BUFFALO TRACE BOURBON ($25)
Buffalo Trace may also produce such sought-after whiskies as George T. Stagg, E.H. Taylor and Pappy Van Winkle, but this no-frills bottling is one of the best values in bourbon. It’s got lots of nice spice, with a surprising smoothness that makes it as suited to sipping as it is to mixing.
BEEFEATER GIN ($26)
As one of a “big 3” London dry gins, Beefeater is heavy on juniper, with a nice backing of lemon and spice. It’s a good partner for tonic, and it also makes a great Martini (go with lemon peel for garnish instead of an olive).
MILAGRO SILVER TEQUILA ($27)
If you’re in need of a base for your Margaritas and Palomas, this 100-percent-agave spirit is ideal. It’s crisp, clean and smooth but still has that unmistakable vegetal spice that makes tequila tequila.
MYERS’S DARK RUM ($22)
A rich, sweet and powerful spirit, the Jamaican Myers’s has been a favorite in the States since the end of Prohibition (despite the copy-editor-infuriating unnecessary “s” after the apostrophe). It makes a delicious tiki drink, or really any kind of fruity but strong beverage.
RAMAZZOTTI AMARO ($22)
The bitter Italian liqueurs called amaros are all the rage lately, and for good reason: Their complexity and variety is applicable for a wide variety of cocktails, from Manhattan-style stirred drinks to fizzy refreshers. This particular one is on the sweeter side, with notes of licorice, ginger, vanilla and berries.
OLD OVERHOLT RYE WHISKEY ($17)
For a real taste of history, pick up this rye, which claims to have been established in 1810. But don’t let that dirt-cheap price fool you: Ask any decent bartender which rye is in his or her well, and you’ll most likely hear Old Overholt. It’s an excellent choice for a Sazerac or Manhattan.
MARTELL VS COGNAC ($30)
While long-aged sipping cognacs can command astronomical prices, cocktail-friendly brandies are young, sprightly and quite affordable. Martell’s youngest spirit is an excellent choice, with lots of fresh fruit and a bit of spice. Try it in a Sidecar.
JOHNNIE WALKER RED LABEL SCOTCH WHISKY ($25)
It’s the world’s best-selling Scotch for a reason. The balance of spice, smoke and sweetness in Johnnie Walker Red has been a reliable source of whisky happiness for generations. It’s the perfect introduction into the varied and complex world of Scotch, but it’s also a reliable everyday tipple on the rocks or with soda.
LAIRD’S APPLEJACK ($22)
In business since at least 1780, Laird’s is by far the oldest extant distillery in the U.S. And it specializes in applejack, an appropriately old-school apple brandy beloved by the Founding Fathers. Use it in place of whiskey for a cider-y spin on classic cocktails like the Manhattan, Old Fashioned or Sazerac.
CAÑA BRAVA RUM ($28)
To taste a Daiquiri the way it was meant to be tasted, use this bottling. It’s made in Panama adhering to an old-fashioned style that’s quite dry compared to modern rums. The flavor includes notes of grass, honey and a bit of dark chocolate. It’s part of the portfolio of The 86 Co., a line of spirits created by bartenders for bartenders, so of course it’s mixing-friendly.
KILBEGGAN IRISH WHISKEY ($24)
Irish whiskey in general is full of great values, and Kilbeggan is no exception. It’s got lots of honey and fruity sweetness, with a silky-smooth finish. It may not be the most complex spirit in the world, but you won’t find better for twenty bucks and change.
MONKEY SHOULDER BLENDED MALT SCOTCH WHISKY ($30)
You’ll never find a decent single malt Scotch for under $30, but this is the closest you’ll get. Monkey Shoulder is a blended malt, which means it’s a mix of nothing but single malt whiskies. (Most other blends combine single malts with less-complex grain whiskies.) It has a nice toasty dryness alongside citrus, spice and vanilla notes.
Cocktail creation tends to center around balancing sweet and sour but too often neglects bitter. Best known as the bright-red base of a Negroni, bracingly bitter Campari actually has lots of uses: It can provide a nice complex edge in a fruity drink or whet your appetite mixed with soda as an aperitif long drink.
ALESSIO VERMOUTH DI TORINO ROSSO ($22)
Based on a 19th-century recipe and named for a 16th-century alchemist, Alessio vermouths were launched last year by Tempus Fugit Spirits, a company known for rigorously authentic recreations of historic spirits. The Italian-made Rosso is an excellent sweet vermouth, with a complex and balanced mix of flavors that’s at home in a Manhattan or plain over ice.
AYLESBURY DUCK VODKA ($25)
Another for-bartenders-by-bartenders product of The 86 Co., Aylesbury Duck is a high-quality cocktail spirit at an excellent price. It’s distilled from wheat, making it fresh, clean and light, with no off-flavors to interfere with whatever it’s mixed with.
EL DORADO 8 YEAR OLD CASK AGED RUM ($24)
Compared to their whiskey and brandy brethren, heavily aged rums good for sipping straight are amazingly inexpensive. This one offers big sweetness, big spice and just a hint of funk—all reasons that connoisseurs love it. (For a nice upgrade, go for El Dorado 12, which just misses the cut for this story at $33 a bottle.)
ESPOLÓN REPOSADO TEQUILA ($27)
For the home mixologist looking to experiment with original tequila cocktails, Espolón’s six-month-old reposado is perfect. It has a little bit of buttery vanilla character from time in a barrel, but its essential tequila-ness isn’t washed out by the oak. The relatively sweet tequila mixes nicely with fruit, from cranberry to pineapple to pear.
TANQUERAY GIN ($20)
London dry-style gins are all about juniper, and Tanqueray is an absolute juniper bomb. If you enjoy that grassy, piney spice, the classic brand is the one for you. Its powerful flavor stands up nicely to strong mixers like Campari for a Negroni.
FOUR ROSES YELLOW LABEL BOURBON ($20)
It’s the greatest comeback story in bourbon history: Four Roses was hugely popular after Prohibition, but then the brand’s owners decided to replace the bourbon with a cheaper, lower-quality blended whiskey in the 1950s. For decades, you could only get the original bourbon overseas, until 2002, when Japanese brewery Kirin bought the brand and brought its flagship back to its American homeland. The cocktail-friendly Yellow Label is a mellow mix of fruit and spice.
HENDRICK’S GIN ($30)
This Scottish gin’s slogan is “taste the unusual,” and that’s definitely the case here. Like all gin, it’s flavored with juniper and a variety of spices, but the dominant botanicals are cucumber and rose. The refreshing spirit isn’t ideal for a Martini or Negroni, but it’s great in just about anything mixed with citrus or bubbly.
BOLS MARASCHINO LIQUEUR ($18)
If you want to make authentic old-timey classic cocktails like the Aviation, Last Word or Martinez, you need the cherry liqueur maraschino. Unfortunately, most quality brands are pretty pricey. Thankfully, liqueur expert Bols’ version is not, but it’s still excellent, with some nice floral notes atop the tart-cherry sweetness.
RHUM CLEMENT PREMIERE CANNE ($30)
Rhum agricole from Martinique and other French-speaking Caribbean islands is made from fresh sugar cane juice (as opposed to molasses, the source of most other rums). The result is a deeply funky and earthy spirit, quite unlike the smooth and sweet rums from elsewhere and perfectly suited to Ti’ Punch, the region’s favorite cocktail. Clement’s Premiere Canne is one of the most affordable agricole rums, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious.
DOLIN DRY VERMOUTH ($16)
Bartenders tend to be fiercely loyal to vermouth brands, and Dolin is pretty much the industry standard for dry. It’s nice and subtle, but still sophisticated. It won’t overpower spirits in a cocktail, even in a 50/50 Martini, where it really shines.
BARSOL PRIMERO QUEBRANTA PISCO ($25)
Ready to jump into pisco? Here’s your best bet. BarSol’s Quebranta offers all the archetypal floral, fruity and slightly grainy flavors of the Peruvian brandy. It simply screams out to to shaken in a Pisco Sour.
LUKSUSOWA VODKA ($15)
While grain-based vodkas are crisp and easy on the palate, potato-based ones have a creamy mouthfeel and longer finish, with a nice density that works well in spirit-forward cocktails. Poland’s Luksusowa may have a bottom-shelf price, but it has top-shelf quality.
GENTLEMAN JACK TENNESSEE WHISKEY ($30
What sets Tennessee whiskey apart from bourbon (and, arguably, what makes Jack Daniel’s the world’s favorite whiskey) is the fact that it’s filtered through charcoal before aging, which mellows out any rough edges. Gentleman Jack one-ups standard Jack Daniel’s by repeating the charcoal filtering a second time after it comes out of the barrel. The result is an exceptionally smooth spirit that anyone can love.
LUSTAU AMONTILLADO LOS ARCOS SHERRY ($19)
Sherry is huge in the mixological world right now, and Lustau is the biggest name in sherry. The brand makes a huge variety of bottlings, but this is one of its most versatile for cocktail purposes. You’ll find raisins, nuts and wood on the palate for Los Arcos, which can be used in place of sweet or dry vermouth, or even as a base spirit.
LEBLON CACHAÇA ($25)
Brazil’s national spirit, cachaça is made from fresh sugar cane, much like rhum agricole, though it tends to be a bit rougher around the edges. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing—it’s why Caipirinhas are so delicious.) Many of the cachaças imported to the US are mass-produced industrial brands, but Leblon is a tasty exception.
There are lots of orange liqueurs out there, and lots of them are cheaper than Cointreau. But it’s absolutely worth it to cough up the extra few bucks to upgrade to the sophisticated French spirit. The intense bittersweet-orange flavor makes a big difference in a Margarita or a Cosmopolitan.
LILLET BLANC ($20)
Think James Bond’s drink is a Martini? Wrong. In the first 007 novel, Casino Royale, the superspy actually orders a Vesper, a mix of gin, vodka and Lillet. The French tipple is a mix of white wine, botanicals and a bit of fruit liqueur, creating a delicate aperitif that is of course great the way Bond liked it, but also excellent in a brunch cocktail or served all by itself.