After mastering a tartly correct margarita three years ago, I decided to keep going, and make every classic cocktail that doesn't involve weird liquor. Sixty-nine, so far.
As I searched bartending sites, mixology blogs, culinary forums, print stuff and liquor reviews, these bottles of gin, vodka, rum, whiskey and rye were most often cited by professionals as the best bottles for $20 or less.
5. Sobieski Vodka All vodka does not taste alike, and for a smooth, cool burn while drinking it straight, look to pay big money for Grey Goose and Absolut advertising. But the subtleties get lost when mixing vodka, and Poland's favorite, Sobieski, with a faint taste of rye and no hint of rubbing alcohol, is an amazing bargain at $10 for 750ml at Spec's.
4. Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whiskey, 100 Proof If you order a Sazerac in New Orleans, you'll probably get Old Overholt, another low-priced rye. With the Great Cocktail Revival came the ascendancy of stronger and tastier Rittenhouse 100, and the demand for Manhattans so great that many cities ran out of Rittenhouse before a new batch could be properly aged. It is now back on the shelf at Tony K's Liquors (2720 Bissonnet) for $20 per 750ml.
3. Beefeater Gin Martini drinkers can be particular about their Bombay, Boodles and Tanqueray, but for myriad other London Dry cocktails, it's Beefeater for value. Toby Maloney, of nationally recognized Alchemy Consulting, describes it here as a "Big, back-bony gin with lots of juniper and citrus to it." (Note: Mr. Maloney got "mixologist's arm" from his enthusiastic shaking, so don't try this at home, or work.) Beefeater is $20 per 750ml, also at Tony K's.
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2. Flor de Caña Extra Dry For sipping, expensive Mount Gay Extra Old or Ron Zacapa will do, but for most rum drinks, which contain ample sugar or citrus, Flor de Caña Extra Dry white provides plenty of rum flavor, with little sweetness, for daiquiris, mojitos, or coladas. The slightly sweeter Gold mixes with Coke and lime for Cuba Librés. About $13 per 750ml anywhere.
1. Buffalo Trace Bourbon Tastes of oak, spices, and vanilla. Take a whiff of Buffalo Trace, sniff a bottle of vanilla, and then put them both under your nose. One of the best smells in America. No bourbon beats Buffalo Trace for the price of $20 per 750ml at Spec's. No bourbon.