Whether you’re throwing a bash for 50 or a pity party for yourself, when you’re at the liquor store there’s only one reason to buy from the bottom shelf: You’re dead broke. Quality doesn’t come in a plastic bottle with an E-Z Grip and a mock-tasteful Mr. Boston label. This stuff scorches your cilia and rots your gut. It may or may not ruin your night, but it’ll damn sure ruin your morning. That said, most of us have suffered the indignities of standing in an over-lit shop, clutching a fistful of crumbled singles and warily eyeing the dregs. Here’s the best of the worst.
For vodkas, ALEXI is, as its label claims, “superior”—to its downmarket competitors like Popov and Mr. Boston, anyway. It has a surprisingly low geech factor (the geech is that wicked half-cough, half-neurasthenic shudder followed by a full flush of goosebumps) and mixes well, which is the only thing that helps the bottom shelf seem middling. With cheap vodkas, little touches go a long way, so save face by splurging for normal-sized bottles of tonic water instead of those two-liter monsters.
Low-end rums can be surprisingly passable—PALO VIEJO is tasty in Coca-Cola, and if you can find the cash for fruit juice and brown sugar, it makes a decent rum punch. With gin, forget the cheap shit and splurge on GORDON’S LONDON DRY. And if it’s not a party without the old man’s favorite Scotch, best ask him to bring his own.
As for bourbons, budget brand Kentucky Gentleman (that Southern frat fave) is a rarity up North, so HEAVEN HILL will have to do. Again, the mixer is key. Skip Coca-Cola and opt for ginger ale—if bourbon and Coke tastes like high-fructose corn syrup, bourbon and ginger tastes like candy. The difference may seem negligible, but when you are at budget’s end you can’t afford to be negligent.