Whether your get-together this year is a few quiet drinks or a raucous 'Hooray! We survived that Mayan nonsense' affair, a few drinks on standby is a necessity. But if giving gifts means you've been mercilessly raiding your wallet and are beginning to resent that bothersome generous streak you seem to have acquired, then avoiding the top-shelf stuff is a necessity.
I had the frequently deeply unpleasant experience of tasting all the inexpensive bottles on the high street and compiled a list of those actually drinkable. Did I suffer through supermarket 'value' and 'basic' own brands? Yes I did. Are they on the list? No. They were, for the most part, appalling stuff, the kind that give instant hangovers - our cats seemed to positively stamp about the room - and every drink was met with a face all screwed up in the shape of an X.
However, the drinks below are good. Not just comparatively good, or surprisingly good, but actually good. Flavoursome, yummy, appetising. Most shone when mixed into cocktails or met with a scoop of ice. While there are better drinks out there, most check in at around twice the price.
All bottles 70cl unless otherwise stated.
Western Gold - Lidl, £11.49 (in London but varies store to store so could be cheaper!)
Thoughts: Though I watched a recommendation from Ralphy, I remained extremely dubious ...but I opened it up, gave it a sniff and - was shocked, not surprised. There wasn't that horrendous note of alcohol-plastic-medicine as it smoked up into my nose. On tasting? Even better: cheap booze tends to be a mouthful of (negligible) flavour which washes away to a mouthful of sugary alcohol. Not so with this; it tasted like, though not identical to, Jim Beam but perhaps a little sweeter and smoother, which makes it a winner in my book. Ideal for cocktails or over ice.
Any awards? IWSC Silver Medal, 2010 / International Spirits Challenge 2010, Gold.
Another excellent choice: Clarke's Kentucky Bourbon - Aldi, £11.49. Much the same.
Grant's Scotch whiskey (Family Reserve) - £11, Sainsbury's.
It has to be blended Scotch at this price and Grant's do it best - their whisky has a little character whereas most other blends at this price point are dull, thin and a waste of time. This blend is a cut above any own brand offering at this price point and, indeed, is one of the best blends under £20.
Any awards? Lots - 2009 International Wine and Spirit Competition - Gold, 2009 International Spirits Challenge - Silver, 2008 International Wine and Spirit Competition - Bronze, 2008 International Spirits Challenge - Bronze, 2007 International Wine and Spirit Competition - Siver, 2007 International Spirits Challenge - Bronze. Jim Murray of the 'Whisky Bible' described it in 2007 as "A glass of genius. It defines the odds for quality."
Another excellent choice: None for £11.
Oliver Cromwell 1599 Premium Gin - Aldi £9.49 (50cl)
Aldi's premium Gin has been around for a while and if a chance arises for getting a bottle and a glass and putting the two together, take it. 1599 is fresh, excellent on its own over ice and even better with bitter lemon or tonic. The price tag is misleading - this is the best gin I've had under £20. It's no Tanqueray 10 or Martin Miller's Westbourne but it's light, fresh, heavy on the juniper in a good way - I'm turning into a drinks bore but the point stands.
Any awards? It won the Gin and Vodka Association Trophy in 2010 as being the very best (beating all branded items), Quality drink awards 2011 winner, IWSC Gold 2011 best in class,
Another excellent choice: Gordon's is on at £12 on offer most places - the sturdy old favourite is good stuff. For something not on offer, Greenall's gin does the trick too.
Putinoff Vodka - Lidl £7.99
"Oh. God. £7.99 vodka. I may as well be sick now." says your brain. Set those thoughts aside and try this stuff. I do not favour vodka in any situation but this - I drank it and found it far exceeding Smirnoff or Absolut in quality, leaving other supermarket own brands stumbling behind. It appears I'm not alone.
Any awards? Internationaler Spirituosen Wettbewerb 2010 Silver, IWSC 2010 Silver, International Spirits Challenge 2010 Commended.
Another excellent choice: why bother? Just stick with this.
Mount Gay Rum- £13, ASDA
At this price, it's an absolute steal. Mount Gay has a rightly deserved reputation for being excellent stuff and though it's more expensive than anything else on this list, it's worth the extra couple of quid. Get some while it's still at this price.
Another excellent choice: Lamb's Navy rum - around £11. Maybe it isn't excellent - it's an odd flavour (it smells almost like it's savoury) but it's interesting and works well with mixers.