There's not much better than a velvety smooth single malt or delicately layered, patiently aged bourbon. Trouble is, they're not conducive to everyday sipping unless you're rolling in money.
When you're relying on bottom shelf stuff, though, you've got to be careful — there's a lot of awful stuff out there. Buy whatever's cheapest and you could end up with a liter's worth of college drinking flashbacks, rather than something nice to pour after a long day. So when you're stocking your home bar with affordable options, you should head to the store armed with some options in mind.
Any of these picks will treat you right, with decent flavor profiles and even better prices. You may not want to serve 'em to guests, and you shouldn't expect a ton of layered complexity, but these will do you right for a fraction of the price of some other options while still packing flavors that are nearly as nice. And all the prices below are what we found in New York, and they can cost even less elsewhere.
$10 for 750ml
We've said it before in the best bottom shelf booze money can buy, and we'll say it again: Benchmark punches far above its weight. You can buy a full bottle for less than the cost of a decent lunch, and it packs respectable honey and orange notes alongside a spicy rye kick. It may not be as good as some other bourbons it's made alongside at the Buffalo Trace distillery, but there's a good amount of malty flavor without overwhelming alcohol heat -- and for the price, that's a damn good deal.
$14 for 1L
This one's got a short finish -- meaning the malty notes doesn't hang around your tongue long after you drink -- so don't expect to savor each sip like it's Pappy Van Winkle. But the sweet corn flavor of this one practically jumps out of the glass and there's not much harsh, charred wood character, unlike most low-end bourbons with meeker notes. It's not bad on the rocks, but better with a splash of coke.
$15 for 1L
There's a longer finish here than you'd expect from a budget bourbon, plus an impressive smoothness. There's plenty of sweetness in the corn, vanilla, and slight smoke notes, which can go toe to toe with whiskeys that cost three times as much. That's why it's a favorite of budget-conscious bourbon aficionados, and given the impressive smooth finish and woodsy caramel flavor, we agree with 'em. Plus it tastes great neat , which is especially rare for this price level.
$22 for 1L
Rye tends to have a sharper spice to it than mellower corn-based bourbon, and bad ones can be loaded with a one-note kick. This one's got more going on -- there's some dark fruit and rich grain flavor -- and neither the alcohol nor the rye bill are overpowering. That all adds up to a mild and sippable product with a decent smoothness and slightly spicy finish, almost like a sweet bourbon that happens to have a strong rye backbone. For a couple bucks more, J.P. Wiser's rye is another similarly strong contender with a similar corn sweetness.
$32 for 750ml
You're probably familiar with the base model of this stuff, Famous Grouse. Which is good, and a little cheaper, but this stuff is packed with way more warming flavor for just a few bucks more. It's not overloaded with peat like some of the bigger name options, but it does have a fair share of smoke -- much more than you'd usually find with bottom shelf scotches -- along with a little bit of oak. The price tag is significantly higher than the other options here, since even lower end scotch (sadly) ain't cheap, but this is about as low as good scotch goes. Though it'll run you a bit more than a bottom shelf bourbon, it's worth every penny if you're picky.
Got any wallet-friendly personal favorites of your own?