Back in July we presented our list of 30 great bottles of booze under 30 bucks, sourcing our picks from the country’s best mixologists.
All the tipples were versatile (shot, sippers, cocktails), easy on the wallet and likely to get a nod of approval from your more spirit-knowledgeable folks.
So we decided to ask several more professional barkeeps for their favorites, right at the time of year when you really need it (See: “Can you bring a bottle to the party?”). Below, those picks — and several of our own — now with a focus on lesser-known spirit types that deserve to be celebrated: be it aperitif, cognac, coffee liqueur or apple brandy.
Pro tip: if you’re gifting, do a bit of research and include a recipe card or two with your gift. And our usual caveat: depending on where you live, you may pay a bit over $30.
Aperol Aperitivo | $27
“It's super refreshing, delicious, and lower ABV than most spirits so you can enjoy several drinks without feeling guilty. I drink Aperol & soda all weekend long, and if I'm feeling extra fancy I'll throw in an orange peel and turn it into a spritz by adding prosecco.” — Megan Ardizoni, Beverage Director for TAO Group
Campari (750ml) | $30
“I love Campari because it surprises you with its versatility, its ability to play well with stirred or shaken cocktails, as well as different spirits and liqueurs. I also love how it adds a bitter element to cocktails, where most liqueurs add sweetness.” — Felicia Chin-Braxton, Bartender at Nitecap
Laird's Straight Apple Brandy | $27+
“It's a delicious 100% American spirit that’s 100 proof and can be used in all types of cocktails meant to be used for clear or aged spirits alike, because while it’s higher proof (perfect for cocktails), it’s also fruit driven, since it's made from apples. It is also barrel-aged for four years, which rounds out the harshness of higher-proof white spirits.” — Brock Schulte, Bar Manager for The Monarch Cocktail Bar & Lounge in Kansas City
Caffe del Fuego | $19
“This is a coffee spirit out of Austin, TX and it's absolutely incredible. It's like if Kahlua wasn't sweet and made with better coffee. It's spectacular on the rocks but also quite mixable. It's badass.” — Nico Martini, Co-Founder of Bar Draught in Dallas
Singani 63 | $28
“I’m really loving this Bolivian brandy. Europeans originally brought the White Muscat Grape vines to Bolivia, and it gives this spirit a clean, floral note that’s perfect for cocktails. As a bonus, Steven Soderbergh (the film director AND man behind this spirit) is passionate about his charity work and making a positive impact on the Bolivian community.” — Johnny Swet, Jimmy at the JAMES
Leblon Cachaça | $30
“Cachaça is the national spirit of Brazil, and is the top 5 most consumed spirit in the world. It's also the key ingredient in a classic Caipirinha.” — Darnell Holguin, Cocktail Artist mixologist and NYC-based Beverage Director
Claque Pepin Fine Calvados (750ml) | $30
“Claque Pepin Fine is a classic entry level apple brandy from a great producer. It’s what we use for Calvados cocktails. 'Fine' is a category for young Calvados, often aged 2-4 years old, which leads to a brandy that is much more based on fruit and freshness, as such it is a product that does well being balanced in a cocktail or sipped alongside food.” — Collin Moody, Beverage Director of Chicago’s Income Tax bar
Cocchi Americano | $17
“Honestly, it's not hard to come under $30 a bottle for great booze. That being said, I think more people should experiment with vermouth and other aperitif wines at home. With their botanical builds and lower ABV, they are basically a bottled cocktail." — Jacyara de Oliveira, Beverage Director of Chicago’s El Che Bar
Vecchio Amaro del Capo | $21
"I like using a dash of Amaro del Capo in rum and whiskey cocktails. It adds a botanical, peppery pop up front and a velvety, round finish." — Sean McKnight, Bar Manager at Rose's Bar & Grill in Brooklyn
Bache-Gabrielsen Tre Kors | $30
“This is what I keep in my freezer. It's lively and fruity and the texture it gains an opulent texture when frozen.” — Kellie Thorn, Beverage Director of Empire State South in Atlanta
Metaxa Seven Stars Brandy | $24
“Such a cool substitute for brandy or whiskey, this Greek brandy is slightly sweet and has vanilla and raisin notes which add complexity and depth to any cocktail requiring brown spirits.” — Bonnie Wilson, Cocktail Artist Mixologist; Area Manager for Don Sebastiani & Sons Winery; Founder and CEO of BBB Cocktail Creation Services in Dallas
"Cocchi Dopo Teatro” Vermouth Amaro | $19
“The blend of vermouth and amaro is wonderfully herbaceous with deep spices and a round, full texture and a poignant amount of residual sugar on the palate. Good notes of fig, tobacco, cocoa.” — Scott Jenkins, Director of Beverage at HIDE Bar in Dallas
Bonal Gentiane Quina | $19
“Everyone should have a bottle of an aperitif around and this one is my favorite by far. It's bittersweet and grapefruit(y). Great on the rocks or in a martini or Manhattan variation.” — Kirk Estopinal, partner/mixologist at Cane & Table in New Orleans
Marolo Grappa & Camomile (375 ml) | $30
“This is a high-quality grappa made from Nebbiolo grapes and infused with chamomile for nearly a year. It's heady, aromatic and makes an excellent sipping aperitif and, working equally well behind the bar in cocktails. I've used it before as the spirit ingredient in a Hot Toddy, or for a unique take on an Old Fashioned, subbing this grappa out for the whiskey." — Zach Pace, GM and Beverage Director at Black Cat in San Francisco
Grand Poppy Amaro | $30
“Greenbar Distillery’s Grand Poppy Amaro is a California spin on the classic European amari. We love the versatility of the amaro to mix in brighter cocktails. Where many amaris take the more earthy tones, Grand Poppy utilizes bright citrus and floral tones. The application here is endless. Stirred for balance with spicy rye cocktails, great with soda and champagne for the effervescent flavor profile, or a great way to spin a classic cocktail like the Trader Vic’s Mai Tai.” — Ryan Autry, Bar Manager at The Blind Pig (Rancho Santa Margarita, CA)
Misunderstood Ginger Whiskey | $28
“We love to support local businesses, and Misunderstood is based in Jersey City, while the whiskey is made and bottled in Kentucky. This has a genuine ginger taste and is fantastic in cocktails.” — Rowen McDermott, Co-owner of Frankie in Jersey City
Martini & Rossi Riserva Ambrato | $25
"I’m a big fan of Vermouth and sodas with a big wedge of lemon. This particular vermouth is relatively new to the market, and it’s packed with subtle bitter and floral spices that gives it a beautiful exotic flavor in a highball. Works great with soda or tonic water. Also, it’s handy to have a nice bottle of vermouth around the house in case someone brings a good bottle of vodka or gin.” — Conor Myers, Creative Director of Underdog in NYC
Over the past year, we’ve highlighted our favorite new spirits in our weekly Staff Picks. Several of those make for mighty fine additions to your $30 and under spirits cabinet. A few below:
VDKA 6100 (750 ml) | $30
A New Zealand vodka produced from seasonal whey and NZ-sourced spring water. It’s exceptionally smooth, plays well with other ingredients and (most importantly) is really affordable. Robert De Niro is part of the team, but this isn’t a spirit with bite: It’s one that’ll please the masses and the drinking snobs
Old Forester Cocktail Provisions | $7+
A new line of awesome bitters (cherry tobacco, smoked cinnamon, citrus/flora) with an Old Forester bourbon base, plus an Old Fashioned syrup, an oleo-saccharum syrup (to add citrus-y spark) and a bourbon barrel smoked sea salt and black pepper tincture. Grab the syrup and a $20 or so bottle of its namesake bourbon, and you’ve got instant cocktails.
Zirkova | $30
Vodka gets a bad rap. You need at least two bottles anytime people come over — one for martinis, and one for cocktails. Ergo: The new Ukrainian grain vodka Zirkova, available in two expressions. Zirkova One is your James Bond choice, and Zirkova Together is your mixer.
Tullamore D.E.W. Rum Cask Finish | $30
So, not everything tropical works with the Tullamore D.E.W. Rum Cask Finish, but we tried enough of this easy-sippin’ Irish whiskey (finished in former Demerara rum barrels) to appreciate it as a great cocktail mixer. There’s apparently a real history of Irish immigrants in the West Indies, so the heritage is here.
Kerrygold Irish Cream | $20
This can be your dessert. It’s a low-alcohol (17% ABV) chocolate-y liqueur with a whiskey base that sips fine on its own but works best in a cocktail.
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Mr. Black | $30
A cold brew liqueur from Australia, Mr. Black (possibly more of a Simpsons reference than a Reservoir Dogs nod) is produced from 100% Arabica coffees and tastes fantastic neat — honestly, like a good cold brew with a bit more kick. Not syrupy or too sweet, it also makes for some fantastic cocktails, including espresso martinis, coffee Negronis and “White Mike” Russians.
Spiked Seltzer | $16
A slight cheat, but if you want something that’s not wine or beer but certainly less forceful than a spirit, grab a 12-pack of this. Think of Spiked as if LaCroix was boozy. Started in 2012 and only going national last summer (via Anheuser-Busch InBev), this might be the easiest sipper we’ve enjoyed this year — but at a solid 6% ABV, be careful.
Cirrus | $22
Potato vodka tends to be pleasant and less astringent, and this Richmond-based distillery has certainly perfected the smoothness. Surprisingly sippable on its own, Cirrus also makes for a good Moscow Mule — and a great dirty martini.
West 32 Soju | $12
This New York-made soju is aged in first-use American oak barrels, giving the “Korean vodka” a kiss of oak flavor and a delicate color. At 32% ABV, it’s lighter and smoother than whiskey, while still retaining the complexity of a barrel-aged spirit.
House of Suntory | $25+
We know House of Suntory from their Japanese whisky. In their homeland, however, the company has mastered a range of spirits (and non-spirits). Thankfully, we’re finally getting a taste of the boozier non-whiskies now. While we enjoyed Haku Vodka, their Roku Gin is a standout — crafted from six traditional Japanese botanicals (Sakura leaf, Yuzu peel, Sencha tea, etc.) and eight traditional gin botanicals. There’s a bit of pepper in the finish, but overall this is a smooth sipper that worked wonders in cocktails.
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George Dickel Tabasco | $18
Surprisingly smooth and sweet, with the Tabasco heavy on the nose but just adding a tiny kick on the end. Could be good in a whiskey Bloody Mary for your post-party hangover cure.