Want Good Bourbon on the Cheap? Respect the Bottom Shelf.

Many whiskey enthusiasts, myself included, invest a lot of time, energy and, yes, money into finding that next, great whiskey on our Wish List.

Photo of the bottom shelf

Many whiskey enthusiasts, myself included, invest a lot of time, energy and, yes, money into finding that next, great whiskey on our Wish List. We keep up with news of estimated release dates, try to figure out the distribution path to guess when they will hit our states, watch our friends post their new scores on social media, and then we desperately hit up all the stores we know of to find something before it is sold out. Sometimes we are successful; oftentimes not. It can depend on who you know, or just plain dumb luck.

I often post on social media updates on what may seem to some as my never-ending whiskey hunt: a search, a score, or a review. One of the more usual questions I get from friends, both in person and online, is, “How do you afford all those bottles?”

My collection is one that has been built over several years. I’m not buying a new bottle weekly. It is rare that I can find something allocated, and while I enjoy premium whiskeys, they aren’t the ones that always catch my eye.

Not all pricey whiskey is great. I’ve had very average, expensive whiskey. Not all great whiskey is pricey. To find a gem, sometimes you have to get your hands dirty. Several of my very regular sippers are not only affordable; you’ll find them on or near that very bottom shelf of your liquor store.

If you think I’m joking, think again. On my Instagram and Twitter accounts, I regularly use the hashtag #RespectTheBottomShelf when discussing these Bourbons and Ryes.

Stay with me a minute… don’t run just yet to the corner liquor store and grab all those bottom-shelf dwellers. Without knowing what you’re doing, you could come home and stock your bar with a collection of paint strippers and rotgut. After all, that bottom shelf exists for a reason, and not everything there deserves respect.

There are a few ways to go about finding a great pour at a great price. Both involve chance; one requires a bit of faith.

The faith option involves relying on a single category: Bottled in Bond. Bonded whiskey is an excellent choice. For one, it is heavily-regulated for quality control. Secondly, while not every Bonded whiskey is inexpensive, several are. Finally, it is overlooked by many consumers, although this is starting to change thanks to higher-priced labels such as Col EH Taylor. If you want a detailed read of what Bottled in Bond means, Melissa Alexander penned an excellent piece on Bourbon & Banter last year.

My experience proves the Bottled in Bond category is very low-risk. Of the fourteen I’ve tried, I’ve come across only one I didn’t care for, and it wasn’t a low-priced Bourbon. That’s an excellent track record. Some great Bonded Bourbons (in no particular order) are JTS Brown, Evan Williams, Very Old Barton, Old Fitzgerald and Old Grand-Dad (yes, fans of Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond, I know it is not listed, that’s because I’ve not had the opportunity to try it yet). All the bottles I’ve listed can be found on or near the bottom shelf and will cost between $12 and $20.

Keep in mind there’s a difference, sometimes quite significant, between a Bonded and regular version of the same brand of whiskey. Stick with the Bottled in Bond version if you’re buying on faith. I have the regular versions of certain labels that are tolerable but used mostly for mixers, cooking, or experiments.
Another approach is the same way I treat almost every new whiskey that interests me, regardless the price point. I’m curious but risk-adverse. I want to take a whiskey for a test drive. While I can’t go to a bottle shop, crack open and sample everything before making a decision, I can go to a decent whiskey bar and buy a pour. I can go to a friend’s house; they may have something I’ve never tried before. I am willing to shell out a few bucks to try a new whiskey without committing to a bottle I’m soon sorry I purchased and never want to touch again.

Whether you take the leap of faith or the test drive, whether you sip it, shoot it, or mix it, I’m betting you’ll find a winner while saving a bundle. Cheers!