Jan 22, 2013

The Best Affordable Whiskey: 6 Top Shelf Bottles Under $40

These cold winter months, with their insane wind chills and 5:00 p.m. sunsets, are the season of curling up with a tumbler of, as Don Draper says, "something big and brown." No mixers, shakers, or bar tools required - just a heavy glass, and a quality whiskey that can stand up on its own for some serious sipping. And if you know what you're looking for, there's no reason you have to spend more than $40 a bottle. Single malts included.   Here are six excellent whiskeys that are both widely available for $39.99 or less...and many, much less. Organized by style, they'll keep you warm all winter long.


1. Kentucky Bourbon: Buffalo Trace Straight Kentucky Bourbon - $21.99
If you're looking for an every day straight bourbon, this one is hard to beat. Available for under $25, it's a serious best buy. It has strong vanilla flavors mixed with citrus and the oiliness of corn, making it great for sipping or mixing. 
Other ideas: Bulleit Bourbon ($22.50), Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10 Year ($29.99), Russell's Reserve 10 Year ($34.99), Charter 101 Kentucky Straight ($17.99)



2. Rye Whiskey: Bulleit 95 Small Batch Rye Whiskey - $23.99 
I love bourbon in classic whiskey cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan in the spring and summer, but opt for spicier rye in the cold weather months. Bulleit's relatively new rye has become a go-to - aged in the distillery's bourbon casks, it has plenty of toasty oak and smoothness, but at 95% rye content, allows that grain to dominate. Good.
Other ideas: Rittenhouse Rye 100 Proof ($25.99), Sazerac Straight Rye ($26.99)


3. Blended Scotch Whiskey: Chivas Regal 12 Years Old Blended Scotch - $28.99
The Chivas 12 is great at what blended Scotches should be: easy to drink and easy to share. I like to keep a bottle of this (or Dewar's 12 [blue label]) for having friends over and enjoying while chatting after dinner or playing a board game. This is also a great choice for those that like to put ice in their whiskey, or mix with water or soda. It doesn't knock your socks off, but it's an excellent choice for first-timers or when it doesn't make sense to bust out the single malt.
Other ideas: Dewar's 12 Year ($27.99), The Black Grouse Blended Scotch ($28.99), Cutty Sark ($24.99) 



4. Single Malt Scotch Whiskey:  This category is the toughest, since there are so many styles, and lots to appreciate about each. So, I'll recommend two quite different bottles, each with lots to love.

  •  Glenmorangie 10 Years Old (Scottish Highlands) - $39.99 Known by many as the best value in scotch, or "the perfect ten," Glenmorangie's standard is light golden, sweet, and fruity - tasting just like it smells. It's not big, nor very complex, but it's excellent, and a great first single malt to try for drinkers used to blended scotch. Sometimes, clean, easy, and straightforward is exactly what you're looking for. This is the one. 

  •  Laphroaig 10 Year (Islay) - $39.99  Note: I've seen this as high as $45-50 in some stores, but I can regularly find it at $40.00. It's still a great bang-for-your-buck value at $50.  Islay-region whiskeys are, literally, off the coast from the much larger Highland region, and their malts are quite different. Laphroaig is among the most intense whiskeys you can find, which huge peaty, smoky, and salt flavors. It tastes of the sea, of the beach, and it's as distinctive as a $40 bottle can get. No, it's not the ultimate Islay scotch, but it's the one that costs less than $70, and you'll be willing to share. A personal favorite. If you're looking where to step up from here, try Laphroaig's Quarter Cask or Lagavulin 16. 

Other ideas: Aberfeldy 12 ($39.99), Glenlivet 12 ($32.99), Singleton of Glendullen 12 ($36.00)

5. Blended Whiskey: Michael Collins Blended Irish Whiskey - $28.99

Plenty of countries other than Scotland make great whiskey - the United States, Japan, Canada, Wales. Great for mixing and barroom favorites, these whiskeys aren't inferior, just of a different tradition. My favorite in this category is Michael Collins from Ireland. It tastes of almonds and ripe fruit, moves around your palette well, and is quite complex for a sub-$30 bottle. It may take some getting used to, but it's a great value. 
Other ideas: Tullamore Dew (Ireland, $28.00), Canadian Mist Black Diamond (Canada, $14.00), Barton (Ireland, $19.99)


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Chris Walker on Oct 22, 2018:

Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch goes for around $15 a bottle and in my opinion surpasses some bourbons 2 or 3 times it’s price point. Fantastic as a sipping bourbon and at that price can be used for those who prefer a cocktail rather than straight up. You simply can’t go wrong with it.

Kate @ OneBagger on Jun 08, 2017:

I thought it would be interesting to see other peoples picks for a given spirit, ranging from "eh, I'll drink it at a bar in a mixed drink" to something you drink for special occasions.
For example, I'm a fan of bourbon. The lower tier would be even William's. The middle tier and what I go through the most of is wild turkey 101. The stuff I love but drink rarely would probably be Woodford's reserve. I'd love to see other peoples opinions of different spirits.

Charlie Crash on Mar 04, 2017:

George Dickel No. 8 is a fantastic sipper, and far surpasses JD.

Charlie Crash on Mar 04, 2017:

I highly recommend Evan Williams Small Batch Bourbon. Great, everyday drinker and sipper!

Chris on Dec 21, 2015:

@Buffa...No - Okay... I'll bite. Where do you live? In the continental US? And can you confirm it was the standard straight Bourbon, aged four years? Because I have seen and purchased this around the country - the Midwest, the South, and the Pacific Northwest, and nowhere does it come close to breaking even $30. Please share your details.

Buffa...No on Dec 21, 2015:

I found the Buffalo Trace locally.... for $48 a bottle.  We must not live in the same place... at all. 

delucasaurus on Oct 31, 2015:

Can't believe nobody suggested Elijah Craig 12yr. At $23-26 a bottle it makes a lot of $50 bourbons (especially some of the newer "small batch" bourbons) seem outrageously overpriced.

@Tom_Rite on Sep 22, 2015:

My current favorite bourbon is Basil Hayden at $36.99

Deano on Jun 18, 2015:

Glenmorangie is my go to whisky. It is simply amazing value when you consider the complexity and refinement. This isn't the number 1 selling scotch in Scotland for no reason.

Peaty Ian on Jun 15, 2015:

i don't care for Glenmorangie, too generic tasting. But for a good value blended, try Buchanan's 12 yr. I think it's about $25.

Rugbyman on Nov 25, 2013:

NOT a White Label fan at all but the Dewers12 year old is the best scotch value I've come across @ 29.99 hard to beat.

Brittney on Mar 19, 2013:

I'll definitely have to try the Glenmorangie, though I am a huuuuuge Laphroaig fan (though typically the quarter cask). Mm, like getting hit in the face with fire. That peaty goodness is part of why I love single malt scotch.. though I'm always open to suggestions!

Anonymous on Feb 21, 2013:

One must try Sheildeg. An 18yr old single malt from Total Wine & More. $39.00


Chris on Jan 28, 2013:

Thanks for all the additional suggestions! Keep 'em coming.

Kim Werker on Jan 22, 2013:

Not sure if you can find this (easily) outside of Canada, but Forty Creek Barrel Select is just over $20 a bottle, and it's fabulous.

donleitch on Jan 22, 2013:

Tamdhu is also great if you can find it. It is a Really affordable Speyside, and it is back in production... not sure how long before new product hits the stores.

Anonymous on Jan 22, 2013:

Also a suggestion from the peanut gallery: Wasmund's Single Malt