Drinking the Bottom Shelf

Will Gordon drinks his way through the bottom shelf of the liquor store...so you don’t have to.

Bottom Shelf, Halloween Edition: The 6 Scariest Things at Your Liquor Store

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As part of Serious Eats' Halloween coverage, the boss asked me to write about a few spirits that I find especially haunting. This presented something of a challenge, for I am, you see, a professional ingester of trashy alcohols. I am also a recreational ingester of trashy alcohols, because the profession pays more than it should but less than a top-shelf bar tab.

I've been writing the Bottom Shelf for less than a year, but I've been preparing for it my entire adult life. I've become pretty well desensitized to the shudders and whimpers that can accompany bouts with fortified wines, flavored vodkas, 99-cent schnappses, and the like. I feel the pain like any other mortal, but I'm not deterred by it. I don't even consider something "bum wine" anymore unless it was fermented using actual bum parts.

This doesn't mean I enjoy drinking these things, however. In fact, I only agreed to write this post on the condition that it be the first half of a time-lapse holiday double feature. Check back in February for my Valentine's Day list of boozes I love. It will feature all sorts of high-end things like wine with corks and beer with hops and bourbon from glass bottles. But until then, let's get on with some of the few remaining alcoholic beverages that can still put a quake in a dedicated Bottom Shelfer's boots.

Old Thompson American Whiskey

I used to give nips of this as holiday bonuses to my street buddy Sammy, who had several birthdays a year and a high tolerance for low-living. I'd never tried it myself until researching this story, because even though I'm okay with most cheap whiskey and realize there are plenty of other things to share the blame for Sammy's, um, alternative lifestyle, I can't shake the association that drinking Old Thompson leads inexorably to eviction from the YMCA flop house for lighting your bed on fire too many times. And isn't it a nifty bit of symmetry that this stuff smells like a flop house mattress and tastes like fire? Fears confirmed. Avoid the OT.

Fighting Cock Bourbon

The scary things about this stuff are that it's 103 proof and has a really stupid name. One of my bigger fears is that I can listen to all the NPR I want and work my library card till it snaps in half, but I'll still always be a meathead. You know, the sort of dummy attracted to a whiskey called Fighting Cock that boasts of being "the bad boy of Bourbon."

In addition to the name, the high proof is intimidating, but I must admit this is a rare instance in the world of cheap bourbon where the alleged six years of aging seems to have smoothed things out. The Cock pours a thick dark amber and tastes like undamaged grain, with a little bit of orange on the last kick. You ain't so bad, Fighting Cock. But don't worry, I'm not going so far as to accuse you of being good.

Bacardi Arctic Grape Rum

This one's terrifying because Drinks Editor Maggie suggested it, and her thought process in such matters is generally, "Oh look, a press release for something that sounds repulsive. I'll make Will drink it!" Other spooky elements: the bat logo and the promise of "white grapes infused with Arctic berry." What kind of berries do they grow in the Arctic? Sounds more like a off-brand deodorant scent than a plausible rum flavor.

It smells like standard fake grape and tastes like it's going to be puked onto a lot of prom dresses. Pretty sticky for 70 proof. Beware.

Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey

I'm afraid of this because it reminds me of my mother, who loved Jack Daniel's despite bearing no other resemblance to Merle Haggard or the devil. Mom was a sweet lady but also a scary one, and I hate Jack Daniel's. The honey makes it all the spookier, because it's a blatant attempt to trick you into drinking poison.

Plus honey comes from bees, and what's scarier than a bee? Maybe only a bear, and bears are attracted to honey. Get me out of here! (This actually tastes pretty good, though. It's smooth and sweet and 70 proof, and if I ever accidentally end up owning the Jack Daniel's distillery, this will be my drink.)

Ursus Punch Flavored Vodka

We've already covered how frightening bears and flavored vodkas are, so our roundup wouldn't be complete without a 60-proof bright-red flavored vodka with a beary name and three polar bears on the label. This smells like Hawaiian Punch—which is pretty nice—and doesn't taste much different. Man, those sneaky vodka bears are getting dangerously proficient at masking the alcohol.

Mike's Harder Fruit Punch

This 23.5-ounce can of 8 percent ABV "adult malt beverage" has a giant fist looming over the words "harder" and "punch." Yikes! Scarier still, the can says, "Mike's is hard. So is prison. Don't drink until you're 21." So apparently Mike is authorized to incarcerate you for a misdemeanor?

Let's all steer clear of this menace.

About the author: Will Gordon loves life and hates mayonnaise. You can drink with him in Boston or follow him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.

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