I doubt anyone will be able to tell if the wine you used in your red meat sauce came from a $2.98 bottle of Trader Joe’s house brand or a $44 Domaine du Pelican Arbois Trois Cépages. But try using the cheapest bourbon for your pulled pork barbecue sauce or the cheapest rum for your Caribbean Rum Cake, and there’s a good chance people will notice.

While it’s usually okay to cook with cheap red wine, there are reasons why this is not necessarily the case with liquor. Spoiler Alert: middle-of-the-road is where you want to be with liquor for cooking, baking and deserts. High end is a waste of money, but as I’ll explain in this post, low end comes with a hidden price.

So here’s what I’ve learned about using Rum, Bourbon & Whiskey, Cognac or Brandy, Grand Marnier and Amaretto for cooking and deserts. (The prices I list include taxes, which is how liquor is sold here in Oregon. In some states, you can’t tell how much the taxes will be until you are through the check out line, which seems deceptive given how high liquor taxes can be.)

Rum

Before this year, I knew nothing about rum except that one of the two times in college when I got seriously wasted was from drinking Rum and Coke at a frat party. Dorm guys like myself rarely went to frat parties, and I had no idea that you shouldn’t drink rum and coke like it was a Slurpee at the 7-Eleven.

So when I needed to buy rum for my Caribbean Rum Cake, I asked for advice from the manager at the liquor store up in Newport. As it turns out, this guy knows more about liquor than just about anyone alive. He cautioned me against buying the cheapest rum. He said there are some rums that taste so bad they will even ruin a cake.

He strongly suggested I go with Cruzan Rum, which was about $12 a bottle including tax. He said it’s a rum he’d be happy to drink or cook with. Five rum cakes later, I fully agree. In fact, I just found the following review of Cruzan Aged Dark Rum at Liquor.com by Blair Frodelius: “A heartier rum that works well in cocktails calling for more aggressiveness and body. Very nice and an easy go to for the backbar. Rating: A-”

Cruzan Rum occasionally goes on sale for $21.95 for a liter, which is an awesome deal. If you make as many rum cakes as I do, grab a couple of liters at that price and hide them in your pantry.

Bourbon or Whiskey

The sauce for the pulled pork recipe I recently made calls for a cup of bourbon which you then light on fire. Here’s what it looked it going up flames. Beware the flashback when you flambe!

Image showing the frying pan after liquor was added and ignited, aka "flambe"

Bourbon is a specific type of whiskey that’s made in the United States. While all whiskey needs to be made from grain and must be stored in oak barrels, bourbon has to contain 51% corn and it must be stored in new, charred oak barrels. So if your recipe calls for bourbon, you don’t have to use actual bourbon as long as you select a whiskey that’s not really cheap or blended.

The reason to avoid really cheap whiskey is because it only has to contain 15% to 25% whiskey. The main ingredient is grain alcohol, which is another term for cheap vodka. So you’d pretty much be cooking with whiskey-flavored vodka.

You also want to avoid American made whiskeys that are blended. While the word “blended” gives a sense that it’s a blend of the finest whiskeys, it’s often just a blend of whiskey and grain spirits or vodka. This isn’t the case with Canadian blended whiskey, where the Canadian government sets the bar higher.

The bourbon our local liquor store manager sent me home with a was very reasonably priced Old Crow Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey. Notice that it’s straight Kentucky bourbon whiskey as opposed to blended. It will be perfect for pulled pork sauce or any other cooking need, in addition to being a perfectly adequate bourbon for the well in your own bar.

Cognac or Brandy

Cognac is simply brandy from the Cognac region of France. Take the exact same grapes that are grown a few miles away from the Cognac region, and you are suddenly drinking Brandy. Unless money is of no concern, look for a medium-priced brandy when a recipe calls for Cognac. No one will know the difference.

Our liquor store manager suggested a brandy from France called St. Remy. It’s every bit as Cognacky as Cognac, but it’s far less expensive than Cognac because it’s from the poor side of town. Another brandy he felt would work very well for cooking and deserts is E&J VSOP—yep, from Ernest and Julio right here in the USA.

Amaretto

For deserts and coffee drinks, Amaretto DiAmore hits the sweet spot. It’s much better than the $6-to-$8-a-bottle amaretto knock offs that line the bottom shelves of liquor stores, but it’s still less than half the price of Amaretto DiSarano. For deserts and coffees, you’ll be hard pressed to tell the difference between Amaretto DiAmore and it’s uptown brother, Amaretto DiSarano.