If you have occasion to wander through a good bottle shop, the sheer variety of options is enough to become intimidating. Sometimes, even people who want to branch out find themselves walking out, yet again, with the familiar bottle of Maker's Mark or Grey Goose just because it seems like a safe choice in a sea of variables.
But considering that a "good" bottle of anything from whiskey to gin to tequila starts at $30, are all of us spirits bloggers just boozier versions of Scrooge McDuck, swimming through our vault of gold doubloons as we sip from our dainty tasting glasses?
Nope. The good news is you don't have to be a member of the idle rich to enjoy fine spirits as a hobby, and certainly not if you're simply looking to explore any one category on a deeper level. Here are a couple good ways to become well-versed in spirits in less time and with less cash than you'd think.
1. Pick up some minis
Yes, I do mean those little tiny bottles ghettoized in the dusty corner of the liquor store. In America especially, the selection of 50ml containers is kind of limited if you're wanting to try some good stuff, but in general there's enough to explore and it's a great way to try something you don't want to commit to. Most associate minis with brands like Smirnoff or Jim Beam, but I've purchased 50ml samples of a lot of single malt scotches, gins that were new to me, and various añejo tequilas, just to name a few standouts.
Additionally, sometimes distilleries will sell a gift pack in smaller denominations. Old Pulteney has a set of pretty cute 375ml bottles that allow one to try the 12 and 17 side-by-side. St. George has a great three-pack of gin in 200ml bottles that's cute and affordable. Glenlivet sells a triple-play of the 12, 15, and 18 in similar sizes to the St. George, which makes for a nice little vertical slice of the distillery's offerings for the price of a single bottle of the 15.
Also, the quality of the spirit inside the bottles is identical, so don't worry: you aren't getting short-changed! If you like the sample, you'll like the bottle.
2. Find a good bar
A bar specializing in good spirits is going to (in general) have fairly reasonable prices, since they know they're catering to connoisseurs and not Chaz Broheim who wants to get totally bombed on Fireball after his Psych final, which he probably failed because his teacher is a total dick, bro.
Spending $20 to 30 to try a few standard pours (typically a 1.5oz shot) might seem like a pricey night out, but it's a great way to get a solid impression of a bottle over the course of a few sips. At least to evaluate whether or not you're going to come back to it for a full purchase.
3. Have a few buddies over
The biggest boot to the ass I had in falling down this rabbit hole is having a couple of friends who like liquor as much as I do. As a result, it's easy to make a weekend hang-out day where a few people each get a bottle of something and can pass it around and compare notes.
Incidentally, this method also allows you to pool your resources and really try something expensive and extraordinary. $120 for a bottle of Highland Park 18 is a lot of money to spend on something that will get turned into pee. But, if you look at it as $40 to be able to have a third of a bottle of something so rich and luxurious, that kind of spend starts to look just a bit more attractive!
4. Give it some time
I think this is a big one. Probably since really getting interested in whiskey and spirits in general, I've had some 500-odd kinds at the time of this writing. Make a point to buy a new bottle every month or every other week or treat yourself when you go out to a restaurant with a decent selection. After a year you might find that you've had 50-some different whiskeys or sipping tequilas.
Above all, get interested in what it is that you're having! It's up to you whether drinking high-quality liquor is an active or a passive experience: one choice is far more fulfilling than the other, even if it takes a bit more mental energy.