Cocktail Time: Great Budget Liquors

by Meg Favreau on 19 September 2011 9 comments

One question that comes up again and again when talking about frugality is whether it's better to go with a cheap option or splurge on something well made. It's not an easy question to answer — it really depends on your values and preferences.

For me, when it comes to spirits, it depends on the situation. If I'm drinking a margarita at a restaurant I haven't been to before, I'll get the well tequila, because there's always the chance they'd drown a nice tequila in over-sweet margarita mix. But when it comes to the whiskey in my Manhattan, I'm definitely getting a mid-range bourbon I like — if I'm having a drink, I want to be able to enjoy it.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions for budget liquors that'll add oomph to your bar without emptying your wallet. (See also: Frugal Cocktail Party Ideas)

Vodka

Svedka, despite their kind-of-disturbing ads with the sexy robot lady, puts out a good vodka that's about $12 a bottle. And honestly, if you're planning to mix vodka in a cocktail, you really don't need to go too pricey anyway; part of the reason that vodka is so popular is that its taste is easily hidden. Oh, and if you're thinking of buying one of those flavored vodkas, consider getting a much fresher taste by infusing your own vodka instead.

Rum

A relatively affordable spirit, rum is often included in drinks with a tropical flair, but can be pretty awesome on its own. Esquire recommends Brugal's Anejo rum for sipping, and I'd second that — it currently has a place in my small bar collection. Kraken Rum, meanwhile, comes in an oh-so-hip bottle, and for $15-$20, it provides a nice, dark, spiced rum.

Tequila

The weird thing about tequila is that companies are allowed to make "mixtos" — tequila mixes that are at least 51% agave spirits blended with other stuff — and sell them simply as "tequila." That's part of the reason why Cuervo gives you such a headache and why, even if you had "a bad night with tequila in college," you should consider drinking the 100% agave stuff. 1800 is one of the most inexpensive 100% agave brands, hovering around $20-$25 a bottle.

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Gin

Colleen Graham, the About.com Guide to Cocktails, lists Gordon's London Dry Gin as her favorite under $10, citing "its strong juniper base and the essence of a variety of other herbs that mix well with almost anything."

Whiskey

For bourbon, Bulliet is one of my favorites, and you can often find it for $20 when it's on sale. There are cheaper, still acceptable bourbons, though — I've heard from people who love Jim Beam's White Label and Black Label bourbons.

Scotch, meanwhile, can be tricky business — this smokey, complex liquor can fetch hundreds of dollars a bottle. But the 12 Year Chivas Regal runs between $25 and $35, and provides a decent scotch for the price.

Brandy

I'll be honest — I usually buy cheap-cheap brandy, because the primary thing I use it for is making sangria. Like scotch, good brandy tends to be pricey, but Korbel's American brandy is affordable and decent, if you're looking for a reasonable point between the bottom and very top shelves.

Orange Liqueurs

I'm also including a note on orange liqueurs because they're used so often in cocktails. Triple sec is probably the most ubiquitous one. It's usually dirt cheap, and it tastes like it. I didn't really realize how cheap it tastes, though, until I had the opportunity to smell a bottle of Cointreau, a nicer orange liqueur, and a bottle of triple sec at the same time — the triple sec smelled like melted candy. Cointreau isn't cheap, but it is generally less expensive than the other popular orange liqueur, Grand Marnier. If you're mixing a cocktail where the orange flavor doesn't come across strongly, you're fine using triple sec, but otherwise you might want to consider Cointreau.

Did I miss your favorite budget liquor? Share it in the comments!

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Guest's picture
Jade

Meg I love this post, I wish I could have a drink now but I'm at work, so maybe 5 pm happy hour.

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Guest

Speaking of orange liqueurs, I really enjoy a tablespoon of orange liqueur in my hot tea (I've used Grand Marnier in the past). OL & tea is very enjoyable and a bottle lasts quite a while used primarily this way. I'll try Cointreau for this, if I can get it.

Guest's picture

What a great list. I'd never heard of the vodka. Thanks for sharing. My favorite "budget-booze" tip is to drink a nice drink first and then more onto the less expensive stuff once your taste buds aren't as receptive. I never seem to appreciate an expensive glass of wine or scotch as much at the end of the night as at the beginning.

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jstolle

I highly recommend anybody interested to look at the list of bottles at 12 Bottle Bar (http://12bottlebar.com/bottles/) as it is a great take on putting together a good bar while maintaining a budget and limiting the amount of room it takes up. I have no affiliation with the site, I just think it's worth looking at if you're looking at building a bar.

Meg Favreau's picture

Thanks for sharing that site! I'm definitely going to spend some time poking around there. And I love that genever is one of the 12 bottles -- quite a bold choice.

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greg

Trader Joe's sells "Rear Admiral Joe's" Gin for $8.99, and it's pretty great at that price.

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Dave

On the last, orange liqueurs, if you get to Mexico get some Controy Licór de Naranja ("liquor of orange"). Follow the recipe on the bottle (maybe backing off on the Naranja but be sure to use fresh limes, and perhaps add a dash of agave nectar) to make the best margaritas! Regrettably you can't buy it in the US.

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Jerry

Chivas is way too harsh for the money. If I'm not springing for a single malt, Ballantine's is smooth and medium-bodied value choice.
I'll try the Korbel, but I have little hope of finding a sippable brandy under $30.
Try some of the no-name flavored boozes (spiced rum, coconut, sambuca). Some of them do very nicely at half the price of the advertised brands, and after the first one or two drinks, who will notice?

Meg Favreau's picture

Thanks for the scotch suggestion! And do report back about the Korbel if you try it. I was actually thinking about it more in terms of being a good mixer, like for sidecars, and I'd love to hear how it is in terms of straight sipping.