Drinking is expensive! Or at least it is if you do it with any kind of style and dedication. If your lone goal is to get loaded while spending as little as possible, then you’re probably in peril, but also in luck. The rise of the boozy alco-pop (Four Loko and the like) means there’s never been a better time to drink yourself smart for a taco’s worth of loose change. But things can get pricey if you aspire to enjoy the ride.
That’s terrible, but probably for the best. Life gets tricky when your preferred vices are too accessible. Look at where underpriced oil, heroin, and chicken nuggets have gotten us. I can accept the self-regulatory benefits of having our wallets feel our hangovers as much as our poor, dead brains do, but that doesn’t mean we should be derelict in our financial duty at the bar or the liquor store. Here are 14 tips to help you stretch your booze dollar so that you can afford to tastefully pickle your liver for the rest of your dwindling days.
1. Buy in bulk. BevMo sells Sierra Nevada Pale Ale 6-packs for $10, 12-packs for $19, and full 24-bottle cases for $29. The 12-pack discount isn’t anything special, but the case price is essentially saying, “Buy three sixers, get one free—plus a dollar!” The tricky thing about this is it requires commitment to the cause: You need to either drink it all in one go or eat room-temperature yogurt for as long as the beer is dominating your fridge.
Wine presents similar opportunities and challenges. It’s not hard to find a store willing to knock 10 or even 20 percent off the top if you buy 12 bottles at a time, which is great if you have a favorite wine and a place to keep it all. But if your wine cellar is, say, the hot and rattling top of your refrigerator, your 20-percent-off wine risks losing 40 percent of its value before you get around to drinking it.
But good news: The liquor won’t let you down! Hard alcohol has a practically unlimited lifespan, it doesn’t take up much room, and it can be safely stored anywhere your cousin Jeff isn’t likely to look. BevMo charges $40 for a 750-mL bottle of Eagle Rare, but only $61 for the 1.75-L version. That means 50 percent more money gets you 133 percent more bourbon.
2. Do the draft math at bars. Bigger isn’t always cheaper when it comes to draft beer, though. Bar prices tend to be more scattershot than retail prices, likely because the built-in profit margin is so high that bars don’t feel compelled to break the abacus out every time they change the menu. For whatever reason, it’s not uncommon to find a place that sells variable sizes of the same draft beer for misaligned prices. If a pint (16 ounces) of Bud Light is $4, don’t get talked into paying $6 for the 23-ounce Jumbo Tough Guy Monster Brewski; at that rate, you’re giving away an ounce of beer for the privilege of making the bartender’s job easier and limiting your flexibility.
Don’t be afraid to sacrifice a bit of per-ounce savings by scaling down, though. I’m all for maximizing my beer pennies, but there’s no value in letting an obsession with unit pricing bully you into buying a $6 pint of the good stuff when you’d be happier with a $3.50 half-pint. It’s not unreasonable for a bar to charge a slight tariff in exchange for the freedom to bounce around the menu drinking shorter pours. Figure out how the math breaks down, but don’t let it run your life.
3. Beware of oversized beer bottles. A lot of truly exceptional beers are only available in the 750-mL cork-and-cage format. That’s not always the most convenient package, but there’s simply no other way to drink Allagash Curieux (Drunkspin’s Favorite Beer of All Time, btw) in the squalor of your own home. But be careful about spending too much on a 22-ounce bomber of a beer that may be a little easier to come by. BevMo sells the Stone Enjoy By IPA line for $8.50 per 22-ounce bottle versus $19 per 12-ounce six-pack. That works out to 50 percent more per ounce (39 cents to 26 cents) for the big bottle.
Also, if you settle for a monster bottle and don’t want to drink it all at once, there’s no need to force it all down anyway or, perish the thought, waste the unused portion. If you’re careful not to mangle the cap when you remove it, you can just cram it back onto the bottle and re-fridge the leftovers after you’ve poured yourself the desired serving. That won’t create a perfect seal, but it will get you through till the next day just fine. Those wine-stopper things work, too.
4. Exploit inefficiencies. Amtrak is probably America’s finest bar. On the Northeast Corridor run, you can get a bottle of Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA for $8. Not bad for a great beer when you’re in captivity! But if you’re a wino, make sure you stick with the $6.50 single-serving rather than the half-bottle (double-serving) for $16. Even when they’re different wines (it varies), they’re still all just train hooch, so it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it makes sense to pay 2.5 times more for twice as much wine.
5. Check freshness dates on beer. IPAs in particular lose their shine fairly quickly. They never go “bad” in the chunky-milk sense, but the hops often begin to fade within a month or so of bottling. And if you see a summer beer for half-price in March, it’s probably not a special introductory rate for the new model.
6. But get closeout deals on winter warmers if you like that sort of thing. Some styles age better than others. If your local store is desperate to clear out the pumpkin beers to make room for Christmas stuff on November 1, then get yourself some discount nutmeg brews! Most of them will be no worse in January than they were in September.
7. Order a Manhattan. Or an Old-Fashioned or a Sazerac or a Negroni or any other drink that isn’t diluted by non-alcoholic adjuncts beyond maybe a splash of syrup or a cube of sugar. Don’t reflexively reject the high price tag for a fancy-bar cocktail; they’re often served in oversized jugs that appear to be relics of the Appletini Era, when drinks with all sorts of juices, sodas, and affiliated nonsense were served in giant cocktail glasses. There’s everything right with paying $13 for 4 ounces of good rye, 2 ounces of sweet vermouth, and a deluxe cherry.
8. Don’t overlook generics. Trader Joe doesn’t own a brewery—he pays someone else to make beer for him, and sometimes he accidentally pays a talented brewer to make good beer for short money. The Stockyard Oatmeal Stout, for example, is downright pleasant, and the Providential Golden Ale, brewed by Quebecois magicians Unibroue, is even better. And sure, the $3 Charles Shaw wines (and their Whole Foods equivalents) are kinda garbage, but they’re eminently sangriable, which is all you can ask for at that price. Even 7-Eleven used to make a drinkable swill called Game Day Ice, and I’ve heard there are some relative gems hidden in Costco’s Kirkland-brand beer lineup.
9. Avoid the Featured Beer of the Day unless it’s on sale. Otherwise it’s probably an overstock. This is fine if it’s the happy hour special, but if it’s listed at full price and designated as the “bartender’s choice,” that quite likely means either the distributor is incentivizing the bar to push it—which is fine, but none of your concern—or it’s a musty slow-seller they’re desperate to unload.
10. Never buy Corona. If you like the flavor of unadulterated Corona, you’re a crazy person who can’t be trusted with alcohol or money. However, many sane and reasonable people have fond memories of Corona tarted up with lime, and those fine folk are better off shoving limes down the throats of the cheapest, palest lager they can find. Pabst and lime tastes better than Corona and lime, and it’ll save you a buck a bottle.
11. Mind the mixers. A Screwdriver has at least twice as much orange juice as it does vodka, which is why it’s cheaper and tastier to go with fresh-squeezed juice and plastic-jug liquor as opposed to frozen OJ and Grey Goose. There’s often more variability between good and bad mixers than there is between good and bad spirits.
12. When in doubt, get the porter. Just about every brewery can pull off a tolerable stout or porter, because roasted malt hides flaws. I’ve had some godawful pale ales, but I can’t remember a stout any worse than a C-plus.
13. Drink wine on boats. Or in any other nonconventional setting where a semi-pro bartender is trusted to free-pour from full-size bottles. A lot of ferries and the like close this loophole by serving wine in miniature bottles, but the ones that don’t are quite likely to sell you a good eight ounces for the price of five, because civilians always overpour at home, and five measly ounces look so lonely in a 16-ounce plastic cup. Your server doesn’t have the same latitude in cracking a bottle of beer or filling up a pint, so wine is your best bet to beat the system.
14. Start at the top. If bloggers had resumes, the first line of mine would read, “I have had a bottle of Goose Island Bourbon County Regal Rye in my fridge since the day after Thanksgiving; I can be trusted.” This is a rare display of restraint, however. Too much of the good stuff that I intend to save for a special occasion gets sucked down in desperation on some regular old half-soaked Wednesday evening when I’ve run out of both Schlitz and the ambition to acquire more. So if you have your eye on the trophy Scotch shelf as soon as you walk in the bar, order it for your second drink. Allow one beer’s worth of reflection, so you can decide if you’re really ready to go for it, and if you are, act before it’s too late. A lot of liquor snobs say Johnnie Walker Blue is overrated, but no one knows for sure, because we’re all too cheap to drop the $40 until we’re too loose to taste it. Fix that.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and some of his closest friends have met Certified Cicerones. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.
Image by Tara Jacoby.
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