Summertime presents an interesting quandary for the spirit-lover. Putting high-quality booze in fruity, fizzy cocktails is an expensive option, and doing so means you lose those high-end bottles' subtleties. But sullying a cocktail with bottom-shelf dreck, even a cocktail laden with fruit juice and crushed ice, can pretty much ruin it. Fortunately, you don't always have to sacrifice quality for affordability. There's plenty of top-shelf quality liquor at reasonable prices—we're calling $25 and under "reasonable"—that will help you up your cocktail game. Buying better ingredients helps make better drinks, after all. And in the fall, if you have any leftovers, they'll really shine in spirit-forward cocktails. It's an investment in deliciousness that won't cost you an arm and a leg.
Here are our favorite brands in the $25-and-under spectrum, covering all the booze you'll need to make your favorite summertime classics, from gin and tonics to juleps to margaritas and beyond. Sure, you can go cheaper, but if these are drinks you're going to make for yourself and your friends, why would you want to?
Gin: Boodles (about $25)
It has a silly-sounding name, sure, but Boodles is for serious gin drinkers. It's been in production since the 1840s, and Winston Churchill and Ian Fleming are among the many notable Brits who've enjoyed a tipple of Boodles over the years. It's a classic-styled London Dry gin, with juniper up front and a pleasant dry spice in the supporting role. Since there's no citrus in the botanical mix, it has quite an herbal flavor. And that's a good thing; when you're making a Tom Collins or a Singapore Sling, drinks which already have fruit juice in them, the Boodles stands out more than gins with orange or lime flavors.
It also makes a killer gin and tonic (especially when paired with a sweeter tonic like Stirrings), and an excellent martini at the end of a long day on the beach. It's one of the best gins around—and at $25 for a 750 ml bottle, it's $5 to 10 less than most other quality brands like Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray.
White Rum: Caliche (about $25)
Caliche actually tries to market itself as an upscale (read: expensive) white rum, and indeed, a lot of other brands can be had in the $10 to 15 range. But in this case, you get what you pay for, and the price is still quite reasonable. Caliche is aged for three to five years -- longer than most other white rums -- and also contains a small amount of solera-aged rum, which is a mix of young and very old rums. It's then charcoal filtered to remove color. All that time spent in wood gives Caliche a depth of flavor you won't find in standard white rums. It's a rum in the classic Puerto Rican style, dry and crisp, which is perfect to rein in the sugary, juice-heavy cocktails of summer. It lets the mint come through loud and clear in a mojito, and it makes an absolutely amazing daiquiri. If you're feeling ambitious, it's excellent in a Mai Tai or a Planter's Punch, too.
Dark Rum: Plantation Original Dark (about $18)
One sip of this stuff and you'll wonder why it costs so little. Try a couple of cocktails with it and you'll stop caring. Original Dark is far closer to a sophisticated sipping rum than your typical bottom-shelf brands. Distilled in Trinidad and Tobago, it's aged for three to five years and then blended with an eight-year-old rum. That blend is further aged for about 12 to 18 months in French oak barrels that have previously held cognac.
Original Dark is rich and velvety from all that time spent in wood; think of a five year old rum as the equivalent of a 12 year old single malt, as warm Caribbean temperatures accelerate the aging process. It also picks up fruity notes from those cognac barrels, along with cinnamon spice and oodles of butterscotch and chocolate notes. It's fantastic for just about any cocktail that calls for dark rum—Mai Tai, Navy Grog, Ancient Mariner, or Zombie Punch, to name just a few—but it also has enough earthy funk to make a good rum Old Fashioned, too. Oh, and did I mention it's less than $20?
Vodka: Smirnoff (about $13)
Smirnoff isn't the most thrilling vodka in the world. It's an old standby, a brand that's been around forever (since the 1930s, anyway) and it's the best selling vodka in the world. Its hip factor may be zero, but a lot of people buy this stuff for two reasons—it's cheap and it tastes good, though not necessarily in that order. Distilled from corn, it has a clean, slightly spicy flavor with just a hint of lemon. It's quite smooth, and it goes down with a pleasant bite that's neither too wimpy nor too strong. Whether you're drinking it on the rocks, with soda or tonic, or in a classic summertime cocktail like a Moscow Mule or a Salty Dog, it's one of the most pleasant and versatile vodkas around. Ditch the super-premium vodkas that cost two or three times as much and come back to Old Reliable.
Blanco Tequila: Olmeca Altos Plata (about $21)
We've come a long way since the hold-your-nose-and-pound-it days of crappy tequila, and Olmeca Altos is the glorious proof. Created by two tequila-mad UK bartenders in conjunction with their native Mexican master distiller, Altos is made in part using the classic age-old tahona method, in which blue agave is crushed (after cooking and before distilling) using a large and heavy stone wheel to release the juice used to make tequila.
The result is quite sweet but with the roasted, slightly vegetal notes that can only come from quality agave prepared properly. A mix of citrus and vanilla leads into a medium-length, clean finish. It blends well with citrus juices to make a tremendous Margarita, and it works in punches as well. After all, who wants to stand around making individual cocktails when there's pool time to be had?
Reposado Tequila: Espolon (about $25)
In case you're wondering, the difference between blanco and reposado tequila is that blanco is un-aged, fresh off the still, while reposado has been aged (or rested, hence "reposado") in oak for up to one year. They look different—blanco is clear while reposado has a golden hue from the wood—and taste different too, of course. Espolon's reposado has been aged in white oak for six months, and the oaky notes kick in pretty quickly after an opening salvo of sweet fruit.
Caramel and roasted agave dominate on the back end before a moderate burn finishes things off. It's a good sipper, but it really shines in cocktails; its big flavors don't get overwhelmed by mixers, whether you're making a Margarita, or this Upgraded Paloma. And the icing on the cake—or the salt on the margarita—is that Espolon's reposado is a good $10 to 20 less than most premium reposados.
Bourbon: Evan Williams Black Label (about $15)
In-the-know American whiskey fans and bartenders can tell you that there's no better bargain when it comes to bourbon than Evan Williams. It's not as well known or as ubiquitous on back bars as Jim Beam or Wild Turkey, to name two, but its combination of low price and high quality make it one of the best selling bourbons in the world. In business since 1783 (it was the first commercial distillery in Kentucky),
Evan Williams makes a no-nonsense, straight-ahead, smooth drinkin' whiskey, reportedly aged for five to seven years (though there's no age statement on the bottle). It comes on sweet from the corn used to distill it, with notes of vanilla and citrus, but with a strong oaky undercurrent and a kick of peppery spice on the finish. It's balanced enough for a fine sipping whiskey, but cheap enough to use in all kinds of mixed drinks, from highballs to punches and even Mint Juleps, if you have the mint, crushed ice, sugar, and inspiration. For a bottom-shelf bourbon, this is the tops.