The Good Life: The best bargain bourbons

Steve Palec on Bourbon

Steve Palec

Last updated on February 7th, 2023 at 10:12 am

Let’s say a salesperson invites you to lunch, picks you up and takes you to Costco for the $1.50 hot dog and soda combo. “Look,” he or she says, “I’m all about value in everything I do. That includes what we do for you.” Maybe a little extreme, but it makes a point.

With manufacturers suggested prices all over the board, and ridiculous markup on the secondary market, I’m often asked to recommend a good reasonably priced bourbon.

I can tell you unequivocally that there is one bourbon I’d suggest as the absolute best value you can find. Hands down. No doubt about it. Far and away. I said a hip hop, the hippie, the hippie. To the hip, hip hop and a you don’t stop the rockin’. To the bang-bang boogie, say up jump the boogie. To the rhythm of the boogie, the beat. Now, what you hear is not a test:

Do I have your attention?

Eagle Rare is priced under $40 and is aged ten years. In my opinion, it is hands down the best bang for the buck. It is a beautiful bourbon. Many seem to agree with me, since it flies off the shelves. If you see it, get it.

Now, value is obviously a subjective concept. I’ve learned in the marketing world you need to be a bit subtle about it. Put the word “value” in your store or product’s name, and people think “cheap.” Value Village sounds like a trap. True Value works for screws and bolts, but they aren’t selling caviar. But be subtle and slip the word into a jingle for Fleet Farm, or Farm and Fleet, and you’ve found value.

There are quite a few affordable bourbons that work just fine if you are mixing a drink. But since I sip bourbon, I’ve kept track of those value propositions that stand on their own.

Here are a few:

Two bourbons named for their locales: Breckinridge from Colorado and Hudson Baby Bourbon from New York.

Maker’s Mark. I was once meeting some folks in a small bar in a small town in Wisconsin. Arriving first, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I usually scan the bottles quickly to see what they have. Behind the bartender was a bottle of Maker’s Mark that had collected a few decades of dust. I like Maker’s, and it is always a safe choice.

Evidently, I was the only one in that town that noticed since the barkeep poured it into a beer glass and had no idea what to charge me. He guessed $5. I didn’t argue.

I’d suggest you spend just a little more and try Maker’s 46, which is matured with a spicy French oak stave. It is named after the 46 different recipes they tried to achieve the taste. Try it, you’ll like it.

I also once found myself at an all-inclusive resort where there were only two bourbon choices. One made me shudder, but the other, Benchmark, wasn’t the worst thing in the world. If you are strictly looking at price, it’s worth a try.

It seems that people gifting me a bottle of bourbon seem to choose Four Roses, Bulleit or Woodford Reserve. All are solid.

But if I am giving someone a bottle in the “don’t break the bank” range and want to be fondly remembered, I’ll choose Bib & Tucker, a six-year-old bourbon with a lot of character in an old time bottle that looks like your grandmother got it free with her plastic sofa protector.

Another very reasonably priced value is 1792 Bottled in Bond. That bond label requires being aged in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least four years. Some would argue that government involvement is the opposite of value, but I really like this bourbon.

And to come full circle, if you go to Costco and can find their Kirkland Bottled in Bond, I’m pretty sure that it is actually 1792 Bottled in Bond in a bigger bottle for a lower price than the namesake.

And for an extra $1.50, you can get a hot dog and a soda.

Steve Palec is chief marketing officer of Milwaukee-based commercial real estate development firm Irgens.

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