I love me some whiskey. That auburn-hued elixir has been at my side like a jealous lover through my short but distinguished drinking career, such a spitfire that I rarely bother to notice just how little I’m spending on her. People make entire careers out of tasting and judging whiskeys, touring the finest achievements in fermented grain mash. Me? I am, how do you say, an unrepentant cheapskate. The miracle of cheap whiskey is that, in virtually no time, it drowns any regret you feel for not having sprung for the better bottle.
Still, why not enjoy every bottle we buy, meager as budgets may be? I’m just a cheap-whiskey amateur, so I enlisted the help of my friend and former roommate Andrew, an actual expert who has worked with spirits for nearly a decade, to walk me through this quest. You, too, should be enjoying the fruits of a cheap tipple, without sacrificing your dignity.
The Kinda Good Stuff
None of these bottles amount to much of a prize. Yet, if they’re well-chosen, a lazy drinker will confuse these selections with legitimately respectable liquors. I encourage you thus to be a lazy drinker.
For me, nothing beats Jim Beam, mostly because it was the stereotypical whiskey brand name to buy with your fake ID because you thought it was good enough to be worth buying with your fake ID. Then the clock struck midnight on your 21st birthday and you realized pretty quickly that Jim wasn’t worth the hassle.
Still, throwing back a bit of Jim Beam, which only sets you back $13.99 for 750 ml, is enough of a worthwhile palette cleanser to make you nostalgic/queasy.
Andrew has a more measured answer. For the moderately good stuff, he chose the relatively hard to find Joshua Brook, which he said can go for $15 a liter, but could go as low as $11.99 for smaller bottles. “It’s made by Heaven Hill, a large whiskey distillery that makes a number of other brands,” he told me. “They make Elijah Craig and a host of other higher end whiskeys and spirits.”
He didn’t take too kindly to my layman’s choice. “I did some research and found out that Joshua Brook was an 8-year-old whiskey,” he told me. “It actually looks pretty cheap, but it’s way better than Jim Beam. I’d take it over Jim Beam any day because you can sip on Joshua Brook and it isn’t that harsh. You can still use it for cocktails too. Jim Beam gives me the gnarliest hangovers ever.”
If that option was too hard to find, he added an alternative. “Another good cheap possibility is Old Weller 107,” he said. “It’s made at the same facility as the more relatively expensive Pappy Van Winkle, and it’s in the $20 range. The rumor is that it’s made from the same mash still as Pappy, so it’s the same raw material and same portion of ingredients. It’s like poor man’s Pappy.”
The Middle-of-the-Road Stuff
Now a step down. I’m going to have to default to the childhood memories half-remembered of Wild Turkey somehow being a worthwhile booze option and then slowly learning that it may have been the whiskey of choice for people who drink out of faded Big Gulp cups while gassing up their riding mower. Woe be the poor marketing department rookie trying to make it into a more sophisticated brand.
But again, no regrets here.
Plus, it was one of Hunter S. Thompson’s favorites. So when you know you want to overindulge on modestly priced booze (among other mind altering substances) you make sure to follow the lead of the best. Plop down about 20 bucks and get Wild.
Andrew was thinking along the same lines for the price. “I’d go with Old Overholt, which is a rye whiskey,” he told me. “It’s kind of like the grade B of rye, but if you had to drink whiskey you could easily drink Old Overholt on the rocks. It’s a little sweeter than other rye whiskeys, but I still think it’s great for cocktails.”
The Bottom Shelf
Going low doesn’t rattle me. Cheapskate liquor aficionados know it all brings you to the same place anyway: your bed, if you’re lucky, or the rug outside the bathroom, if you tried to play hero and decided there was no sense in “wasting” the last four ounces in the bottle by, like, drinking it some other night.
The best of the worst as far as I’m concerned is Evan Williams, the black-labeled Jack Daniel’s imposter that recalls the gritty taste of Jim Beam, for even cheaper. The 750ml bottle sets you back maybe $10, so you can get warmly lit for a mere sawbuck.
The other reluctant choice came down to a real classic: Old Crow, the kind of whiskey you pair with microwaved soup and longterm unemployment. Ulysses S. Grant was a fan, and Mark Twain reportedly bought 25 barrels of it at a time. These true American heroes can’t be wrong, and you wouldn’t either.
“I don’t necessarily want to sound pretentious,” Andrew said, “but I don’t really mess around with the shit in the plastic bottle.” He then recounted the time he threw up all over the wall in our old apartment after downing most of a bottle, like a trooper.
We managed to throw out some suitable options, but at some point the cheapness takes over, inching down your burning throat only to wind up, somehow, pushing out against the inside of your skull the next day. But if you’re going to go atomic on the cheap, you might as well mix the bad booze with something to make it better. The solution to pollution, after all, is dilution.
The first option is probably the easiest: Coca-Cola. “Dump Coke in anything and it will make it taste better,” Andrew said. “But what if you bought Mexican Coke? Like a nicer Coca-Cola brand to add to your shitty whiskey.” Sugar water cuts the pain.
After that I was out of ideas, but he then mentioned a step up for the cheapskate whiskey drinker. “I’d say get good cheap vermouth. There’s this cheap Spanish vermouth called Lacuesta and you can make pretty good Manhattans with that. It’s around $10 and you can also drink it on its own, or even add some soda water to it.”
If it’s a bottom-rung Manhattan you’re after — maybe just rename it the Battery — you should grab some bitters. “Just get a bottle of Angostura bitters, which are kind of the benchmark of cocktail bitters,” Andrew said. “All you need is one bottle — one bottle of that is a lifetime supply.” Crafty penny-pinchers could even grab some leftover sugar and the orange peels you threw away earlier to rustle up a nifty Old Fashioned.
In the end, we agreed cocktail mixers are inherently cheaper than whiskey. Maybe your best bet is to spend on the mixers, spruce up your low-shelf whiskey, and make yourself a little happier until you scrounge up just enough money to do it all over again.