There are plenty of ultra-premium bottles of liquor out there, but the truth is that you don’t have to pay a lot for high-quality spirits these days. Don’t take our word for it, listen to the advice of experts in the bar industry who often reach for bottles that cost less than $30 to make a cocktail or just a simple neat pour. Here are the best bargains in booze that don’t skimp on flavor.
Best Bourbon: Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Brown sugar, Toffee
“Buffalo Trace has minimal bite with caramel tasting notes,” says Catherine Simmerman of Pepe Le Moko in Portland, Oregon. This is the flagship bourbon from the Kentucky distillery of the same name, and is a fantastic, budget bottle that many bartenders reach for to make whiskey drinks, and one that you should consider keeping in your home bar as well.
Related: The Best Bourbons
Best White Rum: Bacardí Superior White Rum
Region: Puerto Rico | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Almonds, Vanilla, Oak
Bacardi is one of the most popular rum brands in the world, with a variety of expressions available. However, the classic charcoal-filtered white rum is a bartender’s favorite. "It's very good quality for the price and great name recognition," says Nestor Marchand, the director of food and beverage at Plunge Beach Resort, who uses it in many cocktails on his menus.
Related: The Best Cheap Rums
Best Vodka: St. George Spirits All Purpose Vodka
Region: California | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Floral, Vanilla, Cream, Almond
"California’s St. George Spirits is one of my favorite domestic producers," says Shannon Tebay, the head bartender of the American Bar in the Savoy London. "Their All Purpose Vodka uses unaged pear brandy as its base and rectifies it to over 95% ABV." She adds, "While this may cause it to lose most of its pear character, what’s left is a beautifully plump, juicy texture, making it something that’s quite dynamic to work with in a category that tends to be more utilitarian."
Related: The Best Vodkas
Best Tequila: Cimarron Blanco Tequila
Region: Mexico | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Bright Agave, Pineapple, Papaya
"My pick for an under-$30 tequila of late has been Cimarron Blanco," says Matthew Belanger, the head bartender at Death & Co in Los Angeles. “Produced at the prolific Tequilena distillery in Jalisco, home to a ton of other premium tequila brands, it's peppery and agave-forward enough to enjoy on its own, with enough grassy, fruity character to mix well in a cocktail. We use it in a lot of our shaken tequila drinks around the bar currently."
Related: The Best Tequilas
Best Amaro: Meletti Amaro
Region: Italy | ABV: 32% | Tasting Notes: Citrus, Spice, Cloves
"A less expensive bottle I always keep in my home bar is Meletti Amaro," says Mike Vacheresse, the owner of Travel Bar in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Meletti is such a versatile bottle to have on your bar. I enjoy this amaro neat after a meal, I drink it on hot days with fresh lime juice and club soda over ice, and Meletti makes a very fine Manhattan."
Best Liqueur: Rockey’s Liqueur
Region: New York | ABV: 12% | Tasting Notes: Fruit, Citrus, Floral, Tart
"This punch is really versatile, and also you can drink it by itself," says David Libespere, the general manager of 67 Orange Street in Harlem, N.Y. "Rockey’s has been on the market for some time now, but the possibilities with it are limitless, from an Old Fashioned to a tiki drink." He notes, "What is important for me is to be able to have a product affordable enough that I can use in a lot of different variations."
Best Single Barrel Whiskey: Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 43.4% | Tasting Notes: Honey, Oak, Vanilla
The unique thing about single barrel whiskey is that each barrel will have different characteristics. But Pablo Guerrero, F&B manager for Azabu Miami Beach Plan Do See America, Inc., says Evan Williams Single Barrel stands out. “In the world of bourbons, this one is among the best,” he said. “It’s well-balanced. No one will say no to this American bourbon whiskey for its price and its smoothness.”
Best Rye Whiskey: Rittenhouse Straight Rye
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Vanilla, Caramel, Rye
"An inexpensive bottle that I always have around is 4-year-old bottled-in-bond Rittenhouse Rye from the Heaven Hill Distillery," says Vacheresse. "Rittenhouse is my go-to rye for a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned. The 100 proof stands up to the melting ice and gives you a well-balanced cocktail."
Related: The Best Rye Whiskeys
Best Cachaça: Novo Fogo Silver Cachaça
Region: Brazil | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Banana, Lemon, Vanilla
If you are a fan of rum, you need to give cachaca a try as well, the Brazilian cousin that is distilled from sugarcane juice. “Novo Fogo Cachaca is earthy and light,” says Simmerman. This is the obvious choice for a Caipirinha drink, but try sipping on its own as well to discover the character of this Brazilian staple.
Best Aged Rum: El Dorado 12 Year
Region: Guyana | ABV: 40% | Tasting Notes: Molasses, Vanilla, Brown sugar
For rum value, you can not beat El Dorado 12 year Guyana rum,” says Vacheresse. “It’s great enjoyed on its own, and at the price it will elevate a cocktail too.” This is a blend of rums all aged for at least 12 years from a distillery that produces excellent spirits in both column and pot stills. Try elevating your next Old Fashioned using this.
What to Look For
When shopping for inexpensive booze, you have to keep in mind that you don’t want to sacrifice flavor just because the price is low. The good news is that often cheap bottles are extremely good, so you don’t have to spend a lot.
Cheaper bottles tend to hover around the 40% ABV mark. This is fine, but try looking for a bottled-in-bond whiskey or a higher-proof spirit to give you a little extra flavor and kick in your cocktails.
Is cheaper alcohol made differently?
Cheaper alcohol is essentially made the same as expensive alcohol. The difference might be that it’s not aged as long if it’s a brown spirit, it’s a lower proof, or it might be a blend of many more barrels. But all that is not an indicator of quality—it comes down to the taste.
Alcohol is alcohol - drink responsibly, because regardless of the price it will have the same effect on you.
Can you drink it on its own?
You should definitely try sipping any of these bottles neat, you will be pleasantly surprised. But the good thing is that the low prices mean you can use them in mixed drinks as well and not be afraid of wasting your money.
Why Trust Liquor.com?
Jonah Flicker is an experienced writer who has been covering spirits and traveling the world visiting distilleries for many years. His work has appeared in various national outlets reporting on trends, new releases, and the stories and innovators behind the spirits. His first love remains whiskey, but he is partial to tequila, rum, gin, cognac and all things distilled.