10 Best Bourbons Around $40, Ranked

Bourbon

March 20, 2022

Blind tastings are a lot like sports. You can predict how you think it will go, but you just never know. Sometimes Appalachian State beats Michigan and the once impossible No. 16 Seed defeats a No. 1 Seed in the NCAA tourney. Upsets happen.

That was the case with my Best Everyday Bourbon Around $40 blind Friday. These 10 finalists were picked from public voting, but I blind tasted them to determine my No. 1. (Learn how I assembled the Everyday Bourbons.) Based on past performance, the winner, I figured, would have finished toward the bottom.

Pre-Taste Analysis

Prior to the tasting, my team and I analyzed past videos and tastings of every brand in here. Over a decade, I professionally tasted each at least a dozen times in competition, for magazine or book reviews, private tastings and blind flights. Each analysis was provided in the show notes and in the video.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength,  Public Ranking: 10

Analysis: This is Maker’s wheated bourbon profile at its best. Fred published a score of 92 in Bourbon Curious. However, this whiskey has not done well in his blind tastings, with Fred noting an over-oaked note at times. But the product is a staple in the Minnick household.

Evan Williams Bottled in Bond, Public Ranking: 9

Analysis: Winner of Fred’s Best Everyday Bourbon in 2019, Evan Williams Bottled in Bond consistently wins over Fred’s palate. Will it return to No. 1?

Old Forester 100 Proof, Public Ranking: 8

Analysis: When writing tasting notes for Bourbon Curious, Fred rated Old Forester 100 an 89, a solid score for an everyday pour. In addition, Brown-Forman bourbons rate well in his blinds with King of Kentucky and Old Forester 1920 winning past taste offs. But those are big proofed bourbons. Will this 100 proofer stand out enough to win?

Old Grand-Dad 114, Public Ranking: 7

Analysis: While Old Grand-Dad 114 is often a fan favorite, it’s not fared well in Fred’s tastings, with past notes calling out raw grain notes. However, Fred loves Old Grand-Dad Bonded. Perhaps, this is the day 114 wins over his palate. 

Four Roses Small Batch, Public Ranking: 6

Analysis: If Fred happens to be craving cinnamon before the tasting, Four Roses stands to win. Even if the spice note doesn’t show or impress, this is standard pour at Fred’s corporate tastings. It often beats the allocated products in blinds. 

Elijah Craig Small Batch, Public Ranking: 5

Analysis: After Heaven Hill dropped the Elijah Craig 12 year age statement, Fred couldn’t look at a bottle of the latest version. The dude has issues! Anyway, he got over it and once again fell in love with the flavor profile. 

Knob Creek 9 Year, Public Ranking: 4

Analysis: Fred’s been on a Knob Creek bandwagon for a long time, releasing videos that encourage people to buy it over allocated $200 bourbons. It also won Best Bourbon at the 2015 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, where Fred voted for it. Knob Creek does very well with his palate. 

Buffalo Trace, Public Ranking: 3

Analysis: When Fred reviewed Buffalo Trace for Whisky Advocate, he scored it an 88, noting a nutmeg note. But that’s been several years, and Buffalo Trace has not won any of his blind tastings. That being said, Buffalo Trace is a wild card if this bottle doesn’t have a particular off-putting oak note. 

Wild Turkey 101, Public Ranking: 2

Analysis: Wild Turkey 101 once beat Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year in a Fred blind tasting at Silver Dollar in Louisville. However, when in everyday taste offs, Wild Turkey 101 has been inconsistent, even finishing last before.

Russell’s Reserve 10 Year, Public Ranking: 1

Analysis: The only 10 year age stated bourbon in the lineup, Russell’s Reserve 10 year is a throwback to the old days. It’s packing tons of flavor. But five years ago for Whisky Advocate, he detected a bitterness that kept the whiskey from entering the 90-point plus club. If that bitterness appears today, it will most certainly not win.

The Results

As I say in my videos and have written in past articles about the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, a blind tasting is one moment with a taster or group of tasters. If we re-poured and tasted again, the winner may finish in the middle of the pack.

In fact, the winner–Old Grand-Dad 114–had never finished higher than 4th in my blind tastings and I gave it a moderate review in the 2015 publication of my book, BOURBON CURIOUS.

Old Grand-Dad 114
Nose: Earthy, featuring fresh-cut tree branch, slight pine, cornbread, maple syrup, and caramel.
Palate: Very grain forward, but the grains are mature and cooked, perhaps in the form of cornbread or a stew; this bourbon is a surefire winner if you love your grains. After the raw and earthy notes subside, caramel and vanilla set in, followed by an overpowering cinnamon that sticks to the end with a dry mouthfeel.
Finish: Medium, with cinnamon-dusted apples (This review originally appeared in Bourbon Curious, First Edition)

When the products were revealed, Old Grand-Dad wasn’t the only surprise. Two Heaven Hill products–Evan Williams BIB and Elijah Craig–under performed. Evan Williams finishing toward the bottom was the biggest surprise for me, especially since they won the 2019 taste off. But it’s not like my palate was off. I picked Maker’s Mark Cask Strength at No. 10, citing notes I have many times before–an over-oaked note–and personal sipper Knob Creek finished in my Top 3. I was just feeling Glass A, the eventual winner, over the rest, even though I admitted Glass ‘I’ or Russell’s Reserve could have easily been the winner. It was a tough taste off!

Here’s how they ranked….

Top 10 Everyday Bourbons, $40

10. Maker’s Mark Cask Strength

9. Elijah Craig Small Batch

8. Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond

7. Wild Turkey 101

6. Buffalo Trace

5. Four Roses Small Batch

4. Old Forester 100 Proof

3. Knob Creek 9 Year

2. Russell’s Reserve 10 Year

1. Old Grand-Dad 114

So, while I stand by the tasting, I still think you, as the public, should taste for yourself. I encourage all to get these 10, taste blind and let me know your thoughts. Where do they rank for you… in a blind tasting? (View the public voting.)

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