The Essentials: spirits and ingredients part 1 – Liquors

A while back I asked you, my dear readers, what segments you’d like to see next here at Experiments From The Bar.  The topic that got the most votes was a new entry in the Building Your Home Bar category, where I gave my thoughts on the essential liquors and liqueurs that every home bar needs.  Well, here we are a month later, and I’m proud to share with you the first of a series of posts on what it takes to get yourself provisioned for creating and enjoying some fine libations.

When it comes to making cocktails, there are four overall groups of ingredients, as I see it: liquors, liqueurs, mixers, and garnishes.  We’ll be looking at all four over the coming weeks but today we’ll get started with foundation of cocktails: liquors.  Without further ado, let’s dive into it!

We’ve already talked about the basic tools you need to set up bar, but what about the booze?  I mean, that’s why we’re all here, right?  You can’t really have a home bar if you have nothing to make drinks with, but building up your stock can be daunting, especially if you’re just starting.  Hopefully the following guidelines will help make the process feel a little less monumental.


 Liquors

At their core, every cocktail is founded on the base spirit or spirits involved.  This is almost always a liquor, which is widely categorized as a distilled beverage of at least 20% alcohol by volume, with no sugar added.  Of course, some liquors can range up to 95% alcohol, so that’s a pretty wide gap, but the key bit is that last bit.  Spirits that have had sugar added fall into the category of liqueurs, which we’ll get to later.  All that said, if you look at liquors as your cocktail bases, then you shouldn’t go too far astray.

When it comes to liquors, here in the states we typically think of it in terms of the big five:

  • Vodka
  • Gin
  • Tequila
  • Rum
  • Whiskey

While there are plenty of other amazing liquors out there that serve as the basis for a whole host of drinks, such as aquavit, cachaça, shōchū, and several others, these five are at the core of most drinks, and form the essential liquors for building a bar.

Aside: One of the most important things when it comes to cocktails is the simple notion of enjoying a drink.  If you don’t enjoy a liquor, and are just making drinks for yourself, then of course, by no means do you need to stock it.  The same goes for any other ingredients.

Regardless of the type of spirit, the market is full of options at all different price points, levels of quality, and renown.  A well known name or high price tag doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting a great quality liquor, and just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it is low quality.  How then do you know what is good and what is overhyped or overpriced?  Short of blowing tons of money and buying several different options and trying them all out to find what you like, asking for recommendations is the easiest way.  Talk to your bartender when you go out for cocktails.  Talk to the employees at your package store.  Take a look at ratings, either online or in the store if they have them listed.

Of course, with all things, we all have our own taste, and liquor preference is no exception.  I’ve had some highly rated, well recommended spirits that I personally didn’t care for, or didn’t think worth the price.  While I have my favorite go to brands, I try to pick up a bottle of something I haven’t tried before every few trips to the package store.  I’ve found some of my favorite spirits this way.  It’s certainly the most reliable way of finding out if you like something or not, though it can be costly.  However, if you space these experimental purchases out, it’s a lot easier to stomach any bad choices than buying a lot of options all at once.  Often, when I’m out getting drinks, I’ll try something that I’ve never had before, as the investment in a single measure of a spirit is a lot less than in a bottle in those situations where you find it’s not to your liking.

All that said, here are my suggestions for each of the big five, based on all my experimenting over the years, along with some commentary on each, and different options for different price points.


Vodka

The ubiquitous spirit from eastern Europe, this little water is a staple in many modern drink recipes, and is often one of the first liquors people are introduced to.  A spirit distilled from potatoes or various grains, and even grapes (though technically that’s an eau-de-vie), vodka is the first of our big five that we’ll address.  While a latecomer to the cocktail scene, largely because availability to the western world came late, vodka is a mainstay of cocktail culture these days, though less so in the craft cocktail scene.

Vodka is a fairly neutral spirit, which makes it an excellent base for drinks where you want the focus to be on the other ingredients.  Also, because it doesn’t carry any distinctive or strong flavors that may put it at odds with various liqueurs, you’ll see it feature prominently in a great deal of sweet drinks.

Flavored vodkas abound these days, from citrus infused to confection flavored varieties that are supposed to taste like birthday cake.  My stance on flavored vodkas is almost always a resounding “no.”  If you want to flavor a cocktail, use other ingredients to do so, like liqueurs, sodas, flavored simple syrup, fresh fruits or botanicals, or by infusing your own flavors in small batches.  Flavored vodkas lock you into a single flavor, and severely limit what you can make.  This means that instead of a single bottle of vodka, you may end up with several different bottles of different flavored varieties, which isn’t doing your budget any favors.  The only exception I’d possibly make to the ban on flavored vodkas in my bar would be pepper infused vodkas for Bloody Marys, though it’s not hard or time consuming to make your own spicy vodka.

When it comes to selecting brands, the following are my top picks, both if you’re on a budget, or if you want to splurge.

  • Tito’s ($20 for 750 mL)

Made in Texas, this vodka is distilled six times, and is clean but bracing, and well suited to mixing, particularly with citrus.  It’s not complex, but then most vodkas aren’t when compared to other spirits.  At its price, Tito’s beats out all the other big name brands for quality, and has been known to beat the much higher priced Grey Goose in blind taste tests.

  • New Amsterdam ($11 for 750 mL)

From the same distillers as one of my favorite mixing gins, New Amsterdam vodka is very smooth, more so than Tito’s in my opinion, and while I wouldn’t choose this as a vodka to drink straight, for mixing it is ideal.  If you’re looking for the best quality at the lowest price, look no further.

  • Luksusowa ($12 for 750 mL)

A Polish, all potato vodka, Luksusowa is definitely my favorite inexpensive vodka.  While a little more than New Amsterdam, you get a much smoother and more nuanced drink.  Of all the lower cost vodkas, this is the one I’d select for sipping neat, or in a vodka tonic.


Gin

Despite what some may say, gin is one of my favorite spirits.  A descendent of the Dutch drink genever, gin has evolved a great deal from its origins as a medicinal drink.  While the predominant pine-like flavor in most gins comes from juniper berries, the spirit is made with a wide range of botanicals, creating a near endless variation of flavor between distillers.  Many distillers use botanicals local to them, giving widely different flavor profiles from the extremely astringent, to floral, to woodsy, to earthy, and everywhere in between.

Gin came to prominence in England during the 17th century thanks to a Dutch king sitting the throne, and high taxes on other spirits and no regulation on gin production.  Modern gin came to be during the early 1800’s, when advanced distilling techniques allowed for the production of the now familiar London Dry style.  Because of the ease of its production, gin was a favorite during Prohibition in the States, and thus is featured in a great number of now classic cocktails from that era that are part of the craft cocktail movement of today, and a favorite amongst craft distillers.

Gin seems to be the sort of drink that people either love or hate, and I certainly fall into the former, as did a number of famous people such as Churchill, and is the foundation of perhaps the most iconic cocktail of all time, the martini.  I didn’t always care for gin, but now can’t imagine life without it, and the complex floral, herbal, and botanical notes that make this spirit unique.

  • New Amsterdam ($12 for 750 mL)

At any given time you’ll find a bottle of New Amsterdam gin on my bar.  It’s incredibly inexpensive, and is a fantastic mixing gin.  While not as dry as some London Dry gins, it still has a distinct focus on the flavors of the juniper berry, and a pleasant bite to the finish, while still being quite smooth overall.  While it’s not my favorite for gin and tonics or martinis, it’s completely serviceable in those drinks, and I’d pick it over the big names like Tanqueray or Bombay any day of the week.  At a fraction of the price of those giants, it’s a steal and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  • Plymouth ($29 for 750 mL)

Plymouth Gin is hands down my favorite gin and has been for years.  Plymouth gin is its own type of gin, quite separate from the predominant London Dry style, and must come from Plymouth, England.  This variety is earthier, and has less of a focus on juniper than London Dry gins.  There is currently only one maker of Plymouth style gin, the Black Friar’s Distillery, and their product is marketed simply as Plymouth Gin.  It’s smooth, very flavorful, and balances between being bold and overpowering, making it a great option for G&Ts, martinis, or pink gins, as well as mixing in more complicated long drinks.  It strays towards the higher end when it comes to price, but it’s worth every penny.

  • Hendrick’s ($25 for 750 mL)

I’ve heard some people say that Hendrick’s gin can scarcely be called gin, it is so distinctly different from most gins.  With the predominant flavors of rose and cucumber, being backed by a host of other botanicals, the flavors imparted from the juniper berries takes a definite backseat in this Scottish made gin.  An incredibly refreshing gin, ideally suited to floral and herbal focused drinks, Hendrick’s is a definite warm weather spirit for me.  I often like using it in cocktails designed with another gin in mind, to see how much the drink changes.

  • Hayman’s Old Tom ($34 for 750 mL)

Another variety of gin, Old Tom gin isn’t seen very much these days.  Its heyday was in the 18th century, and until recently I had a hard time finding it at all, though a couple of my local liquor stores have started stocking at least one brand regularly.  Old Tom seems to fall somewhere between London Dry style gin and its ancestor, genever; it is sweeter than the former, but drier than the latter.  Hayman’s definitely highlights the sweeter taste of this style of gin in their Old Tom, while still delivering a walloping mouthful of juniper.  Some cocktails specifically call for an Old Tom gin, and I can say that they are not the same if you don’t have the genuine article.

  • Death’s Door ($30 for 750 mL)

Made in Wisconsin, Death’s Door prides itself on the use of local botanicals in their gin, to go along with the locally grown wheat that serves as the basis for this spirit.  Death’s door is the driest of the lot listed here, and is an excellent choice for the price.  It’s also one of the simplest gins in the current craft distilling scene that have received wide notice.  Focusing on the juniper berries, coriander and fennel, Death’s Door is a very clean drink, highlighting those three stars.  Perfect for martinis, or even drinking straight, it’s a solid choice for any fan of gin.


Tequila

Distilled from the blue agave, tequila is actual a specific type of mezcal.  While mezcal is slowly growing in popularity in the states for the rich, smoky flavors, tequila is certainly a staple at this point.  There are different types of tequila, based on the aging conditions:

  • Blanco or Plata: unaged or very young (less than two months of aging in steel or neutral wood casks)
  • Reposado: aged for at least two months, but less than a year in oak casks
  • Añejo: aged for over a year, but less than three
  • Extra Añejo: aged for over three years

The younger spirits have a harsher, more bracing taste, while those aged longer get progressively smoother, and pick up woodier and smokier notes.

Full disclosure time: I can’t stand tequila.  I’ve never been a fan, and while I’ve gone back to try it over the years to see if a certain highly recommended one might change my mind, I just can’t stand the stuff.  Tequila shares the same status as gin with many: either you love it or you hate it.  My wife is a big fan of tequila, so we always have at least one variety in the bar.  Like any spirit, if you don’t like it, and don’t have plans to entertain at your home bar, then don’t stock it.  That said, there are some really interesting cocktails out there that call for tequila, beyond the ubiquitous margarita, and the number of dedicated tequila bars is growing, which provides a great opportunity to try different varieties.

  • El Padrino Añejo ($27 for 750 mL)

A very reasonably priced añejo, El Padrino is fairly oaky, and has some caramel undercurrents.  A fairly sweet tequila, this is a decent choice for getting into añejos.

  • Patrón Silver ($38 for 750 mL)

The entire line of Patrón’s tequilas are solid choices, but there silver is a solid silver option, and is easy to find.  Less harsh than many other silvers, it’s worth the higher price if you like the cleaner taste of a silver, but don’t want so much burn and bite.

  • Herradura Reposado ($37 for 750 mL)

Reposados seem to get the least love in my experience, but Herradura’s is fairly widespread, and understandably so.  A fairly complex drink, with a mix of citrus, grass, and some warmer notes, this can help elevate a simple drink quite nicely.


Rum

Rum: favorite of pirates, sailors, and the drink on which an empire was built.  Distilled from molasses or sometimes sugarcane juice, is one of the most familiar spirits to many.  While now produced around the world, the Caribbean is the home of rum, and there are as many different distilleries as there are islands there, it seems.  Unsurprising, given the base of this spirit, rum is a very sweet liquor, and is thus often a friendly choice for new drinkers.  The major varieties of rum are light, golden, and dark, though various countries have their own classifications (either legal or simply by tradition).  Darker rums typically carry more of the flavor of the molasses from which they were made, and are more suited for drinking neat or on ice.  The lighter the rum, the less pronounced the molasses flavor will be, and the harsher the spirit, typically.  Rhum agricole is another thing altogether, being made from sugarcane exclusively, and is traditionally from the French-speaking islands.

  • Cruzan Black Strap ($11 for 750 mL)

In recent years, dark spiced rums have been growing in popularity and there are a ton of varieties to choose from.  When it comes down to it, I’d pick Cruzan’s Black Strap over any other spiced rum out there on taste, regardless of the price.  The fact that it is so inexpensive only helps matters, though.  There is a very strong molasses flavor, and I always keep a bottle of this on hand in case I decide I need a Dark and Stormy.

  • Pyrat XO ($20 for 750 mL)

This golden rum is made by same distillery as Patrón tequila.  The first description of this rum was “it tastes like a rum made by tequila distillers,” and that’s the description I always start with when explaining this liquor to anyone.  It’s a very flavorful rum, best suited to drinking straight, or on the rocks.  It has a strong citrus note, and a lot of complexity, which can often be lost, or throw off a cocktail when mixed.  Still, it’s a great spirit, and worth having on hand.

  • Mount Gay Extra Old ($32 for 750 mL)

An aged Barbadian rum, this variety of Mount Gay is full of strong oak flavors, balanced by fruit notes and a buttery quality to the taste.  You can’t go wrong with any of Mount Gay’s rums, but this is a nice one if you’re looking for a quality aged rum that isn’t too costly.

  • Cruzan Rum Light ($10 for 750 mL)

Silver rums probably get the least love from me.  Outside of the occasional punch, I don’t use them much, as I typically would rather have the more complex flavors of golden or aged rums.  That said, if you’re partial to silver rums, or looking to make some traditional punches, Cruzan’s Light rum is very drinkable, and a steal at the price.

  • Rhum Clement 6 year ($60 for 750 mL)

The middle tiered offering from Clement, this variety has been aged for 6 years, and stands out from the others as the sole rhum agricole on this list.  It’s smoky and woodsy, and reminds me of a whiskey in many ways, but still has the undeniable sugar cane taste, and some subtle floral notes.  Excellent on its own, or used as bourbon or even rye replacement in cocktails, this is a very interesting rum if you’re willing to drop the coin on it.


Whiskey

Whiskey is one of the most diverse spirits, and I have given serious thought to breaking this section out into several smaller ones, each focusing on one of the main groupings.  The name comes from the Gaelic, uisce beatha, or lively water.  Whiskey is one of the spirits I’ve most often seen people argue over, from the spelling (whisky versus whiskey, and when which one is appropriate), to what “real” whiskey is, to matters of national pride, or distillery loyalty.  I had an Irish-born professor that told me that you could tell the politics and religion of a bar in Ireland by what whiskey they served, and when traveling there I should take a glance behind the bar before starting any conversations, so I’d at least know the lay of the land, and hopefully avoid a fight.

Made from a fermented grain mash, whiskey can contain barley, corn, wheat, or rye in any combination, the inclusion and proportions of each changing the flavor of the final product.  The number of grain types, blending of grains, and vintages, all factor into the classification of whiskey.  The aging process is another great component of whiskey production, though there is a growing trend of unaged whiskeys or white whiskeys.  Oak barrels have been the standard for ages, and the preparation and treatment of these barrels are responsible for the characteristics and flavors imparted during aging.  Whether you like bourbon, rye, Irish, Scotch, single malt or blended, whiskey is a complex spirit, with countless varieties; and far too large of a topic to cover adequately here.  Perhaps at a later date I’ll dive into this noble spirit in more depth, but for now I’ll try and keep this brief.

Bourbon whiskey is most strongly tied to Kentucky, and many arguments have been had whether the spirit produced anywhere outside of that state, or the namesake county, have the right to the name.  Wherever it’s produced, bourbons are typified by being made with corn as the majority, and aged in charred oak barrels.  The charred oak imparts vanillin into th spirit, giving it the elevated sweetness and hints of vanilla that set bourbon aside from other whiskeys.

Rye whiskey is perhaps closest to bourbon, amongst the varieties of whiskeys, but this is not always true.  What is true is that rye whiskeys, perhaps unsurprisingly, are made with a great deal of rye, typically at least 51%, and sometimes much higher.  A much drier, spicier spirit than bourbon, rye was more prevalent in the north-eastern US, while bourbon hails from the south-east.

Irish whiskey is typically distilled three times, which gives it the distinctive smoothness this broad category is known for.  Legally, all Irish whiskeys must be distilled and aged in the Irish landmass, as well as aged in wooden casks for no less than three years.

Scotch whisky (this is the one place where I change my spelling of spirit’s name, don’t ask me why), is one of the most regulated, classified, and diverse whiskeys out there.  Aged for three years minimum by law, Scotch is typically distilled twice, and is classified by region typically.  Lowland, Speyside, Islay, Highland, and Campbeltown are the major regional distinctions, with each being known for certain characteristics.  Dominant flavors of peaty, smoky, and woody, are found in different balances between the regions, and the distilleries within.

  • Buffalo Trace bourbon ($20 for 750 mL)

One of my go to bourbons, Buffalo Trace delivers an excellent quality for the price.  A fairly sweet bourbon, it is still pretty well balanced, and excellent for mixing, and far less syrupy sweet than some of the big names, like Jack Daniels.  If you’re looking for a sipping bourbon on a budget, Buffalo Trace isn’t bad, but I do find it better suited for mixing.

  • Bulleit Rye ($25 for 750 mL)

For the price, I can’t think of a better value rye.  It’s spicy, has a good bite, but is smooth enough to enjoy in a Manhattan or Sazerac.  There are better ryes, certainly, but Bulleit is a great value, and is an excellent entry point for those wanting to explore rye.

  • Larceny bourbon ($22 for 750 mL)

I’ve only gotten turned on to Larceny fairly recently, in the last year or so, I suppose.  It’s quickly rivaling Buffalo Trace for a place on my bar as a go to mixing bourbon.  It’s a bit smoother, a little less sweet, and more complex, making it a good choice for sipping without spending an arm and a leg.

  • Powers Irish whiskey ($30 for 750 mL)

Powers has the claim of being the best selling whiskey in Ireland, though it doesn’t have the same market presence here in the States.  That said, I can’t really disagree with the drinking population of Ireland, as Powers has become my favorite Irish whiskey over the last 5 years or so.  It’s incredibly smooth, has just the right level of oakiness for me, and I think ranks more in line with the higher age varieties of Bushmills and Jameson, but at a price point closer to those distilleries base level whiskeys.

  • Johnnie Walker Red ($20 for 750 mL)

I felt a little odd when I first decided to add Johnnie Walker Red to this list.  While not a great aficionado, I’m a Scotch fan, and when it comes to my Scotch, I’m a bit of  single malt purist.  That said, JW Red is a perfectly serviceable blended Scotch, and is a great choice for making cocktails that call for Scotch.  You’re not going to get the amazing peatiness, or mouthful of smoke that you would from some single malt Scotches, but then you’re not paying for it either.  While I wouldn’t choose it for a neat drink, or splashes on the rocks, it’s an affordable, and decent choice for cocktail making.

  • Redemption High Rye Bourbon ($28 for 750 mL)

This is one of the things that my bar is never without.  I tried it on a lark several years ago; the one new thing I decided to pick up to try on my trip to the store, and I’ve been hooked ever since.  It’s a very warm tasting bourbon, with a decided spiciness which comes from the high rye content that gives it its name.  If you’re a fan of bourbon or rye, pick up a bottle.  For the quality, the price is entirely reasonable, and is excellent on its own or mixed in a cocktail.  I really enjoy using this in drinks that call for either bourbon and rye, and seeing how it subtly changes.  I can not recommend this one highly enough; seriously, go get a bottle as soon as you finish reading this!

  • Oban Single Malt 14 yr. ($70 for 750 mL)

Scotch is an incredibly personal drink, I’ve found, where everyone has their favorite.  That is, if they’re a Scotch drinker at all.  It’s certainly not for everyone, but if you’re looking to get into Scotch, or just looking for a new one to try, the Oban is my very favorite.  It’s pretty darn smooth, with a nice woody taste, and a slightly oily finish.  It has great legs in the glass, and a gorgeous amber color.  It’s a pricey selection, but then all good Scotch is, in my experience, and it’s worth ordering a glass of next time you’re out at the very least.  I prefer to take mine with a breath of cold water, or very occasionally with a single decent sized piece of ice.

  • Hibiki ($64 for 750 mL)

While the Oban may be my favorite Scotch, Hibiki is my favorite Scotch-style whiskey.  Made by the good people at Suntory, Hibiki is a marvelous blended whiskey that is subtle, smooth, with a hint of smoke on the finish that lingers for just a moment and then fades away.  Blended from various ages and malts, including a very old strain that is responsible for some of the depth of this spirit, Hibiki typifies Japanese whiskey for me.  There is an increased focus on smoothness, and while full of various complex notes, none of them hit you over the head.  The vanishing smokiness that this whiskey finishes with signifies the way the Japanese see whiskey; complex, flavorful, but subtle.  For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.


 

Conclusion

So there we have it folks; a long, hopefully not too rambling post on the essential liquors for your home bar.  I hope it was informative, and that my suggestions help you find some things you’ll love.  Next time, we’ll get into the topic of liqueurs and other spirits, with a little background on what they are, and how to choose what to add to your bar when you’re starting out, with specific suggestions as well.

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3 comments

  1. Wow! Thanks for this post, John! As someone who has less than dabbled in making cocktails, this really gives me a solid starting point. As a rum man myself, I especially find your take on the different brands interesting. This blog keeps getting better and better, man!

    Liked by 1 person

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