Stock Your Bar With Value: Ten Award-Winning Bottles of Booze for Under $30

Categories: Booze

Photos by John Kiely
This bourbon may have escaped most people's attention, but taste experts know what you should be drinking: This.

I've walked out of Oscar-winning movies, and switched off a thousand Grammy-winning songs, but never have I stopped drinking a winner of a San Francisco World Spirits Competition Double Gold. The competition, founded 14 years ago by Anthony Dias Blue, doesn't judge all spirits -- just the ones that are entered -- but you can rely on the Double Gold (for winners that have received unanimous gold medals from all of the judges) to ensure that you're buying a quality bottle of liquor.

Here are ten winners, listed in no particular order, that can be found and purchased in the Houston area for under $30. You may think of this as a holiday gift-shopping guide, but with time off and a house full of relatives, you may need a drink or two.

10. W.L. Weller 12-Year-Old

Can't find any of the highly coveted Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year Old? Not many people can, but even company president Julian Van Winkle III recommends the W.L. Weller as being very close to the taste of Pappy's. You won't have to search around or stand in line for this 2006 Double Gold winner, because it can be found at Tony K's Home of Fine Spirits (2720 Bissonnet) for about $28.

9. Beefeater

A very common and cheap ($21 at Tony K's) spirit that is the most versatile London dry gin you can have in your bar. It's a classic for martinis, the best choice in a Negroni, and it works very well in any other gin drink that requires a strong presence of juniper. Beefeater won the Best Gin Double Gold in this year's competition in March.

I would never ever never try this if it didn't have a Double Gold.

8. Rain Organics Cucumber Lime Vodka

Would you be inclined to buy a bottle of Cucumber Lime vodka? Normally I wouldn't, but this one received a Double Gold for 2009 and 2010 in the flavored-vodka category, so it would certainly merit a $20 gamble at Spec's, for curiosity's sake.

7. Ron Abuelo 12

This rich, dark spirit is an often-overlooked rum from Panama. Made from sugar cane, Ron Abuelo is a great mixer for just about any rum cocktail, from a daiquirì to a Cuba Libre. It's beautiful to sip straight or on the rocks, so don't go pouring it into the eggnog. Ron Abuelo won the 2006 Double Gold, and made it onto another impressive list this year.

6. McClelland 12 -Year-Old Single Malt Islay Scotch

Most of the expensive Scotch whiskies such as Talisker, Lavagulin and Glenlivet also won Double Golds, but this bottle can be found for $23 at Spec's. Maybe you don't want to give the gift of cheap Scotch, but this 2009 winner is a low-risk introduction to Islay Single Malt Whisky.

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Good stuff John, and good commentary Wade. Tito's has never impressed me much as other stuff, and these Gold Medals can really be a bunch of hype, and pay for play. Interesting note about GNS!


Tito's – meh... Monopolova is a great value and "tastes" a lot better that most premium vodkas

Wade Woodard
Wade Woodard

I'm primarily a bourbon guy an Weller 12 and Eagle Rare are both great choices for under $30.  If someone wants a 3rd bourbon selection, I'd add Four Roses Small Batch which sales for about $27.  

IMHO, Spirit competitions are nothing but pay for play advertising.  The largest of the bunch is the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.  The last 'award' list from them was 38 pages long and had more winners than products competing (some products entered in multiple categories).  At $475 per spirit entered, it's big business.  Plus the distillers supply the bottles to be judged; do you trust all involved not to turn in hand selected honey barrel bottles?

Tito's is still bragging in commercials about an award they 'won' back in 2001 at the San Francisco Spirits Competition. He fails to mention that 2 other Vodkas also 'won' double gold at same award show and another Vodka was named best.  Has anybody been to Tito's and seen his fermenting tanks?  If you are not fermenting your product, exactly how does one have anything to distill?


@Wade Woodard You're right, there is a pay-to-play aspect, and the list of gold winners is indeed getting larger every year. That's why I stuck with the Double Gold, which has proven to be a reliable measure of quality.

Personally, I find low-priced Sobieski to be the best for most vodka cocktails, but when vodka is prominent in a drink, such as a vodka collins or vodka & tonic, the taste of Tito's does shine through, probably because the corn base makes it slightly sweeter and smoother.  Like I said, it wins most of the taste tests from other sources, especially when tasted neat.

Wade Woodard
Wade Woodard

@JohnKiely Nothing wrong with the taste of Tito's as far as Vodkas goes and it's fairly inexpensive.  

I'll let you in on the industry's dirty little secret.  Many Vodkas are nothing more than brands that buy bulk GNS (grain neutral spirit distilled to 190 proof) cut it to 80 proof with water (and can also add a small % of sugar and citric acid). and bottle it in their brand. 

U.S. Department of the Treasury's Tax and Trade Bureau, TTB defines vodka as a neutral spirit made from any material, distilled above 95% ABV (190 proof), then treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.

There are several very large companies that produce bulk GNS, such as Archer Daniels Midland and MGP Ingredients.  They ferment then distill in very large column still and each column has multiple plates.  Each plate is considered a distillation  so the product they sell could easily be called distilled 100 times.   If you have DSP (federal license to produce spirits) you can buy in bulk, 55 gallon drums to tanker trucks, from these producers.

The basic process of making spirits is mash the grain, ferment it, then distilling.  I believe a true craft distiller should control all 3 of these steps.  Hence why I ask the question has anybody seen the fermenting tanks at Tito's?


@Wade Woodard Thanks for the inside stuff.  What's amazing, and kind of sad, is how long the aisle has become in liquor stores for a spirit that's "without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color."

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