Bottom-shelf, cheap whiskey can be bad, but not as bad as throwing it out because you can’t find a way to drink it. There’s always a way. Whether a friend bequeathed you a bottle of undrinkable swill or you went bargain hunting and came up with fool’s gold, here are the best cheap whiskey mixers to help the medicine go down.
Good ol’ Coca-Cola never fails. The sweet elixir can absorb any nasty whiskey flavors and alchemize them into a delicious mixed beverage worth sipping all afternoon long. While we normally prefer the natural sugar of Mexican Coke to the American version, this is not the time for nuance. Go with the bottle made in the U.S. of A., which contains enough corn syrup to smooth out the harsh stuff.
Whatever you do, don’t go throwing a full slug of bad whiskey into hot coffee. Heat ignites ethanol notes and makes even quality bottlings taste harsher. Instead, opt for cold brew, which provides the strong, bitter flavor necessary to steamroll over cheap whiskey’s harsher edges. Pick a cold brew with nutty or chocolatey notes to elicit those qualities in your budget base, but no matter what you mix with, expect vanilla to come through prominently.
A low-grade Godfather cocktail is a bit like a low-budget version of the Godfather movie. Sure, you might be a little upset to find out that the entire film will feature Gilbert Gottfried doing his best Brando impression, but after an hour (and some alcohol), you’ll actually start enjoying yourself. Mixed in equal parts, the cocktail tastes perfectly acceptable with budget whiskey, with lots of caramel, raisin and honeyed sweetness to distract you from any off notes.
Think of a budget whiskey-spiked lemonade as a lazy Whiskey Sour. The flavors are all there—the bright zap of citrus, the sweet comfort of white sugar, the pleasant heat of alcohol—but it’s lengthened into a tall glass that stretches out the intense edge of the whiskey until its bite is no longer noticeable. This is a porch sipper no matter the quality of the spirit you choose. For the best results, make your own homemade lemonade.
Mountain Dew was designed to combat the harsh, high-octane flavors of moonshine, so it can easily stand up to any cheap-o whiskey you throw at it. Heck, it’s almost better if you use something that tastes like it came hot off a backwoods still—it’s about the only thing you can taste through Mountain Dew’s sugary lemon-lime flavor. Whiskey cuts through the cloying soda and complements the citrus flavor with sweet caramel, while the Dew softens any of the spirit’s errant grain and ethanol notes.
Honestly, even we were surprised by this one. While coconut water is one of our favorite mixers for tequila, mezcal or rum, we didn’t expect it to mix quite as well with a grain-based spirit, let alone bottom shelf hooch. But lo and behold, coconut water really can do it all. You don’t even have to dilute the whiskey too much; a simple two-to-one ratio of coconut water to whiskey will do just fine. The smell is all coconut water with a hint of vanilla and a touch of heat, while some nice caramel notes come through on the palate to complement the natural sweetness of the coconut.
Sweeter and less spicy than ginger beer, ginger ale is the preferred mixer for harsh whiskey. The peppery heat we love in ginger beer cocktails made with fine ingredients becomes fiery and difficult to stomach when heated by raw, cheap whiskey. Ginger ale, on the other hand, adds ginger flavor without much spice, as well as vanilla and creamy notes that help bring out the sweetness of the base.
If you need to kill a cheap scotch, consider using that bottle of Drambuie—which has probably been sitting in the back row of your bar for years—to make a Rusty Nail. The liqueur already contains scotch (likely better stuff than you’re mixing with) as well as heather honey, herbs and spices that add some pizzazz to the so-so notes of your bottom-shelf liquor.