Theoretically, finding good gin that doesn't cost an arm and a leg should not be difficult. After all, gin is a simple thing to produce. (Need a reminder about how gin is made?) You start with neutral grain spirits, which many distilleries just buy inexpensively from other producer, and then you add your juniper, your citrus, and whatever other flavorings you like to it. Buy those ingredients in enough bulk, and they're pretty inexpensive, too. So if gin is so cheap and easy to make, why is so darned expensive?!
You can do well with rum under $20, and there's tasty affordable tequila, too. Heck, I mean, you can find very many great bottles of bourbon and rye for less than $20, even though whiskey makers are at a disadvantage. Unlike gin, whiskey needs to be barrel-aged before release, meaning that distillers sit on their stock for years and don't earn a buck on it, and yet they still make great stuff for under $20. C'mon, gin, you can do this. What's holding you back?
Perhaps it's about making appearances. Cheap gin calls to mind images of disheveled, broken folks shambling to the flophouse. People grimace at the idea of 'bathtub gin' that wasn't poured from a beveled-glass bottle with a shiny label. So while we can happily find a good bottle of bourbon for twelve bucks or ten or even eight on sale, it's startlingly difficult to find good gin for less than $20. I know—this month, I scoured and I searched and I hunted, and I tried 15 of 'em.
Here are the best gins that'll run you less than an Andrew Jackson.
Seagram's Extra Dry (80 proof; $12/750 mL)
I have to admit, I was surprised by how much I liked the classic Seagram's in the bumpy bottle. (When I worked in a liquor store many years ago, a kind older man came in nearly every day, asking for "Old Bumpy." I've always thought of it that way since.)
Seagram's opens with a piney smell, with some citrus and a hint of rubbing alcohol. Luckily, that rubbing alcohol doesn't carry over into the flavor, which has ample citrus and juniper notes. Seagram's tastes fresh and mildly sweet and has a creamy texture.
How to drink it: Seagram's makes a very nice gin and tonic or gimlet, and it plays well in gin cocktails that call for citrus, such as a Gin Daisy or an Aviation. If you're trying it in a martini, be careful with the vermouth: this 80-proofer will need less vermouth than, say, a gin at 94-proof. It's not quite assertive enough to make a good Negroni—it gets lost between the Campari and the vermouth.
Seagram's Distiller's Reserve (94 proof; $16/750 mL)
Seagram's Distiller's Reserve is actually an aged gin, reportedly seeing about six months in oak barrels. We've seen several aged gins come to market lately, but Seagram's has been doing it for years. I'm glad I tried it; this tastes likes a drier, pinier version of the classic Seagram's. It has a smooth and creamy texture, and tastes less citrusy and more spicy than the Extra Dry. The Distiller's Reserve has flavors of clove and peppercorn.
How to drink it: I'd happily use this in a martini, with my favored ratio of 4 parts gin to 1 part vermouth. It's also right at home in a G&T and a Negroni.
Burnett's (80 proof; $12/750 mL)
Burnett's smells like gin should, with pine and citrus aromas and a surprisingly floral side. The flavor is fresh, piney, and citrusy, with a mild and pleasant salinity. The finish lingers, though the gin's astringency really dried out my mouth, and that alone might be too much for some drinkers. Sadly, it's not that easy to find where I live.
How to drink it: Mix Burnett's into something citrusy (or a good ol' G&T), and avoid the martini; this gin isn't quite assertive enough for that drink. A fifth of gin works out to about 12 G&Ts per bottle of gin, and at 12 bucks a bottle, that's a one-buck G&T, which is economics even I can understand!
New Amsterdam Straight (80 proof; $12/750 mL)
New Amsterdam is not your standard gin. It's designed to be especially smooth, creamy, and citrusy, meant to appeal to people who are new to gin. And to be sure, it smells mostly lemony, with no pine aromas. The flavor is mostly orange and lemon, with very little juniper punch.
I know people who deride the so-called New Western Gin subcategory because it downplays juniper in favor of other flavors. While I understand this opinion, I don't share it. I like citrusy gins sometimes, and New Amsterdam provides a great example of the style without the sky-high prices that other New Westerns demand.
How to drink it: Again, not one for a traditionally prepared martini, though I'll admit, I've had this freezer-cold, sans vermouth, and liked it. Go fruity with New Amsterdam: rickeys, gimlets, sours, daisies, and so on.
Gilbey's (80 proof; $14/1 L)
From New Amsterdam's sleek modernism, we swing back into Victorian England for Gilbey's, a good classic London dry at a compelling price point. It opens with a faint smell of pine. The pine continues into the sip, which also tastes somewhat of citrus. Gilbey's has a mild acidity and finishes with just a bit of heat from the alcohol.
How to drink it: Thanks to its classic London dry profile, I like this in a martini and also a Negroni, though it would also work in citrusy cocktails, such as gimlets, sours, and fizzes. It's neither the biggest nor most complex gin available, but it's surprisingly good for a $14 liter.
Honorable Mention: Lord Astor (80 proof; $15/1 L)
For the price, this gin is excellent. It starts with a light piney smell, and tastes creamy, piney, lemony, mellow, and smooth. Astor Wines and Spirits in New York City bottles this as a house brand, stating they wanted a classic London Dry that didn't carry the mark-ups of premium gin brands. I'd recommend this to anyone wanting a classic London-style gin. My only regret is the proof. I'd pay $15 for a smaller bottle if only they'd bottle it at 94 proof. Then it would be a stellar martini gin.
How to drink it: Martini, baby. Just be sure to calibrate the vermouth properly so your drink retains its proper crisp dryness.
Why honorable mention? It's only available at Astor Wines, and they won't ship it out of state. In fact, they'll only ship to Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn.
Have a Little Extra to Spend?
If your budget goes up to $25 for a bottle, you open another world of ginny joy. The few extra bucks buy you more pronounced juniper notes, better balance with other flavors, and almost consistently, higher proof, which, in my mind, makes for a better martini. (If you use a lower-proof bottling, you might want to cut back a little on the vermouth, but I find that a higher-proof gin tastes better with more vermouth to pair up with it.)
What can you find with your extra dollars?
Broker's ($22 for 750 mL) clocks in at 94 proof, and smells of juniper and citrus and peppercorn. It tastes fresh, piney, lemony, and herbal, with mild cinnamon and cardamom flavors. The spices are more pronounced in Broker's than in nearly all of the less expensive gins, and I find that these flavors are worth paying extra for.
Bombay ($21/750 mL)—the original, not the Sapphire—is the model of a classic London Dry, 86 proof, junipery and mildly astringent, with peppercorn and citrus and earthy spices. My only complaint is that too many stores only stock the Sapphire, which I find too soft and floral for martinis, Negronis, and even for citrusy cocktails (though the Sapphire makes a good G&T, I must say).
Beefeater ($23/750 mL) is 94 proof and another nearly perfect London Dry. The flavor is delightfully big on juniper, with a creamy texture and piney, citrusy scent. It burns a little, but I like that, and it ends on clove and citrus flavors. It also carries delicate spicy notes from the other botanicals in the mix—subtleties that cheaper gins lack—and it doesn't have the off flavors that characterize some cheaper bottles.
Others? Oh, there are others. Boodles and Bulldog are both great in the under-$25 market. Citadelle is sometimes available at this price point, though you may be only able to find it for closer to $30. Tanqueray always seems to clock in at $26 or $27 where I shop, which is why I prefer Beefeater.
Generally speaking, I think every gin in the $20-25 range could knock its prices back by a few bucks, but they're clearly up-marketing themselves, perhaps to avoid the flophouse reputation. Luckily, I have a few great bargain bottles that will keep me out of the flophouse.
Note: Burnett's Gin provided as tasting sample for review consideration.