A no-frills guide to cheap bottles that are secretly great so you can get the most bang for your buck.
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There are plenty of liquor brands out there ready to tell you why they’re worth spending so much money on.
There are also plenty of bottom shelf brands that you can completely avoid by assuming they’re all swill.
But are they?
Below is a list of the best alcohol brands you can get for the least amount of money. The high-value, low-cost bottles that bartenders keep in stock at home. They’re great for mixing, and while they may not be your break-out-the-good-stuff special occasion sipper, they’re still highly sippable.
You might be surprised by some of the names you see. But just because something is affordable doesn’t mean its garbage, and, likewise, just because something’s expensive doesn’t mean it belongs on the top shelf. For the record, I’m not paid to recommend any of these brands, and I’ll make no money whether you buy them or not (unless, of course, you’re looking to hire a mobile bar or a writer).
I’m not here to argue semantics, geography, or history. That’s for another post. For now, I’ll stick to recommending the two main types of whiskey that you’ll find in most whiskey-based classic cocktails: rye and bourbon.
For rye cocktails, you can’t go wrong with Rittenhouse ($25). It’s 100 proof, bottled in bond, and retains all the spice, caramel, and vanilla you expect from a classic rye whiskey.
For bourbon (and I almost hesitate to let this secret out) my “sleeper” is Ancient Age ($12). You can doubt me all you want. That just leaves more of Kentucky’s finest for me.
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Gin has been going through somewhat of a Renaissance over the last ten years. From the traditional, juniper-forward London dry style, to modern, more botanical, American style gins, I urge you to try as many as you can next time you’re in a bar with a wide gin selection.
For our purposes, we’re going with Gordon’s ($11). You may be tempted to go up just a tiny bit for a name like Beefeater or Bombay, but you would be remiss. Gordon’s is the top-selling gin in the world for a reason, and its traditional style lends as well to classic cocktails as it does to a G&T.
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Tequila is arguably even more diverse than gin or whiskey. Between Blanco, Reposado, Anejo, and Mezcal styles, there’s no one-size-fits-all tequila out there. But I’m going to recommend one anyway.
Cimarron ($24/L) is smooth, it’s bright, and it doesn’t haunt those with tequila-induced flashbacks. If you’re mixing it, opt for their Reposado. Its bold flavor profile will still stand out nicely in a cocktail. But if a lighter taste is what you’re going for, choose the Blanco.
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Does it really matter? Okay, okay. Because it’s the top-selling liquor in the U.S., it does (even though it’s entire job is to be masked by other flavors). I know you already drink Tito’s anyway. Or if you’re over 40, Absolut. Over 50, Grey Goose or Ketel One. Do you see what I’m getting at? Vodka is a product of mass marketing. “Your brand” is simply a result of whatever was first marketed to you. So if you already have a favorite, go ahead and stick with it. Even premium vodka isn’t that expensive compared to, say, an aged whiskey. Just don’t get anything below Monopolowa ($17).
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Taste a light, bright, Puerto Rican rum next to an earthy, molasses forward black rum and you won’t even think they’re related. But to get a more traditional tasting cocktail, let’s go somewhere in the middle with an aged Jamaican rum. We want more flavor than a white rum like Bacardi, and to just skip right over the fake-tasting spiced flavors of Captain Morgan.
Appleton Estate Signature Blend ($16) has a nice, middle-of-the-road flavor that retains the smooth and bold notes you want from a barrel-aged rum, without being overly aggressive in tiki drinks.
If you do want to stick to a lighter rum (we all need our Daiquiri fix too) Plantation 3-Star ($18) offers nice complexity for its light flavor.
As far as I can tell, there’s no secretly good yet underpriced orange liqueur/Triple Sec. Sorry ‘bout it. The good news is that you’ll use less of it than your main spirit, so for the cost, it will last a lot longer. A decent quality orange liqueur will really up your Corpse Reviver #2 game, not to mention your Margarita.
So, splurge for the real deal, like Pierre Ferrand’s Dry Curacao ($40) or Cointreau ($35). You can find much cheaper brands of Triple Sec, but they’ll taste syrupy and/or artificial.
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Vermouth developed such a bad rap between the ’70s and the early 2000s, and by no fault of its own. It seems like the main reason folks lost a taste for it was because they were drinking vermouth that had gone bad! Whether sweet or dry, vermouth is a fortified wine. As such, it needs to be stored like wine. If you keep a half-empty bottle in your liquor cabinet for months on end, then of course it will ruin your cocktail. Keep it refrigerated, in a bottle with as little air as possible in it (either vacuum it, or pour it into a smaller bottle each time it gets lower).
Dolin ($10) produces quality, versatile vermouth that’s a great starting point. There are plenty of other pairing options, though, if you’re looking for more specific qualities in your Martini or Manhattan.
I could write a whole post just about liqueurs. And I probably will. But for here, I’ll leave the four that I find most useful. You won’t see many price variances since most of them are unique.
Luxardo ($33) When you hear maraschino liqueur, don’t even think of letting the image of neon red, plastic balls of preservatives pop into your head — except that I just described them, so you can think about them for a second. But next time don’t! — This maraschino liqueur is made from Marasca cherries and has a light, soft, somewhat bitter flavor that is nowhere near the artificial cherry flavoring used in candy, medicine, and vodka.
Henri Bardouin Pastis ($32) For an intense anise flavor in your cocktails, reach for the Pastis. It’s a similar flavor profile to absinthe, but at a much lower price. You can even still sweeten, dilute, and sip it the same way you would traditional absinthe.
Campari ($32) You can’t make a classic Negroni without it. Sure, there are countless alternatives and riffs, that’s what makes the Negroni so much fun. But for the traditional flavor, or if you just love bitter drinks, grab some Campari.
Photo byBen Yang
There you have it. My no-frills guide to stocking your liquor cabinet like a bartender. If you’re not going the classic cocktail route, go ahead and forget about the herbal liqueurs; you won’t need them. But you still got a list of secretly good but cheap bottles to break out for your next BBQ or dinner party.