Bartenders Recommend the Best Affordable Bottles for Every Classic Cocktail

For drinking well at home, a decent bottle of booze can cost as little as $15

September 17, 2020 8:56 am
Johann Trasch / Unsplash

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We’ve been spending a lot of time drinking in the last six months. And during that pursuit, we’ve also spent a lot of money. 

So as much as I love my neighborhood’s bottled, to-go libations and the local craft distilleries I want to support, there are times I just need the makings of a solid cocktail at home … without the sticker shock.

So we asked more than a dozen bartenders to help us find really, really affordable bottles for popular and easy-to-make home cocktails. Many of these standouts are under $20 — if they’re good enough for your local watering hole, consider never going top-shelf again.

Before we get to the experts, two quick suggestions from yours truly: If you have a bottle of Wodka, any vodka issue is solved. And if you have Evan Williams, you have the core of a truly great Old Fashioned.

Prices below are what I would pay as a New Yorker (at my nearest liquor store or on Drizly for local delivery, or Caskers or Flaviar if I was willing to wait for them to ship it) — meaning it’s probably a few bucks cheaper where you live.

For Manhattans or Old Fashioneds: Old Overholt Straight Rye ($22)

It’s a little bumpy to drink straight, but honestly it’s a great quality product for the price. — Gavin Humes, Food & Beverage Director, Scratch|Bar & Kitchen (CA)

For daiquiris: Banks 5 Island Rum ($35)

It depends on what “cheap” means to you. The Banks 5 is also really special for any rum drink; it adds a ton of depth. — Gavin Humes

For a gin martini: Tanqueray ($30)

It’s a beautiful five-ingredient gin. It’s distilled beautifully and has an amazing bouquet of citrus on the nose and palate. And its robust flavors stand out in other classic cocktails like the Old Tom Gimlet. — Brendan Bartley, Head Bartender & Beverage Director at Bathtub Gin (NYC) 

Cane Run
Cane Run

For daiquiris: Cane Run ($23)

With a cheaper rum, you can pull off a daiquiri reasonably well; fresh lime juice is the key. Cane Run is the ultimate value and one of the absolute cheapest rums, though Flor de Caña is my personal favorite, and El Dorado is just a few bucks more. — Ted Rink, beverage director at BLVD Steakhouse (Chicago) 

For vodka tonics/sodas: Svedka ($16)

Vodka can transition to fit all seasons. You can pair it with fresh herbs such as basil, rosemary and mint with seasonal fruits. In the fall/ winter, infused homemade apple or pumpkin butters for an excellent classic vodka cocktail. — Zyren Posadas, Senior Food & Beverage Manager at FireLake’s Grill House & Cocktail Bar (Chicago)

For Vesper martinis: Gordon’s London Dry ($17)

A well-balanced Vesper with Gordon’s, with its distinctive juniper forward and less frills or fuss, is the perfect thing to wind down with after a long day at the restaurant. It’s versatile and also lends itself to Negronis, G&Ts and even the Last Word. — Andrew Zerrip, Beverage Director at Olmsted (Brooklyn, NY)


For gin and tonics: Hayman’s Gin ($27)

A classic London Dry Gin, Hayman’s is crisp, with juniper and balanced citrus and slight warm spice notes. It also works for a Last Word. — Natasha Bahrami, The Gin Room (St. Louis)

For a Tom Collins: Greenall’s Gin ($18)

Greenall’s is gold for a home bartender looking for a well-rounded gin under 20 dollars. Joanne Moore, one of the few female Master Distillers in the world, specifically curated this to showcase bright citrus and juniper notes demanded by classic gin cocktails. It also works in gin-forward Tiki cocktails. — Natasha Bahrami

For palomas: Two Fingers ($25)

I was surprised at how clean and smooth this tequila presented on the palate for the price. For cocktails, just make sure to use fresh lime juice and for a paloma, always use a nice dry, tart grapefruit mixer with lots of bubbles (like Q). — Christina Basham, founder of Bubbles + Agave Creative (Columbus, OH)

For a Penicillin: Dewar’s ($22)

Dewar’s has strong notes of honey, which work excellently in a Penicillin. But to really finish off a Penicillin well you have to top it with a peated Scotch, which will cost a few bucks (here, I would go with the Lagavulin 16 Year) Jarred Craven, veteran Los Angeles-based bartender

For a Bloody Mary or a Moscow Mule: New Amsterdam ($16)

I generally prefer more character vodkas, but once you introduce powerful flavors like tomato or ginger, a neutral flavor works just fine. — Christina Basham

Flor de Cana

For mojitos: Flor de Caña 4yr White Rum ($26)

Great tasting rum that is affordable and approachable. It’s my well rum at work. — Gregory Rodriguez, Lead Creative Bartender at Oak & Ivy (Las Vegas)

For The Last Word: Fleischmann’s Gin ($9)

It may come in a massive plastic bottle, but I call it the “gateway gin” because of its contemporary style — it opens the floodgates for folks who otherwise hate gin to want to try the category. It’s lemony, with an undertow of coriander. It’s so fresh, with no medicinal, piney notes of juniper. And it also works in a Bee’s Knees or a Gin and Campari. — Devin Kidner, owner and founder of Hollow Leg cocktail classes (Chicago)

Pueblo Viejo
Pueblo Viejo

For margaritas: Pueblo Viejo Tequila Blanco ($23)

It’s inexpensive but still a high quality spirit. It’s smooth, herbaceous and full of fruit notes. — Fabio Steven Gonzalez, bartender at Park Hyatt (New York)

For a Boulevardier: Rittenhouse ($28)

Despite its relatively low rye content, Rittenhouse has a combination of quality and rye spice you can’t find in anything similarly priced. — Jarred Craven

For a Sidecar: Courvoisier VS ($40)

Cheap and brandy don’t usually have a good time together in a cocktail. But you might disagree if you’re from Wisconsin. I prefer a VSOP cognac in a sidecar, but for a wallet-friendly version, Courvoisier VS will get you where you want to be. — Jarred Craven


For Irish Coffee: Glendalough ($33)

While it’s a newer brand, this Irish whiskey is exceptionally smooth and there’s just enough sweetness to make it super sippable … or nice in an Irish Coffee. — Jessie Smyth, bartender at Genever (Los Angeles)

For a whiskey sour: Old Grand-Dad ($27)

For this drink I want lemony tartness, a bit of sweetness and a little smoke and oak. I think a higher-proof whiskey actually does this cocktail a disservice. Old Grand-Dad has a quick finish that allows you to savor the pleasant citrusy-sweet experience that a whiskey sour should be. — Jarred Craven


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