Serious Eats: Drinks

Best of the Bottom Shelf: Will Gordon's Top Cheap Booze 2012

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[Photograph: plastic drinking cups on Shutterstock]

It was a pretty fair year here on the Bottom Shelf. As I looked through the archives, I found far more (relative) hits than misses. This could be because I burned through most of the truly disgusting novelty stuff in 2011, and it could be because my tongue has been slapped so silly by this job that I can no longer tell right from wrong. But let's say it's because cheap liquor quality is trending upward, and 2013's going to be The Year of the Drinkable Malt Liquor. At any rate, these are some of my fondest memories of another year trolling the depths.

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Crabbies Alcoholic Ginger Beer might have been my favorite new drink of 2012. It's very highly carbonated and smells and tastes overwhelmingly of ginger. The label recommends serving it with a slice of lemon or lime, but ginger's one of my favorite foods so I prefer to take my Crabbie's straight. It's sweet but not overly so, and the 4.8% alcohol is dangerously well integrated. I don't know that I could pick this out as the adult beverage if it were slipped into a tasting of nonalcoholic ginger beers: It doesn't taste like ginger beer with alcohol added; it tastes like a better version of ginger beer. Drink it straight from the bottle or mix it with dark rum.

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Beer 30 Light has a distinctive metallic fruitiness that isn't as off-putting as it sounds; it enables Beer 30 Light to fake a fresh cleanliness not often found in beers that come from Cincinnati wearing purple aluminum, much less those that throw themselves around for $13 per 30 pack. In fact, I would pay $19 for 30 of these, which makes Beer 30 Light a very good deal.

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Toro Azul Reposado is aged for 11 months in American oak, which makes it nearly an anejo (tequila only has to sit for 60 days to jump from blanco to reposado), though it's no darker than your average reposado. I love the smell, which is fruitier than any tequila I've encountered. I've seen it described as "honeyed pineapple, roasted fennel, and sweet potatoes." I concur on the honey and pineapple, and you could talk me into the fennel. The taste is a bit sharper than expected, but there's no burning and none of the sweaty compost funk I associate with cheap tequila. This is an unusual drink, much sweeter than its peers, and that may not be to everyone's taste and it could throw off your cocktail recipes. But for sipping straight from the jug, it's hard to beat a $13 bottle of Toro Azul Reposado.

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Booth's London Dry Gin is fantastic booze for the money. It opens with the standard onslaught of juniper, with other traditional herbs and spices showing up later--predominantly coriander and lemon peel, plus a small dose of mint. If you're looking for a specific flavor profile, then by all means pay more for a Hendrick's or an Aviation (two of my favorite off-beat gins) or what have you, but if you're in the market for a classic "-and tonic" London dry, I'm not sure you can beat Booth's combination of purity and price.

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McAfee's Benchmark Bourbon is both less stingy and less sting-y than most 80-proofers in its price range. There are strong notes of honey and vanilla on the nose, with a little bit of sour orange and wheat joining the mouth party. This is the rare budget bourbon good enough to drink neat, and it's perfect in a Drambuie-spiked whiskey sour.

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Jim Beam Rye was a pleasant surprise. I avoided it for years because I don't care for Beam's bourbon, but the rye is quite all right. It's very rye-like in its spicy pepper nose, and while it's not very complex, it opens with a light sweet orange note before the spice reasserts itself for the follow-through.

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Canadian Mist Blended Whiskey has a gentle aroma of sweet citrus perfume, light and floral without any sting. The flavor is unique in my experience with blended Canadian whiskies, which tend to replace the generic vanilla-caramel blandness of cheap American whiskey with a sugary-yet-acrid tire-fire element clearly intended to scare the Yanks away.

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Indio, an amber lager that's been big in Mexico for over a hundred years, is just now inching its way north via Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and a lot of Texas. Indio is pretty good stuff and I expect that you'll all be able to get it soon enough. It's not as flavorful as the copper color tries to make you think, but it's got a heck of a lot more going on than most Mexican beers I've tried. The predominant flavor is sweet caramel, with a little bit of toasted malt and some faint hay business at the end.

About the author: Will Gordon loves life and has made peace with mayonnaise. You can eat and drink with him in Boston or follow him on twitter @WillGordonAgain.

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