It’s hard to be a refined drinker if you also have a budget. Depending on where you live, a well-made cocktail can cost $10-12. A good bottle of scotch will run you $60, or easily more. And a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle can only be attained in exchange for your child’s college fund or in a high-stakes heist that requires an inside man. (Do you know someone on the inside at Buffalo Trace Distillery? No? Dammit.)
Luckily, there’s gold to be found on the bottom shelf—if you know where to look. I spoke to several veterans of the industry—bartenders, chefs, restaurateurs and boozy authors—to find out where they find flavor within the margins of a budget.
Other spirits are hampered by the need for “flavor” or “aging,” but the bar for vodka is low; as long as it tastes more like water than bathtub hooch, you’re getting most of what the spirit has to offer (for argument’s sake, let’s consider infused vodkas a separate entity). And if you have an affinity for a vodka more expensive than $25, those extra dollars are probably paying for advertising.
John McDonald, CEO of Mercer Street Hospitality, recounted to me the rise of premium vodka during his days running MercBar in the 1990s—first Absolut’s explosion onto the scene, then the rise of Stoli’s flavored vodkas, and ultimately Grey Goose “crushing everybody.” But when I mention to him that everyone I know who’s been to Russia has returned with a supreme loyalty to Russian Standard ($16), McDonald is effusive. “[Customers] always love that! It’s a good brand. We’ve always sold Russian Standard,” he says, referring to his several upscale hotspots in downtown New York, including Lure Fishbar and Bowery Meat Company.
McDonald’s establishments also serve Tito’s ($20), a quality vodka with a budget price that was singled out by other experts I contacted, who called it “super smooth” and “perfectly good.” If you’re looking for a more ringing endorsement, though, pick up a bottle of Aloo Vodka ($13) from Seattle’s Oola Distilling. “An amazing value vodka,” according to Brian Smith, the beverage director at two Brooklyn restaurants, Colonie and Gran Electrica. “It’s distilled from winter wheat and offers a bracing fresh clean taste and a faint but pleasant sweetness in the finish.”
Sometimes, the obvious choice is the right one. “I don't know that there is a more classic gin at a better price than Gordon's London Dry ($11),” says Smith. “It exemplifies gin perfectly—big juniper, citrus and herbs—while retaining a nice smooth finish. It plays well with tonic and makes a perfectly fine Martini.”
Kat Odell, the author of Day Drinking: 50 Cocktails for a Mellow Buzz, says you “can’t go wrong” with another timeless titan from England: Beefeater ($19), which she finds “classic, balanced, and universal for mixing,” while Will Gordon, a beverage columnist at Deadspin, votes for New Amsterdam ($11), which he says, “tastes like a melted coriander creamsicle! Well, it tastes like gin, overall, but also more like a coriander creamsicle than one might expect.”
If you prefer to travel a little off the beaten path, though, Gordon (no relation to the gin) believes this is a good opportunity to do so: “[It’s] about the only spirit that craft distilleries [consistently] do worth a damn at a reasonable price.” One such gin is Ford’s ($25), the “go-to well gin” at Angeline, the acclaimed restaurant of Alex Harrell, Thrillist’s New Orleans Chef of the Year in 2016. “[It’s] a great London Dry-style gin that mixes easily in cocktails without being too heavy on the juniper,” says Harrell.
“I am not smart,” says Ben LeBlanc, one of Harrell’s compatriots from Louisiana and the founder of Good Stock Soups, “but I’m smart enough to know not to drink cheap tequila.” LeBlanc’s not alone; seemingly every drinker has a regrettable story about cheap tequila, and some of those pour souls have sworn it off forever. Don’t! Life’s too short to not drink Margaritas.
And you can do it cheaply: Harrell recommends Cimarron Blanco ($17) (“straightforward and clean tasting, perfect for cocktails”), while Gordon—whose expertise is reflected in the title of his old column, "Drinking the Bottom Shelf"—recommends Agavales ($13), “a steal for 100 percent agave tequila that tastes like honey and strawberries.”
“Pueblo Viejo ($19) for me, hands down,” counters Smith, of Colonie and Gran Electrica. Brian Bartels, the Bar Director of Happy Cooking (the restaurant group responsible for West Village hot spot Fedora), agrees: “It’s a solid choice as a mixing tequila and even one would enjoy on the rocks.” Smith adds, “It makes a perfect Margarita. What more could you ask for?”
“Out of all spirits, rum offers the best price to quality value,” says Odell, which is almost a shame, given how little drinkers often ask of their rum (Banana Daiquiris and Piña Coladas are not exactly platforms that let the spirit shine). But if you’re drinking a Mai Tai, the quality of rum is the difference between being refreshed, or being convinced you’ve been handed a fruit-adorned glass of jet fuel.
If you need a light rum for Moijtos, Smith and Bartels favor El Dorado 3-Year-Old ($17). The barrel-aging, Smith says, “adds great depth and texture without adding to the price.” Gordon recommends Don Q ($12), which “tastes a little cleaner than Bacardi for about two-thirds the price.”
Making a Dark ‘N’ Stormy? Good choice! Grab a bottle of Cruzan Black Strap ($16), which Gordon says “tastes like molasses, mostly, along with cloves and flowers.” And make a second Dark ‘N’ Stormy for me while you’re at it. Writing is thirsty work.
As the rising spirit of the last decade-plus, whiskey has no shortage of subdivisions that each deserve their own acclaim. Scotch and Irish whiskey have their own dedicated followings (albeit at higher price points than American-made spirits), while rye deserves more shine as the spicier cousin to America’s official spirit, bourbon. Note: If you want a whiskey cocktail with more bite, grab a bottle of Old Overholt ($17) or Rittenhouse ($27) rye.
The experts I spoke to, though, were justifiably focused on—and enthusiastic about—bourbon, of which there remain terrific budget buys even as the spirit explodes in price and popularity. Gordon and Bartels believe that Four Roses ($19) is the best budget bourbon. “Simply put, it never disappoints,” says Bartels. “It incorporates the best notes of Kentucky bourbon we savor and celebrate — vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, maple, and slathered in honey like they were mashed potatoes.” Alternately, “you can make firm due with 100-proof Old Grand-Dad,” says Gordon, and Harrell agrees, calling Old Grand-Dad Bonded ($23) “basically a less aged Basil Hayden.”
Evan Williams ($12) is a common choice for any bottom-shelf bourbon drinker, and its quality is such a given that no one really cares to explain it. “I genuinely just like the taste and drink it on the rocks,” says LeBlanc. Adds Smith, “It just can't be beat at that price. The simple fact that I'm happy to drink it neat is all I need to say about its value.”