Building a Bourbon Collection on a Budget: What you MUST HAVE without breaking the bank

At the Gamecock Bourbon Society, we have as many bourbon novices as we do die-hard collectors. The inclusivity of our community and willingness to educate, share, and help new collectors sets us apart in a world that can be intimidating for those on the outside looking in. We believe that bourbon is much more than just a bottle of alcohol– we see it as a representation of history, hard work over time, and relationship building. As such, we believe that it holds intrinsic value for every American, whether they have never tasted a drop, or own every bottle made.

To make that value accessible, we understand the simple truth that can dissuade many from attempting to begin their whiskey journey– bourbon is an expensive hobby (or at least it can be). With this in mind, we have created a guide for those who are interested in starting their first bourbon collection without breaking the bank.

The best part of this guide is that unlike what many on social media make novices believe, price doesn’t always equal quality. In fact, some of the best overall bourbons are much less than you think and are mentioned in this list.

1. Why Price Doesn’t Equal Quality

Like all things, bourbon is a victim of brand bias, sneaky marketing ploys, and misinformation to persuade consumers. New collectors will be inundated with information that suggests certain brands being inherently better than others. They’ll also be told early on that the top-shelf section is the only place where quality whiskey is found and that anything lower, is significantly less favorable and sometimes, flat-out bad. This is something that I experienced myself, and to be honest, it hindered me early on because it had me ignoring great bottles that were accessible and instead, chasing impossible to find ones (that turned out to be pure crap once I got them).

Seasoned enthusiasts, through mostly a process of trial and error, know that this concept of “low price = low quality” is untrue. One might think that the more expensive bourbons an expert collector tastes, the more he or she would be spoiled to the luxury, preventing them from being able to enjoy the cost-effective options. Not only is that not the case, but it is so far from the truth that it is almost comical. Real bourbon veterans reach a point in their hobby where they (having sampled and bought the supposed “best of the best”) discover that the majority of the luxury bottles are nothing more than clever marketing. The paradigm shift seems to happen in every person who really commits to the passionate pursuit of bourbon. Just like I did, they eventually see the light, and understand that the quality of taste is found in the mash bill, the proof (whether they like high or low), and aging, among other factors.

2: Add Mainstays to Build a Firm Foundation

Now that you are convinced that high price doesn’t automatically equal high quality, you are likely wondering what reasonably priced bourbons you should add to your collection first.

Mainstays, those well knowns classics, are considered “classics” for a reason. Brands like Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Old Forester, Elijah Craig, and Woodford Reserve have a lasting legacy for a reason– they are great products that have stood the test of time. While I understand the temptation to want to reach for something a little more exotic, these mainstays create a great foundation for the rest of your collection for 3 main reasons:

    1. They are recognizable brands filled with incredible history
    2. They are easy to acquire, and can be found at any local store
    3. They can be enjoyed as a neat pour, with ice, or even as a mixer

Remember, that even with these classic brands there are tiers and levels. Wild Turkey for example may be known to some as an extremely “cheap bourbon” but not only is their Wild Turkey 101 much better than its price-point suggests, they also offer higher end products that knock the socks off of any “allocated” bourbons they are blind tasted against. The same can be said for each of the classics on this list, allowing a new collector to start with the basics, and then work their way up by adding the higher end options as they can.

“I went through a process of wanting what was new, what was flashy, what was being hyped up at the moment. Eventually I realized that there was something to the old school brands. I stopped chasing random rare bottles and instead started trying to collect all of the Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve stuff I could. I now not only have bottles from them that most people have never seen, but I also know these brands inside and out now.” – J.T. Harvey

MUST HAVES: Wild Turkey 101, Elijah Craig Small Batch, Maker’s Mark


Higher End Mainstays to add later: Russell’s Reserve 10 Year, Four Roses Single Barrel, Woodford Double Oaked, and Old Forester 1920

3: Add Underrated Budget Bourbons that are Lesser Known

Outside of the classic bourbon brands mentioned above, there are a number of budget friendly options that are frankly extremely underrated and underpriced. These bottles may not have the name recognition that the Woodford Reserve’s of the world have, but they are arguably even better from both a quality and price standpoint.

Bottles like Old Grand Dad 114, Early Times Bottled-in-Bond and Very Old Barton, make for some fantastic additions to any bar, while spending well below $30. OGD 114, is especially great, coming in at a proof that is warm enough to please high proof snobs, without overwhelming those new to whiskey. While it will not wow guests who are looking at your collection from a distance the way that Buffalo Trace products tend to do, letting them taste it blind will prove that they are missing out on a bottle that is quickly gaining a cult following.

“Old Grand Dad 114. Reliable. Consistent. Full bodied. Great proof. Whether after a long day of work or a as a nightcap, OGD is just a nice pour to always have on the shelf.” – @drothlaw1

Another bottle to keep in mind is probably one that the most pretentious of wannabe influencers on social media would have you avoid– Kirkland’s Small Batch Bourbon. This insanely underrated bottle is made by Barton, and cost only 20 bucks for a hefty 1.75 bottle. Compare it to Barton’s actual 1792 Small Batch (which retails over $30), and you cannot taste the difference, making this the ultimate budget bottle to add to your collection.

MUST HAVES: OGD 114, Early Times BiB, Very Old Barton’s, and Kirkland’s Small Batch

4: If You Add Allocated Bottles, Do So Wisely

If you listen to our advice on the “must haves” above, your starter collection should consist of around 5 to 6 high quality budget-friendly bottles (if you added the higher end recommendations, you’d be at closer to 10 total with a little more money invested). This is a great beginning point that allows you to learn the nuances of flavor and find what you like and what you don’t. Many would argue that a collection of a few bottles you actually drink beats out an endless list of bourbons that you’d rather not open. Still, even though your beginner collection has as much quality as it does value, eventually you WILL want to add an “allocated” bottle to your shelf.

Allocated bourbons are essentially rare, harder to find bottles. The reasons why these bottles have become so difficult to locate isn’t necessarily because they are better than the standard bourbons you can regularly find at your local ABC store. Things like high age-statements, small quantities, and genius marketing strategies culminate together to create a supply that cannot keep up with demand, therefore, meaning that a limited amount of each bottle is “allocated” per store/ per region.

Some allocated bottles are certainly worth the price and effort it takes to obtain them. Bourbons like Elijah Craig 18-Year, Stagg Jr., and A Midwinter Night’s Dram for example are products that are both expensive and nearly impossible to find, but to me and my palate, well worth the trouble. Many, however, do not live up to the hype that surrounds them. The fun part of the bourbon journey though, is that you get to try them all, good or bad, and make your own decisions on what you enjoy.

“There is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others.” – Raymond Chandler

If you decide that you want add something allocated to spice up your collection and wow guests who visit, I recommend starting with those bottles that are technically allocated, but still affordable and easy to find. Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Weller Special Reserve, and Sazerac Rye, are four great options that when offered at MSRP cost only around $100 for all of them.

From there, you can certainly chase down higher end bottles, but I do suggest that you try your best to refrain from spending too much over retail pricing for anything. I mention this in other article, so it is probably a familiar topic to those who follow Gamecock Bourbon often, but for those unaware, here’s a quick a breakdown: by paying greedy store owners marked-up prices for bottles, we are allowing them to continue the disgusting practice of price-gouging– which ruins the bourbon market for everyone. If you can commit to paying as close to retail as possible, I promise you will not miss out on allocated bottles. In fact, there are other ways to find these rare bourbons that we can help you with. We actually wrote a guide for securing allocated bottles that you can read here: 5 Tips for Securing Allocated Bottles.

Must Haves: Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, Sazerac Rye, and Weller Special Reserve


Conclusion: Drink What You Like, and Like What You Drink

This guide is meant as a basic reference to help those who are new to bourbon figure out the best approach to starting their first collection. Quickly though, you will develop your preferences and find bottles not mentioned here that you like a hell of a lot more. That is what makes the bourbon journey so much fun– you get to drink what you like, and like what you drink. If you decide you like expensive brands exclusively, we think you should spend the money to enjoy them. If you decide you like a little of everything, we think you should continue buying and trying as much as you can. If you only care for one brand, stick with it, and have fun while you do it. As long as you are enjoying the process and sharing your collection with those you love, you cannot lose.

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