Exploring the Bottom Shelf Bourbons Under $25

Well, with the holidays in the books for the year, and overindulgence weighing on my pocketbook, my gaze in the liquor store is set a little lower than usual. What are these rare finds – bourbon? At less than $25 a bottle?

Now, I know Jim and Elijah – we normally see each other at mixers. I know Ezra’s big brother 101, but I’m only casually acquainted with his 90 proof little brother. Ancient Age and Heaven Hill are unknown to me (for now). But when you work hard for your living and don’t have Pappy money for a daily dram, you have to make adjustments.

So what is there to know about these bourbons? I dive into the bottom shelf bourbons to share some interesting facts about these lowbrow bottles, as well as review each one. And before you ask, yes, I did sample these independently over several nights, not just one night of debauchery.

bottom shelf bourbons

image via Tony Mazelin/copyright The Whiskey Wash

Ezra Brooks

Made from sour mash, 90 proof, charcoal filtered, and aged in new charred white oak barrels. Yep, sounds familiar.  Made for seven generations, Ezra Brooks offers a self-proclaimed “rugged spirit” for those with a “taste for adventure.” This brand is owned by Luxco, the parent company of several other brands including Rebel Yell and Yellowstone.

Ezra Brook’s official tasting notes are: a medium to full body, with rich sweetness of vanilla, honey, and a hint of chocolate. Finish – warm, and not too long. Here are mine:

  • Color: Light golden amber
  • Nose: Caramel, vanilla
  • Palate: Caramel and vanilla, with a light bite of pepper (I suspect rye in the mash) and corn sweetness
  • Finish: Surprisingly smooth, woody and medium in length; I noticed it opened slightly with water, and picked up a smoked apple spice flavor to the finish.

Score: 77

For the $13.95 price tag (at lease here in Oregon) this is very drinkable bourbon. I think at this point Ezra Brooks is my favorite of the bunch. While it’s not an exceptionally complex bourbon, for a daily drinker under $15, this would be great as a mixer or on ice.

Heaven Hill Green Label Six Year Old

From the makers of Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and a host of other spirits from brandy to rum, here is Heaven Hill Green. Heaven Hill is the largest family-owned and family-operated distilled spirits company in America.  It took some digging to find out much about this bourbon – the company website doesn’t even list the green label. The label does state that it is six years old, and that it is distilled and bottled in Kentucky.  Heaven Hill proclaims that they continue to use the same mash and charcoal filtration techniques they’ve been employing since 1788 to make this 90 proof amber liquid.

  • Color: Medium amber in color in bottle and glass
  • Nose: Light vanilla, spices, brown sugar
  • Palate: Vanilla, caramel, spices
  • Finish: clean, woody, heat/pepper, medium long finish

Score: 75

For $14.95 this is nice, very drinkable bourbon, ideal for a mixer or daily drinker. I like it nice mild bite, though I was disappointed when I added water. I thought it might help to open up the aromas, but instead the flavor was lost.

Elijah Craig Small Batch

Here is another offering from Heaven Hills. This is a 94 proof, small batch Kentucky bourbon made from 100 barrels or less. The bottle contains no age statement.

  • Color: Amber in both bottle and glass
  • Nose: Caramel, oak, vanilla
  • Palate: Caramel, spice, vanilla, pepper
  • Finish: Medium long, wood and pepper

Score: 74

Elijah Craig Small Batch is more complex than others reviewed here, and at $24.95 for 94 proof, it’s a bargain.  This could be a very nice addition to a home bar, and can be served neat or as a top shelf mixer.

Jim Beam

What can be said about Jim that you don’t already know? It remains the number one bourbon in the world by sales. Made by the same family for seven generations, the brand was founded way back in 1795, and that ubiquitous square bottle is still a staple at bars, taverns and restaurants the world around.

  • Color: Golden Amber
  • Nose: Caramel and vanilla
  • Palate: Light overall, caramel, vanilla and touch of citrus
  • Finish: Smooth, sweet and short

Score: 73

There’s nothing wrong with this mass-produced bourbon, but nothing about it makes you want to go dance in the rain, either. It’s a solid, easy choice for mixed drinks, but some of the other bottom shelf bottles offer deeper, richer flavors that I would rather spend my $19.95 on.

Ancient Age

Kentucky Bourbon, 80 proof

Distilled aged and bottled in Frankfort, Kentucky, since 1947.  This tried-and-true entry level bourbon is made by the same distillery that is better known for Buffalo Trace. A mash bill of corn, rye, and barley malt is right in line with that classic bourbon heritage.

  • Color: Golden honey
  • Nose: Spice, light caramel, vanilla
  • Palate: Spice, vanilla
  • Finish: Wood, spice, caramel

Score: 70

For just $12 per 750ml, this is good bourbon. It tastes a bit young, like it and should have sat another year or two in the cask, but for a younger no age statement (NAS) bourbon it is actually rather nice. It is not overly complex, and would work well in a mixed drink. I didn’t notice any major difference when water was added.

So what to do with five bottles of under $25 bourbon? Well, share with friends of course! I have to say, I enjoyed the Ezra Brooks the most, to my surprise.  And, at $13.95, its a bargain for drinkable bourbon, on the downlow.

While none of these will replace my favorites, and none of these will ever run with the big dogs of whiskey, there is a place in every bar for them. I used to stock Jim as my only mixer, but I think Ezra will be joining him more often than not.

About the author

Tony Mazelin

I am by no means an expert of whiskey, but I feel I am well versed and definitely well exposed to drinking. I am specializing in bourbon and rye as my taste buds have pulled me that way. I have read a large amount on the subject and exposing myself to try new bourbons and ryes is an enjoyable pass time. I feel that I am like most guys, more than a passing interest and willing to pay to play to learn what I like and dislike.

  • Bacon Nivison

    Elijah Craig is anything but a “bottom shelf bourbon.” It is one of the most interesting and complex bourbons out there. A true piece of bourbon magnificence.

    • Matthew Crumpler

      ^you are absolutely correct, it’s an 89 or 90 score,

  • Gregory Markle

    I don’t mind these as mixers but I’ll gladly pony up the extra $5 for a bottle of Four Roses Small Batch and sip away.

  • Jim Wolff

    Old Crow is also a good tasting (bottom shelf) bourbon.

  • ekwest00

    If you can find it in your neck of the woods, try the Ancient Age 90 proof. It’s maybe 10% more expensive than the standard 80 proof here in KY, but it is far and above superior. It’s my (and many Kentuckians’) well bourbon of choice.