The DOs and DON’Ts of Buying Bottom Shelf Liquor

The gauntlet of bottom shelf liquor is intimidating. It’s hard to find something that won’t melt your face off, and just as hard to get respect as a serious customer while kneeling to view the store’s lowest of the low. But we’re here with a public service announcement: It’s OK to buy from the bottom shelf. We drew on advice from bartenders, bar managers and liquor store buyers on how to find tasty and respectable bottom shelf liquor options (in this case, anything that costs less than $20). By following this simple Dos and Don’ts guide, you won’t be looking down in shame; you’ll be looking down in anticipation of finding the best deals at the liquor store.

DON’T Reach for the First Brand You Recognize

“Don’t just settle for a big brand,” Max Leisure, the spirits buyer at Verve Wine in New York, tells Supercall. “In just about every category, there is a small-batch alternative that will surprise you, many of which are made in a more authentic and interesting way with less crap done to it.” Ask the liquor store employees what bottles they prefer or about a popular bottle that falls within your price range.

DO Buy Affordable Gin

Ivy Mix, the co-founder of Speed Rack and co-owner of Leyenda, grabs the Gordon’s Gin when looking at affordable options. It’s a solid, straightforward London Dry that sells for less than $15. Will Gordon, a drinks writer who once had a column called “Drinking the Bottom Shelf,” tells Supercall that a less juniper-forward affordable gin is New Amsterdam ($11), which “tastes like a melted coriander creamsicle.”

DON’T Buy Affordable Tequila

Just don’t. If it’s a cheap tequila, that means it’s either not made from 100 percent agave—which will make your head feel like it was swatted with agave stalks the next day—or that it’s not sustainable and is ruining tequila for the rest of us.

DO Buy Affordable Vodka

Paying less for vodka is a smart move. Strip away the marketing of expensive vodka and you've got a spirit pretty similar to the bottom shelf brands. Obviously, don’t grab a brand that bears similar smells to nail polish remover. Kenneth McCoy, the chief creative officer at Public House Collective, suggests Wodka Polish Vodka ($12), and Russian Standard ($16) is another easy go-to.

DON’T Only Look at the Literal Bottom Shelf

Just because it’s sitting a couple shelves higher than the very bottom doesn’t mean it’s not a value grab. Something put on the bottom shelf “doesn’t mean they can’t be profitable or popular,” Leisure says, but you can “find greater value elsewhere.” In other words, that $15 vodka on the middle shelf may taste more than $5 better than the $10 vodka on the bottom shelf.

DO Buy Affordable Whiskey

“There are some awesome American whiskeys that have affordable labelings,” Lynnette Marrero, the co-founder of Speed Rack, tells Supercall. “These are great for whiskey cocktails, especially the ones that call for citrus. For cocktails, Four Roses Bourbon ($18) is a great one.” McCoy adds Heaven Hill Bourbon ($12) and Old Overholt Rye ($19) to that list as well.

DON’T Buy Cheap Wine

“Even if you’re on a budget, don’t let that deter you from drinking the good stuff,” McCoy says. “Always spend a few bucks more on wine. Stay away from the Two Buck Chuck, otherwise you won’t be feeling too good the next day.”

DO Ask for Help

“Be adventurous and figure out what works for your palate,” Leisure says. “Do you prefer grain or corn vodka? Do you like a single malt or a blended whiskey? Don’t be afraid to ask for advice or guidance because chances are the person helping you knows more about the specific products than you do.”