Every holiday season, neophyte party planners come to realize that their ideal soiree — one replete with the finest of cheeses, homemade baked goods, and small batch cocktails — isn’t entirely realistic. To ease the stress of buying supplies, they start settling for “good enough,” heading to Costco where, if you have a membership, you can buy… practically everything, even generic Kirkland liquor that, despite being cheaper and of more mysterious origins than the name brand stuff, will absolutely satisfy holiday cocktail needs.
There’s a lot to consider when it comes to purchasing off-brand booze from, let’s be real, distilleries we know nothing about. The major question, of course, is “Is it worth the discount?” Will that “Blended Scotch Whiskey” make a decent Penicillin? Will anyone notice the difference between Kirkland’s “Spiced Rum” and Captain Morgan? Do you care?
Here’s what to consider:
What do you want to do with it?
The most readily shared secret of the bar industry is this: When you’re making mixed drinks or juice-and-modifier-forward cocktails, the brand of base spirit you use rarely matters. In a whiskey smash, for instance, it barely makes a difference if you’re using Jim Beam or Jack Daniels or something less widely marketed like Four Roses Yellow Label. The lemon, mint, and sugar are going to be much more discernible flavors than any differences between those three bourbons. The same is true for many highballs: Ordering a top shelf vodka and cranberry juice is a waste of money. With all that mixer, it doesn’t much matter what your base is.
The flip-side of this is, of course, if you plan to drink these spirits neat, on the rocks, or in more spirit-forward cocktails like martinis, Old Fashioneds, or Manhattans. Alcohol served this way is meant to be savored, or at the very least noticed, as it’s being consumed: Do not try to pass off Costco-brand gin for Hendrick’s in a room full of martini drinkers.
What color is it?
Every alcohol (except agave based-spirits like tequila and mezcal) comes off the still looking and smelling very much the same. Rum and whiskey acquire all of their color and flavor from the barrels they are aged in post-distillation — or at least they should.
One of the greatest sins of mass-produced hard alcohol is the use of coloring agents and added sugars. There is, for instance, no such thing as a gold tequila. Tequila, unaged, is clear, a.k.a. silver. Reposado (rested) and añejo (aged) tequilas are golden-brown in color because they have absorbed coloring and flavor characters of the wooden barrels they’ve been stored in. A “gold tequila” is essentially vodka pumped full of artificial color and flavor to taste like something close to tequila.
The same can be said of supremely cheap whiskey, Scotch, and rum.
The clear stuff, on the other hand, is much less likely to be adulterated. Does this mean all gins and vodkas are created equal? No. But it does mean that the margins between not too bad and actually pretty good are typically much smaller.
So which bottles can you safely pick up for cheap while not sacrificing quality?
Here’s a list of Costco’s signature Kirkland-brand boozes to help you decide which ones are worth the gamble.
French Vodka: $ 19.99
The French vodka available at Costco has been rumored to be the same stuff as Grey Goose, misinformation that persists despite Grey Goose’s firm denials that they produce Costco’s vodka. But the rumor exists for a good reason: This stuff is pretty darn good, especially for $ 20 a handle. It’s a bit sweeter than Grey Goose but has none of the rubbing alcohol nose or mouthfeel that you risk with something like Rubinoff. If you’re thinking gimlets or sours, or mixing with soda water or tonic (or fruit juice), Kirkland works just fine.
London Dry Gin: $ 18.59
Gin is essentially vodka infused with various botanicals, like cardamom, juniper, and citrus peel. With that in mind, it’s safe to say that Costco gin is going to drink like gin. The biggest thing to consider in terms of quality here is the source of those botanicals: While this bottle is sure to be free of coloring agents, you might not want to dwell too long on where, exactly, that gin flavor is coming from (although the same can be said for major distilleries like Bombay and Tanqueray). Like Kirkland’s vodka, I guarantee you this works well with soda water or tonic as well as fruit-juice-forward cocktails like a gimlet or Collins.
Blended Scotch Whiskey: $ 17.99
Any time you purchase a blended Scotch you are buying a blend of Scotch whiskeys from different distilleries combined and sold in a single bottle, which sounds sketchier than it is. A majority of Scotches on the market, even single malts, are, in fact, blended: The phrase “single malt” does not refer to the product coming from a single barrel; that’s, well, single barrel whiskey. A single malt Scotch is simply the product of a single distillery, while blended Scotches often combine whiskeys from various spirit producers.
The reason for this? There is no way to control for consistency with single barrel spirits; they’re all going to look, smell, and taste differently.
Costco’s blended Scotch whiskey is procured from Alexander Murray & Company, a purveyor and exporter of Scotch whiskeys. It works with 12 Scottish distilleries to procure the goods for and bottle Scotch for places like Trader Joe’s, Total Wine, and yep, Costco.
This bottle reminds me of Dewar’s White Label, a standard go-to well Scotch in many a cocktail bar, and will mix well with soda water or ginger beer (and would totally work in a Penicillin). But I’d go with something single malt if you and your guests are into Scotch on the rocks.
Small Batch Bourbon: $ 29.99
Costco’s house bourbons have scored incredibly well on various booze geek scales; including a top prize at the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition in the past few years. How? Much like blended Scotches are comprised of whiskeys from various distilleries, Kirkland’s Small Batch Bourbon is a blend.
Of the Kirkland blend, Eric Goldfarb at Punch writes:
“Costco has a volume deal with [spirits] companies including Edrington and Diageo,” claims Mike Raymond, owner of Reserve 101, a top whiskey bar in Houston, and a judge at the annual Whiskies of the World conference. “They agree to buy a certain amount of product at a certain price, which is far lower than everyone else is paying. For products like Johnnie Walker Blue or Macallan, it’s virtually impossible to beat Costco on price.”
The same logistics can be applied to Kirkland’s blended Canadian whiskey ($ 18.99), which makes all three of these bottles solid options for the price, although for $ 30 a bottle for the bourbon, I might stick to something I know both blends well and is palatable on its own, like Buffalo Trace.
Spiced Rum: $ 14.99
Good rum is very difficult to make cheaply, and a spiced rum for me is a massive red flag: You basically have no idea what’s actually in that bottle. At $ 14.99, the Kirkland spiced rum is absolutely tinted with caramel coloring which, if you’re just mixing it with coke, probably won’t matter a whole lot, particularly when it comes to flavor. It can and will, however, contribute to the magnitude of your hangover the next day. I’d be lying if I said I’d buy this — or drink it.
Añejo Tequila: $ 19.99
I drink a lot of off-brand tequila. In fact, when I’m at a bar and ask the bartender what their well tequila is, I’ll typically drink it so long as it’s clear and in a glass bottle because it’s much harder to fake a silver tequila.
Cheap tequila gets a bad rap for a good reason: True tequila can only be produced in Mexico, and in specific parts of Mexico at that. Unlike whiskey, rum, gin, or vodka, you can’t rely on barreling or aging to get a neutral spirit to taste like tequila. For $ 20 a bottle, I fear that the Costco-brand añejo tequila is essentially tequila-flavored vodka with a dose of artificial coloring to mimic the barrel-aged color. Which is all to say I would not buy it.
If, however, you’re feeling bold and absolutely must complete your booze list via the Kirkland-brand family, use this to make margaritas: Fresh lime juice and a splash simple syrup make most things go down easy, though I can’t vouch for how this particular combination will make you feel the next day. (As with the spiced rum, you’ll probably feel terrible.)
Party planners, you are now fully armed with the ins and outs of which tantalizingly cheap Kirkland-brand bottles are actually worth both the risk of subpar cocktails and your money. With the BIG exceptions of rum and tequila, you can confidently complete your booze buying quest in a single stop which, let’s be honest, is so very often the greatest gift of the holiday season.
Haley Hamilton is a Boston-based bartender, writer, and snack enthusiast.