Best Whiskeys
AROON PHUKEED/Getty Images
Best Whiskeys
AROON PHUKEED/Getty Images

Best Whiskey Buys

A spot of whiskey can step up the drinking at a St. Patrick's Day celebration, but there's no need for the super premium, vintage variety when there are plenty of affordable options to drink tagged at less than $50. Cheapism pored over the results of a recent Ultimate Spirits Challenge to help identify favorite brands and bottles, making this list by cross-checking judges' picks against specialty blogs and online consumer reviews to determine the best buys in Scotch whisky (the proper spelling dispenses with the "e"), Irish whiskey, bourbon, and rye. Need some new ideas for cocktails when temperatures start to warm? Check out 10 Cheap but Tasty Summer Cocktails.

Johnnie Walker Black Label
Johnnie Walker

Best Cheap Scotch Whisky: Johnnie Walker Black Label

This blended highland Scotch is rich with slight notes of toasted grain and spice. It garners 4 out of 5 stars in consumer reviews at Master Of Malt, where the site's own experts comment on the full nose, fruity finish, and complex palate (e.g., creamy toffee, citrus, dry spice, and smoke). The professional tasting panel at the spirits competition named Johnny Walker Black Label a finalist, and noted aromas of breakfast cereal, cedar, and toasted earth along with flavors of rolled oats, nutmeg, and hints of smoke. For a 750 ml bottle of this Johnny Walker, you'll spend about $33.

Ballantine's Finest
Ballantine's

Runner-Up Cheap Scotch Whisky: Ballantine's Finest

One of the better bargains on the blended Scotch market, this light-amber spirit scores 4 out of 5 stars at The Whisky Exchange. Consumer reviewers wax enthusiastic about hints of passion fruit and caramel, a smooth and long finish, and a touch of sweetness. Industry experts awarded Ballantine's Finest a solid score of 92 (out of 100), deeming it clean and refreshing, with apricot and dessert-like spices on the palate and cereal grains and sugar cookies on the nose. Pick up a 750 ml bottle for about $23, and drink neat, fans urge.

Related: Looking for something light for drinking? Here are some new ideas for summer cocktails.

Dewar's White Label
Dewar's

Good Cheap Scotch Whisky: Dewar's White Label

This go-to blend combines up to 40 malt and grain whiskies, yielding a smooth and sippable spirit. Dewar's White Label earns five stars in consumer reviews, which describe it as balanced with a slight smokiness and hints of vanilla and honey. The Ultimate Spirits Challenge judges gave it a strong recommendation in 2019, taken by its fig and apricot scents and honey-hinted flavors enhanced by a touch of smoky malt. Dewar's White Label costs about $22 for a 750 ml bottle.

Related: Eighteen rum brands to shop for

Tullamore D.E.W. Special Reserve
ReserveBar

Best Cheap Irish Whiskey: Tullamore D.E.W. Special Reserve

While Tullamore D.E.W. may not be the first Irish whiskey bottle that comes to mind, this 12-year-old vintage blend deserves your full attention. Judges at the spirits face-off awarded it the Chairman's Trophy in years past and highlighted the complex nose of almond butter and coffee grounds, slight smoky finish, and flavors of ripe tree fruits with candied orange peel. Tullamore D.E.W. also won the double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition three years in a row. Given all the accolades, finding it for $49 for a 750 ml bottle is a true bargain — and it can be done.

Related: Inexpensive beer brands beloved by locals 

Tyrconnell Single Malt
Tyrconnell Whiskey

Runner-Up Cheap Irish Whiskey: Tyrconnell Single Malt

The flavors of this choice single malt whiskey are distinct and powerful, offering hits of honey, sweet spices, apricots, and malt. Expert reviews extol the smooth palate and straightforward presentation, and note tastes such as apricot, oats, and malt, as well as honey, a bit of vanilla, and a hint of smoke on the air. Consumers likewise shower Tyrconnell with praise, calling it refined and creamy. A going price of around $40 for a 750 ml bottle is a very good deal for a single malt Irish whiskey.

Related: Try sherry at the shop for a brand-new drinking experience

Jameson
Jameson Whiskey

Good Cheap Irish Whiskey: Jameson

With its easy-going body and mellow flavor, Jameson is a hit with consumers, who enjoy the smooth, thick body, the touch of honey sweetness, and the notes of fruit, spice, and grass. Experts like Jameson as well, owing to its complex aromatics made up of apricot, cereal, and minerality, and a palate imbued with almond, toffee, and baking spices. A good choice for Irish coffee and whiskey sours, the $25-$30 tab for a 750 ml bottle won't drain your reserves.

Woodford Reserve
Target

Best Cheap Bourbon: Woodford Reserve

Hailing from the oldest distillery still going strong in Kentucky, Woodford Reserve bourbon tastes of honey and spice, coffee, and ginger, and gives off scents of cocoa, smoke, and even leather. This is a smooth, thick sipper, and consumers consider it an excellent base for an Old Fashioned. Experts are fans, as well, finding the creamy nose with splashes of honey, mango, and smoke and the full palate with tastes of espresso, orange peel, and rye to be particularly appealing. An added inducement to enjoy Woodford Reserve is the going price of about $35 for a 750 ml bottle.

Related: What else can you shop for that makes a good base for an Old Fashioned? You may be surprised.

Old Forester Signature
Old Forester

Runner-Up Cheap Bourbon: Old Forester Signature

This Kentucky bourbon stands tall as a daily nip, according to The Whiskey Jug blog. It kicks with a 50% ABV (alcohol by volume), which is softened by a full-bodied flavor of baking spices, dark fruits, caramel, and hints of coconut and wood. Experts from the tasting competition smelled sage, honey, toasted coconut, and caramel in the nose and tasted some vanilla, baking spices, and coconut in the mouth. They liked the toasty finish and deemed Old Forester Signature a very strong value. Indeed it is, at a spend of around $25 for a 750 ml bottle.

Related: Good, inexpensive brands of white wine to shop for

Jim Beam Devil's Cut
Jim Beam

Good Cheap Bourbon: Jim Beam Devil's Cut

Jim Beam Devil's Cut offers an extraordinary lesson in value with a small $23 tag on a 750 ml bottle, the bottom in terms of price for this list. Made from a blend of 6-year-old vintage whiskey and spirit extracted from the wooden casks in which it aged, this Jim Beam bourbon presents a relatively dry, oaky, and robust taste with undertones of stone fruits and brown sugar. Professional tasters detect aromas of banana, orange zest, and cinnamon on the air and like its smoky character and smooth finish.

Sazerac Straight
Buffalo Trace Distillery

Best Cheap Rye: Sazerac Straight

A 6-year-old vintage rye, Sazerac is a lively, full-bodied whiskey that warms the mouth. Judges at the spirits challenge named it a finalist in the rye whiskey category. They gave a shout out to the campfire smoke, coconut, and ripe pear aromas wafting off the brew and the vanilla, honey, and candied orange peel they tasted that deepens the elegant finish. For frugal lovers of rye, the $30 a bottle price tag makes Sazerac Straight a top choice.

Related: Shop for these 15 best tequilas brands under $30 a bottle … or shop for these 20 splurge-worthy tequilas brands.

Bulleit 95 Small Batch
Bulleit

Runner-Up Cheap Rye: Bulleit 95 Small Batch

Awarded a Chairman's Trophy in the 2014 Ultimate Spirits Challenge, Bulleit 95 is a blend of flavor and value that's hard to beat. Full of typically fruity and spicy rye character with strong vanilla and cherry in the nose and hints of mango and banana, Bulleit 95 delivers a slight spicy hotness in the mouth mellowed out with peach, cherry, and orange. The finish lingers without burning. There are 375 ml bottles out there for about $20.

Rittenhouse Bottled In Bond
Warehouse Wines and Spirits

Good Cheap Rye: Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond

Rittenhouse Rye earns the "bottled in bond" label as the product of one distillery from one season of one year, although it is aged another four years. The result, according to industry experts, is a bouquet of toasted oats, apricot, marmalade, and woody notes and a honeyed palate complemented by caramel, butter cream, and a grainy sweetness. Rittenhouse was named North American Whiskey of the Year at the 2006 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Set aside about $25 for a 750 ml bottle.

Related: Best liquor brands to shop for to stock a bar for less than $300

Lot 40 Canadian Rye
Ace Spirits

Best Cheap Canadian Whisky: Lot 40 Canadian Rye

Earning 96 points and stealing the Chairman’s Trophy at Ultimate Spirits Challenge 2017, this favorite Canadian whisky impressed the judges with a bold flavor profile of evolving spices. Lot 40 Rye also scores a 93 out of 100 on consumer review website The Whiskey Wash,  proving this is an all-around, top-shelf favorite. The reports of enticing flavors mention spice and subtle citrus undertones that create a powerful impression that lingers on the tongue after each sip. A 750 ml bottle costs around $40.

Pike Creek Double Barreled 10 Years Old Canadian Blended Whisky
Pike Creek Whisky

Runner-Up Cheap Canadian Whiskey: Pike Creek Double Barreled 10 Years Old Canadian Blended Whisky

A mouthful just to say, let alone to drink, this blended spirit from Canada comes highly recommended from the experts at Ultimate Beverage Challenge, scoring 94 points out of 100. With 3.6 out of 5 stars on Distiller.com, consumers agree with the professionals that this offers a lot of value for just $28 per bottle. Reviews mention luscious flavors such as chocolate and cherries mixed with baking spice and a decadent texture.

Related: Ten inexpensive craft beer brands to toast in the fall

Legacy Canadian Blended Whisky
West Deptford Buy Rite

Good Cheap Canadian Whiskey: Legacy Canadian Blended Whisky

This blended whisky regularly scores more than 80 out of 100 on consumer websites such as Distiller.com, where it got 83 points. One Ultimate Beverage Challenge score came in at 93 points. Part of the Buffalo Trace company, ever batch of this whisky is actually bottled in Kentucky. Each 750 ml bottle runs about $25 or less. The creamy texture and sweet vanilla flavors with supporting notes of spice and maple are what endear this spirit to consumers at the bar and experts alike.

Bastille 1789 French Whisky
Bastille Whisky

Best Cheap French Whisky: Bastille 1789 French Whisky

Of the nine spirits that qualified as "world whisky" in the 2017 Ultimate Spirits Challenge, this is the only one in the category that comes in at under $50 (it can be found for around $28 per 750 ml bottle). With a strong recommendation from the industry insiders, and 4 out of 5 stars from consumers, these whiskeys offer a lot of value. The flavors are said to be malty and honeyed, and even reminiscent of cognac.

Balcones Baby Blue Single Grain American Whiskey
Balcones Distilling

Best Single Grain American Whiskey: Balcones Baby Blue Single Grain American Whiskey

Made from blue corn, this choice, single-grain American spirit expresses a sense of place in every sip of every bottle in the batch. It comes highly recommended by some of the best judges in the industry, and garners no small praise from consumer websites. Made with a unique mash, its flavors are described as earthy, with notes of clay, cornbread, with sweet and savory oak tones tasted on the finish. Expect to spend around $43 to buy a 750 ml bottle.

Catskill Provisions New York Honey Flavored Whiskey
New York Craft Spirits

Best Flavored Whiskey: Catskill Provisions New York Honey Flavored Whiskey

Honey is a naturally occurring flavor in whiskey, which makes it a winning combination from the get go. Given 4 out of 5 stars on Distiller.com and 94 out of 100 from Ultimate Beverage Challenge, it wins high marks all around. Tasters describe the top-shelf flavor as balanced between sweet floral honey and an earthy spiciness. Each 750 ml bottle runs around $35-$40.

Benchmark Brown Sugar Flavored Whiskey
The Whisky Exchange

Runner-Up Flavored Whiskey: Benchmark Brown Sugar Flavored Whiskey

Brown sugar and whiskey are flavors that are easy to imagine going well together in a drink. Winner of a great value award from Ultimate Beverage Challenge, this bottle draws 5-star ratings and can be found for around $15 per 750 ml bottle. It is described as decadent with flavors of heavy cream and rich brown sugar, offering a semi-sweet finish in every sip of every bottle of these whiskeys, from every batch.

Benchmark Peach Flavored Whiskey
The Whisky Exchange

Good Flavored Whiskey: Benchmark Peach Flavored Whiskey

Whiskey and peaches are two iconic flavors of the American South. With a strong recommendation from all-star judges, the spirit was awarded 85 out of 100 points. At a spend of around $15 per 750 ml bottle, it delivers a lot of flavor. Experts describe the layers of flavor as juicy and ripe, with clear notes of peach as well as baking spices and a touch of oak. It'll make you glad you made it to the end of the list.

Crown Royal
ReserveBar

What About Crown Royal?

Bottles of Crown Royal were once ubiquitous in America, so much so that the familiar bottle and louche bag of purple began to seem tired. After decades of disdain, however, America has been welcoming back the taste of Canadian whisky and its most popular import by far: Crown Royal has more than two-thirds of the U.S. market for Canadian whiskey. Vintage bottles can found for more than $500 online, selling alongside cheap, poorly regarded bottom-shelf booze flavors such as Regal Apple. (Surprisingly, limited edition Crown Royal Texas Mesquite was greeted with pleasure by The Whiskey Jug and costs around $25 for 750 ml.)

But the bottom line is that especially the higher-end Crown Royal varieties continue to score well at competition (a 97 from Ultimate Spirits for the top-shelf $129 Crown Royal XR Canadian Blended Whisky, for example) and the basic bottle itself draws an averaged 4.5 stars out of five from customer reviews on Masters of Malt. At $22 for 750 ml, this brand still has plenty of reason to cross the border, and Americans — including those on a budget — have reason to be drinking it.