The Best Premium and Bargain Liquors

The best brands for your budget (and your palate). Plus, 8 liquors not to buy.

Photo by Quentin Bacon
"You don't need to buy the premium stuff for mixing most drinks," says Dale DeGroff, master mixologist and author of The Craft of the Cocktail. Sample a range of each kind of liquor, and splurge on the ones where you can tell the difference.

1. Bourbon

Premium: Maker's Mark
Bargain: Old Forester

2. Gin

Premium: Beefeater
Bargain: Gordon's

3. Rum (Light)

Premium: Bacardi
Bargain: Castillo

4. Scotch (Blended)

Bargain: White Horse

5. Tequila

Premium: Porfidio
Bargain: Sauza Hornitos, Jose Cuervo

6. Dry Vermouth

Choose a French brand; Noilly Prat is high-quality but inexpensive.

7. Sweet Vermouth

Go for Martini & Rossi―premium in taste but not in price.

8. Vodka

Premium: Belvedere
Bargain: Smirnoff




Eight Liquors Not to Buy

Ban these bottles, says William Grimes, author of Straight Up or on the Rocks (North Point Press, $16,

1. Captain Morgan Spiced Rum: "Avoid, if for no other reason than the label―it's obnoxious. You should do your own spices in your rum."

2. Vanilla Vodka: "In terms of transmitting flavors via vodka, vanilla is a bad idea. It hasn't advanced the cause of civilization."

3. Baileys Irish Cream: "Be wary of anything that looks like a milk shake. It's sick and viscous, but they sell tons of it on planes."

4. T.G.I. Friday's Mudslide: "It's a horrible college drink that surely gives you an epic hangover―the kind where you're begging for death the next morning."

5. Hot Sex (a gingery cocktail mix): "It's like buying a Chinese TV dinner. You're better off using actual ingredients that you can control."

6. Midori (melon-flavored liqueur): "People like the arresting color, but the flavor is why you should stay away. It's hard to take seriously."

7. Peach Schnapps: "When you're dealing with exotic flavors, you have to ask, How much integrity does the fruit flavor have? If it's too artificial, it's effectively chemical sludge."

8. Godiva Liqueur: "If you want dessert, eat dessert. Don't drink it."