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Going cheap with whiskey is a gamble. While you may not want to spend over $20 for a bottle, there's a good chance of buying something that you'll regret because cheap whiskey can be like drinking fire. Whether you’re a fan of bourbon, rye, or Irish whiskey, there are a handful of good whiskeys that every frugal drinker should know. You’ll even find a budget-friendly Scotch and, of course, there’s always moonshine. Generally not the smoothest, most of these are best in mixed drinks, though a few are nice straight, too.
Old Grand-Dad (OGD, for short) is a quintessential back porch-sipping whiskey and a favorite among the whiskey crowd. The original bourbon is bottled at 80-proof and has a lively spice due to the rye, which was the signature ingredient of distiller Basil Hayden. Distilled today by Jim Beam (the makers of the top-shelf Basil Hayden Bourbon as well), it's a classic whiskey you won't want to miss.
While that bottle is a good choice, spending a few extra dollars on Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon is an excellent upgrade. It's a robust 100-proof that continues to astound whiskey drinkers. It is excellent on its own and can stand up to any mixed drink, so there’s plenty of opportunities to enjoy it.
Old Forester is an old name in the bourbon world. It is the original brand of what would come to be the liquor industry giant Brown-Forman, which owns some of today’s best-known distilled spirit brands. Old Forester’s flagship bottle is everything you'd expect from a good Kentucky whiskey: a timeless, reliable bourbon that never disappoints.
A whiskey dating back to 1870, Old Forester 86 Proof survived Prohibition, which forced many distillers out of business. It has remained a figure in bars and a great value in the whiskey industry. Offering a smooth experience, it does start out sharp, but the taste mellows perfectly with hints of oak, corn, and rye. This one can easily become your go-to, and it makes a great whiskey sour. Its nutty spice also shines in highballs like the Presbyterian.
Rye whiskey doesn’t make it into a bar’s well often, but it’s not uncommon to spot a bottle of Old Overholt among the stock of inexpensive liquors used for well drinks. This whiskey held on through the decades of the rye decline when many other brands shuttered. While it has gone through some changes over the years, it has been reformulated to reflect the pre-Prohibition whiskey.
Starting in 2020, bottles of Old Overholt Rye will be a little different. It’s not reverting to the big and bold 100-proof, bottled-in-bond whiskey that was an icon for much of the 20th century. However, it’s ramping up from the more recent 80 proof to 86 proof. Along with a few other updates, this is welcome news for old-time whiskey enthusiasts. It remains a gentle introduction to the spiciness of rye, is a great choice for cocktails, and will long remain a favorite for a shot with a beer back.
Irish whiskey is characteristically smooth and mixable. It’s also generally reasonably priced, with just a few bottles stretching into the luxury market. While there are some well-known brands that are nice to drink, 2 Gingers is a good change of pace at a price that’s hard to beat. It’s a product of the Kilbeggan Distillery, so it has a well-regarded name in this whiskey style behind it.
Like most, 2 Gingers is a blended Irish whiskey. It’s distilled two times then aged for four years. The taste is malty and semi-sweet, with inviting notes of oak, vanilla, and caramel. This is a fantastic choice for any Irish whiskey cocktail, including the famous Irish coffee. It’s also smooth enough to drink straight or, better yet, with a single piece of ice to really open up the aroma and flavor.
When you want something that will mix perfectly into any cocktail, Canadian Mist is an excellent choice. This Canadian whisky (it's only whiskey when made in America or Ireland) is distilled from barley malt, rye, and corn and aged in white oak barrels. That base is then blended with flavoring whiskies to create an easy drink that will even appeal to people who enjoy white spirits like rum and vodka.
Canadian Mist has a subtle and smooth profile. It pairs wonderfully with a variety of flavors, from sweets to fruits, and it can even handle spiced drinks. A simple whiskey highball with soda is equally pleasing. Possibly the best part of this infinitely mixable whisky is that it comes at a bottom-shelf price but without the burn found in many of its competitors.
Scotch can be quite expensive. It’s also generally higher priced than other types of whiskey, so “inexpensive” is a relative term in this category. Rather than go straight to the bottom of the price list, it’s a good idea to splurge just a bit on a mid-range Scotch such as The Famous Grouse.
A blended Scotch whisky, it offers a smooth taste with delicious notes of dried fruit and spiced sweet bread against an oaky background. Not too smoky or peaty, it’s fantastic as a sipper and makes a great cocktail, whether that’s a Rob Roy or scotch and soda. There’s a good reason this whisky is a favorite in Scotland, and it’s a nice addition to anyone’s home bar.
Moonshine is notorious for that whiskey burn. Without the mellowing effects of barrel-aging, this is whiskey straight out of the still, so it’s anything but subtle. Today’s legal moonshine scene is producing some rather impressive whiskeys. Distillers are putting more attention into the craft and taste of this corn liquor, and diluting it to a normal bottling strength takes the edge off. It’s a great time to give ’shine a second taste!
One brand to check out is Southern Shine. The South Carolina distillery puts its white whiskey through a TerrePURE filtering process that removes most of the congeners responsible for moonshine’s typical corn-on-fire taste. Pleasant to drink, this 80-proof whiskey can make some interesting cocktails, too. Complete with the mason jar packaging for a hint of nostalgia, you’ll also find some tasty flavors of Southern Shine.
Four Roses produces some very nice bourbons. Most are quite pricey, and there are many limited-edition bottles available when you’re looking for a top-shelf option. The portfolio's hidden gem of frugality is the standard Four Roses Bourbon, otherwise known as "Yellow Label."
Though not the cheapest, this is a great value bourbon that makes an excellent old-fashioned. It has a classic bourbon flavor with a smooth, long finish, and the hints of honey spice are ideal for this relatively transparent drink. Between the cocktail’s sugar, bitters, and subtle dilution, the whiskey softens wonderfully and does the classic cocktail justice.
If you love a good wheat bourbon, Rebel Yell is the bottle for you. The wheat-to-corn ratio adds an enjoyable sweetness and makes this one of the softest, smoothest whiskeys in this price range. That's an aspect that some people like and others (who expect the burn) don't.
Honey is the most notable flavor in this 80-proof sipping whiskey, and that's precisely what it is. Don't bother mixing it. Simply drink it straight and add a splash of water if you like. It will get lost in mixed drinks, but it is a fantastic find if you prefer your whiskey straight out of the bottle.
From apple and cinnamon to peanut butter and maple, it’s not difficult to find a budget-friendly flavored whiskey. Most are marketed at a lower price to draw in consumers, and it often works quite well. Select Club Pecan Praline Whisky may not be the trendiest selection, but it is delicious.
Labeled as “ultra-premium,” this bottle does cost more than some of its competitors, though it’s in line with affordable straight whiskeys. The Canadian whisky is well-made and aged in barrels that once housed bourbon. The play of nutty flavors against oak with an ideal amount of sweetness is a joy to drink. It’s simply a yummy whiskey that can easily replace dessert.
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Colleen Graham is a food and beverage writer with over a decade of experience writing about cocktails, beer, and wine. She is the author of two books—“Rosé Made Me Do It” and “Tequila: Cocktails With a Kick”—and has developed countless drink recipes.