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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. For that reason, it’s best to stick with whiskey that’s not the cheapest but, instead, a good value compared to other whiskeys.
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.
Here are the best cheap whiskeys.
Best Overall: Old Grand-Dad Bourbon Whiskey
ABV: 40% | Age: No age statement | Volume: 750 milliliters, 1 liter
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.
The value of this whiskey cannot be understated, and there’s a reason it has been a “well” bourbon in many bars for years. It is a reliable whiskey that can work in almost any mixed drink, and it’s pretty good on the rocks. Liters are available for just a few extra dollars, so you’re sure to have whiskey around for a while. If volume isn’t a concern, spend that extra cash on Old Grand-Dad’s 100-proof bonded bourbon.
Best Bourbon: Old Forester 86 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky
ABV: 43% | Age: 4 years | Volume: 750 milliliters, 1 liter
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.
Best Rye: Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey
ABV: 43% | Age: 3 years | Volume: 750 milliliters
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.
Bottles of Old Overholt Rye received an update in 2020. While the 80-proof bottles may linger for some time, the brand’s base straight rye whiskey is now a bolder and more flavorful 86 proof. Along with a few updates to the label, this is welcome news for old-time whiskey enthusiasts. It remains a nice and affordable introduction to the spiciness of rye, is a great choice for cocktails, and will long remain a favorite as a shot with a beer back.
Best Irish: 2 Gingers Blended Irish Whiskey
ABV: 40% | Age: 4 years | Volume: 750 milliliters
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.
Best Canadian: Canadian Mist Whisky
ABV: 40% | Age: 3 years | Volume: 750 milliliters, 1 liter, 1.75 liters
When you want something that will mix perfectly into any cocktail, Canadian Mist is an excellent choice. This Canadian whisky is distilled from barley malt, rye, and corn, and then 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 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.
Best Scotch: The Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky
ABV: 40% | Age: No age statement | Volume: 750 milliliters, 1 liter
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.
Best Moonshine: Southern Shine Original Moonshine
ABV: 40% | Age: Unaged | Volume: 750 milliliters
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.
Best for an Old-Fashioned: Four Roses Bourbon
ABV: 40% | Age: At least 5 years | Volume: 750 milliliters
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.
Best to Drink Straight: Rebel Yell Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
ABV: 40% | Age: 10 years | Volume: 750 milliliters
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.
Best Flavored: Select Club Pecan Praline Whisky
ABV: 35% | Age: No age statement | Volume: 375 milliliters, 750 milliliters
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.
What to Look for in Cheap Whiskey
There are several styles of whiskey, and each has its own characteristics. For instance, bourbon has a classic whiskey taste, rye whiskey is spicy, Canadian whisky and Irish whiskey tend to be very smooth, and Scotch can be smoky. These generalizations can vary from one brand to the next, though as you explore whiskeys, you’ll likely develop a preference for one or two styles.
Aside from moonshine, whiskey is typically aged for at least a few years. The time spent in the barrel mellows the flavor, imparts vanilla and oak tones to the whiskey, and gives the spirit its golden color. While many pricier whiskeys clearly state how long they are aged, it’s common for budget whiskeys to forgo an age statement. This may be because it’s a blend of whiskeys of various ages or that the brand doesn’t want to promote a young whiskey. When shopping for whiskey on a budget, don’t worry too much about how old it is because you may not always find the answer.
Many whiskey distilleries produce a range of whiskeys that vary in price. If there’s a brand that you enjoy, see what else they offer because there may be a cheaper bottle available. It may not be quite as good or smooth as the higher-priced whiskey, but it will likely have some of the same characteristics. Also, some whiskey makers don’t promote their cheapest bottles and focus marketing efforts on the more popular expressions. Keep an eye out for hidden budget-friendly gems from names you trust.
Making whiskey is a basic process: Ferment grains to make a beer-like liquid, run it through a still to concentrate the alcohol, age it in barrels, and cut it to bottling strength. However, there are so many variables within that system that each distillery puts its own spin on it. Read labels and look for any special production techniques the brand is promoting. If they take the time to put a little extra effort into producing the whiskey, it’s likely going to be apparent in the taste.
Does cheap whiskey get better with age?
Distilled spirits are not like wine and don’t improve with age after bottling. The taste of whiskey will not change from the day it leaves the distillery, and while it could get worse, no length of time will make a bad whiskey taste good.
Should you filter whiskey?
More common with vodka, some people think that running cheap liquor through a water filter or charcoal improves the taste. This hack may seem like it works, but it’s not a great approach. For instance, activated charcoal water filters can actually remove some of the whiskey’s desirable flavors, not just its harshness. While it’s typically done before aging if you want to experiment, follow Tennessee whiskey’s Lincoln County Process, and use regular charcoal. In reality, it may cost you more to try and improve the cheapest whiskeys than to spend a little more on one that is drinkable straight out of the bottle.
What is the difference between bourbon and whiskey?
Bourbon is a style of whiskey that must be produced in the United States. Unlike other whiskeys, bourbon must be made according to specific regulations. These include a mash bill composed of at least 51 percent corn, the strength at which it is distilled and bottled, and aging in new, charred oak barrels.
Does whiskey go bad?
When properly stored, whiskey has a very long shelf life. Unopened bottles can be stored indefinitely in a cool place out of direct light, and the whiskey inside will not change. Once opened, you might notice some subtle flavor changes if the bottle isn’t sealed properly or the whiskey isn’t consumed within a few years. The only real concern about whiskey going bad is with flavored whiskeys because some include ingredients that may deteriorate over time, though even that is rare.
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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.