wodka bottle.jpg
For a cheap vodka to use in various cocktails, the pros agree Wodka is a great value.
It's not that I'm a cheapskate (That's a


What's In Your Well?

wodka bottle.jpg
For a cheap vodka to use in various cocktails, the pros agree Wodka is a great value.
It's not that I'm a cheapskate (That's a lie. I am.)...It's just that I come from the school of thought that says you should splurge on spirits when you're drinking them neat (or in something simple like a Manhattan), and skimp if you are adding various juices and liqueurs to your drink. Mixing cocktails at home is fun, but it can break the bank if you are lining your liquor cabinet with top shelf spirits. And if you drink like me, you have to consider quantity over quality.

I've crowd sourced this week's column by polling friends, cocktail enthusiasts, booze reps, bartenders, and bar owners. My conclusion: Bartenders are willing to go much more bottom shelf (or at least admit they do) than home cocktail enthusiasts. But most of them agree on a budget-priced base spirit for some of the main spirits: Tequila, vodka, gin, bourbon, rye, Scotch, and rum.


The experts agree on two budget priced options here: Gordon's and Wodka. Anu Apte, owner and bartender at Rob Roy and cocktail academy Swig Well, says Wodka vodka hands down. "It's a Polish rye vodka and priced like all vodkas should be priced. In most parts of the country it is only $9 a bottle. Washington is a bit higher ($15, 750 ml), but still a great value. Plus side is that the bottle is beautiful too - you can strip off the label and use it for a vase." Jamie Boudreau at Canon uses Gordon's ($12, 750 ml). "As long as it's cheap and doesn't have an odd after-taste or unpleasant burn, go as cheap as you can if your primary use for vodka is mixing. Only spend money on vodka if you plan on drinking it straight or as a martini."

Denise Sakaki, author of the blog WasabiPrime, recommends Tito's ($23, 750 ml). "It's fairly inexpensive, smooth and clean, but still enough of a light sweetness to make a martini and not feel like you're drinking drunkface water." And now "drunkface water" will forever be in my booze lexicon.


Evan Martin, bar manager at Chino's, says, "If practicing cocktails at home for the first time, trying new recipes, or just drinking Gin n' Tonics, there's nothing wrong with going cheap, Gordon's ($13, 750 ml) is good for that. For a little more money, Beefeater ($22, 750 ml) will get you better results and will be a greater crowd pleaser." Apte agrees and also likes Plymouth ($30, 750 ml), "It's being released in a prettier old style bottle now. It mixes well with everything and doesn't overpower. "

Rocky Yeh, Director of Education and Outreach for distributor Cooper & Sons, teaches Badass Bartending classes at The Pantry at Delancey. He recommends keeping two or three different gins on hand. "One that is more assertive; one that is soft; and one that is citrus forward or floral, depending on your preference." His picks in each style: Gordon's, Beefeater or Bellringer ($16, 750 ml); Voyager ($26, 750 ml) or Tanqueray ($25, 750 ml); and Bombay Dry ($22, 750 ml) or G'Vine ($34, 750 ml).


Rum is tricky because you need a light or golden rum on hand for mixing, but may also need dark rum for drinks like the Mai Tai. Most people agreed that Appleton ($15, 750 ml), Bacardi ($16, 750 ml) and Cruzan ($14, 750 ml) are just fine for a basic mixer. Boudreau recommends Chairman's Reserve Silver ($11, 750 ml), and says, "It's a beautiful aged rum that has been stripped of its color, but not flavor. This rum laughs in the face of certain bigger brands that remind me more of vodka than rum."

For dark rum, Appleton V/X ($18, 750 ml) is the top recommendation among most people I talked to. And Apte added this, "Don't go cheap on rums. It's amazing how the quality of good rums is congruent with pricing. It would be a good idea to also stock Barbancourt 8-year ($26, 750 ml) for an aged option and either Zaya ($35, 750 ml) or Zacapa ($48, 750 ml) for sipping rums. Of course, the latter two will set you back a bit."


Old Overholt ($20, 750 ml) is the crowd-pleasing rye stocked by most bars. Travis Stanley-Jones at Mulleady's thinks it's a bit light in an old fashioned, and will substitute Wild Turkey Rye ($25, 750 ml) depending on the cocktail or customer. Martin adds, "For basic mixing, Old Overholt is a good choice, particularly if there are multiple ingredients. Drinks like the Scofflaw and Brooklyn I think work great with Old Overholt. But for drinks with a little more whiskey presence like a Manhattan, I prefer something more assertive like Bulleit Rye ($30, 750 ml)."


Black label bourbons appear to be the most popular for mixing. Andrew Friedman at Liberty says, "We use what is easily the best well, Evan Williams Black ($15, 750 ml). It's inexpensive and good." Stanley-Jones agrees, "This is a very, very serviceable bourbon. I find very little difference for the cost." Apte adds, "You may not have many people tell you this because it is such a big name brand, but Jim Beam Black Label 8-Year is quite nice and sells for around $25 dollars a bottle. Also, Old Forester is a value and quite tasty. We rotate Old Forester ($24, 750 ml) in and out of our well depending on availability." I hosted a blind bourbon tasting at home with a dozen or so friends last year. Jim Beam Black was also the dark horse, if you will, winning high marks from nearly everybody in the room.

Martin recommends Old Crow Reserve ($14, 750 ml). "It has some aspects to it of a much higher quality bourbon, and works well in a lot of drinks. Like the rye or gin category, spend a little more and you have a much more flexible spirit. That's why at Chino's we use Buffalo Trace ($26, 750 ml). Not the cheapest, but still an excellent value and never comes up short in any drink you throw it's way." Boudreau likes Four Roses Yellow Label ($23, 750 ml). "It has a great taste without being overly assertive and one of the very few distilleries not using GMO corn." My friend Mark, a committed cocktail enthusiast, recommends Fighting Cock bourbon ($21, 750 ml). "It's good for mixing bourbon drinks for a large crowd, plus everyone finds the name hilarious especially when drunk."


There were very strong opinions about this category. Probably because when tequila is bad, it is so incredibly BAD! Martin cautions, "Look for '100% Agave' on the bottle, and if it says Gold, stay away. So many affordable 100% agave tequilas have popped up there is no reason to drink mixto tequilas any more, those are the reason why you think you hate tequila. Look for Zapopan ($19, 750 ml) to be a little more readily available in our market soon and likely cheaper than before. With the current liquor changes going on around here, a lot of liquor prices will be going up, but that's not true for all brands. Other brands to seek for value are El Jimador ($20, 750 ml), Pueblo Viejo ($20, 750 ml), Cabrito ($14, 750 ml), El Relingo ($18, 750 ml), and Espolon ($26, 750 ml). See, there's 6 brands or reasons to convert from mixtos just right there!"


This is a tough one, since scotch isn't used in many cocktails. Sometimes though you just need a cheap bottle around for making a Rob Roy or for your drunken uncle. Famous Grouse ($29, 750 ml) is the top pick among most people I polled. Boudreau says, "Famous Grouse has been my blend of choice for over a decade when it comes to its mixability. For something more assertive and a single malt, try Speyburn ($29, 750 ml)."

Ready to stock your home bar and start mixing up more cocktails at home? I know I am. Apte, who will soon be adding a home bar basics class to the line-up at Swig Well, reminded me of something important though. "When you are at home more often than not you will just want a quick sipper before bed. What happens when you are exhausted and don't want to make yourself a cocktail and all you have on your shelf are spirits that are better when mixed? Spending a little more on booze gives your home bar versatility."

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