Why Bartenders Secretly Love Costco Booze
"You can shower yourself in vodka for $20."
All photos by the author.
I recently eavesdropped on some bartenders waxing poetic about booze—not top-shelf, small-batch spirits imported from some remote Pacific island, but Kirkland-brand alcohol from Costco. Seriously. One of them was Malina Bickford, co-founder of an LA-based cocktail consulting and events company called Drink Special. I circled back with her to find out more about Costco.
"Costco is my Disneyland. I grew up in the Midwest where big box stores like Costco were our primary shopping destinations, so there's definitely an old familiar comfort to strolling around in there," Bickford told me.
"Nowadays I spend so much time professionally (and socially) immersed in precious, artisanal, handmade, foraged, small-batch, etc. everything that it's sometimes just nice to go cop a barrel-sized jar of Vlasic dill pickles and a year's supply of Cool Ranch Doritos."
Her love for the jumbo-sized comforts of Costco extends to booze as well.
"The store's own brand, Kirkland, which may be what you're specifically asking about, all comes from other distilleries—Costco doesn't make it," she said. "While they don't divulge (as far as I know) who makes what, there are rumors that Grey Goose makes their vodka, Beam makes their bourbon, Sauza makes their tequila, and The Macallan makes their single malt."
She added, "As you probably know, the spirits industry is mostly marketing with the majority of the larger-scale mainstream stuff is all coming from just a few distilleries and rebranded individually. At least Costco keeps it real by just being super-generic about it. I just like the honesty of it even if all the spirits aren't the best. They're definitely not the worst."
So should we all get behind Kirkland-brand spirits?
"I definitely think more people should be drinking Costco alcohol— if the only thing that's preventing them from doing it is a fear of seeming uncool or unsophisticated," Bickford said. "Who gives a shit? Take off your pants and pour yourself a tall glass of store-brand hooch."
I kept my pants on and went to a Costco in Los Angeles with bartenders Shaun Summers and Jess Stell from Accomplice. Inside the massive wholesale warehouse, we made our way past the bulk diapers and the bulk rotisserie chickens to the bulk alcohol.
There are plenty of name-brand bottles on the shelves. You can grab some Rémy Martin Louis XIII Cognac for $2,999.99. There's Patrón, Macallan, Johnnie Walker. Then there are the Kirkland Signatures. Costco sells Champagne, gin, a 750-milliliter 25-year single malt Scotch for $89.99. They have it all.
Summers is a big Costco fan. He gets down with the Kirkland alcohol even though he's been burned before.
"For my 25th birthday I bought a seven-year bourbon and it was disgusting," he told me as we walked through the store. "It didn't work in a toddy, even. This was a snowboard trip. We were all down to drink whatever and it was rough."
He's also tried Costco's Captain Morgan knockoff and hated it, too. The vodka and añejo tequila caught his eye, though.
"It's like award-winning tequila, it's really good," Summers said as he grabbed the añejo. Next he found the vodka. "This one's from Cognac, France. It's the same producers as Grey Goose but a different batch."
"This is $20?" I asked him as he heaved the gigantic bottle into our shopping cart.
"Yeah. You can shower yourself in vodka for $20," he said.
We grabbed a watermelon for garnishes and checked out. I spotted a bunch of wine in other shoppers' carts, some spirits as well.
Back at the bar, Stell started on carving artful watermelon garnishes and Summers experimented with our new purchases. He made some margaritas, one with Kirkland tequila and the other Siete Leguas. Both were good. We tried gimlets in the same side-by-side test. Again, no wild differences between the bar's normal inventory and the Kirkland option. I looked like a win for Costco vodka and tequila.
RECIPE: MUNCHIES Punch
After enjoying the Kirkland tasting, I reached out to Costco to get more information on where their alcohol comes from and how it's made, but the company declined the interview request.
At the end of the day, it didn't matter, though: The quality of the booze spoke for itself in the cocktails, including a MUNCHIES Punch that Summers and Stell whipped up on the fly.
So if you don't feel like dipping into your top-shelf bottles, make yourself a MUNCHIES Punch—because what the hell, you deserve to enjoy a cheap treat today.
Note: This story was not sponsored in any way by Costco.