The Bottom Shelf: Guide to Buying Cheap Whiskey

Malcolm Freberg
(Photo: OBSEV)


If America had an official drink, it'd be whiskey. 

These days, our country is producing every type and style of spirit possible, but there's no liquor we identify with more strongly than grandpa's cough medicine. Forget its prissy brother Scotch, or the fact that Japan now makes the #1 ranked whiskey in the world; it's patriotic, it's blue collar, it's the drink of the average Joe.

Part of that 'everyman' sentiment stems from value: you will get better quality whiskey off the bottom shelf than any other type of liquor. That's largely due to the rigorous standards and regulations distillers must adhere to when producing it. When someone makes vodka, they can distill whatever they ingredients they want, then change anything they'd like before selling — flavors, coloring, etc. But if you make a liquor you intend to call 'whiskey', you're required to distill only certain ingredients in precise ratios (which affects flavor and dictates style — 'bourbon', 'rye', etc.), then age the spirit in brand-new charred oak barrels (which also affects taste, plus gives the spirit its color), and afterwards can add nothing to the product. If liquor was elementary school, vodka would be recess, and whiskey would be advanced algebra while the school principle was substitute teaching.

Per these strict regulations, and good old fashioned American pride, buying cheap whiskey is not the death knell of good taste. But just like dating and throwing a football downfield, there are good decisions, and there are bad ones. Here's your guide to avoiding the latter:


We Had a Good Run, But It's Over

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon- $15.99 at Bevmo

It hurts my heart to say this. I've shared many a fond memory with Jim, and erased many more. This is the liquor responsible for my first ever arrest: a gorgeous Canadian volleyball player dared me to chug out of the bottle, next thing I knew it was 8:00am and I was curled up in the police department's detox room — with her contact info in my phone.

It's not a bad whiskey. The flavor's decent, the burn isn't overpowering. You'll smell sweetness as you bring it to your lips, and you wont cringe at the taste. It's the best-selling whiskey in the world, with die hard fans whom I expect will set up a deer-blind just within rifle distance of my front door after this next paragraph:

The value is shit. You think you're getting great taste cheap, but that's only because you've not drank cheaper whiskey. It makes no sense to fork over the extra three or four dollars for Jim Beam when the lower-priced bottles taste just as good. And I promise, you can end up in jail with a co-ed's phone number while drinking any whiskey.

It's time to stop drinking Jim Beam. Minus nostalgia and loyalty, it brings nothing to the table. Superior taste can be bought for more, but equal taste can be bought for less.


The Improved Imitation

Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon – $11.99 at Bevmo

Quick: name a whiskey with a black label.

If you didn't just say 'Jack Daniels', you're a long-nosed Pinnochio. It's the best-known, the most popular, the icon. And (I'll expound on this at a later date, but) I f*cking hate it.

Evan Williams, even with its knock-off branding (it's actually an older brand than Jack, but the marketing is shamelessly copycat), should be the black labeled whiskey you know. It's already the darling of budget liquor aficionados, and it's time you embraced it. The flavor profile is similar to Jim Beam, but the final taste is miles better. The gnarly aftertaste of Beam is its downfall; the burn of Williams is much more palatable. A mid-level smooth score isn't necessarily a knock here — that's just to say it's got a fair amount of heat going down, which many prefer. You could almost, almost drink this neat.

This really is your best bet for bottom shelf whiskey. It tastes great, mixes seamlessly, and is a complete steal at the price. But, you can't overlook the… look. You and I know it's better than Old No. 7, but this branding screams you couldn't afford the real stuff. It looks like you're trying to look like you're drinking Jack, and any casual drinker seeing you pour a measure of Williams is judging you. It is, unfortunately, massively uncool.

In conclusion: buy Evan Williams, and invest in a decanter.


The Legend You Don't Know

Old Crow Kentucky Straight Bourbon – $9.99 at Bevmo

Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, and Maker's Mark are arguably the three most recognizable American whiskeys. They're imprinted in our minds as the classics, the coolest. Which, if you throw enough money at a soulless marketing department, any brand can achieve.

But history can't be faked. And in whiskey, history is on Old Crow's side.

It's the first sour-mash whiskey, a fermentation process since imitated by virtually everyone. It was the favorite drink of Ulysses S. Grant, the Union general who smashed the South in the Civil War. It was the go-to whiskey of Mark Twain, who fame for wit was only matched by his notoriety for drinking. And Hunter S Thompson, perhaps the hardest partying writer of all-time, would often cite Old Crow amongst his regular spirits.

Old Crow is the coolest bottom shelf liquor you don't know about. When you pull out a bottle of this, people look inquiringly at the unfamiliar label, and you tell them you're drinking the favorite whiskey of the most badass drinkers in American history. Then you ride a bald eagle into a red-white-and-blue sunset while firing six-guns into the sky.

Right now you're thinking, "Well why can't I just explain how good Evan Williams tastes, and make that cool, too?" Because no one's going to ask you about Williams — they just assume you're a cheap bastard. But a bottle of Old Crow is a conversation starter.

What's more, it's the cheapest of the three, and doesn't taste terrible. A whiskey drinker will want Evan Williams for its more complex qualities on the palate, but someone looking to mix with diet coke in a kitchen glass will prefer Old Crow. It's sweeter, has less burn, and a shorter finish. And when you're shopping for bargain booze, you're more likely wanting to mix than drink neat.

If you're spending the night home alone, just looking to drink good cheap whiskey and play Call of Duty until you pass out on your half-eaten Papa John's (which I fully support), Evan Williams is your man. But if you're sharing your whiskey tonight, either with friends or mixers, it's time you fell in love with Old Crow.


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