10 of the Best Bottom Shelf, Cheap Gins, Blind-Tasted and Ranked

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10 of the Best Bottom Shelf, Cheap Gins, Blind-Tasted and Ranked

This list is part of a Paste series of bottom shelf liquor and craft beer style tastings. Click here to view all entries in the series.

There’s no shortage of articles online that purport to tell you how to find the best “cheap liquor” or “bottom shelf” picks for various styles of booze. And for the most part? These articles suck.

Allow me to tell you why.

First of all, almost all of the “best cheap ____” lists you’ll find online are way off base on a reasonable definition of what is actually “cheap” or “bottom shelf” to the average consumer. Through a combination of laziness and an apparent reluctance to sample brands that might actually taste like bottom shelf rotgut, you end up with lists such as “the best cheap gins under $25,” or “the best cheap gins under $30,” which we should consider an automatic failure on the “cheap” front. I don’t need a list like this one to tell me that Bombay and Tanqueray are quality gin brands for under $30. Likewise, no gin drinker needs a list like this one to tell them the same about Boodles and Aviation. Suffice to say: Everyone already knows these brands are decent, and everyone should be able to expect these brands to be decent, because you’re going to pay almost $30 for most of them. They simply aren’t “bottom shelf.” This is the mid-shelf, and you don’t get to pretend otherwise. This isn’t the information a reader is looking for when they type “best cheap gins” into Google.

Secondly, most of these articles don’t even bother to make the claim that they rounded up all the liquors on the list for an actual, in-person tasting. For all you know, you’re reading entries written off months-old memories, or tastings conducted over the course of weeks. None have the inherent objectivity you get with a one-day, comprehensive, blind tasting of everything on the list.

So, that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Using the same basic methodology that we’ve refined in our years of blind tasting various craft beer styles, Paste is beginning a series of truly bottom shelf liquor tastings. We’ll be tasting the real bottom shelf heroes in every genre, from gin and tequila to bourbon, scotch and blended whiskey. You won’t find anything here that can’t be found in a 750 ml bottle for $15 or less. If you’re on a budget, this is the list for you.

First up? Gin, the foundational liquor behind so many classic cocktails, as well as some of the world’s most popular mixed drinks, such as the ubiquitous G&T.

Rules and Procedure

— This is a tasting of gins, with a strict price limit of $15 or less for a 750 ml bottle. Some of the bottles we used in the tasting were merely pints, but every brand on this list was available for $15 or less on Total Wine at the time of writing.

— Gins were available to tasters both neat, and mixed with equal ratios of tonic water, although tasting neat proved to be considerably more illuminating.

— All gins in this tasting were acquired directly from liquor stores in Georgia.

— Gins were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines.

The Rankings: All 10 Gins, Ranked From Worst to Best

10. New Amsterdam Straight Gin
Distillery: Modesto Distillery
ABV: 40% (80 proof)

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Since the moment it burst onto the scene, New Amsterdam has been one of the most divisive gins on the American market, and after tasting it blind we can now see why. It belongs to the group of products variously described as “new western” or “contemporary” gins, but even among these citrus-forward, juniper-decreased offshoots, New Amsterdam stands out—in a bad way, unfortunately—for the sheer intensity and artificiality of its flavors. It’s no surprise to see why it has fans—Americans love sweet, artificially flavored drinks with a blinding, addictive intensity. It might as well be the defining trait of this nation’s liquor consumers as a collective, so it’s only natural that New Amsterdam would have one group of rabid supporters and an equally vocal group of detractors.

Sampled blind, though, New Amsterdam literally smells and tastes completely different than anything else on the table. Bizarrely intense notes of lemon candy and grape soda are present on the nose, while the palate is dominated by sticky sweet grapefruit and orange, which pass into a harsh, boozy finish. This is a gin that absolutely needs tonic to be in any way palatable, but even when mixed in a G&T its sugary sweetness and artificial citrus notes are galling to most palates accustomed to gin.

The bottom line is, if you serve this to someone without telling them what kind of liquor they’re tasting, they’re going to guess that it’s cheap, flavored vodka. You might be able to find a good application for a spirit like that, but you won’t see us using New Amsterdam in proper gin drinks anytime soon.

9. Taaka Gin
Distillery: Sazerac Co.
ABV: 40% (80 proof)

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As I asked for one of the plastic pints of Taaka from behind the package store register, the cashier casually remarked that this was the most popular gin selection among my city’s homeless gin aficionados, so we immediately knew we were in good hands here. At $6-8 per 750 ml bottle, this is among the cheapest gins you can buy in bulk, anywhere in the U.S. Only a couple of the other entries on this list (Glenmore, Mr. Boston, etc.) can claim to be in this ultra-low price bracket.

Unfortunately, this is also a case where the gin tastes exactly how you’d expect for the price. Taaka is actually fairly mild on the nose—“dusty” and vaguely medicinal, or what one taster described as “butterscotch, and not in a good way.” On the palate likewise the thing that stands out more than anything is an underwhelming lack of any discernible gin flavor—very light on juniper, or just about any note that isn’t alcohol derived. It comes off as one-note and watery, like very diluted (we’re actually thankful for this) rubbing alcohol. As sad as it is to say, it’s exactly what you’d expect someone living on the street to be drinking—the most “hooch”-like of all the gins for sure.

8. Burnett’s Gin
Distillery: Heaven Hill
ABV: 40% (80 proof)

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This is about the point of the tasting where we graduate from “something you should never drink” to “something that might actually be okay as a mixer.” Burnett’s isn’t a terribly visible brand, but it does have its fans, and it can at least claim to hail from a reliable whiskey producer in the form of Heaven Hill. The end result isn’t great, but it’s certainly better than the likes of Taaka.

The main knock on this gin is its unpalatable combination of sweetness and a lack of distinct flavor notes. Ethanol factors in prominently, while flavor notes are limited to candy sweet lime and an oddly intense and specific floral note that reminded one taster of hibiscus blossoms. This gin simply feels like it’s here to party in an overly saccharine, brightly colored mixed drink of some kind.

7. Glenmore Gin
Distillery: Sazerac Co.
ABV: 40% (80 proof)

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Finally, we’re coming to a gin that actually had some fans among the Paste tasters. Glenmore is another one of the very cheapest of these gins, coming in well below the $10 mark for a 750 ml bottle, and you could do much worse than this for making G&Ts at a pool party.

In terms of character, this one comes across as a pretty classical London dry gin, although its signature is simply that all its notes are on the muted side. Some tasters saw this as a positive quality, citing the balanced profile of crisp juniper, pepper and citrus notes, with a moderate level of residual sweetness. Others thought that Glenmore wasn’t assertive enough, noting that it was “unobtrusive” but too mild, and without enough character to distinguish itself. Either way, this was ultimately among the easiest drinking of all the gins, so if that’s the quality you prize most strongly, drop $8 on a bottle of this today. It’s not nearly assertive enough for a proper martini, but it’s a natural complement to cheap supermarket tonic.

6. 13th Colony Southern Gin
Distillery: Thirteenth Colony Distilleries
ABV: 41% (82 proof)

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We figured that we might as well represent one of our local Georgian craft distillers in the gin tasting as long as they still made it under the $15 price limit, and this one from 13th Colony is certainly priced to move. You might expect a craft gin from a tiny producer to likely be more unique in terms of profile than a lot of the mass market brands, and you would be right in this case—13th Colony presents with an interestingly distinct blend of florals and woodsy notes on the nose, with peppery spice and a dash of what one taster swore was cinnamon/cassia bark. On the palate, this gin is on the sweeter side, with pink peppercorn spiciness, perfumey florals and juniper freshness—it certainly does seem quite “botanical.” It’s a potentially interesting gin for a variety of applications, but not as harmonious a whole as some of the others in the top half.

5. Seagram’s Extra Dry Gin
Distillery: MGP of Indiana
ABV: 40% (80 proof)

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Ah yes, “the bumpy.” Seagram’s is, more or less, what a lot of us think of when someone says “cheap gin.” It has a reputation as one of the more dependable mixing gins you can get at the price, and the reputation is well earned. Beyond tasting decent as a mixer, it can make the claim of being one the more true-to-style of all the bottom shelf gins professing themselves as being in the “London dry gin” style.

On the nose, it’s immediately clear that Seagram’s is a classical London dry gin, with big, resinous notes of pine and perfumey juniper. There are some florals here, and a kiss of vanilla sweetness as well, but also sturdy bitterness that is keeping everything in check. A twist of grapefruit and orange peel complements the basic structure, but ultimately it’s the juniper that is the star of the show. The tasting notes you write for it sound like a basic template for what most of us think of as gin, and several tasters’ notes actually say something akin to “basic, classic gin.”

Ultimately, that probably means you won’t be using this in a martini, where we’d appreciate a more diverse or distinctive array of botanicals, but it makes a pleasantly juniper-forward G&T.

4. Barton Gin
Distillery: Sazerac Co.
ABV: 40% (80 proof)

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Clearly, when Sazerac Co. acquired the Barton, Glenmore, and Mr. Boston distilleries, they came into possession of quite a few cheap gin brands. This one doesn’t seem particularly well known among the gin literati, but it’s a solid value, if not at all complex.

Where something like Seagram’s falls back on the classical aspects of the gin flavor profile, with punchy juniper and bitter pine, Barton Gin is a more successful implementation of the contemporary or “new western” style that is attempted so bombastically in New Amsterdam. Like the New Amsterdam it’s dominated by citrus on the nose, but it doesn’t feel nearly so artificial or onerous—instead, it’s a pleasant profile of lemon-lime, into tangerine on the palate. Moderate-to-high sweetness will probably make the classical gin drinker turn up their nose, but it stops short of being cloying. In general, this gin mixed beautifully with our cheap, store-bought tonic, and perhaps more than any of the other 10 entries, this gin’s score was really helped when tasting it in a G&T. If you’re a New Amsterdam drinker who is ready to look past marketing and try a better, more balanced version of the style, seek out some Barton Gin.

3. Gilbey’s Gin
Distillery: Jim Beam/Beam Suntory
ABV: 40% (80 proof)

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If you’re looking for the gin here that packs some of the biggest flavors into an easily affordable package, allow us to point you in the direction of the very gregarious Gilbey’s. This is a classical London dry gin all the way—we’re actually sort of impressed that something so inherently British-style is coming out of Beam. This stuff is punchy and expressive on the nose, with lots of pine, juniper and berry fruit sweetness, along with a twist of lemon. On the palate the citrus is more orange-like, with a combination of bitter orange peel, coriander spice and plenty of juniper from start to finish. Some might actually find the character of this gin a bit too forward—the ethanol is a tad harsh, and the juniper is a tad boisterous—but we think that’s exactly what they were going for. You might consider it the spiritual counterpart to the laid-back Glenmore, for the opposite of occasions. This is for when you want to know you’re drinking gin, regardless of how you’re mixing it. If gin and juice is your thing, this one has the character to shine through.

2. Mr. Boston English Market Gin
Distillery: Sazerac Co.
ABV: 40% (80 proof)

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Yet another Sazerac brand—who knew that they had acquired so many of the bottom shelf gin brands of yore? Still, we are ecstatic to discover the joys of the formerly “Old” Mr. Boston English Market Gin, which must go down as the biggest surprise of the tasting. If you’re in the market for a gin that you can find in 1.75 liter bottles for about $10, there’s no way that you’re going to do better than this. This stuff is so cheap, we might never buy another well gin again for our mixed drinks. Note: Whatever liquid is inside this bottle likely has nothing to do with the “Old Mr. Boston” products that your parents consumed back in college, being entirely an invention of the modern Sazerac Co.

What we have here is a lighter, very easygoing take on London Dry gin, but with some mild characteristics of the more modern western style. Certainly lighter on the palate and less alcohol-forward than the likes of Gilbey’s or Seagram’s, Mr. Boston is a bit more botanical focused, with some pleasant notes of lemon-lime sweetness, restrained juniper and subtle coriander spice. Mild all around, it gets extra points for hiding its booziness very tactfully, even when sipped neat. Ultimately, Mr. Boston isn’t anywhere near the most assertive or most unique of these brands, but it’s definitely one of the best balanced and most approachable. And arguably, it might be the best pure value of the bunch because it is so damn cheap.

1. Gordon’s Gin
Distillery: Cameronbridge Gin Distillery
ABV: 40% (80 proof)

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Simply put, there’s a reason why Gordon’s has been around since 1769. One of the oldest gins in the world, and certainly one of the most famous thanks to its association with James Bond, our blind tasting holds up what many gin drinkers presumably already know: This is the best gin in the world you can buy for less than $15. Universally enjoyed by the tasters in Paste’s panel, it ultimately wasn’t very close. Gordon’s won this thing by a country mile.

On the nose, Gordon’s pops with fresh, resinous pine and sweet citrus impressions of lemon zest and grapefruit peel. On the palate, things become quite nicely balanced. That’s the thing about Gordon’s, the impeccable balance. Every flavor you’d expect to be present is there, but none are overpowering. Juniper intensity is moderate, as is residual sweetness. Florals and hints of spice (coriander, cardamom) add complexity, while a subtle ethanol burn makes you respect its presence. This gin is a flavor wheel divided up into equal parts: Juniper, citrus, spice, alcohol. It’s precisely what we would expect a great London dry gin to taste like, and it’s still cheap as hell, all things considered. A handle is about $5 more than a 1.75 L bottle of Mr. Boston, but we’d drop that extra fiver, nine times out of ten.

All hail the wild boar; emblem of Gordon’s, the king of bottom shelf gin.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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