Ask A Bartender: Good Substitutes for Expensive Spirits

affordable substitutes for cocktail making

Are more expensive spirits usually better than the bottom-shelf stuff? Sure. But price doesn't always indicate true quality, and sometimes, we just don't have the budget for lots of fancy spirits. We asked bartenders around the country: Which bottles do you find great substitutes for more expensive ingredients?

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Chris Burkett of Cusp Dining & Drinks in San Diego

"Instead of getting a $300 dollar bottle of high-end single malt Scotch, I'd rather do Sheep Dip, which is a nice single malt blended Scotch and runs at a fair price. For cocktails, I'd say Beefeater gin is one of my favorites: great quality at a great price and it has the body and balance to shine in any cocktail you want to create with it." — Chris Burkett (Cusp Dining & Drinks)

"I call Dolin Genepy 'nice Chartreuse.' It's not a true substitute by any means, but the flavor profile is similar yet less boozy. Chartreuse packs a mean punch, while the Genepy is like a nice hug." — Claire Sprouse (The Square)

"When mixing vodka I prefer Tito's Handmade. It's a far better product than Grey Goose at a fraction of the cost." — Phil Wills (Dog Haus Biergarten)

"The dirtiest secret? If your recipe calls for any large amount of acid (i.e. lemon, lime), you're more in the booze balancing game then bringing out the flavor profile of X liquor. Spend the money for spirits you drink straight, but margaritas get Corralejo, tops." — Dan Bronson (Crescent & Vine)

"Most of the 'top shelf' liquors you see advertised are good spirits. Not great spirits. Try a few that you haven't heard of. Cazadores Reposado is a great tequila at a great price, and I prefer it to 'the big boys' (Patron, Don Julio, etc)." — Dan Andruss (312 Chicago)

"I really enjoy the Marie Brizard line for cordials. They make a great orange curaçao that is extremely affordable." — Nate Howell (Jsix)

"It isn't as fashionable as some, but for the money I really enjoy Jim Beam rye. It's great for any type of whiskey sour cocktail." — Ben Anderson (The Corner Office)

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Elizabeth Powell of Liberty Bar in Seattle

"Someone is going  to hate me for this, but for the vodka drinker out there, don't fall for the 'luxury' label on a bottle. Stick with a solid brand like Smirnoff and make it your well for almost every single drink you'll make with vodka." — Elizabeth Powell (Liberty Bar)

"Right now, my personal favorite is Old Grand-Dad bourbon. You can find it for around $15 a bottle. It's 100 proof, bottled in bond, and just awesome. It's cheap, it's high proof, it has a high rye content in its mash, and has an amazing kick to it. It's fantastic in Boulevardiers (bourbon negronis), Manhattans, and just for mixing with soda or ginger ale in general. It has a lot of oak notes, rye, some sweet vanilla, and otherwise it's pretty simple. The bourbon cuts through and is high proof enough to stand out without being too expensive." — Riley Perrin (The Patterson House)

"Giffard's Curaçao Triple Sec is an easy and affordable swap for Cointreau. It has the same bright, bitter sweet characteristics as Cointreau without breaking the bank." — Jamie Buckman (Bookstore Bar & Café)

"The 86 Co. does some outstanding spirits at an affordable price—Ford's gin is amazing. Price does not always denote quality!" — Rodger Gillespie (LAVO Las Vegas)

"Using an inexpensive blended Scotch like Ballantine or Famous Grouse and adding a quarter-ounce of an Islay Scotch like Laphroaig is how bartenders mix great Scotch cocktails. You get the smoky peat aroma from the Islay single-malt, and the blended Scotch mixes well with the rest of the drink." — Kyle Storm (French Louie)

"There's been a big boom in rye whiskey as of late, but as far as most rye cocktails go, I typically prefer Old Overholt, Wild Turkey rye, and Rittenhouse to all the expensive new stuff. I don't think I'm alone here." — Steve Yamada (Bar R'evolution)

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Juan Sevilla of Soho House West Hollywood [photo: Creel Films]

"Buffalo Trace is a great inexpensive bourbon." — Juan Sevilla (Soho House West Hollywood)

"Though the price of agave has gone through the roof, you can definitely grab a decent tequila in the $20-30 range. For cocktails I recommend a tequila blanco such as Calle 23." — Marcos Tello (Liquid Assets)

"Instead of Ketel One I use polish Wodka vodka, another awesome wheat-based vodka." — Arunas Bruzas (Acadia)

"Evan Williams is my favorite inexpensive go-to bourbon. I serve it in place of Jack Daniels frequently." — Derrick Bass (Willie Jane)

"I love Tequila Chamucos rather than Patron, because it is very affordable and is a smaller company that has a lot of character in its tequila. I love the their reposado; it is awesome in making margaritas and Palomas." — Jessica Stafford (Flour & Barley)

"Everyone needs a bourbon at home, so for your everyday drinking snag Old Fitzgerald Prime. It is a wheated bourbon like Maker's or Weller, so it comes across a little sweater in character, but it still mixes great or sips smooth on the rocks." — David Kinsey (Sycamore Den)

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Jonathan Harris of Firefly in DC

"One of the best cost-saving ideas is making homemade bison-grass vodka. Instead of buying the vodka, you can buy a bisongrass braid for less than $10. You only need a little bit of the grass to get the effect, so one braid can make a couple of cases of bisongrass vodka." — Jon Harris (Firefly)

"I'm a huge fan of Armagnac. I would love to see more Armagnac in place of Cognac in some cocktails. You can buy an 8 year old Assemblage (blend) from Darroze for $25-30 and use that in place of an expensive Cognac." — Brian Means (Dirty Habit)

"Old Forester Whiskey: it's been around since 1870 and has great history. It's a great choice for any bourbon based cocktail." — Allyson Harding (Boca)

"Weller Bourbon. It's priced very well. And for those Pappy Van Winkle seekers, you would be pleased to know this Weller bourbon has connections to the coveted brand. Although a fresher-style bourbon, it has the right amount of structure and citrus notes to make it a formidable base in shaken cocktails." — Young Won (Rialto)

"Espolon Blanco is the best mixing tequila I've found and priced in low twenties. It has a sweet floral and tropical nose with a really clean and clear body. 100% blue agave silver tequilas are great for cocktail making." — Terence Lewis ( Barbuzzo, et al.)

"A fantastically flavourful herbal liquor, Chartreuse, is essential for several classic cocktails, and a number of modern ones benefit from the addition of this intense Carthusian elixer, but many of us find it hard to reach for the $60+ bottle for everyday sipping—luckily those wacky alpine monks didn't corner the market when they nailed their fantastic secret recipe. Two outstanding stand-ins for this herbal are the French Dolin Genepy des Alps and the Italian Liquore Strega." — Dave Porcaro (Bigalora Wood Fired Grill)

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