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A Thrifty Drinker's Guide to Pairing Cheap Booze with Expensive Mixers
Make the flavor stuff your favored stuff.
I've got a problem. I like cocktails, and I don't have much disposable income. The unhappy overlap of those two circumstances means I've had to think hard about what's worth paying for. When I say I like cocktails, I don't just mean the buzz. I mean the interplay of flavors, the excitement of discovery, every little detail up to and including the colors in the glass. I enjoy cocktails as a civilized, aesthetic, multi-sensory experience, and that shit costs money.
Through a grueling (haha) process of trial and error, I've divined this equation for satisfying the broke-ass boulevardier:
Cheap Liquor + Fancy Mixers
If those first two words horrify you, if you'd rather drink one $30 cocktail than three $10 ones, if you've ever used the term "whiskey collector" without at least an internal eye-roll, let me warn you, it's only going to get worse from here.
For the rest of us, it's a simple case of arbitrage. Economize on what's overpriced, splurge on the affordable stuff. Moneyball for highballs. $25 won't go very far with bourbon, but could get you a pretty nice vermouth. You'd be hard-pressed to spend even $10 on a top-shelf tonic, ginger beer, or craft soda. And though this might be heretical to say, I've found those ingredients influence my cocktail experience as much as the liquor.
Wait, "Cheap Liquor"? Sounds Gross
The key is, find a cheap liquor you like well enough to do the job. This is where it gets subjective, but your best bet is a house brand by a chain that cares at least somewhat about quality.
Costco's Kirkland-brand liquors have a following, but I've never tried them. When I lived in the US, Trader Joe's was my go-to source. Now that I live in Australia, that niche in the retail ecosystem is filled by Aldi, at least until Trader Joe's gets wise to what easy pickings they'd have down here and finally moves in already. But I digress.
Every house-brand booze will not be for everyone. The Distiller reviews for Trader Joe's liquors are all over the place, from "pretty solid for the price" to "literally the worst bourbon I've ever had". Personally, like these liquor experts interviewed by the Seattle Times, I found TJ's basic bourbon eminently worth its $16.99 price tag; now Aldi's Bluegrass bourbon does the same job here for me in Melbourne.
The big thing to keep in mind is that yes, you will absolutely be sacrificing complexity. These are young, simple liquors. None will be a revelation on their own. Despite the recurring clickbait headlines, none of them will be "the best in the world". You're looking for "adequate". But most of these house-brand liquors are actually made by well-known, legit distillery brands, so adequate isn't too much to ask. Browse the reviews, try some, find the ones you can stick with.
Let's Get Fancy
OK, now that you've found your solid, ho-hum foundation, this is where cheap drinking gets fun. Craft mixers have absolutely exploded in the last decade or so, to the point where there really are too many to recommend. And I rarely try the same ones multiple times anyway.
That's the fun of it. Browse the mixer section at the liquor store or the supermarket. Find something interesting. Something pretentiously artisanal. Something flavored like a fruit you've never heard of. Something that seems ludicrously expensive… until you remember how much liquor costs. Bring it home and go to town.
But if you're totally new to this whole game, here's one that's easy to find: Fever Tree Elderflower Tonic. Mix it with your workaday gin for a splash of that sweet, floral St. Germain flavor for pennies on the dollar. Fever Tree has cornered the "gateway craft mixer" market for good reason, but there are plenty more out there, including tons of regional products. Man, now I really want to make a cross-USA craft-soda road trip.
Squeeze Your Own
This should go without saying, but: for any juice drinks, get fresh fruit and juice it yourself if at all possible. That can mean squeezing a lemon over your cocktail shaker, or firing up your $600 ultrablender. In a pinch, buying a very fresh unfiltered bottled juice will work, too. Either way, you will get galaxies more flavor, making your drinks taste way more complex - and thus, more expensive - than if you just plop in some Minute Maid. And isn't tasting more expensive what this is all about?
Your Secret Weapon: Homemade Syrups
If that scares you, hear me out. It is SO freaking easy to make flavored syrups. Some water, some sugar, your flavoring element (berries, vanilla beans, cinnamon, whatever). Heat it up, stir it, let it steep. In an hour or less, you'll have a big bottle of flavored syrup as good, and much more fresh, than anything you can buy. Even the haughtiest cocktail snobs tip their top hats to somebody who makes their own syrups. This cinnamon simple syrup is the star of a maple-cinnamon whiskey concoction that gets me through many a winter's night. Aldi Bluegrass bourbon never tasted so good.
Amaro For Your Money
This principle doesn't just apply to non-alcoholic mixers, of course. Popular amaros like Campari and Aperol are a step or two down the price scale from similarly positioned liquors, and vermouth also tends to have a low price-to-quality ratio.
So it'll help if you cultivate a taste for drinks with a higher percentage of these mixers. Fortunately this includes two of the greatest drinks ever mixed. The classic Negroni has a 1:1:1 ratio of gin, vermouth, and Campari. Its cousin the Boulevardier, my personal desert-island cocktail, does the same with whiskey in place of gin.
This is where one of my favorite drink finds of all time comes in: Cardamaro. Despite the name, it has nothing to do with cardamom. It gets its name from cardoon, an artichoke-like vegetable that gets infused into wine to produce it. What's great about it is that it has a similar herbal, wine-based profile as vermouth, and the bitter edge of amaros like Campari. So it can be an interesting twist standing in for either one, and it's not bad by itself over ice with a splash of soda.
What's even greater about Cardamaro is that because it's wine-based, it's priced and taxed more like vermouth than like other amaros. Ch-ching. If you take one specific recommendation away from this article, make it this: ask around for Cardamaro.
The lower price scale for amaros also means that when you can spend more, you get a lot for your money. For election night 2020, I splurged on an Australian amaro, Økar Island Bitter. It was spectacularly good, rich with native botanicals (wattleseed! riberries!), the perfect bittersweet edge in a Negroni. I'm salivating right now thinking about it. And all for about what I'd pay here for a bottle of Maker's Mark. I'd call that money well-sipped.
Drink Like A Temporarily Embarrassed Millionaire
Look, I'd love nothing more than to roll through my liquor store like I won a shopping spree, to try every hyperlocal gin and exotic rum and ancient whiskey on the shelves, to order round after round of exquisite, sculptural libations for everybody in the bar. Until that day comes, I've made my peace with my situation by treating liquor as the humble base upon which fancier (but cheaper) potions can do the voodoo that they do so well.
And seriously, Trader Joe's, Australia is yours for the picking.
Your Shopping List
Try cheap gin with:
Olipop Ginger Lemon soda, $2.49 per 12-oz. can
Fever Tree Elderflower Tonic, $4.99 for 4 8-oz. bottles
Angostura Lemon Lime & Bitters soda, $5.99 for 4 12-oz. cans
Poli Gran Bassano Dry Vermouth, $24.99 per 750ml bottle
Try cheap whiskey with:
Rocky Mountain Soda Colorado Cola, $30 per 12-pack of 12 oz. bottles
Liber & Co. Blood Orange Cordial, $10 per 9.5 oz. bottle
Artisan Barrel-Smoked Cola, £8.00 per 6-pack of 200ml bottles (UK/Australia only at the moment)
Carpano Punt e Mes Red Vermouth, $26.99 per 750ml bottle
Try cheap vodka with:
Spindrift Cranberry-Raspberry Sparkling Water, $6.99 per 8-pack of 12 oz. cans
Regatta Ginger Beer, $1.95 per 8.45 oz. bottle
Lillet Blanc aperitif, $18.99 per 750ml bottle
Class up any cheap drink with:
Cardamaro, $22.99 per 750ml bottle
Three Spirit Livener non-alcoholic elixir, $39 per 500ml bottle
Applewood Okar Island Bitter Amaro, $34.95 per 750ml bottle