One of the real treats of living in Kentucky for five years, among other things, was the welcoming introduction several people gave me to an old bluegrass classic—Kentucky straight bourbon. I had never actually tried bourbon until I arrived in the promised land of Kentucky, but I have always appreciated what I learned there.
I now know what “neat” and “on the rocks” mean, and I’ve learned to enjoy the combination of flavor and burn that comes from a good dose. One of my other favorite things about bourbon, though, is that it can be relatively inexpensive to get a great bottle. So as an ode to the great motherland of Kentucky, where bourbon, tobacco and firearms are celebrated, my list of the five best bourbons for under $35.
As a note to newcomers, one of the big mistakes I made was thinking the popular brands—Jim Beam White Label and Jack Daniels Black Label—were surefire picks. It just ain’t so. I suppose if you mix them with a Coke (which a bourbon enthusiast would probably never do) they’re alright, but generally speaking they are not made to be what is called a “sipping whiskey.”
1. Buffalo Trace
This could easily be a $65 bottle of bourbon and people would still buy it. Instead, it’s a great buy in the twenty dollar range, one of the cheapest on my list and an instant classic. And there’s a buffalo on the bottle. You had me at “buffalo.” For gifts or for my own enjoyment, Buffalo Trace is my go-to bottle. In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, there is a buffalo on the label.
Based out of Frankfort, Ky., Buffalo Trace offers a wide array of fragrance from start to finish, with a clean and crisp taste that doesn’t overpower. This makes it that all-time favorite and is probably a great introduction for those not used to drinking bourbon.
2. Woodford Reserve
Woodford Reserve, while a little bit more expensive (every location is a bit different), is a stellar bourbon. This year on a deer hunt in Oklahoma I was forced to drink Coors and Bud Light, a truly painful experience. When I opened the cabinet and found a quarter bottle of Woodford, it made the trip. It brings me back to Kentucky every time with another smooth, classy taste that doesn’t overwhelm. This is also one of the more well known bourbons abroad, so I find it is more commonly stocked in restaurants.
3. 1792 Ridgemont Reserve
I’m no expert whiskey snob, but this one tastes like peaches. That’s all I got. Kind of a strange thought for Kentucky and bourbon, but it comes out quite well. This one pairs well with an afternoon pipe tobacco and is incredibly soothing. I imagine if I had a yacht, I’d probably bring a bottle of 1792 along to remind me of home. But then again, Kentuckians don’t really do yachts. We’re more of a floatin’ party barge bunch. It works for that, too.
4. Knob Creek
A 9-year whiskey and part of the Jim Beam family, Knob Creek is like owning a nice Buick. It gets the job done with style and comfort, but isn’t the absolute flashiest thing you’ve done in your life. I also think it can be a bit strong while overshadowing much of the flavor. But then again, bourbon is a kind of blue-collar thing anyway and there’s nothing more blue-collar than a knockout punch. In my opinion it is a lot better than the Jim Beam White Label but costs only a few dollars more. Outside of Kentucky it can be hard to find much of a bourbon selection at local grocery stores, but they typically always have a bottle of Knob Creek.
5. Old Forester Signature
As I said earlier, bourbon makes a great blue-collar drink because of the price. At the same time, bourbons like Old Forester Signature offer a complex range of flavors that are rich and robust. This is one of my favorite $28 bourbons that tastes much more expensive. Developed by George Garvin Brown, a Louisville native, Old Forester Signature is a Kentucky classic.
Honorable mention: I didn’t put Maker’s Mark on the list, partly because it’s already wildly popular and because I can’t ever bring myself to buy it in the sub $35, 750 ml bottle—I always seem to buy the big bottle. It’s that good. While it lacks an extravagant flavor/aroma range, it is without doubt a classic. Great with a pipe or cigar, after dinner or before, Maker’s does it all.