With so many bottles of booze on the market, it's hard to know where the best value lies. Below, all the usual suspects to stock any bar, with recommendations on quality spirits at the lowest price, in addition to splurge-worthy counterparts.
Steal: Sobieski Polish Vodka ($19): This is the vodka for those who don't need the designer bottles or celebrity spokespeople. It's simply a well-made vodka using top-shelf Dankowski rye, distilled four times. With a smooth and crisp profile, Sobieski is great for mixing in cocktails, but also for sipping neat. Unheard of for bottom-shelf vodka.
Splurge: Beluga Gold Line Noble ($110): Never mind the vodka's fancy packaging, which includes a shot glass and a mini hammer to break the bottle's wax seal. Made with Siberian water and malted grain, Beluga Gold Line Noble is so deluxe that it’s actually designed to pair with caviar.
Steal: Boodles London Dry ($23): A smooth traditional London dry gin with woodsy and spicy notes followed by a clean finish. Boodles' distillers intentionally omitted citrus botanicals, uncharacteristic for this style, allowing the juniper and coriander to shine through. Best in a gin and tonic with a squeeze of lemon or lime.
Splurge: Monkey 47 ($43 for 375ml): When points-obsessed wine critic Robert Parker says this handcrafted dry gin is the best of the best and deserves 100 points, take note. Composed of 47 handpicked ingredients, merely nosing it is like taking a big whiff of the Black Forest in Germany from where its recipe is said to have originated. Expect a mid-palate is a flavor bomb with juniper, citrus, black pepper, and lingonberry (similar to cranberries), plus a long, dry finish. No doubt this will make the best Negroni, but definitely sip the spirit on its own as well.
Steal: Speyburn 10 Year Old Highland Single Malt ($20): It’s easy to find a quality blended scotch at a lower price point, but a decent single malt? This Speyside whiskey is the perfect introductory scotch thanks to its mild sweetness and smooth drinkability.
Splurge: Craigellachie 23 Year Old ($241): In 2014, this was one of four proprietary bottlings from Craigellachie Distillery, which has produced only a handful of official bottle releases in its 124 years. Last year Whisky Advocate named Craigellachie 17 "Speyside of the Year," and this 23-year-old channels an even more complex nose with citrus, tobacco, marzipan, and spices. It tastes of vanilla, sweet fruit, and a lingering but faint smoky finish. Perfect for those who want to try something other than scotch stalwarts, The Macallan and The Balvenie, for a change.
Steal: Four Roses Yellow Label ($15): Four Roses’ entry-level bourbon stands out when compared to other similar priced bourbons not only for its smoothness. Four Roses took gold for the 2014 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the 2009 International Wine & Spirits Competition. It's the only one of Four Roses' whiskies that is made from 10 bourbon formulas. Thanks to its approachable honey and spice flavors and soft, smooth finish, this is the perfect intro bourbon.
Splurge: Elijah Craig 23 ($300-$400): Everyone that is chasing Pappy and spending way too much for it is missing out on this limited-edition single barrel from Heaven Hill Distillery, which wears its age well. Instead of an overwhelming amount of oak from over two decades in a new charred white oak barrel, vanilla and baking spice come forward while the oak merely lurks. That’s thanks to barrels which live in more moderate temperatures on the middle floors of rickhouses.
Steal: El Dorado 8 Year Old Cask Aged ($14): This aged amber rum is a blend of other aged rums, including four distilled from 200-year-old stills. Fun fact: One of the stills is the Wooden Coffey Still, the last working example of its kind. Rum geeks love that. The rum is complex and full flavored, tasting of vanilla, tobacco, and cinnamon. Rich enough to ruminate over neat, but also perfect in a rum and Coke.
Splurge: Havana Club "Blue Label" Selección de Maestros ($60-$75): The fact that drinking Cuban rum is now legal again isn't the only reason this a compelling pick for connoisseurs. Havana Club is also produced via a unique process. Master rum-makers select the best aged rums, blend and age them, get together and select the best rums from that batch, blend them one final time, and bottle that. It's triple barreled! Definitely a sipper, this one.
Steal: Cimarron Blanco ($16 for one liter): Made by Tequilero Enrique Fonseca, one of Mexico’s largest agave growers, this 100-percent agave tequila possesses a clean, fresh taste and no hint of the astringency or burn one normally finds in bad tequila. Go ahead and sip it neat or mix it in a Paloma.
Splurge: Casa Dragones Blanco ($68): The more wallet-friendly follow-up to Casa Dragones' $275 sipping joven tequila is made specifically for mixing in cocktails. Bertha González Nieves, Casa Dragones co-founder and the first woman to be certified as a maestra tequilera, hand-selects only the sweetest pinas of blue agave for this blanco expression. Throw in fresh spring water filtered from Tequila Volcano and the result is a crystal-clear, smooth tequila with a clean finish. Oprah disciples will recognize this one from her 2014 Favorites List.
Steal: El Silencio Black Bottle ($30): Thirty dollars is the lowest one can go in mezcals before dipping down into worm-in-the-bottle territory. And just because this is El Silencio’s entry-level mezcal doesn’t mean the quality isn’t on par with its top shelf offerings. This one is still made from 100-percent Espadin agave, roasted in stone pits, ground by stone, and distilled in copper stills. The flavors are softer and more approachable than upper tier mezcals, making it more conducive to experimentation.
Splurge: Del Maguey Iberico ($200): An alternative to the traditional pechuga mezcal, also known as mezcal distilled with chicken. A collaboration between Del Maguey founder Ron Cooper and chef Jose Andres (minibar, D.C.), this unique meaty mezcal is made by suspending a piece of pricey ibérico de bellota ham (from free-range, acorn-eating, black-footed Ibérico pigs) in place of chicken during the third and slowest distillation. It’s not as bacon-y as one would assume, but there's discernible salinity, umami and a heartier flavor as compared to chicken. Cooper himself usually doesn’t like picking favorites from his line, but this one is it.
Steal: Legendre Herbsaint Original Liqueur ($35): After Prohibition in New Orleans, a former apothecary J. Marion Legendre created his own wormwood-free absinthe alternative. Because of the spirit's ban in the early 1900s, Legendre called his formula "herb saint," similar to the French pronunciation of absinthe. This Legendre Herbsaint Original Liqueur is liquor maker Sazerac Company's reproduction of the apothecary's 1934 recipe. But, it's not actual absinthe. There really is no such thing as a cheap absinthe. However, it's the perfect stand-in for any cocktail that calls for a touch of the Green Fairy.
Splurge: Nouvelle-Orleans Supérieure ($125): This absinthe is history in a bottle. New Orleans native and master absinthe distiller T.A. Breaux replicated a 19th century absinthe using the original Swiss method, meaning no artificial sweeteners, flavors, or colors added. The French eau de vie is distilled in 130-year-old copper absinthe stills located in the Loire Valley. It's pre-ban, pre-Van Gogh's ear absinthe. The light green elixir possesses complex and delicate flavors, inclusive of characteristic anise with other herbaceous notes and surprisingly minimal burn considering it's 124 proof.