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Drinking whiskey is in, and some of the finest out there comes in the form of “craft bourbon,” of which there’re numerous new styles. With so many “crafted” beverages these days, it’s no surprise to see craft bourbon hit the market. But must you break the bank to enjoy a decent dram?

Bourbon has traditionally been an outstanding value in whiskey. Until recently, one could expect to pay about half the cost of an equally respectable Scotch whiskey for a bottle of bourbon. Prices, however, are rising for both of these amber elixirs. There’re still drinkable bourbons available at very affordable prices, and here are some tips for picking them out.

Make Sure It’s Really Bourbon

Bourbon doesn’t have to be from Bourbon County, Kentucky to be called Bourbon, but it does have to adhere to a very strict recipe. The use of charred oak barrels, at least a 51% corn mash and a final proof of 160 or less are some of the broader qualifications for bourbon makers. Skirting these requirements can save money, so many lower-cost options come under the moniker “blended bourbon”.

Blended whiskies aren’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, many people enjoy them! Nevertheless, if it’s true bourbon you want, make sure the bottle says “straight bourbon” on it. Four Roses Yellow Label is a great example of affordable straight bourbon that still functions as a great sipping whiskey or mixer.
Know if You’re Mixing or Sipping

Most whiskeys that taste good straight will mix just fine, but the equation doesn’t work in both directions. If you’re picky about whiskey, you might think that stooping to a less esteemed bourbon might affect the quality of your drink. However, in reality,many bargain bottles will hold up just fine when combined with cola or sour mix.
Be Ready for Some Heat

One thing that doesn’t make sense about bargain whiskey is how strong they tend to be. Compared to popular names like Makers Mark and Four Roses, which often arrive between 80 and 85 proof, many very cheap bottles are sold at higher alcohol levels. Wild Turkey 101 is a great example of an affordable whiskey with superior punch.

This partially explains the hint of rubbing alcohol that comes with some of the most affordable options out there. Still, it’s comforting to know that along with the good deal you’re getting, there’s a little extra kick to help you make your mind up.
Just Because it’s From Kentucky Doesn’t Make it Good

Paste Magazine performed ataste test of more affordable whiskies. Though $10 is very low, the author does mention that in his home state of Kentucky, whiskey is exceptionally cheap (probably because there’s so much of it).

Evan William’s Green Label won the competition, though Paste notes that you shouldn’t consider its score of an eight as a fair comparison to more expensive bottles. Two bottles, Kentucky Deluxe and Kentucky Dale, each receive special mentions for being particularly bad. If you’re going to drink at that price point, it helps not to make mistakes.
High rye for a low Price

One desirable characteristic in bourbon is a high amount of rye in the mash. Whiskies that have rye as the second most prominent ingredient next to corn are “high rye” bourbons. Connoisseurs often favor these bourbons for their bolder flavor.

If you’re on a budget, it can be hard to spot a whiskey with this special complexion, but there’re a few out there. Fighting Cock, a six-year bourbon that’s great in an old fashioned thanks to its rye-heavy mashbill, is one example. For a rare treat in this category, see if you can track down some “Very Old Barton’s,” which some people feel isn’t very old at all.

Now, go forth and select your bourbon of choice with the knowledge that you can have quality on a reasonable budget. Perhaps you’ll feel the sacrifice wasn’t worth it, but we think if you stick to these five guidelines, you’ll be surprised at what you find.

Kayla Matthews is a blogger and freelance copywriter who enjoys whiskey and a good book. She writes about self-improvement, life goals and productivity for publications like The Huffington Post and The Daily Muse.

Credit: Jim Kravits via Flickr

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