Taste Test: Bourbons Under $25

We had three friends over last weekend to taste some bourbons. For this first group, the theme was "bourbons under $25." A few of the bottles were submitted by the distilleries, and the rest were from my own cabinet.

We conducted the tasting blind, so the participants didn't know which bourbon they were drinking. (I poured the glasses, so I had a vague idea of which order they were in, but I wasn't sure exactly which was which when we were tasting them.)

The results were surprising in some cases, and expected in others. All of the bourbons were judged to be at least okay — even the lowest scoring spirits were still okay.

We tasted eight whiskeys, all Kentucky straight bourbons, ranging in proof from 80 to 100. The prices ranged from $12 to $25, although most of them can be had for less if you shop around. You can see the line-up in the photo below.

  Bourbons

The bourbons were split into two groups of four, with a short break in between the two groups. Each whiskey was tasted in a 1/2 ounce serving, and then notes were made. We discussed each of the bourbons as we drank, and then discussed them all together once we were finished.

Here they are, in the order tasted, with the grades we gave them, along with selected notes. The grades are based on quality alone, without regard to price.

McAfee's Benchmark Old No. 8
Price: $12
80 Proof
Final Grade: B+
A pleasing vanilla aroma, followed by the taste of caramel. "Medium smooth" and "not sweet." "Middle of the road," but with a nice flavor. A very solid bourbon.

Zackariah Harris
Price: $12
80 Proof
Final Grade: B-
Slightly "bitter" and "oaky," but otherwise not a lot of flavor. A very brief finish. With slight dilution it all but disappeared.

Four Roses Yellow Label
Price: $18
80 Proof
Final Grade: B-
Divergent scores, but some found it "harsh" and without a lot of flavor. Everyone thought it smelled of vanilla, but no one could taste it. A long finish, but "not complex."

Wild Turkey 81
Price: $20
81 Proof
Final Grade: B
"Tangy" and "sour" and even "tastes like apple." Spicy and fruity with a medium finish, this was well-liked by most.

Maker's Mark
Price: $25
90 Proof
Final Grade: A-
"Complex" and with a "lot of flavor," this was the highest-scoring bourbon of the night. Several of us noted how the flavor "blossomed" on the tongue, "full of corn," with a long, enjoyable finish. Ranked #1 by three tasters, and #2 by the other.

Buffalo Trace
Price: $25
90 Proof
Final Grade: B
Sweet on the nose, but spicy on the palate. "Smooth" yet "bold," this was a crowd pleaser, but not a standout for anyone. The brief, spicy finish was noted by almost everyone.

Elijah Craig 12 Year
Price: $21
94 Proof
Final Grade: B-
A surprise last-place finish for a bourbon I've enjoyed on many occasions. A "sweet aroma" of toffee was followed by a "harsh bite" on the tongue. Warm and spicy, this one didn't earn much praise from anyone.

Old Forester Signature
Price: $20
100 Proof
Final Grade: B+
"Spicy," "fruity" flavors of corn, peach and oak combined with a smooth taste and a medium-long finish to make this one a popular choice. The strongest whiskey and the last of the night, it was our second favorite overall.

The most surprising result was Maker's Mark, which was the clear favorite of the night. A lot of people expect Maker's to be uncomplicated and even boring, but nobody felt that way. Maybe it was the extended time to open up, maybe it was that it was different from everything else — or maybe it's just damn good bourbon.

The best value choice was definitely Benchmark Old No. 8. I'd never even heard of this bourbon before, but it impressed everyone. Any bourbon you can buy on sale for under $10 that tastes this good gets the Professor Cocktail Seal of Approval.

Stay tuned for our next whiskey taste test: bourbons from $25 to $50. That should be coming next month.

2 thoughts on “Taste Test: Bourbons Under $25

  1. A nice range of bourbons and I was glad to have been included in the tasting! The big reveal at the end was indeed revealing — with some unexpected results overall. Certainly some bourbons I’m going to revisit here. Thanks again for hosting this!

  2. Elijah Craig is my go-to bourbon, and I’ve found it to be highly variable bottle to bottle. I have had several bottles (including my current one) that were sublime, and a couple I really didn’t care for. I find Makers very difficult to drink without a mixer. It’s a wheated bourbon, so it’s really a different style than the others tasted. I can see why it would stand out from the pack if you were tasting a lot at one go.

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