Cheap liquor: Pay for the booze, not the buzz

Is there anything creepier than a little kid wearing a hat featuring the Bacardi bat or a T-shirt advertising Jack Daniels? Isn't that a major warning sign for the local Child Protective Services bureau?

I'm always a little leery of corporate advertising, but it seems to me like it's really gotten out of hand with alcohol companies. Somehow, beverages that were once merely tools for getting plastered have become personality statements, shortcuts that consumers can use to tell each other about their marital status, mental health, and value systems. Frankly, that's a lot of pressure to put on an after-work cocktail!

In addition to complicating the joy of drinking, this process has also lowered the quality of booze. Most of the big advertisers are second or third rate spirits. However, through the miracle of marketing, they've managed to eclipse their far superior brethren. In the process, they've also raised their prices to the point that they are also among the most expensive brands. In other words, consumers are now paying more money for cruddier booze simply so they can impress their compatriots with their taste and distinction.

In the interests of sanity, I've compiled a little list of lesser-known, reasonably-priced spirits. If you're interested in flavor, not hype, you might want to try a few of the brands that I've mentioned below.

Just a few more notes: Unless otherwise noted, all of the quoted prices are for a fifth of a gallon, or 750 milliliters. Second, I should mention that most of the prices in this post came from my neighborhood liquor store, North End Liquor Mart, which is located at 2509 Webster Avenue in the Bronx; if North End didn't carry the booze in question, I got the price from an internet retailer. Finally, while most of my posts are constructed in a few days, the research for this post was undertaken over several years. In other words, when checking out my conclusions, please take your time.

Vodka: Over the past few years, vodka has become a little...frou-frou. It used to be a baseline for mixed drinks, a more civilized version of Everclear. Somehow, however, it's transformed into a sipping spirit. This blows my mind; it seems to me like sipping vodka is the first step on a path that ends with drinking Sterno. Still, while scanning online reviews of different vodkas, I was amazed to find reviewers using phrases like "a good nose," "hints of caramel," and "a soupcon of nuttiness" to describe various vodkas. Let's get one thing straight: this is vodka, not wine. If you taste it, then it's not very good. Of course, if you're wrecked enough to imagine that it has "hints of caramel," then it's probably doing its job.

Russia's statements to the contrary, the best vodkas are Polish. Poland's premium offerings, Chopin ($29) and Belvedere ($37), are outstanding, but extremely expensive. By comparison, Stolichnaya, the premier Russian vodka, costs about $23. For reference purposes, it's worth noting that Absolut, a terrible vodka with a great marketing campaign, runs about $20. As far as I'm concerned, Grey Goose isn't a vodka; it's sexual harassment of an older woman.

Given its popularity, I hesitate to mention Smirnoff ($14), but it's a good, reasonably priced mixing vodka. If you're looking for an top notch vodka with a great (lack of) taste, try Luksusowa. It's a lesser-known Polish potato vodka that most liquor stores carry for somewhere between $10 and $15 a fifth. For that modest outlay, you get a delicious tipple that, as far as I'm concerned, gives Chopin and Belvedere a run for their money. It tastes particularly good right out of the freezer.

Scotch: When it comes to scotch, the big boy on the block is Johnny Walker Blue Label, a blended whiskey that runs a whopping $175 a bottle. Blue label is not the best scotch (by a long shot!), but its incredible marketing campaign has catapulted it past several whiskyes that are far superior. The most popular single malts are Glenfiddich ($33) and Glenlivet ($34). For my money, Laphroaig and Macallan are far more delicious and cost roughly the same. If you're looking for a cheap single malt, you might try Bowmore ($23). Avoid Glen Garioch ($30), which tastes vaguely like paint thinner.

As a general point, if you're a fan of the smoother taste of "Canadian" whiskeys like Crown Royal ($17), you might try Old Overholt Rye, which only costs $14 for a fifth. It is one of the few true rye whiskeys available, and is fantastic as both a mixer and for straight sipping. I would rank it above most bourbons and Canadian whiskeys. Also, as my friend John notes, Old Crow is a fine sipping bourbon, America's oldest sour-mash whiskey, and the favored drink of Ulysses S. Grant. Best of all, it's only $17 for a 1.75 Liter bottle.

Gin: My gin-drinking days are largely behind me, but I was always a big fan of Tanqueray ($23) and Bombay Sapphire ($22). However, let's be totally honest: if you're drinking martinis, you will probably only taste the first couple. Consequently, you will find it much more cost-effective to start off with one of the premium gins, then follow it up with a solid lower-priced brand like Gordon's ($13).

Rum: While my tastes run toward dark rums like Myers's ($23) and Cruzan Black Strap Navy Rum ($14), my friend Sean is a golden rum connoisseur. He notes that mid-range golden rums like Appleton Gold ($14) and Mount Gay Eclipse ($16) are outstanding, and blow Bacardi Gold ($11) out of the water. This, he argues, is one of the places in which you pay for what you get. At the very least, we agree that white rum is a total waste of time unless you're degreasing your car or making Molotov cocktails.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea.

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