It’s time to start building your home bar! But that doesn’t have to break the bank, because, really, price does not always equal quality. Between my last list of 30 great spirits that cost less than $30 per bottle and the 30 more tasty spirits below, you’ll be fully outfitted to make some fantastic cocktails.
MARTELL VS COGNAC ($30)
As the youngest age category for cognac, minimum-two-year-old VS is definitely the least pricey and most cocktail-friendly. It’s also very fresh and fruity, without the deep oakiness in older brandies. Martell’s VS offers pear, orange and lemon notes that work beautifully in a Sidecar or French 75.
OLD GRAND-DAD BONDED BOURBON ($25)
“Bottled in bond” is a phrase bourbon fanatics love to find. It means that a spirit was bottled at 100-proof and aged for a minimum of four years in a government-supervised warehouse. (The designation originated in 1897 as a way to ensure a spirit was unadulterated.) Made at the same distillery as Jim Beam, Old Grand-Dad features a mashbill that’s higher in rye, making it nice and spicy, plus that high proof makes it extra cocktail-friendly.
AMARO DI ANGOSTURA ($25)
The people behind Angostura Bitters most definitely know how to make, well, bitter stuff, and this recently released amaro turns all the flavors of that classic cocktail seasoning into something you can drink by the ounce rather than by the dash. It’s got lots of cinnamon, chocolate and other warming spices, and goes nicely with clear but complex spirits—blanco tequila, white rum or gin.
HAYMAN’S OLD TOM GIN ($27)
Like old-school 19th century cocktails? You’re probably using the wrong gin for ‘em. These classics were probably originally made with old tom, a sweeter and maltier style of gin that’s harder to find today than London dry. Hayman’s is a lovely old tom, made from an 1870s recipe and ideal for a Tom Collins or Martinez.
PAMA POMEGRANATE LIQUEUR ($25)
The key to making a tasty cocktail in most cases is balancing sweet and sour. Pama does exactly that, sweetening tart pomegranate with just enough sugar that the liqueur will work in pretty much any cocktail. It’s great with Champagne, goes nicely with whiskey and can replace grenadine or fresh berries of any kind in your favorite mixed drinks.
CUTTY SARK PROHIBITION EDITION BLENDED SCOTCH WHISKY ($30)
The kind of whisky you’d have been likely to find in Don Draper’s desk drawer, Cutty Sark is a classic blended Scotch, mixing subtle smoke, oaky fruit and gentle graininess for a well-balanced and gentle dram. The Prohibition Edition bottling is a higher-proof variation, so named because Cutty Sark was one of the brands most frequently smuggled into the U.S. during the Noble Experiment.
OLMECA ALTOS PLATA TEQUILA ($25)
One problem with most cheap tequilas is that they aren’t made with just agave; they’re mixtos, distilled from a combination of agave and other sugar sources, which makes for pretty awful tequila. Altos does nothing of the kind, distilling its spirit from nothing but the good stuff. The resulting blanco is grassy, citrusy and unmistakably tequila.
GOSLINGS BLACK SEAL RUM ($23)
This pitch-dark Bermudian rum has a rich caramel-and-toffee sweetness with some nice complex funkiness. It’s as at home in a tiki cocktail as it is mixed with ginger beer for a Dark & Stormy. (In fact, Gosling’s holds the copyright on the name—if you’re not mixing a Dark & Stormy with the brand’s rum, you’re breaking the law.)
VYA EXTRA DRY VERMOUTH ($22)
It’s located in California’s Central Valley, but Quady Winery is obsessed with making European-style fortified wines inspired by port, sherry and, of course, vermouth. Its Vya Extra Dry starts with a blend of local white wine and infuses it with more than a dozen botanicals, making for a fairly floral vermouth with nice earthiness. When you make a Martini with Vya, you’ll want to use more than your normal amount of vermouth to enjoy all that complexity.
FORTY CREEK BARREL SELECT CANADIAN WHISKY ($22)
Whisky geeks might look down on Canadian spirits, but there are lots of gems to be had from our neighbor to the north. Forty Creek Barrel Select is a great example, offering rich oaky, nutty and honeyed notes that could easily command a much higher price than it does now.
CHOPIN POTATO VODKA ($30)
Making vodka from potatoes is a bit harder than using grain, but the resulting spirit has a richer, fuller mouthfeel that works really nicely in cocktails. Potato vodkas are a wee bit more expensive than other types, but this difference is worth spending a couple bucks on. The Polish Chopin is an excellent choice in this style and will mix with just about anything you can throw at it.
LA CARAVEDO PURO QUEBRANTA PISCO ($25)
With its luscious floral notes, pisco is a cocktail must for summer, but high-quality bottlings tend to get pricey. That’s definitely not the case with this excellent value from the folks behind Pisco Portón. Pick up a bottle to make Pisco Sours and Chilcanos all summer long.
TULLAMORE DEW IRISH WHISKEY ($24)
It doesn’t have the name recognition of Jameson or Bushmills, but Tullamore DEW is every bit as classic an Irish whiskey as those famous brands. It’s triple-distilled, with a smooth and fruity flavor and notes of vanilla, honey and fresh-cut grass.
AVIATION AMERICAN GIN ($30)
Portland’s House Spirits embodies the iconoclastic spirit of craft distilleries with this gin, which tones down the juniper in favor of floral and spice notes like lavender, sarsaparilla and anise. It’s of course delicious in its namesake cocktail, or mixed with anything fruity.
PAPA’S PILAR BLONDE RUM ($30)
Named for Ernest Hemingway’s fishing boat and produced in conjunction with the legendary writer (and drinker)’s estate, Papa’s Pilar blends rums of many types made in Florida, Central America and the Caribbean. Its Blonde bottling is truly unique, mixing spirits aged in barrels for three to seven years and then filtering them to remove the color. It’s smooth and sippable like a long-aged spirit should be, but still bright enough to use in a Daiquiri.
If you’re the kind of person who takes their whiskey or rum mixed with Coke, you shouldn’t be afraid of amaro, thanks to this gentle digestif. Though it’s made with a complex mix of herbs and spices, the resulting flavor has notes of leather and cola that are surprisingly familiar to the American palette. You can sip it neat or use in place of sweet vermouth for a Black Manhattan.
RITTENHOUSE RYE WHISKEY ($25)
Back before Prohibition, when rye was America’s favorite whiskey, there were two dominant styles: the softer and sweeter Maryland style and the sharply spicy Pennsylvania style. Though it’s now produced in Kentucky, Rittenhouse is firmly in the latter camp. It offers plenty of sweet, buttery notes but behind it all there’s a peppery bite that’s unmistakably rye whiskey. This bottle screams out to be in a Manhattan.
TARIQUET CLASSIQUE VS ARMAGNAC ($30)
Armagnac is sort of cognac’s weirdo cousin, a little rougher around the edges but with some interesting notes you don’t find in the more refined cognac. Tariquet’s VS has notes of yeasty bread, caramel and a little spice. Try it neat, or in place of any kind of aged spirit in a cocktail for an interesting change of pace.
ST. GEORGE GREEN CHILE VODKA ($30)
Your Bloody Mary game will never be the same after you try this unique vodka from California. It’s infused with five different types of peppers ranging in heat level from bell to habanero, plus cilantro and a bit of lime. The layers of savory complexity here are astonishing, with an assertive but not overpowering spice. It’ll even work in non-tomato-juice-based drinks, especially anything with lots of fresh citrus.
BULLDOG GIN ($25)
If traditional London dry gin is your bag, try this British import. It’s a modern riff on the style, heavy in juniper and lemon but with complex notes from highly unusual botanicals like white poppy and lotus leaf. It’s a natural choice for a Gin & Tonic, or a stirred and strong drink like a Negroni.
EVAN WILLIAMS SINGLE BARREL BOURBON ($26)
The venerable Evan Williams offers some of the best value in bourbon, and even the top of the brand’s range can be had for well under 30 bucks. Each year, the brand’s master distiller chooses the finest barrels to be bottled one by one. Each edition is slightly different, but they’re typically right around 10 years old with lots of sweetness, a little spice and surprising complexity.
FONSECA BIN 27 PORT ($21)
Like its fortified-wine cousin sherry, port is becoming ultra-trendy in mixological circles. For an introduction to the sweet, fruity Portuguese wine, you can’t go wrong with Fonseca Bin 27, which carries all of port’s classic berry sweetness balanced by tannic dryness. It pairs beautifully with spicy brown spirits—try rye whiskey, Speyside single malt or even añejo tequila.
NOVO FOGO SILVER CACHAÇA ($30)
With the Rio Olympics coming up, you’re going to be hearing a lot about cachaça this summer. Brazil’s national spirit is made from sugar cane, much like rum, but it’s distilled from fresh cane juice rather than molasses, giving it a grassy funk similar to Caribbean rhum agricole. Novo Fogo is a certified-organic version of the spirit, made in a zero-waste distillery in the Brazilian rainforest. It balances tropical-fruit notes with a bit of savory vegetal flavor, and whatever you make with it (a Caipirinha is an obvious choice), you’ll want to be drinking it on the beach.
JAMESON CASKMATES IRISH WHISKEY ($30)
Breweries frequently age stouts and porters in former whiskey barrels, but that’s usually the end of the barrel’s story. Not so here: Jameson gives old barrels to Irish craft brewery Franciscan Well to age its stout, and then takes them back and fills them with whiskey once again. The resulting spirit shares lots of the roasty chocolate and coffee notes of a nice dark ale. This one’s a must for beer lovers.
CLEMENT CREOLE SHRUBB LIQUEUR ($30)
Every bar needs a good orange liqueur, and though this one might be an unusual choice, it’s an excellent one. It’s made in Martinique, using Clement’s delicious rhum agricole—both white and aged—as its base. It provides that citrusy burst you need in a Margarita or Sidecar, along with a depth of flavor you won’t find in a bottom-shelf orange liqueur.
MALFY GIN ($30)
Italy’s Amalfi Coast is famed for its flavorful lemons, and they’re what make up the backbone of this new Italian-made gin. (The brand actually claims that Italian monks invented gin in the Middle Ages by mixing medicinal juniper into distilled spirits.) Malfy is obviously citrus-forward, with the juniper and other botanicals in the background. That makes for a zesty spin on any kind of light and refreshing cocktail.
MOUNT GAY ECLIPSE RUM ($20)
Another aged rum, this one from Barbados, Mount Gay Eclipse is more about fruitiness than dark complexity. You’ll find tropical notes like banana and mango, plus some nice vanilla flavors thanks to aging in former bourbon barrels. Try it as the base for a tiki cocktail like a Mai Tai or Zombie.
PUNT E MES ($26)
This vermouth’s name means “point and a half” in the Piemonte dialect of Italian, which its makers say means it has a full point of sweetness and half a point of bitterness. It’s a traditional sweet vermouth made with an extra measure of bitter chinchona. That makes it as tasty in a Manhattan as it is sipped over ice for a lovely aperitif.
HAIG CLUB SINGLE GRAIN SCOTCH WHISKY ($29)
You’ve probably heard of single malt Scotch, which is made from 100 percent malted barley. This is kind of the reverse: a single grain Scotch, made from non-barley grains (mostly corn). Much like an Irish whiskey, it’s extremely smooth and gentle, very unlike most Scotches out there. Oh, and the brand is partially owned by David Beckham if celebrity endorsements are your thing.
Another Italian bitter liqueur, Cynar is famed for its main flavoring ingredient: artichoke. The amaro is earthy and bitter but has a bit of vegetal freshness too. You can use it in place of Campari in a Negroni (especially if you also use rum instead of gin), or to add some craft-cocktail artistry to any kind of simple highball.
AND NOW, A WORD FROM SOME BARTENDERS