Have you ever walked into a liquor store with the idea of getting something new for your collection of alcohols and spirits, but find yourself lost and amazed at what you find. Perhaps you’re looking for a new vodka, tequila or a rum but you’re immediately blasted with colors, shapes and sizes and lose focus of your goal.
There are thousands of spirit brands with unique flavors and wonderful experiences. How do you find that one brand that really does it for you? Some labels apply a story behind their brand or the tasting experience involving the liquid contents within the glass vessel in your hands. Is it truth or marketing hype?
What about awards? You can’t simply buy your alcohol based on a four or five star spirit award as every bottle seems to win some type of award. Hell, I’ve never heard of half the competitions being held across the world for these spirits. If you enter your bottle into all of them, you’re bound to win something, right? Sure, the validity of an award shows that someone likes the brand but does it validate a higher priced cost?
I believe we all want “the girl next door spirit,” the brand that doesn’t stand out from the crowd but really has the substance and complexity to hold your attention far behind its awesome presentation. Here are some things I’ve observed in the girl next door spirit:
- Not the best of show, but pretty darn close for the price.
- Not a one-trick-pony, offers more than what you’d expect.
- Often uses standardized bottle designs and nothing more.
- Usually found near the bottom shelf.
- Rarely on display or “end capped.”
- Rarely on “Sale” for a discount.
First, it’s important to realize that the “girl next door spirit” isn’t going to be the best spirit in the world. You’ll be able to find something better for double or triple the price without doubt, but the diminishing returns on flavor are extremely high. Do you need to spend three times the cost to get a quarter more flavor from the experience?
The spirit is usually not a one-trick-pony in diversity and complexity. The only exception to the rule would be for vodka because an american-styled vodka has only a few jobs, one being to jack up the cocktail by 40% ABV. Vodka sippers may argue that smoothness factor and “burn” is a big deal yet they pack ice and dull down the spirit to the point where you can buy half the quality to get the same taste. Most girl next door spirits will offer you more than you bargained for, a tequila may bring agave with spicy and caramel while a rum may bring a bit of oak finish with a thick viscosity. Gin may bring hints of orange peel and white pepper. You don’t have to settle for one core flavor, agave, ethanol or juniper as good examples.
The bottle design is a key component to marketing. So much so that the bottle design may be half the cost of the core spirit you’re buying. Did the cost bring you $30 of pleasure, or $15 dollars of pleasure and $15 of shelf ornament? Unless you plan to put the bottle on the shelf, take photos or frame it, the bottle design is useless when the content is gone. I love spirits that spend double the cost on the content; spend your money in the filtration process, distillation, aroma, natural flavors and storage over the hand-crafted glass design and caramel color. I want hand-crafted spirits not hand-crafted bottles.
Regardless to the cost of the spirit, I’ve noticed great spirits land themselves on the shelf near the $9 bottles of brands that taste like high fructose corn syrup flavored grain alcohol; this is an act of travesty and it makes me weep a little inside. There are plenty of cheap spirits with no soul, those “college spirits” that are mixed with vodka and Jello. Unfortunately, small brands with only one spirit style find themselves on the bottom shelf because the retail outlet doesn’t understand what they’re selling or have been paid to “face” the big brands. The brands that own the eye-level shelfs are those that expand to more flavors and side-projects such as the thousands of flavors of vodka and rum. If a brand wants to sell a lot of vodka they can simply make eight styles/flavors of vodka and they’ll immediately own more shelf real-estate. A brand that tastes ten-times better and only has a single style is pushed to the bottom to make room for the big guys.
You’ll rarely see a great product end-capped or featured in the store. You walk in and you’re bombarded with huge brands, Kahlua, Captain Morgan, Absolut and the list goes on and on. Are those bad brands? No, but have you ever noticed that half the end-capped products are the big brands bottle tier product line? Captain Morgan rarely has their Private Stock featured or capped, it’s always the 1-Liter handle of their basic product line sitting beside the fake caramel colored Jose Cuervo Especial. This should serve as a warning, walk past those end caps and search for the hidden gems, those private labels for the major brands or the brand you have never heard of before!
Sales are all over the store but a few brands never seem to go on sale and, if they do, you’re saving 50-cents on the bottle… that’s not a sale! During the holidays you will not see those brands accompanied with spoons, glasses and gifts. They sit there, on the sidelines waiting for you to notice because they put their cash into the content and not into the hype machine. They’re not on sale because the retail outlets either understand the brand is worth the sticker label or because the owner doesn’t even know they’re carrying it. Just be warned, a good brand isn’t the cheap brand, if you see a 750ml bottle of gin for $6 don’t assume it’s a hidden gem because the brand is unknown and the price is low. The girl next door isn’t a whore, she knows she’s got value above and beyond the cheap stuff.
Does that mean you should avoid the major brands that market to excess? Hell no. All I am suggesting is that when you’re mining in the liquor store seek out some hidden gems. You may notice that even those “lower shelf” products that are never on sale rarely are covered in dust. This is because people do exist that know the label is better than all others and seek them out specifically; the product just moves in lower volume because the sheep graze the easy stuff. The grass is greener on the other side, around the corner and over that rock wall in the distance.
What brands do I look at to consider a worth while value for the dollar? There are many and I don’t want to do your job for you! I’ll give you a few hints of some value plays with good taste from both larger and smaller establishments:
- Tito’s Handmade American Vodka
- New Amsterdam Gin (owned by E&J Gallo Winery)
- Kapali Coffee Liqueur
- Kamora Coffee Liqueur
- Ryan’s Irish Cream
- Senior Curacao of Curacao (any color)
- Hornito’s (a Sauza Brand for half the cost)
I urge you to seek out more brands and let us know what you find.