A Race to the Bottom Shelf: Look Past the Screw Cap and Enjoy These Exceptional Bargain Bourbons

The thing about Maker's Mark is that it's everywhere you are. Cash bar at a bar mitzvah? Check. Intermission at Playhouse Square? Check. Bachelorette party at a dueling piano bar? Check. If its ubiquity has made it the go-to bourbon for the novice connoisseur, its low price — about $27 for a 750ml bottle — has made it all the more enticing as a staple for the home bar.

But it's not the only option. There are plenty of other middle-shelf bourbons out there that give Maker's Mark a run for its money, and a surprising host of bottom-shelf offerings that blow it out of the water for half the price. To learn more about them, we talked to Edwin Vargas, an Ohio City attorney who co-founded the Cleveland Bourbon Club, a small private group of connoisseurs that meets once a month to sample rare, exquisite whiskies. Fortunately, the bourbons he recommends are available right around the corner at your neighborhood state liquor agency.

Priced $30 and under per bottle

Elmer T. Lee , 90 proof,

Buffalo Trace Distillery

"All bourbons are going to have the same core notes of vanilla and caramel from the charred oak barrel," Vargas explains. In that regard, Elmer T. Lee is a prototypical bourbon. "Its high rye content lends a spicier note that is universally approachable."

Basil Hayden's, 80 proof,

Jim Beam Distillery

Almost as ubiquitous as Maker's Mark, Basil Hayden's is named for one of Kentucky's first distillers and is a great introduction to small-batch bourbons. "It's a high-rye, light bodied bourbon, which means the oak is not as overstated," Vargas notes. "The spice doesn't overwhelm and notes of nutmeg, tobacco and cinnamon shine through. It's really pleasant — almost a dessert bourbon."

Eagle Rare 10 Year Old, 90 proof,

Buffalo Trace Distillery

Made from a lower-rye mash bill than Elmer T. Lee, Eagle Rare 10 Year Old has "oak and tobacco on the nose, and notes of spun sugar, anise and orange along with nice, mellow white pepper," Vargas notes. Its older sibling, Eagle Rare 17 Year Old, is made from the same distillate and will sell in Ohio this fall for north of $100 a bottle.

Evan Williams Single Barrel,

86 proof, Heaven Hill Distillery

Evan Williams Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is the second most popular bourbon in the world and Evan Williams Single Barrel is an 8- to 11-year-old expression hand selected each year by the master distiller. "This one's creamy," says Vargas. "Slightly sweet but not too over the top, with lots of baking spices."

Priced $15 and under per bottle

Old Grand Dad Bottled-in-Bond,

100 proof, Jim Beam Distillery

"What used to go for $50 in the 1980s now sells for $14 to $18," Vargas explains. "It's a steal. This is the same juice used in Basil Hayden's, but aged for half as long." As for the picture on the bottle? That's none other than Basil Hayden himself.

Old Ezra 101, 101 proof , Luxco, Inc.

Produced by Heaven Hill and marketed by a holding company in St. Louis, this 7-year-old bourbon has notes of leather, chocolate and baking spices. "You'll find the same distillate in stores sold by another company as Johnny Drum," Vargas says. "But you're basically paying $10 more for some made-up story about the Civil War."