We’ve all been there. It's Friday night and you've paid all the bills to prevent becoming homeless, having your power disconnected, and averting a car repossession. But now there's only twenty bucks left and a drink is needed more than ever. Seasoned drinkers will take this budget as a challenge to be overcome, rather than suffering the indignity of a sober weekend. Like anything in life, there is an easy way and a hard way to drink on a budget. Not all spirits under twenty bucks for a fifth or forty for a handle are created equal. This review of bottom-shelf offers evaluate booze on the criteria of price, taste, and the hangover created. As the author of this article does not have enough experience with tequila, rum, or cheap wines, these categories will be omitted. The prices given are based on Michigan state-mandated minimum liquor prices. These prices may be lower in other areas.
Evan Williams Black Label
MSRP: $15.99 / 750 ml; $31.99 / 1.75 L
Evan Williams is objectively good. Even, arguably, superior to its more expensive competitors Jim Beam white label and Jack Daniels black label; not overly sweet like Jack, or excessively dry like Beam.
It's enjoyable neat, with club soda, or, if you must, with Coca-Cola. In my experience it produces relatively mild hangovers. Strongly recommended to any bourbon enthusiast, regardless of budget.
Famous Grouse Scotch Whiskey
Classification: Blended Scotch Whisky
MSRP: $35.00 / 1.75 L
Famous Grouse is very drinkable and tastes similar to Dewar’s white label. I recommend mixing with club soda as it will not hold up when sipped in a Glencairn glass. The price for a fifth is omitted because I have never seen it being sold in anything smaller than a handle. Relatively mild hangovers are expected. It's definitely a step up from Cutty Sark.
Classification: London Dry Gin
MSRP: $10.99 / 750 ml; $21.99 / 1.75 L
With over 200 years of history, Gordon’s was a favorite of old pros such as Kingsley Amis and Humphrey Bogart. And with good reason, it is a decent, old fashioned-style gin at a bargain basement price. My recommendation is to enjoy over ice with club soda or tonic and with a slice of lemon or lime. You won’t be getting the trendy, citrus-forward flavors of something like Hendrick’s or Aviation, but it is a matter of taste. If you are a fan of Tanqueray, Beef Eater, or Bombay White Label you will find little to complain about from Gordon’s. Gordon’s gin with club soda and a slice of citrus is summer in a glass. Hangovers are comparatively mild.
Benchmark 8 Bourbon
MSRP: $10.99/750 ml; $22.99/1.75 L
Benchmark 8 is Buffalo Trace’s economy line bourbon is a true hidden gem. It features a slightly sweet, peppery flavor and produces relatively mild hangovers. In my opinion, it's superior to both Jim and Jack, especially considering it is roughly half the price. Without a doubt, it's far better than Old Crow, Jim Beam’s economy line whiskey. I originally bought it to see how terrible an eleven dollar fifth of Bourbon would be and was very pleasantly surprised. Benchmark 8 is enjoyable neat, with club soda, or with Coca-Cola.
MSRP: $10.99 / 750 ml; $24.99 / 1.75 L
Christian Brother’s Bandy is sweet and fruity flavored and can be enjoyed neat or with club soda. Exceptional for warming up after spending an hour or so shoveling snow. It is also very nice with some decent wine and frozen fruit for Sangria that packs a wallop.
This does rank near the bottom of the true bargain’s list because it can produce brutal hangovers if more than a pint at a time is consumed in one session.
Hamm’s, Miller High Life, Milwaukee’s Best
MSRP: $1.50 to $2.00 / 15 oz "tall boy" can; $13.00 to $20.00 / 30 pack
These beers are not bad; they will make you drunk and they each boast a decent flavor without busting the budget. Hangovers are relatively mild unless more than 12 to 15 are consumed in a sitting.
Pro tip: Very nice during summer or when you want to relive your college days. Best enjoyed along with a whiskey of your choice.
Classification: Blended Scotch Whisky
MSRP: $8.50 / 750 ml; $17.50/ 1.75 L
Lauder's is cheap and drinkable. Its creamy and smooth finish make it surprisingly easy to drink. Hints of toffee and cereals are the best part of this whisky and is why Lauder’s has slightly more flavor than the blended Canadian and American Whisky that will be discussed below. Expect relatively mild hangovers. It is best enjoyed with either water or club soda as it will not hold up when consumed neat. One unique feature is that it smells exactly like a pencil eraser that has been dipped in caramel and biscuits.
Classification: Polish Vodka
MSRP: $10.99 / 750 ml; $19.99 /1.75 L
Sobieski is enjoyable with club soda and citrus, or in a cheap fruit punch. Unlike Popov or cheaper vodka, it doesn’t have to be stored in the freezer to be drinkable. It produces relatively mild hangovers.
Unless you prefer vodka to gin, I would recommend Gordon’s instead.
Old Crow Bourbon
MSRP: $10.00 / 740 ml; $21.96 / 1.75 L
Old Crow is passable, but it’s pretty bland. Best consumed with club soda or with Coca-Cola.
Although Old Crow isn’t terrible, it’s only worth buying if the far superior Benchmark 8 is unavailable.
Mickey’s Ice, Milwaukee’s Best Ice, Natural Ice
Classification: Malt Liquor
MSRP: $1.50 to $2.00 / 16 oz "tall boy" can; $3.00 to $4.00 / 40 oz
Malt liquor tends to hit harder than its ABV would indicate. The flavor is often not bad, I enjoy Milwaukee’s Best Ice more than regular Milwaukee’s Best. These rank slightly lower than economy beer because of the often-brutal hangovers that are part and parcel of the experience if more than a few tall boys are consumed in one sitting.
McMaster’s, Black Velvet, and Kessler
Classification: Blended Whiskey
MSRP: $8.00 - $10.00 / 750 ml; $15.00 - $20.00 / 1.75 L
All of these are inoffensive and bland. They don’t leave behind severe hangovers unless more than a pint is consumed in one sitting. They will all do the trick when your goal is to get drunk without inflicting too much pain.
Best enjoyed with club soda or in a boilermaker.
MSRP: $8.00 / 750 ml; $15.00 / 1.75 L
The flavor of Popov is tolerable when mixed with club soda and citrus of some sort and best enjoyed in a punch and stored in the freezer. It ranks higher than other economy vodkas because there is less of a methanol flavor and the hangovers are not as severe. Make no mistake though, if consumed in any significant quantity there will be a price to pay in the morning.
HELL IN A GLASS
Classification: Malt Liquor
Price - $1.50 - $3.00 / 16 0z "tall boy" can; $3.00 - $4.50 / 40 oz
This very low-quality malt liquor is often tolerable but will leave the feeling of a mariachi band playing in your head the next morning. Yes, Steel Reserve produces BRUTAL hangovers and is best left to the homeless.
As my little brother once said, Steel Reserve is “the relationship ender beer.”
American Style Schnapps and Other Sugary Liqueurs
Classification(s): Liqueurs, Schnapps, Flavored Whiskey
MSRP: $8.00 -$15.00 / 750 ml; $15.00 - $30.00 / 1.75 L
I include, in this review, Dr. McGillicuddy’s, Dekuyper’s, Southern Comfort, Fireball, and Goldschlager.
While these drinks often pack a punch, they are best left to college students. The high sugar content of these liqueurs produces truly terrible hangovers, regardless of the age and experience of the drinker.
Crystal Palace, Kamchatka, Five O’clock, Aristocrat
Classification(s): Vodka and Gin
MSRP: $5.00 / 750 ml; $11.00 / 1.75 L
The worst of all worlds. These beverages are nothing more than flavored methanol.
Crystal Palace has a distinct flavor which can only be described as resembling what would happen if you sucked on a handful of gravel through an isopropyl-soaked gym sock.
Kamchatka, also known as "Shitty K," tastes exactly the way Clorox Disinfecting Wipes smell.
Are you a masochist? Do you love to punish yourself? Do you enjoy consuming tongue-gnashingly harsh and belly-churningly caustic chemicals? Then Five O'clock Vodka is for you!
Aristocrat has a melted plastic-like taste. Specifically, if you have ever attempted to make a grilled cheese sandwich (most likely after a night of heavy drinking) and forgot to remove the plastic wrapper from the Kraft American Cheese single slice, that's it!
All of these are generally only palatable when stored in the freezer and mixed in a punch. In my experience, these liquors have hallucinogenic qualities, and not in a good way. Drinking any significant amount of these types of liquor produces multi-day hangovers. They may well have been the inspiration for Kingsley Amis’s essay on the hangover, as he was not above using supermarket vodka in punches. Consuming well vodka is an excellent way for you and all your friends and acquaintances to discover the contents of your unconscious mind.
These are best left alone unless trying to avoid hypothermia on a cold winter’s night.
Pro Tip: Prepare a gallon of fruit flavored crystal light fruit punch or Kool-Aid to use as mixer.