While December calls for splurging on a few pricey wines and liquors to be sipped and savored from your finest glassware, it's also a time when you should feel no shame in paying a little less for your booze. That's because large-batch cold-weather beverages get most of their rich flavor from their nonalcoholic ingredients, giving the spirits little more than an important supporting role. For instance, you don't need a fancy single malt Scotch to make a warming toddy, and tossing expensive cognac into your eggnog would be a waste of both money and some damn fine liquor when there are affordable bottles out there that work well in these classics.
Holiday cocktails—with their eggs, cream, spices, and steamy chocolate—require spirits that are assertive enough to stand out among those richer ingredients, while offering more than just a joyful buzz. As you plan your cocktail parties and family gatherings, consider this your guide: a few of our favorite cold-weather drink recipes, and the booze you'll need to make them. Since none of these bottles cost more than $25, you'll have plenty of money left to spend on gifts.
While nutmeg, cloves, or a lemon twist can limit the damage, the wrong brandy or whisky can make a toddy taste both cloying and bitter. But we found several cheap bottles that are especially good in this winter warmer, complementing the drink's sweet and spicy flavors.
For those who like it Scotch-y, The Famous Grouse ($24) does a stellar job, with toffee and malt flavors that lend the drink a pleasant roundness. If you want to impress your guests with a single malt, go with Speyburn Bradan Orach ($24), which keeps the drink remarkably light with green apple, citrus, and a hint of honey. For bourbon drinkers, there's Four Roses ($20), which makes your toddy even more comforting with its rich vanilla and caramel flavors.
If you're looking for a spicier, fruitier toddy, consider swapping your whiskey for brandy. E&J VSOP Brandy ($13) is our pick among affordable options. This super-cheap aged American brandy adds a trio of cherry, cream, and maple flavors to your mug.
Spiked Hot Chocolate
Good hot cocoa doesn't need adulteration, but some of us long for a little calming kick during the holiday season. Try dosing your cocoa with a mix of Disaronno Amaretto ($16) and 2 Gingers Blended Irish Whiskey ($20) in this "Better Than Baileys" hot chocolate recipe. The whiskey's maltiness and pleasing notes of honey and citrus shine alongside the sweet chocolate and the amaretto's nutty, velvety almond flavor. We also like Concannon Irish Whiskey ($24) here, which lends an oaky vanilla accent that lingers on your tongue long after the chocolate has faded away.
You may have never thought of pouring tequila into your cocoa, but adding a little mint alongside the agave spirit makes the combo bright, cinnamon-hot, and wintry, just the thing to shake off the chill, whether you've been hiking the Sierra Madres or just running to the mailbox without a jacket. El Jimador Blanco ($20) stands tall in this minty hot chocolate recipe. Made with 100% blue agave, it has an herbal edge that plays nicely with your standard Hiram Walker Peppermint Schnapps ($14), toning down the minty stuff's candy-cane sweetness with a vegetal warmth. Jose Cuervo ($17) may be a mixto (i.e., it uses other sugars in addition to blue agave), but it works just fine when there's rich hot chocolate in your cup. The agave flavor still comes through, along with hints of toffee, caramel, and vanilla. If the trajectory of your evening involves shots, El Jimador is your drink, but Cuervo offers plenty of value when other flavorful ingredients are involved, and there's a better-than-average chance that there's a bottle already in your liquor cabinet right now.
Our eggnog recipe is thick, rich, and frothy. To booze it up, you want rum bold enough to machete its way through the jungle of eggs, milk, and heavy cream. Go with Flor de Caña Grand Reserve 7 Year Old ($25). This velvety Nicaraguan rum adds cinnamon, fig, and even coconut notes to eggnog, giving your holiday beverage a touch of tropical vacation. The Dominican Republic's Brugal Añejo ($20) is another affordable favorite, with butter and caramel flavors and a bite that sharpens the drink enough to keep it from getting lost in sugarland. (Bonus: Both are fantastic for sipping neat.)
Brandy gives eggnog an even spicier character, and Paul Masson Grande Amber VSOP ($14), which is aged four years in oak, rises to the occasion nicely. Dark fruit flavors make their presence known amid the eggs and cream, and the brandy's delicate vanilla-pear side adds complexity to the drink. After dinner, feel free to compare it on its own to an entry-level cognac from France. Paul Masson may be affordable, but you might be surprised by the similarities.
Hot Buttered Rum
Add holiday spices if you like, but hot buttered rum needs nothing more than dark rum, butter, water, and heat to reach its rich, comforting potential. The right rum for the job is whatever you enjoy, as its flavor will only be softened by the other ingredients. Our go-to is Don Q Añejo ($20), an aged rum from Puerto Rico. When combined with butter, its oaky vanilla and zesty cinnamon flavors can't help but remind us of those tins of cookies Grandma bakes up each holiday season.
A big bowl of punch is a godsend for home entertainers, since it can be prepped well before the party and guests can serve themselves. This recipe keeps it festive with a mix of vanilla, cinnamon, lemon, and chai spices that accompany a potent base of Scotch whisky. It's a cocktail that's deeply flavorful without being challenging, offering drinkers the pleasure of identifying each ingredient—from the cinnamon to the sherry to the citrus—as they sip. The Speyburn Bradan Orach mentioned earlier works well here, adding a backdrop of malt and apple flavors to the mix. But the easy-to-find Cutty Sark ($25) tastes like it was born for the job. Its cream and caramel notes dance with the holiday spices, yielding a delightfully balanced punch that's neither too sweet nor too dry. Mix up a batch, invite the neighbors over, and bask in the compliments.
Note: All spirits and liqueurs provided as samples for review consideration except Disaronno Amaretto, Hiram Walker Peppermint Schnapps, E&J VSOP Brandy, and Paul Masson Grande Amber VSOP Brandy.