Want to know what we found after thousands of dollars and 7 years of research? You do? Well I’m happy to hear that. I’ve learned that economy whiskey doesn’t have to taste cheap.
In my family we never pay full retail. Instead, we’re always hunting for a bargain. If you’re like us, when you’re at the liquor store your eye always drifts to that bottom shelf. “Look at this,” you think. “It’s $3 cheaper than that other stuff. How big a difference could $3 make?”
The truth is, those $3 could make or break your whiskey and you won’t know until you get home and try it.
If you’re thinking, “But why? Why can’t somebody just say x=great whiskey and be done with it?” then you’re in good company. I’ve grappled with those same thoughts and have come up with a formula to dramatically increase your chances of buying awesome whiskey the first time around. More on that here.
In the meantime, we have tasted dozens of good and not-so-good whiskeys and compiled our best 20 under 20 list so you can get straight to the good stuff. Here are the parameters we used:
- 750ml bottle
- Under $20
- Can be enjoyed neat, not just a mixer
- Won’t give you a blinding headache
Disclaimer: Prices and selections vary from state to state, but in general you should be able to find these whiskeys for under $20.
We’ve included brief tasting notes for each whiskey. Our goal was to give you enough information to know what to expect, but not too detailed because taste and smell are so subjective. We listed the whiskeys by category. And now, the list!
Moderate intensity nose of corn, cherry fruit, tobacco, and honey. The flavor is sweet with a round texture and medium-full body. The cherry can dominate the balance of this whiskey, but there’s a lot going on underneath that element. Medium finish and complexity.
Four Roses Yellow Label
A nice blend of sweet and spice. On the sweet side there’s honey gram cracker, fruit, and caramel. On the spice side there’s clove and rye bread. There’s also a subtle yeast taste. A good complexity and full body.
Jim Beam holds 3 of the 20 spots on this list. While it could appear we’re showing favoritism, the fact is, when it comes to American Whiskey Beam makes a good product at an even better price point. The original white label is a typical Bourbon with high oiliness from the corn. On the nose it’s sweet forward with caramel and vanilla. The palate picks up new oak and herbal spice from the barrel and non-corn grains used. A full body and a semi-sharp texture.
Jim Beam Black
This shares most of the same notes of regular Jim Beam because that’s what it is, only aged longer. Because of that extra time in the barrel the caramel is now more toffee like, and the spice is less herbal and more oak. If you prefer a more wood forward Bourbon, then this is a good choice.
A slightly powerful nose with youthful characteristics. This high-rye bourbon brings out both corn and rye notes like: cereal, new oak, and pine. Sharp texture, medium finish, and medium-high complexity.
A clear golden color, heavy oiliness, and delicate nose. Sweet notes of corn, butter scotch, dried fig, and cinnamon spice. There’s also a hay field element. The flavor is sweet, medium-high proof, sharp texture, medium body and finish.
A nice amber color with a moderate intensity nose. Initial smell is corn and herbal. After sipping you’ll find this to be rye forward, with hints of pine and very light menthol. At the back of the palate there’s dry tea leaves. A spicy texture with a medium finish and complexity.
Jim Beam Rye (yellow label)
This rye is sharper than Canadian whisky because of being aged in new oak. A caramel corn sweetness on the nose backed up by spicy notes of nutmeg and cloves. Sharp texture with a medium-low complexity.
Canadian Club – 1858
A light copper color with a moderate nose. Sweet forward with some orange, coconut, and maple. Underneath there’s rye characteristics and hay. Light body with creamy texture and a short finish. A simple whisky, but proof that our Canadian brothers know how to make a quality product at a great price.
Canadian Club Reserve 9 year
Again a light copper color with a delicate nose. Starts off sweet with caramel and a hint of banana nut bread, but underneath there’s baking spice and oak. It has a light body with a medium-short finish. Not overly complex but nice and smooth.
Black Velvet Reserve 8 year
A clear amber color with a moderate nose. Over all sweet with hints of Apple, maple, and licorice spice. The label lives up to its name with a velvety texture and medium body. Medium-short finish.
When we’re in the mood for Irish whiskey Bushmills is our go-to choice. It’s simple with a nice golden color. An approachable nose of cereal, coconut, and a hint of black pepper. A smooth texture and medium-short finish.
The nose has a slight coal smell with fresh sawn wood overtones. The taste is of dried apricot. The texture is smooth, the body light, and finishes much like the initial taste. Low complexity, but easy sipping.
Clontarf – 1014
A clear copper color with a mild nose and medium oiliness. It’s aged in used Bourbon barrels and smells of newly cut oak and sweet fruit. Medium body and creamy texture.
An Islay Single Malt Whisky. Medium-heavy oiliness with light cereal notes, but mostly dominated by a Band-Aid peaty smoke. A heavy body and long finish. If you like peaty smoky Scotch and can find a bottle, definitely pick one up.
If you’re fortunate enough to live near a Total Wine, the next three Shieldaig whiskies are well worth their price.
Medium-heavy oiliness and moderate nose. Initial aroma is very light nuttiness, herbal notes, and a pinch of cinnamon. Not sweet but instead earthy aromas of heather and sticks. Medium-heavy peat with light tar and smoked almond characteristics. A briny, fruit pithy flavor with fairly full body and round texture. Long finish.
Delicate nose with grassy, caramel, and very light black pepper elements. A delightful gram cracker sweetness. Light body and the texture is angular with softly blunted corners. Medium-short finish and complexity.
Pale straw color with medium-heavy oiliness and delicate nose. Smells of cereal grain, leather, and baking coco. Lightly peated earthy elements like moss, dried leaves, and forest floor. Slight briny flavor, creamy round texture, medium finish and complexity.
Glen Grant - The Major’s Reserve
Single Malt Whisky with no age statement. It has an approachable nose of unbaked sour dough bread. There’s a nutmeg spice with a little sweetness. A light body with smooth texture and a medium finish.
Islay Mist 8yo
This Blended Scotch is a great introduction to Islay whiskies. You get the peaty elements of brine, smoke, and leather. But because of blending you also get the sweet malt and cereal grain notes. A round and smooth texture with a medium-long finish.
We’d like to give a big thanks to Garth and Lisa over at DiscoverDistilleries.com for helping us round out our 20 best. They offered some great suggestions and tasting notes that we included. We’d also like to mention that we’re not receiving any benefit from the brands we mentioned. Any brand included was because we like their product, and the opinions expressed are our own.
In the course of making this list over the last several years, there have been many excellent whiskeys that went up in price and so were bumped. If we get enough response and interest in this post, we’ll undertake the time and expense of creating an under $30 selection. Hopefully it won’t take another 7 years.
What do you think? Are there whiskeys you love that you feel should have been included? Let us know, we’d love to get your thoughts.
— Zac Smith