Drinking the Bottom Shelf Vol. 1: American Whiskey – Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Old Thompson

Good whiskey can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. There are bargain bottles that are enjoyable and offer considerably higher quality:value ratios than more expensive options. Today we pore through the “bottom shelf” bottles in order to find whiskeys that are enjoyable yet affordable while attempting to steer drinkers clear of the ones that still aren’t worth the price.

Let’s start with a look at three lower-cost American whiskeys.

Jim Beam Kentucky Straight Bourbon (White Label)

It’s important to read the label closely when purchasing bottom shelf whiskeys. Jim Beam’s most inexpensive whiskey is White Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon. To advertise itself as a bourbon, a whiskey must adhere to certain rules, the most important of which state that it is: (1) made from at least 51% corn, (2) aged in new oak barrels, and (3) aged at least four years if it is to call itself “straight bourbon.” This means that, as inexpensive as Jim Beam is, it lives up to the minimum requirements of a
demanding labeling system.

The payoff for following the legal requirements to label a whiskey “straight bourbon” are apparent when sampling this one, which is simple and straightforward, but drinkable. The nose offers soft notes of corn mixed with candy corn. There is a touch of spice, but it isn’t a particularly enjoyable smell as it carries a slightly medicinal quality. On the palate, Jim Beam is quite smooth. Notes of of corn and candy corn appear again but are very light. For the serious bourbon fan, the taste is too smooth, even watery, as it hints at bourbon’s possibilities without delivering the goods. But for the novice, this might be a good start. The finish is long and smooth, and introduces some of the oak that this whiskey aged in for at least four years. None of the unpleasant flavors appear which tend to mar the finish of some inexpensive whiskeys. As an affordable mixer, Jim Beam is a great choice. See additional coverage here.

80 proof.

C+ / $14 / jimbeam.com

Evan Williams Black Label Bourbon

Evan Williams Black is also a Kentucky Straight Bourbon, and it is aged around 5 years in new oak barrels and bottled at a slightly higher alcohol level than most bottom shelf whiskeys, 86 proof. The higher alcohol presents in the nose, but not so strongly as to be off-putting. It is accompanied by pleasant smells of caramel, vanilla extract, and a bit of mint. The palate is corn sweetness mixed with caramel and brown sugar, but it is not cloying. For such an inexpensive bottle, the flavors are surprisingly balanced. The finish is medium in length, ending in wood, but not bitterness. This is a great starter bourbon, and one I wouldn’t hesitate to drink neat. For those on a budget who appreciate the taste of bourbon, Evan Williams Black is tough to beat. See additional coverage here.

86 proof.

B- / $14 / evanwilliams.com

Old Thompson American Whiskey

Old Thompson is not a bourbon, but rather a blend of whiskeys coupled with neutral grain spirits (vodka). If you’ve had Seagram’s 7, you know the deal. The blend strictly follows the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations which requires that a beverage contain at least 20% whiskey (aged at least 2 years) to be labeled “American Whiskey.” The consequences of just barely staying within the legal definition of American Whiskey are immediately apparent. The nose is almost nonexistent with hints of gasoline and nail polish remover, along with the slightest whiff of what might be corn sweetness. This makes sense considering that 4/5 of the product is unaged grain alcohol. On the palate, Old Thompson is harsher than its proof would suggest and offers an unpleasant sweetness that doesn’t seem to draw from the whiskey in the product. These flavors are followed by a short finish and lingering bitterness. Perhaps Old Thompson works as a mixer since it is mostly grain alcohol, but I would recommend an inexpensive vodka instead.

80 proof.

D- / $8 / sazerac.com

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8 Responses

  1. Sam Komlenic April 3, 2017 / 6:31 am

    A straight whiskey must be at least 2 years old but if less than 4, the age must be stated.

    Also, it should be noted that with the Thompson “American” whiskey there may be any number of flavor or color additives present, but it doesn’t sound like they put much flavoring in, if any.

    Regardless, thanks for trolling the bottom shelf. In addition to Evan, there can be some good buys there!

    • Robert Lublin April 3, 2017 / 4:45 pm

      Thanks for the correction Sam, and thanks for checking out the blog. Do you have a favorite bottom shelf bourbon that isn’t listed here?

  2. Paulis April 3, 2017 / 10:10 am

    This sort of review (bottom shelf) is my favorite. Yes, it’s interesting to read about, and get the review for, the wild array of new products that hit the market, but as somebody who can’t afford top shelf, and consumes less than a bottle a month, I find it much more interesting to learn more about the shelf standards, that don’t often get talked about, which will most likely still be available next year, and the year after that.

  3. Sam Komlenic April 4, 2017 / 10:11 am

    Old Ezra 7 year old, 101 proof, $22
    Heaven Hill BIB 6 year old (Ky. only), $15
    Old Grand-Dad BIB, $22
    Evan Williams BIB White Label, $16

    For that matter, I have yet to meet a bottled in bond whiskey I didn’t like!

    Now, the only 80 proof cheaper pours I enjoy:
    George Dickel No. 8, $20
    Virginia Gentleman, $15
    Pilkesville Rye 3 year old, $15, unfortunately being discontinued according to my retailer.

  4. Jack Heller June 7, 2017 / 1:43 pm

    Do y’all still recommend Benchmark, the bottom shelf Buffalo Trace bourbon?

    My favorite bottom shelf: Four Roses

    • Christopher Null June 7, 2017 / 9:13 pm

      Yellow Label is at least a shelf higher than these…

  5. Robert Lublin June 8, 2017 / 7:03 am

    The cutoff was $15 with an attempt to go as low as possible. Four Roses didn’t make the list because it is a few dollars more than the ones reviewed, but I couldn’t agree more. The quality/price ratio on Yellow Label (and all of the Four Roses bourbons) is fantastic.

    Thank you for mentioning Benchmark. It is an excellent bargain bottle. Very smooth with real bourbon flavor. I personally prefer EW for inexpensive sipping, but Benchmark is of comparable quality and I’d love a glass if you’re buying!

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