Living in Louisville comes with responsibilities; my 502 area code seems to confer with it bourbon ambassadorship. And while most of us around here just seem to have a good measure of bourbon coursing through our veins, I actually did study to become a Certified Bourbon Steward. However, being a bourbon enthusiast can get expensive, so I've learned how to do it without too much damage to the checking account. I'm always on the lookout for that sweet spot of price and flavor.
Here are eight favorites you'll find on my bar — all for $20 or less. Pro tip: Serve them from a vintage crystal decanter and people will think you're sharing your special stash.
- Benchmark No. 8 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: I kind of hate to share my ultimate bargain pick for fear that the price will spike when word gets out. At around $8, it's so cheap that I'm almost too embarrassed when I buy it. But it took home the ultimate honor at the 2016 New York World Wine and Spirits competition — a gold medal from every single judge in the blind tasting — and, sure enough, I picked it in my own blind test at home (twice!) over one of my very favorite $60 bottles from the same distillery.
- Very Old Barton Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 80 Proof: File this under another one I feel a little sheepish when I buy, especially in the big jug. Very Old Barton is nevertheless an unsung hero. When I need a good, cheap bourbon for a house party and I don't want my friends to hate me the next morning, I stock up on this bottom-shelf bargain.
- Heaven Hill Bottled in Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (White Label): After a handful of disappointing experiences with another Heaven Hill bottom-shelf product, known simply as "green label," I had a bad taste in my mouth about the name. But right now the higher-proof "white label" is the darling of bartenders and bourbon enthusiasts for its value-to-quality ratio. White label is a "bottled in bond" bourbon, meaning distillers have followed some obscure rules in the production. Why should you care? It stands to reason if the maker cares enough to follow those rules to the letter, they're taking a great deal of care with all the other details as well.
- Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Black Label: Easy to find most anywhere, this smooth whiskey isn't going to send anyone into raptures, but it goes great with a Coke and is a sure bet for the buck. If I'm outside of the bourbon bubble where I live and it's slim pickings, Evan Williams is my fallback.
- Wild Turkey Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 81 Proof: Now we're going old-school. The good old kickin' chicken kicked up their proof from 80 to 81 some time ago, which made it a little more interesting to bourbon connoisseurs (yes, experts drink it and so should you). Nothing makes me feel more like a Kentucky girl than bellying up to a bar and asking for Turkey.
- Old Grand-Dad Bonded Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 100 Proof: This is one of those "I've been drinking bourbon since before bourbon was cool" kind of bourbons. A little spicy from its higher rye mash bill, I like it with a splash of ginger. When other folks are ordering trendy new craft bourbons, I like to go retro with this guy.
- Four Roses Yellow Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey: The bourbon in this cheerful, rose-emblazoned bottle probably comes up more than any other when conversation turns to good-value whiskeys. Mellow, easy-drinking, and approachable to bourbon newbies at 80 proof, it lends itself well to mixing, is great for punches, and in general is a solid choice.
- Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky 86 Proof: If Louisville had an official house bourbon of the people, this would be it. I've never seen a home bar without this standby. Lovely just for sipping or great for the city's official cocktail, the Old Fashioned, you can never go wrong with Old Fo.
A Note on Pricing: I've confirmed with the proprietor at one of my favorite Louisville spirit shops, Westport Whiskey & Wine, that these bottles will fall in the $10 to $20 range (for a 750-milliliter bottle unless noted), although some you might have to catch them on sale to stay below $20. Your mileage will vary based on taxes, availability, and whim of the shopkeeper. Sadly for many of you, some of these are hard to find outside of Kentucky, so you might have to plan a trip to stock up. (But to be fair, some bourbons that we know are special that haven't caught on elsewhere are just collecting dust on your store shelves while we line up for them!)