I've Tried Hundreds of Expensive Whiskeys. This Bottom Shelf Bourbon Remains My Go-to Bar Order

Spend enough time around bars and bartenders and you’ll likely have a chat about their choice in well whiskey. The well—a nickname for where bartenders keep the easy-to-reach bottles so they can make common drinks quickly to satisfy the masses—is a dependable resource when discussing good cheap whiskey. It’s not a topic that stirs the $50-per-glass bourbon crowd, nor the fancy cocktail horde. But if you’re a Jack-and-Coke kind of drinker or a no-nonsense, shot-and-a-beer type, it’s impacted you at one point or another.

Exactly what the “best cheap whiskey” is changes by the store, bar, or even state. There are plenty of cheap whiskeys around these days, and even more so if you’re living by the $50 per bottle maximum that some aficionados set as the section's boundary. But $50 isn’t really cheap. And when bartenders set a go-to for the well, their limit is closer to $20 per bottle.

A few years ago, on a late winter Friday afternoon in downtown Los Angeles, I got to chatting with Dave Fernie, general manager at Bar Clacson (now known as Chatterbox). A former bartender and all-around go-to guy behind the bar, Fernie is also the innovator behind Honeycut and The Walker Inn, two classic now-shuttered LA drinkeries. We started talking about which whiskey he'd crown king of the well.

Related: Best Cheap Whiskey of 2024 for a Great Bottle on a Budget

It’s not the first time he’s come across the age-old question, and there are plenty of options. Jim Beam, Jack Daniel's, and Evan Williams all do a great job for around that $20 price. If you’re looking for exports, there’s always Johnnie Walker, Jameson, Bushmills, or Crown Royal. Fireball, peach-this, and apple-that are out of the question—well whiskeys have to be versatile. Every time he’d been tasked with choosing the well for new bars, he ran a taste test, having the owners blindly try cheap whiskeys. Over and over, Evan Williams took the throne.

You can find Evan Williams for well under $20 at your local liquor store.<p>Chris Hatler</p>
You can find Evan Williams for well under $20 at your local liquor store.

Chris Hatler

Evan Williams is cheaper than Jack, Jim, and almost every other bottom-shelf American whiskey. And at 86 proof, it has a higher-than-average ABV. Yet despite the high proof and low price, Evan still delivers those vanilla, oak notes on the nose and palate. The finish lingers without leaving the burn you expect from bottom shelf booze. It's a product of pedigree; Evan Williams traces its ownership back to the Bardstown, Kentucky-based Heaven Hill—the distillery behind Elijah Craig, Mellow Corn, Larceny, Old Fitzgerald, Rittenhouse, and many more favorites.

While Evan Williams might not be your go-to when mixing up an old fashioned or some complex bourbon cocktail, it mixes well with Coke or, even better, makes a perfect partner to a cold can of Coors Banquet or Pabst Blue Ribbon. For the cost-conscious, Evan should be top of mind.

I’ve spent enough time sipping drinks at the bar to know my stuff. After all, I’m a spirits writer and, before that, a music journalist—two jobs known for free drinks and low pay. Small, sweaty venues hazed by cigarette smoke that feature floor-level local bands aren’t exactly known for their bourbon selection or craft cocktail expertise, but they know how to satisfy a crowd most nights. They satisfied me with Evan Williams. And next time you need a well drink, the cheap bourbon will be there for you too, getting you through whatever ear-splitting opener is on stage.

Related: We've Tasted Hundreds of Whiskeys. These Are the Best in the World