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The Top of the Bottom Shelf: Best Cheap Booze 2011

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I couldn't make it to Serious Eats headquarters for the cookie swap party, but I was able to attend the holiday party thrown by my other employer. The almost-dive bar where I check IDs on the weekends held its annual Bad Decision Gala last Monday, and Secret Santa was good enough to bring me the usual: a 6-pack of tube socks and a bottle of deluxe bourbon.

Ever have Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve for lunch the day after a holiday party, then go Christmas shopping? Your girlfriend will not be impressed when she comes home that night to find you too spirited to work the pillows, but she'll be plenty pleased on Christmas morning, because damned if that special Knob doesn't make a man feel like a several dozenaire. But if I want to keep her fancy new coffee mug set out of the pawn shop, I'll need to make a hasty return to my Bottom Shelf roots. With that in mind, I took a spin through the last 12 months of cheap drinks to select the 7 finest bottles that barely any money can buy.

Hiram Walker Original Cinn:

This cinnamon schnapps is a really good value at $10 per 750mL. It's 90 proof, but tastes much gentler than that—I'd have pegged it at about 50—so I'll probably drink it straight. But if your delicate palate finds it to be a little too much like pie-spiced fire, you can water it down with vodka.
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Lady Bligh Spiced Rum:

This lone girl-pirate entry into the crowded field of Captain Morgan's imitators is half the price of the leading brand (about $13 per 750mL) and tastes a bit better. The rums share the same basic flavor profile, but the good Lady replaces the Captain's boozy, burny throat tickle with a hint of smooth cream soda.
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Agavales 100% Agave Gold Tequila:

This is nothing luxurious by any means—it is, after all, gold tequila, which means unaged and food-colored—but it has a distinctive aroma of black pepper and pineapple, with none of that pukey second-wave smell you get from other tequilas in its price range. It's a touch hot in the mouth, maybe even two touches hot, but it's still the smoothest tequila I've ever found for under $25, never mind half of $25.
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Cruzan Black Strap Rum:

This is the most interesting $14 bottle I've had all year. It's as molasses-y as all get out, as the name demands, but that's cut with coffee/Kahlua, cinnamon, floral, and clove notes that are at once impressive and confusing. If you take your dark and stormies very seriously and very specifically, this might not be the right rum for the job, but I assure you that all reasonable people will find some job for Cruzan Black Strap to do.
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Andre Blush California Pink Champagne:

I don't know how this gets away with calling itself "California Champagne," but that's none of my business. All I care about is that it costs $5.99, tastes like nothing much and therefore nothing bad, and keeps on bubbling for at least seven minutes after you pour a pint. It's too sweet, but much less so than I'd feared, and it has a faintly grapey character that defied my eyes' watermelon expectations.
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Old Crow Reserve:

Old Crow is my favorite cheap bourbon; the new Reserve is treated to an extra year in the barrel and an extra 6 proof. It tastes like a bolder Old Crow that still knows its place, which is to say it's proud bottom-shelf royalty rather than an overly ambitious knock-off of the good stuff. The Reserve has the quick and sweet caramel character of classic Old Crow, augmented with cinnamon and something darker and almost fruity. Most reviews call Old Crow Reserve good for mixing, but in my house it's considered great for drinking.
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Clan MacGregor Scotch Whisky:

For financial and jingoistic reasons, I stick mostly to bourbon when it comes to the browns, but when I took my own wallet on an exotic vacation to the Scottish section of the liquor store, I was pleasantly surprised by Clan MacGregor. It's a cheap blend and therefore more grainy than malty, but it's still got those weird fetid tobacco notes I identify with expensive Scotch on another man's dime, plus maybe even a little maple syrup.
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