking for a while. Welcome to the Bourbon Boom, where the excitement is focused on high-end bourbon, the pricier the better. 

There's good reason for that. Much of the expensive bourbon tastes good, and packs a good story too. And from retailers'  point of view, precious shelf space ought to be used to present as much of the high-margin good stuff as they think will sell. After all, it's what Americans are buying. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States sales numbers show that super-premium bourbon -- roughly, bottles that sell for $30 or more -- jumped 87 percent between 2008 and 2013. Value brands -- roughly, bottles under $13 -- sales stayed comparatively flat, rising 14 percent over six years. 

A $12 bottle with character isn't easy to find, though there are plenty of example sod contenders. Last June, a tasting of 20 low- to mid-priced bottles finished with Old Heaven Hill Bonded placing nicely.  

We're not ready to deny anyone, ourselves least of all, the pleasure of the very small batches, the pricy pours that come with such great history and, when hitting their stride, artisanal attention to quality. Pour us the Pappy, the Michter's, the Reservoir -- and make it neat, or with a big fat ice cube. Thank you.  

But what of the old favorites? The long-lived brands that were good enough for bartenders and boozers alike for generations? Are they really so uninteresting? We don't think so. Spare a spot in your home bar for these bottles. Some are old names and some aren't. But they are all bottles you'll be happy to pour, and even happier replacing them will be so easy on your wallet.

Our editors fanned out across the country and did some tastings and talking. Here are five suggestions for your bar. 

Heaven Hill 6 Year: Bottled-in-Bond

Name: Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond        Owner: Heaven Hill                                         Price: $10 to $12

Matthew Landan, owner of Haymarket Whiskey Bar in downtown Louisville, is a big fan of bottled-in-bond bourbon and a blunt advocate for bargain whiskey. Those two factors come together nicely in the Heaven Hill 6 Year—refreshingly smooth and simple over ice on a humid spring night, refreshingly kind to the wallet.

The Haymarket is featuring several affordable bottled-in-bonds when I visit. These are bourbons that have been produced in accordance with a set of legal regulations established by the U.S. Congress in 1897 to ensure authenticity and quality. It’s an old standard of quality but a reliable one -- and it also means it's exactly 100 proof.

While Landan is happy to sell the premium hooch to curious customers, he says there is much to explore on the lower shelves. And in so many ways, he explains, it’s all the same stuff.

“Have you been to many of the distilleries?” he asks. It’s only a few days after Derby Day and Landan is admittedly “lethargic” after Derby Week and the service industry parties that followed. He’s perhaps a little grumpy, too.

“I mean, it’s all made the exact same way on the exact same day. It’s all put in the barrels the same way. It’s just the matter of: When do you pull the barrel, and how much marketing money you put toward the product … Bourbon’s bourbon. I don’t care what fancy **** you put on the bottle. It’s just whiskey.” 

Maybe. But, quoting the Stones, “I like it, like it, yes I do!”

Heaven Hill is bottled at Heaven Hill Distilleries in Bardstown, Ky. A 750 ml bottle will cost you $10 to $12. 

Why it’s underrated: Too often we associate “inexpensive,” or “affordable,” or “bargain-priced” with something that is poorly or cheaply made. Don’t let Heaven Hill 6 Year’s forgiving price tag fool you. It is a “bottled-in-bond bourbon,” adhering to an old, tried-and-true standard of quality—a standard that was the industry’s highest for much of the 20th century. -- by Kevin R. Hyde, Kentucky Editor / BourbonStory.com.

Kirkland Signature Bourbon: Costco's house brand

Costco secretly sources its 100-proof Kirkland small-batch bourbon, and our man in Chicago says it's worth the $20 a liter they get for it. (Photo by Allen Helm / Bourbon Story Magazine.)

Name: Kirkland Small Batch Bourbon
Owner: Costco
Price: $20 or so, for 1L.

Most people don’t consider Costco as the go-to place for quality liquor.  However, its Kirkland Signature Bourbon is worth investigating.  Running about $20 for a liter at the Chicago stores, you can afford to drink a lot of it. Costco isn’t doing any distilling so someone is making it for them. The mystery of which exact distillery makes it has led to quite a bit of discussion in the bourbon press.  Last December, Insider Louisville pointed out that the label lists Clear Springs Distillery and the towns of Clermont and Frankfort, Ky.  They determined that it is made by Buffalo Trace, which also makes Pappy Van Winkle. 

Mike Veach, official Bourbon historian at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville told Insider Louisville it reminds him of Jim Beam, which is also made in Clermont.  I tried it and I think it’s more robust than Beam, or at least Beam White Label. At seven years old and 103 proof it should be. This is a great bourbon neat, on the rocks, and the proof should give it enough heft to stand up in a Manhattan. -- By Allen Helm, Chicago Editor / BourbonStory.com.

Four Roses, a treat for the Japanese, now available here 

Name: 4 Roses
Owner: Kirin Brewery Company
Price: $19

This 116-year old gem was for decades the top selling bourbon in the United States. When Seagrams bought the old Frankfort Distilling Company in the 1950s, it discontinued the brand in the U.S., though it was still the sales leader here, and instead sent all of the whiskey to Japan and other markets in Asia. American forgot about the brand. The rest of the world did not; it rose to the top across the seas, becoming one of the biggest bourbons in the world. Yet it was not sold stateside.

Reintroduced in the U.S. in 2002 when Kirin bought the Kentucky distiller, the brand is overshadowed by its more famous Kentucky neighbors, but is just as good. It should be, Master Distiller Jim Rutledge was a member of the inaugural class of the Bourbon Hall of Fame and has been at the distillery for more than 40 years. Whisky Magazine once noted that one in six bottles of whiskey sold in America between 1920 and 1932 was a bottle of Four Roses, which like Old Forester below, had been available -- by prescription -- during Prohibition. By Hudson Lindenberger, Colorado Editor / BourbonStory.com.

Old Forester: Good whiskey, uninterrupted. 

Name: Old Forester
Owner: Brown-Forman Corp.
Price: $18 

Old Forester, the workhorse bourbon that built Brown-Forman Company, is the oldest continuously bottled bourbon in the world. It's been available by the bottle since before, during (with a prescription) and after Prohibition.  

For many it's the house brand for Louisville bourbon lovers. At 86 proof, it's thin for a crowded cocktail, but it's nice over ice, or with a bit of water.

Chris Morris, Brown-Forman's master distiller, said in an interview with Bourbon Story that one secret to Old Fo's staying power has been the consistency with which it has been made for 144 years. Morris notes that it's not that today's Old Forester is exactly the same as the one first made in 1870. Insisting on that point, he said, is pointless. Who would know what something tasted like exactly so long ago? Instead, he said his teams strive to pay enough attention to detail to keep the flavor profile consistent enough that a customer who had a glass of Old Forester 20 years ago is not going to be disappointed when he or she orders another one tonight. -- Michael Lindenberger, Editor / BourbonStory.com.

Old Grand-Dad: A recommendation with a caveat

Name: Old Grand-Dad 
Owner: Beam Suntory
Price: $19

Here's a final recommendation, but it's one you'll need to pay attention to. Beam inc., the brand's owner, lowered the proof in mid-2012 from 86 to 80. Executives said it needed to do so to keep the price low and to keep enough of its whiskey for its 100-proof bottled-in-bond expression.

I'd stick with the 86 proof, while you can find it. Last week, I stopped into Christopher's Hitchens's favorite spot in Washington, a classy but pretty casual Italian restaurant in DuPont Circle named La Tomate. The bar is fine, with a regular crowd. It's fine on scotch, Hitchens's posion, but its keeper knows very little about bourbon. Still, I picked the Old Grand-Dad and was pleased to find that they poured the 86-proof variety. It went smooth over some ice. 

If you can't find the 86 proof, look for the bottled-in-bond variety. -- Michael A. Lindenberger, Editor / BourbonStory.com.

Batch 13 liquor and wine shop in Washington's trendy 14th Street corridor is expanding its shelf space to make room for n even wider stock of high-end bourbons and other spirits. But as the focus -- and shed space -- is increasingly turned over to premium bourbon, have we forgotten old standbys that remain worth the pour? Above, Four Roses is the welcome exception to the rule. (Photo by Michael Lindenberger / BourbonStory.com.) 

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Michael Lindenberger

Michael Lindenberger is a 2012-13 Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, where he will spend a year developing a business model for blogs that looks beyond advertising and subscriptions for revenue. He is on leave from The Dallas Morning News, where he is a senior reporter writing about the nexus between the politics and policy of transportation on the local, state and national level. He is founder and co-author with Rodger Jones of the Dallas Transportation Blog. His print journalism was recognized in 2012 as the previous year's best example at The News of work that brings perspective, interpretation and analysis to bear on difficult topics. Also in 2012, the newspaper nominated his work for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting. A 2006 graduate of the night program at Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville, Michael also is a contributing national legal affairs writer for TIME.com and a former adjunct professor of media law at the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism. His work has appeared in newspapers, wire reports and magazines around the world, including The New York Times, Reuters, The ABA Journal, Robb Report Magazine and others.