Cocktail Time: Great Budget Liquors
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)
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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!