Substitute spirits

Bargain brand liquors

We've always been told that "top-shelf" (i.e. expensive) liquors are the only way to go for mixing the best cocktails. But price isn't the only measure of quality, and there are bargains to be found in the liquor aisle. Carey Jones of Serious Eats asked several top U.S. bartenders about their favorite bargain brands.

Dan Bronson of Crescent & Vine in New York shares the dirty secret of bartending: "If your recipe calls for any large amount of acid (i.e. lemon, lime), you're more in the booze balancing game then bringing out the flavor profile of X liquor. Spend the money for spirits you drink straight, but margaritas get Corralejo, tops." Kyle Storm of French Louie weighs in on using Scotch in drinks: "Using an inexpensive blended Scotch like Ballantine or Famous Grouse and adding a quarter-ounce of an Islay Scotch like Laphroaig is how bartenders mix great Scotch cocktails. You get the smoky peat aroma from the Islay single-malt, and the blended Scotch mixes well with the rest of the drink."

For gins, LAVO Las Vegas's Rodger Gillespie recommends Ford's gin, while Chris Burkett (Cusp Dining & Drinks) likes Beefeater gin, noting it has "great quality at a great price and it has the body and balance to shine in any cocktail you want to create with it." Vodka aficionados might be offended, but Elizabeth Powell of Liberty Bar in Seattle recommends that you "don't fall for the 'luxury' label on a bottle. Stick with a solid brand like Smirnoff and make it your well for almost every single drink you'll make with vodka."

Moving on to those expensive (and often uniquely-flavored) cordials that make a cocktail shine, you may wonder if you can find a subsitute for those. The answer is both yes and no. Orange curaçao has a few contenders, in the Marie Brizard line  (recommended by Nate Howell of Jsix) and in Giffard's Curaçao Triple Sec. The latter "is an easy and affordable swap for Cointreau. It has the same bright, bitter sweet characteristics as Cointreau without breaking the bank," according to Jamie Buckman of Bookstore Bar & Café. While more exotic cordials like Green Chartreuse are nearly impossible to fully match in flavor, more than one bartender chose Dolin Genepy as an adequate subsitute for the herbal green liqueur. Claire Sprouse of The Square calls it "'nice Chartreuse.' It's not a true substitute by any means, but the flavor profile is similar yet less boozy. Chartreuse packs a mean punch, while the Genepy is like a nice hug."

More substitutes are noted in the article (I heartily agree with the recommendation for Old Overholt rye), and the comments section provides even more options as enthusiasts add their own favorites to the list. Now that you are thirsty, here are a few popular cocktails from the EYB library to consider:

Whiskey sour with marmalade 
Blood and sand
The Slope
Don't mind if I do
Artillery punch
Garden elixir
Bee sting

What's your favorite "bang for the buck" liquor?

Photo courtesy Serious Eats


  • Rinshin  on  5/8/2014 at 6:29 PM

    I think this really depends on if you know the taste and aroma of spirits. I can tell what brand of gin used in most of my favorite drinks. But, that's because I've been drinking gin drinks for a long time. I prefer certain brand of gin with certain gin based drinks. With other spirits I may not be able to tell, but I wonder.

  • darcie_b  on  5/8/2014 at 7:31 PM

    I don't think the article suggests that there aren't differences, just that you can make a fine drink without breaking the bank. I can tell a difference between Old Overholt and a premium rye, but the OO makes a fine drink for 1/3 the price.

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