1. Rye Whiskey: Rittenhouse bonded, 100 proof ($19)
Rye was once seen as a grandfatherly kind of drink, and admittedly where the kids are concerned it’s no match for elaborately packaged spirits hawked by hip-hop stars, but it offers great flavor at a steal. Spirits enthusiasts and bartenders praise Rittenhouse for the spicy, peppery bite that makes it perfect in a Manhattan, Sazerac, or Old Fashioned; it’s also great for sipping with an ice cube or two.
2. Vodka: Smirnoff no.21 ($12.99)
In a vodka market brimming with gimmicky marketing and countless fruit infusions, it’s easy to overlook that tried-and-true red label in your local liquor store. Fact is, Smirnoff consistently beats its much pricier competitors in blind vodka tastings. As a triple-distilled, 80-proof spirit, Smirnoff possesses the kind of light, pure, clean flavor (which is to say: no flavor at all) that lends itself well to mixing in cocktails or drinking chilled, straight out of the freezer, Russian-style.
3. Bourbon: Elijah Craig 12yr. ($18)
Most long-aged bourbons (more than six or seven years) start to get a little pricey: It takes the distillery longer to produce them and therefore longer to see a profit, and more is lost in the “angel’s share” (the whiskey that evaporates as the spirit matures). So to find a bottle like Heaven Hill Distillery’s Elijah Craig—a 12-year-old single barrel bourbon with a wonderfully rich, woody aroma filled with maple and a little smoke—for less than $20 is a steal.
4. Single Malt Scotch: Speyburn 10 year ($20)
Like aged bourbons, single malts tend to be an investment. This slightly fruity Highland whisky, with its delicate hint of peat, is a welcome exception to the rule.
5. Rum: Bacardi 8 year ($19.99)
It’s not difficult to find a delicious rum for a bargain...if you happen to be in the Caribbean. Should you be hesitant to book a plane ticket just for a drink, things get a little trickier. Bacardi 8, aged at eight years in oak barrels, is the company’s entry into the aged rum market, and for the price, it’s difficult to beat. I’m not much for drinking rum straight, but the flavors of wood and vanilla in Bacardi 8, combined with a sweetness that was far from cloying, had me daydreaming of sandy St. Maarten beaches in no time.
6. Gin: Beefeater London Gin ($22)
Today, a number of gins are gaining notice for their incorporation of esoteric botanicals and other unusual ingredients (Hendrick’s use of rose petals comes to mind). Innovation is a wonderful thing, but sometimes you just can’t beat the classics. Beefeater has that quintessential London dryness, with a sharp bite and a finishing note of juniper that make it perfect in a Martini or mixed with tonic.
7. Tequila: 30-30 Reposado ($25)
There are some wonderful things happening in the tequila world lately, now that now that demand for the high-end stuff has taken off. But the increase in quality has resulted in an increase in price, so it takes some hunting to find an affordable sipping tequila. The 30-30 Reposado, a lightly aged añejo tequila, fits that bill, offering notes of apricot, oak, and that distinctive agave tang. It’s great for drinking on its own or with a splash of fresh lime and orange juice for a refreshing summer cocktail.
8. Brandy: E&J XO ($19.99)
You don’t have to be Rich Uncle Pennybags to enjoy a decent brandy. E&J might not be Remy Martin, but the XO (“extra old”) is a clear step up from the more common V.S.O.P., and it makes for an enjoyable digestif or night-cap: surprisingly mellow, with a lovely but not overpowering sweetness and a long caramel finish common to brandies at twice this price.