Whiskey Review Round Up: Bottom Shelf Bourbons

, | August 30, 2017

Whiskey is a spirit with many faces, for many different occasions. There are whiskeys to sip with ice on the porch, and whiskeys to be sipped curled up in a blanket. There are whiskeys to be savored neat, and whiskeys to mix into cocktails. There are whiskeys meant to be given as gifts, whiskeys to be served at parties, and whiskeys for drowning sorrows.

As a reviewer, a lot of what I’m doing is trying to convey which of those categories a whiskey falls into. This piece, though, is a little different: in ranking six bottom shelf bourbons against each other, I’m mostly interested in 1) whether each one is drinkable, and 2) what the drinkability-to-price ratio looks like.

For the purposes of this piece, we defined “bottom-shelf” as anything under $25 (for a fifth) that I was able to pick up in Oregon, a control state where The Whiskey Wash is headquartered. There’s a fair amount of leeway there. The cheapest, Kentucky Tavern, came to $9.95, while Elijah Craig Small Batch squeaks in just under the price limit at $24.95.

I tasted each of these whiskeys on two separate occasions. I used my usual setup for one tasting: Glencairn glass, notepad, plenty of water, no distractions—in short, the “right” way to taste whiskey. But the fact is, you’re not going to be buying these whiskeys to savor them neat as you sit in front of a fire reading Faulkner. You’re going to pick one up on your way to a party and dump it into a giant pitcher of mint juleps, or pour it into a flask to sneak into an outdoor concert. Or—and no judgment here, I don’t know what your life is like—maybe you’re looking for something in the sorrows-drowning category. In any case, sometimes all you care about is whether a whiskey is palatable.

Accordingly, for my other tasting, I lugged all six bottles to a friend’s house, poured samples into chintzy plastic cups, and set out numbered sticky notes for each one. Some of my friends are regular whiskey drinkers, others are not, but tasting notes were pretty consistent across the group. It was an interesting exercise, and yielded completely different results from my “real” tasting—it turns out that when all you can smell evaporating from the glass is ethanol, you get a very, very different idea of what a whiskey tastes like. I’m including the results of this blind test, along with some highlights from the tasting, with each whiskey.

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All six whiskeys are straight bourbon, meaning if there’s no age statement, they’re at least two years old. That also means they contain only actual whiskey, without any neutral spirits, coloring, or flavoring.

Bottom Shelf Bourbons

Results (ranked worst to best)

6) Ancient Age

Vital Stats: 40% ABV, no age statement, $11.95

Nose: Opens with a strong butter aroma I find pretty revolting. Loads of butterscotch and brown sugar. It’s bad enough I don’t want to smell it for more than a second or two.

Palate: More butterscotch, in proportions that are less gross than on the nose. A good deal of banana, and more brown sugar. Oak on the finish.

Takeaway: I actually hate this. This is the first whiskey I’ve ever tasted for the site that I’ve found actively disgusting. I wouldn’t drink this if you paid me to do so (well, after today, in any case). The group, somewhat upsettingly, found it unremarkable. You still shouldn’t buy it.

5) Kentucky Tavern

Vital Stats: 40% ABV, no age statement, $9.95

Nose: Sticky sweet, with brown sugar, maple syrup, and overripe bananas. Canned peaches in syrup, maraschino cherry.

Palate: More banana, brown sugar, and syrup. Bananas foster in maple syrup over ice cream. I also get a little cinnamon on the palate. Light as air, texturally, with some oak on the finish.

Takeaway: Between the banana and the saccharine sweetness, this one screams to be put back in the barrel. I do not much care for this whiskey. Interestingly, though, sipped out of a plastic cup, this was the unanimous favorite; it’s definitely got a “smooth” quality that you appreciate when your drinking vessel means you can’t actually smell anything. For under $10, I’d count this as a dang solid bargain. Perfect for taking to a party where you don’t care too much about the hosts. It would also be okay poured over vanilla ice cream.

4) Jim Beam

Vital Stats: 40% ABV, four years old, $19.95

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Nose: Old cardboard and wood take the lead here, followed by caramel, vanilla, and butterscotch. Once you get past the initial flat, musty note, it has some balance compared to the first two. Cherry cough syrup. There’s a whiff of baking spice. There’s something faintly artificial about the whole experience.

Palate: More stale cardboard, along with some inoffensive but one-dimensional caramel sweetness and a little spice. Heavily oaky on the finish. Watery on the palate.

The Takeaway: I’ve never been fond of Jim Beam, and tasting it alongside other whiskeys at a similar price point doesn’t change that. The flavor profile has this sort of flat, hollow quality. The group was split between “just awful, I hate it” and “ok, 2nd best?”

3) Ezra Brooks

Vital Stats: 45% ABV, no age statement, $14.95

Nose: Opens with the same stale cardboard note as the Jim Beam, with a gentle dose of caramel to back it up. Brown sugar, vanilla. Strikes a tolerable balance between unpleasantly confectionary and unpleasantly wood-pulpy, but there’s not much else going on here.

Palate: More caramel and wood, and faint spice on the back palate. Bitter on the finish, with a definite chemical/medicinal aftertaste. Somewhat more body than the other drams, but that’s not saying much.

The Takeaway: Ezra Brooks narrowly edges out Jim Beam, and it’s got some of the same “dull” quality. Both come across as disjointed on the palate; in the whiskey biz, you read a lot about whiskeys that are “well-balanced,” but personally, I’ve never given much thought to what an imbalanced whiskey tastes like. Well, this is it.

2) Heaven Hill 6 Year Old (“green label”)

Vital Stats: 45% ABV, six years old, $33.20 for a handle (the only size my liquor store had in stock; online, a fifth prices anywhere from $12 to $16). Charcoal-filtered!

Nose: If you read the Harry Potter books, you might remember that in book 6, the kids take apparition (ie, teleportation) lessons from a government-appointed instructor named Wilkie Twycross. Twycross is described as being “oddly colorless, with transparent eyelashes, wispy hair, and an insubstantial air, as though a single gust of wind might blow him away.” That image stuck with me, and it’s what I thought of immediately upon nosing this whiskey. There’s just not much here. I get a whisper of wood, a light caramel breeze, and a suggestion of citrus, if I concentrate.

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Palate: Not terrible. The usual suspects are here: caramel, wood, and vanilla, along with a dash of spice. There is some bitterness on the finish.

The Takeaway: The group mostly wrote things like “no taste, all alcohol” and “harsh and bad.” Personally, I find it mostly unremarkable and inoffensive. At $33 for a handle, this isn’t a bad choice for a bulk mixer.

1) Elijah Craig Small Batch

Vital Stats: 47% ABV, no age statement, $24.95

Nose: This one’s not bad. It’s got a bit of a range, between caramel, oak, vanilla, and candied fruit, along with some baking spice. Based on the nose alone, this is my clear winner.

Palate: Wood, caramel, and peppery spice are in a decent balance here. It’s fairly hot on the palate for a 94-proof whiskey. Longer finish than the others. Some bitterness lingers.

Takeaway: This is a decent bourbon, and probably the only whiskey of the batch I’d voluntarily drink neat. I’d say it neither over- nor under-performs, instead giving pretty much exactly what I’d expect for the $25 price point. Interestingly, the panel didn’t like this one, mostly because, as noted, it’s fairly hot on the palate. It also leaves a pretty distinct woody taste behind. To me, though, this is a solid mixer or serviceable everyday sipper.

Final Thoughts

The big takeaway from this roundup is that whiskey is a multidimensional thing, and different uses will bring out different characteristics in a given expression.

Ancient Age was, hands down, my least favorite, but the worst value here might be Jim Beam, an off-putting expression at just under $20. Elijah Craig was my favorite, but the group tasting demonstrated that the “best” whiskey might not always be what the situation calls for. The biggest surprise of the whole experience was Kentucky Tavern, which is not a great whiskey, but is an excellent bargain, and serves as a quite painless ethanol-delivery vehicle.

What’s your favorite bottom-shelf bottle? Let us know in the comments below!

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Katelyn Best

Katelyn is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon. She's a regular contributor to the Whiskey Wash with an affinity for the unique and weird side of whiskey.