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Stock Your Bar With Value: Ten Award-Winning Bottles of Booze for Under $30

This bourbon may have escaped most people's attention, but taste experts know what you should be drinking: This.
This bourbon may have escaped most people's attention, but taste experts know what you should be drinking: This.
Photos by John Kiely

I've walked out of Oscar-winning movies, and switched off a thousand Grammy-winning songs, but never have I stopped drinking a winner of a San Francisco World Spirits Competition Double Gold. The competition, founded 14 years ago by Anthony Dias Blue, doesn't judge all spirits -- just the ones that are entered -- but you can rely on the Double Gold (for winners that have received unanimous gold medals from all of the judges) to ensure that you're buying a quality bottle of liquor.

Here are ten winners, listed in no particular order, that can be found and purchased in the Houston area for under $30. You may think of this as a holiday gift-shopping guide, but with time off and a house full of relatives, you may need a drink or two.

10. W.L. Weller 12-Year-Old

Can't find any of the highly coveted Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Old? Not many people can, but even company president Julian Van Winkle III recommends the W.L. Weller as being very close to the taste of Pappy's. You won't have to search around or stand in line for this 2006 Double Gold winner, because it can be found at Tony K's Home of Fine Spirits (2720 Bissonnet) for about $28.

9. Beefeater

A very common and cheap ($21 at Tony K's) spirit that is the most versatile London dry gin you can have in your bar. It's a classic for martinis, the best choice in a Negroni, and it works very well in any other gin drink that requires a strong presence of juniper. Beefeater won the Best Gin Double Gold in this year's competition in March.

8. Rain Organics Cucumber Lime Vodka

Would you be inclined to buy a bottle of Cucumber Lime vodka? Normally I wouldn't, but this one received a Double Gold for 2009 and 2010 in the flavored-vodka category, so it would certainly merit a $20 gamble at Spec's, for curiosity's sake.

7. Ron Abuelo 12

This rich, dark spirit is an often-overlooked rum from Panama. Made from sugar cane, Ron Abuelo is a great mixer for just about any rum cocktail, from a daiquirì to a Cuba Libre. It's beautiful to sip straight or on the rocks, so don't go pouring it into the eggnog. Ron Abuelo won the 2006 Double Gold, and made it onto another impressive list this year.

6. McClelland 12 -Year-Old Single Malt Islay Scotch

Most of the expensive Scotch whiskies such as Talisker, Lavagulin and Glenlivet also won Double Golds, but this bottle can be found for $23 at Spec's. Maybe you don't want to give the gift of cheap Scotch, but this 2009 winner is a low-risk introduction to Islay Single Malt Whisky.

The Double Gold takes the risk out of buying low-priced tequila.
The Double Gold takes the risk out of buying low-priced tequila.

5. Lunazul Tequila

This 2012 Double Gold winner is the only bottle I saw that actually had a Gold Medal on the label. A bold move, but one you'd expect for a bottle of tequila that only costs $15 at Spec's. There's no reason to fear all cheap tequila these days -- I can make a surprisingly good cheap margarita with Houston's own Agavales tequila, which is $12 per bottle. Lunazul won a Double Gold in 2012 -- not in a Cheap Tequila category, but rather the Silver Tequila category, and it was tasted straight, not in a margarita.

4. Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum

If you like your rum spiced, Sailor Jerry won the Double Gold this year in the Flavored Rum category. It's about $20 at Tony K's.

3. Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon

I'd never heard of this bourbon before spotting it at Tony K's, but it has won five Gold medals in San Francisco. Chris Carlsson of Spirits Review declared, "Only brain-damaged frat boys or fashion victims would consider buying anything else in its $20-$30 price range." I'm related to frat boys -- none of them brain-damaged as far as I can tell -- and I'll be serving them Eagle Rare when they visit.

2. Citadelle Gin

Citadelle is also easy to overlook, as it's a London Dry gin made in France, but when I walked into Spec's, Victor Bouvier from Cognac Ferrand (the maker of Citadelle) poured me a sample. It deserves the 2012 Double Gold, as Citadelle is the only gin I would drink on the rocks. The $22 gin mixes well in a Chicago South Side, and also a New York Southside.

Pour 2 ounces of Citadelle with 3 ounces of Fever-Tree Tonic over ice, with a wedge of lemon (yes, I said lemon), and you'll have a lighter and spicier alternative to Tanqueray for a superb gin and tonic.

1. Tito's Handmade Vodka

Tito Beveridge of Austin won the Double Gold way back in 2001, but he hasn't been resting on his laurels. Rather, he's been busy distilling larger amounts of this increasingly popular vodka. Sure, the bottle isn't sexy -- it looks like something to be swigged from while sitting with a blond in a cowgirl hat on the tailgate of a Ford F-150 in the scenic parking lot of Salt Lick Barbecue in Dripping Springs. Doesn't matter, because Tito's wins out on taste, beating all other vodkas in just about every test I've seen, held or read about.

Yes, Tito's is the best vodka in the world.
Yes, Tito's is the best vodka in the world.

The odd design works both ways, though, as it stands out from the fancier liquor around it, and no bar is complete without a bottle of Tito's. $18 Tony K's


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