By this time I hope you have shaken off what’s left of that New Year’s hangover. It’s time to assess the damage to your bar. Your vodka and rum supplies are running a little low, right? You’re just going to go out and replace it with Smirnoff? That’s what everyone does. This year, why not do something a little different, be a little bolder? With that in mind here is how I stock my bar with some lesser known, high-value, high-quality liquors on a budget.
Basic Liquor Tips
- Know when to break out the good liquor – If your boss is coming over, don’t offer him Beringer White Zinfindel or Mad Dog 20/20. Stick to bottles that are made of glass, not plastic. Save the cheap stuff for you and your buddies.
- Go frugal when mixing – A mixer like cranberry juice will mask much of the taste of hard liquors. Why pay a premium price when you aren’t getting premium taste?
- Fill older premium bottles with cheaper liquor – It’s with my tongue in my check that I offer this “tip.” This is definitely a controversial practice and probably one that won’t win you a lot of friends. However, I would venture that most people can’t tell the difference between a good and a great liquor – the bottle and reputation seems to play a large role in people’s judgment. I’ve never tried this (it makes me uncomfortable thinking about this deception), but from a frugality standpoint alone it almost makes sense.
Vodka is probably the most-consumed hard liquor in the United States. It seems to mix well with anything. This should be a staple of your bar. When hosting a party, it’s wise to have an extra bottle on hand and it will surely go the fastest.
- Best Value Cheap Vodka: Popov Vodka – Why Popov? It’s made by the people, Diageo, that make Smirnoff and Ketel One. It isn’t the same quality as those brands, but it’s not turpentine like some other cheap vodkas out there. I can often find a sale for 1.75 liters for $9.99 at the local drug store.
- Best Value Premium Vodka: Tito’s Vodka – Who’s vodka?!?! Chances are you’ve never heard of Tito’s. I have only found one bar near me that carries it (and that’s only because the owner is from Texas where it’s from). You may think that Tito’s would make a better tequila, but just trust me on this one. It’s by far the best vodka that I’ve ever tasted – and I haven’t found someone who disagrees with me on that point yet (though the sample size is a small 5 people). Don’t use Tito’s for mixing, grab the Popov for that. Instead savor it on the rocks or chilled from the freezer. Most places sell it for less than $30 for 1.75 liters. This is one rare instance where get quality without having to pay for the fancy bottle.
Gin is my favorite of the hard alcohols. For some reason it seems to be underrated. When I go to a bar, the majority of gin choices are martinis. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there’s more choice out there than martinis. Maybe it’s because “the kids” are all drinking vodka and rum. Gin has a place at the front of my liquor cabinet though – even before the vodka.
- Best Value Cheap Gin: Gordon’s – This is a solid gin for mixing. Fits well in a Tom Collins. The price is right and you won’t breathe fire after drinking it.
- Best Value Premium Gin: Tanqueray Ten – Some may prefer Bombay Sapphire. It was my favorite until I tried Tanqueray Ten. I haven’t gone back. Like Tito’s Vodka above, don’t let me catch you mixing this. It’s hard to call this a value (often a little over $30 a liter), but there are worse values for your gin dollar out there. The bottle also can be turned into a cheap, stylish soap dispenser for a kitchen.
When Money Magazine decides to buy out Lazy Man, I’ll move down to Aruba. Of the million different rums in the Caribbean, I’ll be happy to spend $10 on a bottle of Aruba’s Palmeira Rum – a great rum that is impossible to find in the United States. Even with my Money Magazine millions, I’ll still kick it frugal style and keep it real. (Note: spend some of the millions learning some of the cool slang.)
- Best Value Cheap Rum: Barcardi’s Gold – This is more of a mid-range pick – I can’t recommend anything in plastic value unless it’s under $10… and you like headaches. Barcardi’s Gold is good for the price.
- Best Value Premium Rum: Mount Gay Extra Old – A typical third-grader may get a chuckle from the name, but this drink is no laughing matter. The difference between this and most other rums is huge. On a side note, I’ve had the good fortune to tour the Mount Gay distillery facility. I want to make a special mention here to Captain Morgan’s Private Stock – it’s in the same class with Mount Gay Extra Old and similarly priced. It was almost a coin flip between the two.
I’ve always been against tequila – can’t stand the stuff. You are in luck though, because one of my friends (owner of this collectible bottle online store) is a tequila connoisseur. I spent 10 minutes chatting with him (no tequila was consumed by either party during the chat) and learned that some $300 tequila’s aren’t as good as $100 ones in his opinion. I’m at a loss that people would pay so much for something that I find wretched, but everyone’s different (and I’m more different than most ;-)).
- Best Value Cheap Tequila: Jose Cuervo Silver 1800 – If you have a budget of $20 or under, Jose Cuervo is the way to go.
- Best Value Mid-Range Tequila: Tres Generaciones Silver Tequila – This is my friend’s standard says that this is the best value for a $30 Tequila. This is his pick for the frugal pick when you are entertaining to make a big impression. He also gave Cabo Wabo Silver a mention which is in similar price range.
- Best Value Premium Tequila: Casa Noble Silver – For around $50 bottle you can get the value of some much higher priced tequila’s. Which brings us to…
- Best Value Ultra-Premium Tequila: Casa Noble Anejo – At $100 a bottle, I really have trouble mentioning on it a website that tries to extoll the virtue of being frugal. On the other hand, my friend points out that this is better than some $300 bottles of tequila such as the best Gran Patron. In that context, I supposed you are saving yourself $200. Ugh, I can’t even convince myself, so I might as well give up.
Bourbon, Scotch, Whiskey?
I’m not a big drinker of any of the above. I’ve had Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark – those aren’t bad. If forced to choose, I would probably go with Crown Royal. Other than those brands, I don’t have a lot to add. You can help me out with value drinks in these categories by commenting below.
Rounding Out Your Bar
You can’t just get buy with a few liquors and call it a day. Here’s a brief summary of other things that you might consider when you stock your bar.
- Other Liquors – there are few other liquors that you’d want to add to round out your bar. I’d personally grab amaretto, triple sec, schnapps, Irish creme liqueur, coffee liquor (like Kahlua). Most of these you can buy in brand name or generic – not a lot of choice after that. When it comes to amaretto, I think you have to decide if your budget can fit Disaronno. If you are one for Disaronno on the rocks, it’s probably a wise investment. If you are going to mix it, I’d save my money and go generic.
- Champagne / Sparking Wine: Prosecco – This lesser known alcohol is made differently than champagne and is often a good quality for much less.
- Wine – save money on wine to stretch your wine dollar the furthest. Look cool and impress your friends with this electric wine opener
- Beer – save money on beer is to make it yourself.
- Mixers – Don’t forget the mixers. These are cheap parts that make up a quality bar. Grenadine, lime juice, tonic water, and club soda, are all good choices. You should also have orange juice, cranberry juice, and some soda around the home.
What are your hidden gems? Let me know in the comments below…