Reserva de FamiliaHave you ever paid $250 for a bottle of liquor, thinking that premium price equates to extra quality? Hate to break it to you, but you’ve probably been duped by crafty marketing.

As this newspaper article (which appeared in longer form in the Wall Street Journal) notes, after a certain point you’re just paying for prettier packaging and a desire to impress someone.

“There’s an illusion pushed that when you spend more, you get more quality…But there is usually a plateau to quality in high-end goods. The difference between Hennessy’s XO Cognac ($95) and Paradis ($350) has far more to do with other intangibles like greed, ego, and vanity.”

The worst offenders overall are vodka producers, who try to pretend that their tasteless, colorless alcohol is better than the other guy’s and is worth $50 a bottle and more. This great article, Make Mine a 02001, offers a hilarious insight on where much of this “premium vodka” comes from: the same factories cranking out industrial solvents, mouthwash, hairspray, and astringents. Here’s my favorite part:

I went to a vodka tasting hosted by the head of a prominent luxury liquor house. It was an exercise meant to dispel the notion that the differences among vodkas are illusory. But after being walked through the vodkas on the table with elaborate descriptions of the characteristics of each, I found myself hard-pressed to discern much difference. So I asked the executive to demonstrate the differences by tasting the vodkas blind. He couldn’t even identify his own flagship brand.

If you’re going to get the most for your money, aim for the middle: the $35 to $50 bottle of rum, anejo tequila, or bourbon that has aged the ideal number of years (3 to 7 depending on which spirit), or the $40 to $75 Scotch that has aged for 12 years (colder climates require more time). Too much oak can be a bad thing though, so don’t assume more aging is automatically better. Although Reserva de la Familia is a great tequila and a Pappy Van Winkle bourbon is pretty special, most spirits that have spent too long in a barrel taste like as much like the barrel as the original liquor. Experiment and learn what you really like, then buy more. Pass by the $250 showpieces with boxes and gold leaf and buy five bottles of great stuff you and your guests will really enjoy instead.