Selecting the Best Bottom Shelf Bottles, According to Experts
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It’s hard to be a refined drinker if you also have a budget. Depending on where you live, a well-made cocktail can cost $10-12. A good bottle of scotch will run you $60, or easily more. And a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle can only be attained in exchange for your child’s college fund or in a high-stakes heist that requires an inside man. (Do you know someone on the inside at Buffalo Trace Distillery? No? Dammit.)
Luckily, there’s gold to be found on the bottom shelf—if you know where to look. Here is the end result of the research I did —to find out where they find flavor within the margins of a budget.
Other spirits are hampered by the need for “flavor” or “aging,” but the bar for vodka is low; as long as it tastes more like water than bathtub hooch, you’re getting most of what the spirit has to offer (for argument’s sake, let’s consider infused vodkas a separate entity). This easily makes it one of the best bottom shelf bottles. And if you have an affinity for a vodka more than $25, those extra dollars are probably paying for advertising.
Brent Shaw, co-owner of Network Beverage Agencies and a master bartender most of his life, recounted to me the rise of premium vodka during his days running Piccadilly Pub in the 1990s—first Absolut’s explosion onto the scene, then the rise of Stoli’s flavored vodkas, and ultimately Grey Goose “crushing everybody.” But when I mention to him that everyone I know who’s been to Russia has returned with a supreme loyalty to Russian Standard ($16), Shaw was effusive. “[Customers] always love that! It’s a good brand. We’ve always sold Russian Standard,” he says, referring to his several upscale hotspots in downtown Vancouver, BC as the time.
Shaw also recommended Tito’s ($20), a quality vodka with a budget price. It was also singled out by other experts I contacted. They called it “super smooth” and “perfectly good.”. If you’re looking for a more ringing endorsement, though, pick up a bottle of Aloo Vodka ($13) from Seattle’s Oola Distilling. (it’s distilled from winter wheat and offers a bracing fresh clean taste and a faint but pleasant sweetness in the finish)
For the next of our best bottom shelf bottle, sometimes, the obvious choice is the right one. “I don’t know that there is a more classic gin at a better price than Gordon’s London Dry ($11),” says Smith. “It exemplifies gin perfectly—big juniper, citrus and herbs—while retaining a nice smooth finish. It plays well with tonic and makes a perfectly fine Martini.”
According to Kat Odell, the author of Day Drinking: 50 Cocktails for a Mellow Buzz, she says you “can’t go wrong” with another timeless titan from England: Beefeater ($19), which she finds “classic, balanced, and universal for mixing,” while Will Gordon, a beverage columnist at Deadspin, votes for New Amsterdam ($11), which he says, “tastes like a melted coriander creamsicle! Well, it tastes like gin, overall, but also more like a coriander creamsicle than one might expect.”
If you prefer to travel a little off the beaten path, though, Gordon (no relation to the gin) believes this is a good opportunity to do so: “[It’s] about the only spirit that craft distilleries [consistently] do worth a damn at a reasonable price.” One such gin is Ford’s ($25), [It’s] a great London Dry-style gin that mixes easily in cocktails without being too heavy on the juniper,” says Harrell.
I am not smart, but having lived in Mexico for 4 years, I’m smart enough to know not to drink cheap tequila. Unfortunately, and/or fortunately, I have one too many stories of shooting too many Tequila slammers and winding up somewhere half naked. Yes, I have had my fair share of ‘Tequ-kill-ya’ love affairs. However, living in Mexico also gave me the opportunity to try good quality tequila’s at a reasonable price.
The Whisky Exchange recommends Anejo Tequila: Put simply, ‘aged’ – in this case for at least a year in oak, but for less than three years. The barrel is beginning to have a real say here. Producers have to be careful that its vanilla and coconut tones (ex-bourbon or Tennessee whisky casks are mostly used) do not dominate that distinctive agave flavour of Reposado Tequila. Reposado Tequilas – literally, ‘rested’ – spend at least two months in oak, but less than a year. If that seems a narrow definition, it still allows for considerable variations in style. Variations include Tequilas that are essentially ‘blanco’ with a touch more smoothness, to products with noticeable oak influence – manifested in flavours such as vanilla and coconut.
Last but not least Blanco Tequila: This is the place to come if you want true, unadulterated agave flavours. Blanco Tequilas, also known as plata or silver, are aged for less than two months. As such they convey the essence of the agave (and the quality of their production).
“Out of all spirits, rum offers the best price to quality value,” which is almost a shame, given how little drinkers often ask of their rum but if you have ever drank a Mai Tai in Hawaii, the quality of rum is the difference between being refreshed or being convinced you’ve been handed a fruit-adorned glass of jet fuel.
Here is a list of the top 10 rums Whisky Exchange that are reasonably priced for you to explore.
As the rising spirit of the last decade-plus, whisky has no shortage of subdivisions that each deserve their own acclaim. Scotch and Irish whisky have their own dedicated followings (albeit at higher price points than American-made spirits). Rye, however, deserves more shine as the spicier cousin to America’s official spirit, bourbon.
Bourbon, of which there remains terrific budget buys even as the spirit explodes in price and popularity. Four Roses is one of the best budget bourbons. Simply put, it never disappoints. It incorporates the best notes of Kentucky bourbon to savor and celebrate — vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, maple, and slathered in honey like they were mashed potatoes. Alternately, you can make firm due with 100-proof Old Grand-Dad or Old Grand-Dad Bonded.
“Evan Williams’ bourbon is a common choice for any bottom-shelf bourbon drinker, and its quality is such a given that no one really cares to explain it but that other are happy to drink neat is all I need to say about its value.”
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Drew Farion: Your Eclectic Connoisseur Correspondent