Buying The Bottom Shelf: An Adventure In Cheap Liquor

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Cheap liquor is designed to get you wasted. You can take your time with a nice whisky, and enjoy it as you would with an expensive bottle of wine, but cheap liquor’s only purpose is to be cheap. There is no complexity in cheap alcohol—at least, not the kind you desire—and because of its nature, you will force it down quickly and wait for it to impair you to an equally degraded state of relaxation. Perhaps it will make you long for the days of Drynuary.

But unless you have the means, you will continue to knock back the cheaper stuff on most days, and save your bottles of Laphroaig 18 and George T. Stagg for special occasions. How cheap should you go? As an occasional drinker, I certainly don’t know, so I asked a few better informed drinking buddies to make a trip with me to Warehouse Wines & Spirits in Greenwich Village, our go-to place for affordable booze.

Mike: When you’re looking to go cheap, what kind of liquor do you guys usually buy?

Gregory Beyer, senior editor, The Huffington Post: I guess I would say that I don’t have any brand loyalty. But I do prefer bourbon and gin. I drink Jim Beam, Jack Daniels and Makers Mark. I don’t have a lot of strong opinions so I’m interested in seeing what we find today.

Lawrence Marcus, senior digital editor, Food & Wine magazine: When you talk about cheap liquor—we’re talking about whisky here—the cheapest possible thing that is actually really good is Rittenhouse Rye. It’s not their bottom level, but their one rung up called ‘bottled in bond,’ which means it’s 50 percent alcohol, instead of 40 percent alcohol. That’s about $22. We should probably get that. You could probably get something cheaper in the category and get something pretty good. I think Evan Williams is outrageously cheap—like $13. And it’s really pretty decently drinkable!

Mike: We’ll get the Evan Williams and Rittenhouse, then.

Adam Edelman, news writer, NewsCore: Yeah, I  suppose if cheapness is a prerogative, I’ll get Johnnie Walker Red.

Mike: How about vodka?

Lawrence: Vodka is different from whiskey in that whiskey is supposed to have different characters, while vodka, ideally, is supposed to be neutral. It’s not supposed to taste like anything but distilled alcohol and water, which is what it is. Smirnoff is as good as about anything for $13, and it actually won in a pretty exhaustive New York Times blind tasting some years ago.

Mike: If that’s the case, let’s try something cheaper.

Lawrence: Look, there’s Dan Akroyd’s Crystal Head Vodka.

Lawrence: You know, there’s a big marketing push right now for Wódka. They have these wacky billboards, and it’s extremely cheap.

Mike: It’s $10. Let’s get the Wódka. What about gin?

Lawrence: Gin is really just flavored vodka. In contrast to vodka, gin is something that bartenders and spirits enthusiasts love. I mean, people love gin, and vodka gets shit on constantly. And gin is basically just vodka that’s been distilled with various other ingredients. It’s flavored vodka. So here’s Gordon’s for $16.99 per liter, but we can go cheaper. Here’s Duggan’s for $9, and Georgi. It’s pretty cheap. They’re both really cheap!

Adam: My roommate buys Georgi, and it’s absolutely disgusting. Avoid that.

Mike: Let’s get the Duggan’s then. What other cheap liquor should we try? Tequila? I don’t like tequila, and cheap tequila sounds awful.

Greg: I agree.

Lawrence: I’m not too familiar with tequila.

Mike: I’m going to ask one of the staffers here. Excuse me, sir, if we were looking for a decent tequila under $20, what would you suggest?

Warehouse staffer: I would not recommend the Jose Cuervo because it’s made from a blended corn alcohol, and they add food coloring to make it look like it’s been aged in oak. For a decent tequila under $20, I would suggest the El Jimador. This is what I usually recommend. Add a squeeze of lime juice and you’re good to go.

Mike: Sold. What do you think about our vodka and gin choices?

Warehouse staffer: The Wódka is decent, and as for the gin. It should be fine for a mixing gin. I wouldn’t make a martini out of it.

Mike: Excellent. Thank you, sir. Let’s buy this stuff and taste this stuff at my place. Wait, how did this moonshine get in here?

Wódka vodka, $9.99

Lawrence: Let’s start with the vodka.

Mike: I’m scared of everything we bought. Except maybe the bourbon.

Adam: Can we have spit buckets?

Lawrence: So, Mike, what are you looking for, drinkability?

Mike: Yeah, but mostly whether it’s worth the money we paid. Okay, is this one supposed to smell a certain way? Because this one smells like rubbing alcohol, and yup, it tastes gross.

Lawrence: This one actually has a little bit of flavor for a vodka, which is normally not considered to be a good thing.

Greg: Yeah, I would not choose to drink this. It really does taste like rubbing alcohol to me.

Lawrence: It has an unusual sweet taste. It’s a strange-tasting vodka. I would just buy Smirnoff for a couple bucks more.

Adam: I feel like it’s really no better than the $5.99 Silver Wolfs I’d buy in college. So I’d say just buy that, or go a step up like Lawrence is saying.

Duggan’s London dry gin, $8.99

Lawrence: This was $9 for a liter. It’s 90 proof or 45.2 percent alcohol, so you’re getting a lot of alcohol for your dollar.

Mike: And this one smells great!

Lawrence: It smells like juniper. Juniper is the major component in most gins and sort of has that piney smell.

Mike: I like this one.

Adam: It’s not so bad. I let it sit in my mouth and it wasn’t an unpleasant thing like it was with the Wódka.

Lawrence: Mike, you have some Tanqueray on your shelf. Should we compare?

Mike: Sure, but remember that the Tanqueray costs about three times more.

Greg: The guy at the store said he’d never make a martini with Duggan’s.

Mike: But I would drink the Duggan’s in a tonic. Whoa, the Tanqeray is stronger.

Lawrence: I think it’s far more pleasant.

Greg: I think so too, but is it three time more pleasant?

Adam: There’s no question that the Tanqueray is more superior, but I thought the Duggan’s was nice. I’d buy it for $9. I would drink it at a party and drink it frequently. It’s much better than the Georgi, which was also $9.

Greg: I’d buy this for $9, definitely.

El Jimador tequila, $17.99

Mike: I don’t like tequila, so don’t pay attention to the face I make.

Lawrence: This is really decent. It’s totally fine.

Adam: I really like this. It’s my favorite by a long shot. It’s really mild in my mouth. Most tequilas make me sick right away, but this one sat in my mouth and it was nice.

Lawrence: It has a really pleasant aftertaste. I think if you’re making a margarita, this would be great to use.

Adam: I can tell you with certainty that I’ve learned something from tasting the El Jimador, and I will buy it when I’m looking for a lower-priced tequila.

Georgia Moon corn whisky moonshine, $9.99

Lawrence: It looks like they put it in a mayonnaise jar. It’s hard to pour.

Mike: I’m going to spoon this into my glass.

Adam: So this is made from corn? What is this?

Lawrence: It’s unaged corn whiskey, meaning it hasn’t been mellowed or aged in a barrel. That’s why it’s clear.

Greg: Ugh, this smells terrible.

Mike: It smells like nightmares!

Lawrence: It smells like something weird. Like wallpaper paste. I’ve never come across an unaged whiskey that I’ve liked.

Adam: It smells like how a trashcan sometimes does. Why would people buy this?

Lawrence: No clue.

Mike: Let’s taste it, and get it over with.

Lawrence: It’s not the worst I’ve tasted, but it’s terrible.

Greg: It didn’t taste as bad as it smelled, but it was still disgusting.

Mike: I think it’s awful. We should put this on a shelf for 100 years, and then try it again on our deathbeds.

Lawrence: You’d have to put it in a barrel.

Evan Williams bourbon whiskey, $13.99

Adam: I like Evan Williams. It’s just a good, cheap whiskey. I don’t think I would know the different between this and a couple of other whiskeys.

Lawrence: Yeah, I think it’s fine.

Mike: I like it a lot.

Greg: No arguments.

Rittenhouse rye whiskey, $21.99

Greg: Lawrence, this is your favorite, right?

Lawrence: It’s 50 percent alcohol. I think if you put a drop of water in your sip, you could compare it to the Evan Willams.

Mike: Whoa, it’s strong. But good. It hit me hard, but in a good way.

Adam: Yeah, it’s good.

Lawrence: It’s something I’m happy to drink by itself.

Adam: And it wasn’t too cheap—it was $22? What comparable rye whiskies are there?

Lawrence: Well, around this price, you have Jim Beam rye which isn’t nearly as good. I’m a fan of the Rittenhouse.

Mike: So what were today’s winners? I think the $9 gin. I expected that to be gross, but it was pretty decent.

Greg: Adam, it was the tequila for you, right?

Adam: Yeah, the tequila. But I wouldn’t dispute that the gin was much better than I thought it would be. It was smooth.

Greg: I think the surprise was the gin. I liked the whiskies, which I expected.

Lawrence: I didn’t mind the tequila.

Mike: I liked the Rittenhouse. I mean, it’s not that cheap though.

Lawrence: It’s cheap enough to have around. It’s a great breakfast rye.

Mike Dang doesn’t want to drink anymore.

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