This website is always going to prefer Small Batch Australian spirits. But sometimes you may not want to use your best spirits in a new cocktail experiment, or you have a lot of people to provide drinks for, or you wince at the thought of mixing drinks with your top shelf. For these instances, we may not have anything truly inspiring, but there are a number of cheap and widely available spirits which punch well above their weight. Here are some drinks, either under or very close to the $40 mark, which are well worth the space in your liquor cabinet.
If you're a fan of Whiskey it's worth having at least two different styles in your collection. American Whiskey styles such as Rye and Bourbon are very well represented in classic cocktails, many of which originated in and around American Prohibition. Other great whiskys for mixing are blended Scotch, Japanese, Canadian, Irish Whiskys.
Jim Beam Rye is my staple for prohibition and classic cocktails, even if they ask for Bourbon. Their bourbon isn't anything to write home, but a number of bartenders rave about the Rye. It gets as low at $35 for a bottle at Dan Muphy's, which probably makes it the cheapest item on this entire list. If you have to have a bourbon, Bulleit is a good place to start, but Buffalo Trace is a very worthwhile upgrade.
As for the rest of the world, the pictured Suntory Whisky blend is one of the best sipping Whiskys at the $40 mark. If it has to be Scotch, most bartenders us J&B, but Monkey Shoulder also pushes above its price point.
Upgrade To: Whipper Snapper's Crazy Uncle Moonshine and Upshot Australian Whiskey, Rittenhouse Rye.
One versatile classic Gin should be more than enough to experiment with most cocktails. Tanqueray (Preferably Export Strength) is one of the few spirits I'm sure never to run out of. It's a classic London Dry gin which has been around since the 1800s. It uses just four botanicals, and really doesn't get in the way of your fancy cocktail, whilst remaining balanced and delicious.
Pay just a little more for even more delicious Bulldog, or a bit more again for the West Winds The Sabre, from Margaret River.
Upgrade To: Hippocampus Gin, West Winds The Cutlass, Melbourne Gin Company.
A number of small bars use Ketel One as their house Vodka, but since Ketel took a little bit of a price hike recently, Absolut is a perfectly acceptable substitute, which stays at or just under $40.
Whilst by no means a traditional Vodka, Zubrowka bison grass vodka is one of my favourite sipping vodkas. And 666 is a slight increase in price but it's Australian and very impressive.
Upgrade To: Hippocampus Vodka.
A lot of books and online guides will tell you that your minimalist bar needs a clear and a brown rum, but unless you're on some major Tiki bent, I think you can get away with one or the other. Stolen White is a brown rum filtered to be clear, so it's pretty versatile in recipes which call for either.Their unfiltered Stolen Gold has a little more flavourful if you don't mind your Daiquiris coming out brown (And you shouldn't)
Upgrade To: Ord River, Quiet Canon (If you're lucky enough to acquire some Quiet Canon.. Please don't mix it)
Australia actually puts out two pretty good and well priced Brandies. Black Bottle, a sub $40 brandy make by the VOK people, is a nice little mixer which pairs well with Jim Beam Rye to make for the cheapest Sazerac ever.
St. Agnes VSOP (A big step up from the VS) is a nice upgrade for Sidecars or Champagne Cocktails.
Upgrade To: Cognac.
It wouldn't hurt to spend a little of the money you've saved on spirits on some fresh citrus and some decent mixers. Some inexpensive liqueurs like Cointreau, Amaro Montenegro and Aperol make wonderful additions to any bar and whilst they rarely take centre stage, can make great additions to cocktails. Cheap spirits often filter a lot of flavour out in order to remain inoffensive, so some Angostura Bitters will do a great job in adding some punch. Speaking of punch, the one acceptable time to use store-bought lemon juice is to cut 50/50 with fresh lemon juice when you're out of season but just have to make that punch which uses a full litre of lemon juice.
Finally, it's almost always cheaper and to a higher quality result to make your own Syrups. Start with Simple Syrup and Grenadine, then work your way to Honey, Ginger Beer, and even Tonic Syrup.