When it comes to cheap liquor, Trader Joe’s and Costco have become the go-to big-box stores.

Costco’s vodka costs $12.99 (before taxes). That’s for a 1.75 liter bottle. Trader Joe’s gin goes for a song — $11.99.

But are these any good? We wanted to know.

I enlisted a couple of discerning palates to sample some of the stores’ best-sellers.

Joining me on the tasting:

Paul Clarke, executive editor of Imbibe, a must-read bimonthly magazine for the bartending and distilling community.

Andrew Friedman, a former judge for the American Distilling Institute and former owner of the Capitol Hill bar Liberty, which, under Friedman, boasted one of the city’s largest collections of whiskeys and agave spirits, two categories heavily represented in this tasting.

We focused on the everyday consumer, not the connoisseur. No geeking out on mashbill or yeast strain. Adjectives like “quaffable” on tasting notes earn banishment to a dark corner. I run a tight ship here, people.

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The goal: pick booze based on the yummy factor and price value.

Our rating system: “not recommended,” “recommended buy” and “highly recommended.”

(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

Our conclusion: four are duds that you shouldn’t buy just because they’re dirt cheap.

The best value is a $16.99 bottle from Trader Joe’s.

One bottle from Costco is a stunner that you likely haven’t heard of.

 


Vodka 

(Costco brand) Kirkland’s French vodka, 40% alcohol, $21.99 for 1.75 liters

Kirkland’s American vodka, 40%, $12.99 for 1.75 liters

Trader Joe’s vodka, 40%, $9.99 750 ml bottle

Comparing just the two American vodkas side by side seemed logical, but Costco’s French Vodka is so wildly popular, I added that to the mix.

The result was an upset: We all favored Trader Joe’s in the blind tasting, concluding it would make the best martini of the three vodkas.

We favor neutral-tasting vodka, which Trader Joe’s was, at least compared to the pair from Costco. I thought Costco’s American vodka had a harsher burn on the finish. Trader Joe’s was more rounded and structured.

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On the famed Costco’s French vodka: Friedman detected a hint of sulfur. Clarke found it to be more “buttery and toffee on the nose.”

Costco’s French vodka finished dead last in our sampling. The hint of sulfur is a sign of poor craftsmanship. But I could see why it captivates the mainstream. It’s slightly silky in texture and the cake-doughy sweet finish makes it go down easy. It doesn’t taste like liquor, more like liquid candy. Fans swear this is better than Grey Goose vodka, which costs twice as much. So just for kicks, we did a blind tasting between Grey Goose and Costco’s French vodka. Two out of three judges thought this was splitting hairs and couldn’t detect a big difference, while Friedman was the lone judge who favored Grey Goose. Clarke and I agree that if you love Grey Goose, this is a good deal.

Verdict:

“Recommended buy” on Costco’s and Trader Joe’s America vodkas.

Costco’s French vodka: two voted “recommended buy,” with Friedman rejecting.

Gin

Costco’s Kirkland London dry gin, 44% ABV, $21.99 for 1.75 liter

Trader Joe’s gin, 40% ABV, $11.99 for 750 ml.

Costco’s gin lists nine botanicals including juniper, coriander, lime, nutmeg, fir needle, lemon, lavender and dill, while Trader Joe’s listed juniper, “zesty citrus” and coriander.

We agreed neither was complex. They were more middle-of-the pack gins that will neither offend nor excite anyone.

Costco’s “is a very soft gin,” Clarke said, while Trader Joe’s “finishes drier. If you’re going to relax with an awesome martini, you can do better for a few bucks more; you can do a lot better.”

We weren’t gaga for either, but, damn if you can find a passable gin at these prices.

Verdict:

“Recommended buy” rating for both gins.

 

Tequila

Costco Kirkland Silver tequila, 40%, $21.99 for 1.75 liter

Trader Joe’s Blanco tequila, 40%, $19.99 for 750 ml

Our tasting discussion was tame. Then the tequilas came out and so did the knives.

On Costco’s

Friedman: “These two will upset any lover of agave. (Costco’s) has an unnatural sweetness like it does not come straight from an agave field or distillation.”

Clarke: It “has this odd, sweet jasmine thing going on. It’s like wearing clown shoes or something. It’s out of place. The nose on it is flat and sweet. It’s like sniffing a bowl of agave syrup. I like a peppery bite. Some texture. This does not have that. It does not have that property you look for in a good tequila.”

On Trader Joe’s

Clarke: “It’s really sweet and subdued, and then there is this — what the hell is that? — a little bit of toothpaste peppermint with wood ashes.”

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Friedman: “It’s like infused (with) grandma’s old musty, polyester pants. It tasted musty. There is something plastic happening that is not supposed to be there. Even in a margarita, this would taste odd.”

Vinh: “I tried both as margaritas, and let me tell you, that was a waste of fresh lime juice.”

Verdict

“Not recommended.” The tequilas were so atrocious, we felt compelled to come up with cheap alternatives to ensure you don’t buy these monstrosities just to save a buck. Without even consulting one another, we recommended the same tequila: Olmeca Altos, about $25 in most states before taxes.

Friedman offered two more good-value blancos to seek out: Pueblo Viejo and Cabrito, though he suggests shoppers should splurge about $40 for the Cabeza, because it’s “easily one of my favorite blanco tequilas in any bar or store, on even the most-well-stocked shelf.”

 

Anejo

(Tequila aged in oak between one and three years.)

Kirkland anejo, 40%, $24.89 for 1 liter

Trader Joe’s, 40%, $23.99 for 750 ml

This tequila category fared no better. We concluded Costco’s anejo was the worst of the 13 bottles we sampled. After a sip, Friedman grimaced and turned to me, “We’re not mad at you, Tan, but I’m going to pretend this didn’t happen.”

On Costco’s:

Clarke said he couldn’t tell this was tequila. Friedman thought this was cheap brandy. I thought it could pass for an experimental oak-aged gin that some hipster had distilled in his mom’s garage.

On Trader Joe’s:

Clarke: “It’s a weird tasting tequila.” It’s like if someone were “trying to make a Mr. Potato Head without ever actually seeing a person before.”

Verdict

Both “not recommended.” We couldn’t think of many cheap anejo alternatives to recommend. Quality aged tequila is expensive. There’s no way around that. Clarke suggested El Jimador anejo, which costs about $25 at many liquor stores. Friedman swears by Pueblo Veijo Anejo, but that’s not readily available. Not cheap, but easier to find and a good value is El Tesoro anejo. At around $50, El Tesoro is better than many anejos I’ve tasted in the $80-$90 range.

 

American whiskey

Kirkland’s “premium small batch” bourbon 51.5%, $36.99 for 1 liter

Trader Joe’s bourbon, 45%, $16.99 for 750 ml

On Costco’s:

Vinh: Costco’s 7-year-old bourbon hints of caramel candy and molasses with some toasty notes and vanilla. It’s a fiery finish and no wonder, it clocks in at 103 proof. I would sip this on the rocks. It’s good for its price range. I’ve had a lot of crappy craft whiskeys that cost a lot more.

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Friedman: “It has a top end sweetness that really lasts. I find the finish balanced with the wood and bourbon mash bill. It does not end dry or dusty as do many bourbons at a higher price.”

Clarke: “It’s thin. … It has a few whiskey elements but it does not have a round complexity.”

On Trader Joe’s:

Vinh: “A surge of maple syrup followed by some spice notes and tea leaves. It’s not a complex bourbon, but pleasant, easy-drinking. At $16.99, it’s a steal. And it’s perfect for mixing, especially if you’re throwing a large party on a budget.

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Clarke: “It is everything you look for in a basic bourbon. It’s not going to blow bourbon connoisseurs away, but it’s perfectly serviceable for everyday drinking. You can get by with an Old Fashioned. (For only $16.99), I would walk over to Trader Joe’s to buy this. I would buy two bottles of it instead of that (Costco bourbon).”

Verdict:

Kirkland whiskey earned two “recommended buy” votes with Clarke rejecting.

Trader Joe’s bourbon: Clarke and I scored “highly recommended,” while Friedman scored “a recommended buy.”

 

Scotch

Trader Joe’s 2004 Speyside single malt aged 13 years and finished in sherry cask, 40%, $54.99 for 750 ml.

Kirkland Speyside, aged 20 years and finished in sherry cask, 46%, $59.99 for 750 ml

Of the six sets of spirits we tasted, this “wowed” us. The other bottles were more for mixing cocktails. These two are quality sippers that didn’t need adulteration.

“If I showed up at your house, and you poured me either of these, I would be happy. I would not think that you bought this under a big-box label,” Clarke said.

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On Trader Joe’s:

Vinh: This juice, sourced from GlenAllachie distillery, was aged in oak for 13 years and finished briefly in sherry cask. Lots of raisins and cinnamon with hints of apple pie.

Clarke: “It has that nice honey aspect. Kind of roastery. Toasty. Very pleasant.”

On Costco’s:

Hands down the best bottle we sampled. We agreed even serious scotch drinkers would be happy to sip this 20-year-old Speyside.

Vinh: Lots of dry fruits and figs, dates especially and a tinge of brown sugar, with a pronounced sherry flavor that meshed with all the fruity notes.

Clarke: “It has that roundness and fruitiness to it. It’s quite pleasant. That’s a decent bottle of whiskey.”

Friedman: “Unquestionably the clear winner. Someone at Costco did a great job finding these barrels.”

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Verdict:

Costco’s scored a “highly recommended” from Clarke and Vinh, while Friedman settled on a “recommended buy” since he thought this was priced $10 higher than it should have been. At Costco’s Sodo branch, this bottle after taxes totaled $75.12.

Trader Joe’s was a “recommended buy.”

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