At some point, you've consumed Old Crow, Monarch Gin, or Popov... and maybe you didn't even didn't know it.
Before they were made fancy by someone trying to sell suspenders, cocktails were originally invented to mask crappy liquor, and you've no doubt ordered a screwdriver without specifying Stoli. Mainly because you were in college.
But what do these wonders of the well taste like solo? In the interest of science -- and of learning what that Smelly Jim dude in the alley keeps raving about -- we reached low to sample a bar's worth of bottom-shelf liquor, to find out what was the best of the worst. Then we assigned each a 1-to-10 "Gag Rating" (1 is drinkable, 10 is vomit-by-smelling-it gross), plus gave some tips on how to improve it towards potability. Then we picked a winner. Then we sampled an awful lot of Tums.
This Bubble Tea Is Set on Fire
Old Crow Kentucky Straight Bourbon The well whiskey of choice at many a bar and not just what Cheryl's kids call her, Old Crow's scent immediately gets the stomach prophetically gurgling its discontent. It's surprisingly mellow, with minimal burn, and a tongue-coating caramel flavor that helps the stomach percolation simmer a little while, resulting in a sweet/brutal aftertaste. Gag Rating: 4 How to make it better: The pickleback is your best friend here... and the only way to prevent yourself from tasting Old Crow every time you burp for the next fortnight.
Popov Strangely, this stuff's British in origin, though it's straight-up Mother Russia in its packaging and its ability to get the Tetris theme in your head. So what does it taste like? A lot like the packaging -- apparently the low-grade alcohol in the concoction peels the taste off plastic. Otherwise, it's fairly clean and unoffensive. Gag Rating: 3 How to make it better: Dump it in some OJ and call it a decent 10am.
Monarch Gin This bottom-dwelling old-man gin kind of tastes like the Popov... after it finished an epic makeout session with a pine tree. Still, the floral action does a nice job of masking the grain-alcohol sucker punch. Gag Rating: 6 How to make it better: Heed Snoop's advice -- just dump it in some juice and drink it as fast as you can, making sure to avoid sharing with people who ain't chipped in.
Castillo Gold Rum With a name translated to Castle Oro in Spanglish, you'd expect this Puerto Rican-style rum to make you feel like a king... hell, even an archduke would do. But what it really makes you feel like is a tightwad who doesn't mind the taste of plastic (despite coming in a glass bottle), with a hint of something used to kill aphids. In terms of Puerto Rican flava, this is more like Luis Guzman than J-Lo. Gag Rating: 5 How to make it better: Put it in a Slurpee and pray.
Schranck's Peppermint Schnapps It is strongly advised that you drink pretty much anything whose bottle features a tuxedoed rich man boozing with penguins. You can't help but wonder if this sugary peppermint swill was inspired by British mouthwash. But hey -- it's clean, it's minty, and it'll give you diabetes... and immediately mask the booze smell with its peppermint assault. Gag Rating: 2 How to make it better: Mix it in with a non-flavored brandy for a poor-man's Stinger. Just don't put it near orange juice.
Arandas Oro Tequila There's definitely that grain-alcohol thing going on, but now it's infused with agave. This is what gives tequila a bad name (right along with everything you've ever done after drinking tequila) -- it's fiery, it kind of feels like it's clawing its way down your esophagus, and regardless of how much you drink, you are guaranteed to do something stupid immediately after drinking it. Gag Rating: 7 How to make it better: You don't... load up on salt and limes and bite your lip, gringo. Things are about to get loco.
Lauder's Scotch Here's the thing about this old-man Scotch: If you're not a real Scotch drinker, you'd probably be hard-pressed to tell the difference between this and something like Cutty. The peat's there. The grandpa's closet flavor's there. And in terms of middling Scotch, you could do a lot worse... for a lot more money. Gag Rating: 1 How to make it better: Just toss some rocks in there and tell people it's something else.
Mr. Boston Blackberry Flavored Brandy As if the Kool-Aid man fell under the tutelage of Amanda Bynes, this syrup-y sweet concoction tastes like candy made in a distillery. It's more liqueur-y than brandy-y, but it does get points for actually tasting like blackberry. Gag Rating: 6 How to make it better: Cut it with something thinner like cranberry juice and gin.
Southern Host The label for this SoCo knockoff reads: "Like the warmth and sunshine of the South." That'd probably be the antebellum South, and you're not exactly living in a mansion if you're drinking this stuff, which tastes like caramel-flavored sizzurp, or maybe a Werther's Original melted in a bum's mouth and spat into a bottle. Gag Rating: 17 How to make it better: Add a squirt of Mountain Dew and let the sugar/bizarro flavor contradictions duke it out in your mouth.
Kapali Coffee Liqueur The generic version of Kahlua just kind of tastes like coffee and booze... with about 60 Splendas mixed in for good measure, then thickened in the sun for a while to create a syrup-y consistency. Gag Rating: 4 How to make it better: Make a Colorado Bulldog (a White Russian with a splash of Coke) to maximize the sugary explosive properties.
Bonus Drinking: The All-Sorts Since all this stuff is just sitting there -- and since we're by no means condoning wasting sweet, sweet alcohol -- we mixed them all together in equal parts in the hope that this Long Island Iced Tea (which is more like a Riker's Island Iced Tea) would bring out the best in all these bottom-shelf wonders.
No. No no no no no. It's like cough syrup, nail polish remover, coffee, sugar, toothpaste, shoes, and rubbing alcohol. But somehow less delicious. Somebody send a black-label anything, stat. Or maybe just more Lauder's. Gag Rating: 892
THE OVERALL SCORECARD (worst to best) Disqualified due to grossness: The All Sorts 10. Southern Host 9. Arandas 8. Mr. Boston 7. Monarch Gin 6. Castillo 5. Old Crow 4. Popov 3. Kapali 2. Schranck's 1. Lauder's