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5 Great American Whiskies for under $20


Back bar showcasing the call whiskey line-up

Back bar showcasing the call whiskey line-up

Tetra Images / Getty Images

Luxury does not have to cost a lot. American whiskies are one segment of the whiskey market that offers great bargains. While there are plenty of great quality American whiskies at $20+, we've uncovered some hidden gems that are both affordable and high quality whiskies.

American Bourbons

Bourbon is generally made in Kentucky, although by law it can be produced anywhere in the United States. It is characterized by its majority corn base and aging in American oak.

  • Jim Beam White Label ($17.95)
    Aged for four years, Jim Beam's White Label offering is the flagship brand for one of America's largest bourbon producers. White Label offers up hints of molasses, vanilla, leather, and licorice notes to go along with a mild spiciness due to higher rye content than most bourbon. For a real treat, buy a bottle of Jim Beam Black Label ($22.95) and compare them side-by-side. They are the exact same whiskey, except that Black Label is aged approximately 8 years versus approximately 4 years for White Label. White Label is my first choice for a mixing bourbon, and it's essential to a well stocked home bar.
  • Old Grand Dad Bottled In Bond ($17.45)
    This version of Old Grand Dad is "bottled in bond," meaning that it is produced by one distiller. In this case Jim Beam makes Old Grand Dad during one distilling season (different ages aren't blended). The whiskey is stored in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least 4 years and is bottled at 100 proof (50% alcohol).

    This is a serious sipping whiskey at 100 proof. Add just a splash of cool water to open it up a bit. Complex and spicy, this bourbon rewards you for your patience. Initial vanilla and caramel overtones give way to a rye spiciness and a big oak finish. This is one of the best bourbons on the market at any price point, and it is a steal at less than $20. Try it on the rocks after a good barbecue and see if you don't agree.

  • Old Forester ($15.45)
    At 86 proof, this is a big bourbon for little money. Spicy rye notes compete with big oak, slowly giving way to an undertone of brown sugar, molasses and fruit cake. This is the perfect choice for a Manhattan or even a whiskey sour. Its complex notes make it a great choice for home mixologists. For a luxurious sipping bourbon, Old Forester Birthday Bourbon (approximately $40) can't be beat.

Rye Whiskeys

While Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskies are a bit sweeter and fuller bodied, rye whiskey has a more austere profile, generally offering peppery notes, a lighter body and less of the characteristic caramel/vanilla punch found in bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys.

  • Rittenhouse 100 Proof Bottled in Bond ($14.50)
    This is everything that I love about rye, with a pronounced pepperiness and a clean, dry finish. Possibly the best value of all the whiskies listed. Rittenhouse 100 Proof has more flavor and mixability than many ryes costing 2 to 3 times as much.

    The Rittenhouse Manhattan Cocktail

    • 3 oz Rittenhouse 100 Proof Bottled in Bond rye whiskey
    • 1 oz Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth
    • 3 dashes Angostura Bitters
    • 3 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters
    1. In a mixing glass, add all ingredients.
    2. Add ice, stir vigorously to chill, strain into a chilled stemmed cocktail glass and garnish with a bourbon soaked cherry.
  • Old Overholt ($14.45)
    For many years, Old Overholt was the only American rye left on the back bar of American restaurants and bars. While that has changed in recent years, Old Overholt has not. Smooth, with a subtle spiciness and a slightly fuller and sweeter body than many ryes, this is a great introduction to rye if you are a bourbon or Tennessee whiskey fan.

Tennessee Whiskey
Tennessee whiskey follows the same rules as bourbon, except that before being put in the barrel, Tennessee whiskeys are dripped slowly through sugar maple charcoal, "mellowing" the flavor and adding a brown sugar element to the final product.

  • Jack Daniels Green Label ($20.95)
    We broke the $20 rule here, but this list would be incomplete without a Tennessee whiskey. Let's just consider this sixth recommendation a bonus. Jack Daniels is more famous for their Black Label, but the hard to find Green Label is the Tennessee whiskey that helps to set the standard from this distillery. While it takes a little bit of time to open up, this is a richly complex yet light sipping whiskey. Perfectly mixable, it makes a great whiskey sour, but is also able to handle a night of cigars, whiskey and poker without losing its charm. If you are experienced with Jack Daniels, give the Green Label a try. You will be quite pleasantly surprised.

    Jack Daniels Green Label Whiskey Sour

    • 2 oz Jack Daniels Green Label Tennessee Whiskey
    • 1 1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
    • 1 1/2 oz fresh lime juice
    • 1 1/2 oz simple syrup
    1. In a pint glass, combine all ingredients.
    2. Fill glass with ice, top with a shaker tin, shake vigorously for 20 seconds, and pour into an old fashioned glass. Garnish with a cherry.

All prices based on April 2009 price sheet for spirits from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

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