High Spirits, Low Prices

50 of this year's outstanding bargains in vodka, gin, whisky and more.



Like many people born in America's heartland, the square-shouldered, upright Midwest, I place a lot of stock in exercising common sense. When I was a child, my parents made two things especially clear to me. First and foremost, life is not fair; I was never to expect a free ride. Second, money is hard to come by and, therefore, should be looked after with a strong custodial sense. As a consumer, I search out good bargains in just about everything. That's precisely why I take painstaking care in compiling my annual Value Spirits list. The following 50 spirits are anything but affordable "leftover" or "also-ran" products. They are selected for their extraordinarily high value-to-price ratio. Your end of this deal is easy. Read. Ponder. Seek. Enjoy. 

 

BRANDY
CLASSIC (96-100)/HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION
Gran Duque d'Alba Solera Gran Reserva Brandy de Jerez
(Spain; William Grant & Sons, Edison, NJ); 40% abv, $32.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/RECOMMENDED
Cognac Toulouse-Lautrec V.S. Grande Champagne Cognac (France; C.C. Spirits, Lakeville, MA); 40% abv, $35.
Frapin V.S. Cognac (France; Palm Bay Imports, Syosset, NY) 40% abv, $35.
Chabot V.S.O.P. Armagnac (France; Five Star Importers, Plainview, NY); 40% abv, $36.
Chateau de Laubade V.S.O.P. Bas Armagnac (France; Baron Francois, Ltd., New York, NY), 40% abv, $32.
Marquis de Montesquiou Napoleon Armagnac (France; Pernod Ricard USA, White Plains, NY); 40% abv, $34.
Barsol Pisco Traditional Peruvian Acholado Grape Brandy (Peru; Master Merchant LLC, Miami, FL); 40% abv, $20.

Inside scoop: This is a particularly fine and versatile group of affordably priced, world-class brandies. Each one is more than worth the money and in several cases (Cognac Toulouse-Lautrec V.S., Chateau de Laubade V.S.O.P. Bas Armagnac, Marquis de Montesquiou Napoleon Armagnac, especially) could be realistically priced above $40. The Barsol Pisco Traditional Peruvian Acholado is especially good in Pisco Sours. But, doubtless, the shining jewel of this category is the well-endowed Gran Duque d'Alba Solera Gran Reserva, Spain's quintessential Brandy de Jerez. The unabashedly potent, jammy, sweet and sherried bottling is not everyone's cup of brandy, to be sure. That somehow makes the brazenly assertive and raisin-like Duque even more special.

SCOTCH WHISKY
SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Clynelish 14-Year-Old Northern Highlands Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Diageo USA, New York, NY); 46% abv, $40.
Isle of Jura Superstition Jura Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Heaven Hill Distilleries, Bardstown, KY); 45% abv, $38.
Lombard Teaninich 12-Year-Old Northern Highlands Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; MHW Ltd. Manhasset, NY); 43% abv, $33.
Macallan Fine Oak 10-Year-Old Speyside Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Remy Amerique, New York, NY); 40% abv, $44.
Pinch The Dimple 15-Year-Old Blended Scotch Whisky (Scotland; Diageo USA, New York, NY); 43% abv, $28.  

VERY GOOD (85-89)/RECOMMENDED
Dalwhinnie 15-Year-Old Central Highlands Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; Diageo USA, New York, NY); 43% abv, $42
Speyside 12-Year-Old Speyside Single Malt Whisky (Scotland; International Brands, Duxbury, MA); 43% abv, $35.
Ambassador Deluxe Scotch Blended Scotch Whisky (Scotland; Medek Wine & Spirits Co., New York, NY); 40% abv, $13.

Inside scoop: In the wake of the escalating popularity of single malt Scotch comes the predictable rise in retail bottle prices. That is why some of today's Best Buys inhabit the $40-45 range; this may appear high to some consumers but is nonetheless realistic. Two of the better deals on this roster are the lovely Isle of Jura Superstition and the equally handsome Lombard Teaninich 12-Year-Old. Both sell for less than $40 and are winners for their sturdy cores and the undeniable drinking pleasure that they impart. The two blended Scotches that made the short list are excellent values for disparate reasons. Ambassador Deluxe is a no-nonsense, cocktail-worthy Scotch bargain. Pinch 15-Year-Old, on the other hand, provides both genuine character and regal finesse. Pinch, an inexplicably forgotten blended Scotch in the U.S., is, in my mind, the finest value of the whole bunch.

IRISH WHISKY
VERY GOOD (85-89)/RECOMMENDED
Clontarf Single Malt Irish Whiskey (Ireland; Castle Brands, Manhasset, NY); 40% abv, $30.

Inside scoop: I like this Irish single malt for its straight-ahead honesty and appealing amiability. There's no razzle-dazzle. It's a well-made single malt that's notable for its sweet cereal core and a silky, malty, nutty midpalate that belies the reasonable price. 

CANADIAN WHISKY
VERY GOOD (85-89)/RECOMMENDED
Canadian Gold Very Light Canadian Whisky, a Blend (Canada; Wellington Distillers Products, Scobeyville, NJ); 40% abv, $8.

Inside scoop: Only after my blind evaluation did I find out the price on this remarkably substantial, gently sweet whisky. I was stunned. It's easily worth twice the price. Buy a case and use as your in-house mixing whiskey.

AMERICAN WHISKY
CLASSIC (96-100)/ HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION
Evan Williams 1783 10-Year-Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon (USA; Heaven Hill Distilleries, Bardstown, KY); 43% abv, $10.

SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Baker's 7-Year-Old Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Batch No. B-90-001 (USA; James B. Beam Distillery, Clermont, KY); 53.5% abv, $35.
Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon (USA; Labrot & Graham Distillers, Co., Versailles, KY); 45.2% abv, $30.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/RECOMMENDED
Old Forester 100 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (USA; Brown-Forman Distillers Co., Louisville, KY); 50% abv, $16.
Ridgemont Reserve 1792 Barrel Select 8-Year-Old Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky (USA; Barton Distilling Company, Bardstown, KY); 46.85% abv, $28.

Inside scoop: Few spirits categories are as much fun as American straight whiskey, Bourbon in particular. Bourbon offers outright and unusually good value for money, a wide range of flavor profiles, admirable versatility and the most colorful collection of master distillers of any spirits category. In terms of astonishing value, which is our present focus, hunt down Evan Williams 1783. It's a "limited availability" bottling that is sold mostly in the northeastern U.S.—at a measly $10. If you're lucky enough to find it, try to convince me that it isn't one of the three or four finest Bourbons you've ever tasted. When you're willing to dole out a bit more cash, purchase either the alluringly Cognac-like Baker's 7-Year-Old Small Batch (mysteriously, the most underrated of Jim Beam's Small Batch Collection) or the lusciously elegant Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select. Both are rewarding sipping whiskeys that run with the best that America—and the world—produces.

RUM
SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Rhum Clement Premiere Canne White Rum (Martinique/France; Clement USA, Brooklyn, NY); 40% abv, $25.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/RECOMMENDED
Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum, (USA/Puerto Rico; Diageo USA, New York, NY); 35% abv, $14.
Ciclón Bacardi Premium Gold Rum Infused with Imported Blue Agave Tequila & Natural Lime Juice (USA); 35% abv, $14.
Hang Loose Kauai Light Rum (USA; Hang Loose Rum Company, Monarch Beach, CA); 40% abv, $15.
Malibu Caribbean Rum with Natural Mango Flavor (Canada; Pernod Ricard USA, White Plains, NY); 21% abv, $14.
Players Extreme Banana Flavored Rum (USA; Extreme Beverage Company, Franklin, TN); 21% abv, $14.
Rondiaz Vanilla Rum (West Indies; Johnson Brothers, St. Paul. MN); 27.5% abv, $9.
Trapiche del Valle Premium Aged Rum (Columbia; Duggan's Distillers Products Corp., Blauvelt, NY); 40% abv, $15.

Inside scoop: All the Very Good rums listed here at $15 or less are super bargains, especially for cocktail aficionados. My personal recommendation, though, is after you've splurged on some of the values in the Very Good listing, treat yourself to a bottle of the world-class Rhum Clement Premiere Canne. This is a sophisticated rum made from sugar cane juice, not molasses, and is geared to consumers who view rum as a serious distillate.   

TEQUILA
SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Don Eduardo Reposado 100% Agave Tequila NOM 1110-CRT (Mexico; Brown-Forman Beverages Worldwide, Louisville, KY); 40% abv, $43.
Fina Estampa Reposado 100% Agave Tequila NOM-1436 CRT (Mexico; Oregon Parts, Inc., Salem, OR); 40% abv, $43.

Inside scoop: Like single malt Scotch whisky, 100% agave Tequilas have risen substantially in price over the past five years. Blancos and reposados that just three years ago sold for $20 to $30 are fetching upwards of $45, even $50 in late 2005. This is due to both the growing demand as well as to the much-ballyhooed agave production problems of three or four years ago in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Whatever the real or imagined reasons, high prices for 100% agave tequila are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Two of the best under-$45 values are listed above.

UNFLAVORED VODKA
CLASSIC (96-100)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Charbay Vodka (USA; Domaine Charbay, St. Helena, CA); 40% abv, $27.
Original Polish Vodka (Poland; A. Hardy USA, Rosemont, IL); 40% abv, $25.

SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Three Olives Vodka (United Kingdom; White Rock Distilleries, Lewiston, ME); 40% abv, $20.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/RECOMMENDED
Wodka Gorbatschow Vodka (Germany; Cannon Wines, Ltd., San Francisco, CA); 40% abv, $11.

Inside scoop: With unflavored vodkas priced at $30 and above still hitting the shelves en masse, it's a pleasure to cite vodkas that can compete with, if not the best, some of the so-called "luxury" vodkas. This is especially true of Charbay and Original Polish. However, the one I really want to point out is Three Olives, which right now is arguably the finest value in unflavored vodka.

FLAVORED VODKA
SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Three Olives Orange Vodka (England; White Rock Distilleries, Lewiston, ME); 35% abv, $20.
Burnett's Cherry Flavored Vodka (USA; Sir Robert Burnett Company, Bardstown, KY); 35% abv, $8.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/RECOMMENDED
Boru Crazzberry Vodka (Ireland; Castle Brands, Manhasset, NY); 35% abv, $18.
Players Extreme Green Apple Infused Vodka (USA; Extreme Beverage Company, Franklin, TN); 35% abv, $14.

Inside scoop: I must cite in particular Burnett's Cherry, which at $8 is one of the biggest steals in the entire spirits category right now.

GIN
SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Bombay Sapphire London Dry Gin (England; Bacardi-Martini USA, Miami, FL), 47% abv, $20.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/RECOMMENDED
Quintessential London Dry Gin (England; White Rock Distilleries, Inc., Lewiston, ME); 40% abv, $28.

Inside scoop: The legend of Bombay Sapphire continues to grow—it has become both an industry icon and a broadly successful crowd-pleaser. For the price, Sapphire's an excellent buy. Of equal note is the newly refashioned Quintessential London Dry, a savory, herbal gin that makes a razor-edged dry martini and a dynamite gin and tonic.

APERITIF/VERMOUTH
VERY GOOD (85-89)/RECOMMENDED
Cinzano Extra Dry Vermouth (Italy; Skyy Spirits LLC, San Francisco, CA); 18% abv, $6.
Lillet Rouge (France; William Grant & Sons, Edison, NJ); 18% abv, $14.

Inside scoop:  The apéritif/vermouth category is sadly neglected. It's a versatile style of  spirit—really, vermouth is a fortified wine, but  it belongs in the spirits category because it is so frequently included as ingredients to cocktails. These two winners are especially good values for their finesse and adaptability.

LIQUEURS
SUPERB (90-95)/HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Santa Teresa Rhum Orange Liqueur (Venezuela; Santa Teresa USA, Weston, FL); 40% abv, $22.
Starbucks Coffee Liqueur (USA; Fielding & Jones, Ltd. Cincinnati, OH); 20% abv, $23.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/RECOMMENDED
Cask & Cream Chocolate Temptation Liqueur (USA; E&J Distillers, Modesto, CA); 17% abv, $14.
KWV Van Der Hum The Original Cape Liqueur (South Africa; 57 Main Street Wine Co., Garden City, NY); 25% abv, $19.
Rinquinquin Peach Apéritif (France; Crillon Importers, Paramus, NJ); 15% abv, $18.
Southern Comfort (USA; Southern Comfort Company, Louisville, KY); 50% abv, $17.

Inside scoop: All of these fairly priced liqueurs are worth having in your home bar. The standouts are the Santa Teresa Rhum Orange, which can mix well in a host of fruity, tropical-themed cocktails, and the Starbucks Coffee Liqueur, which excels when paired with coffee and cream.

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