Like your basic table of elements, you have your basic table of spirits. These spirits add an underlying taste profile in your most basic cocktails and drinks. Here we will examine each from the simplest to the most complex. Should you decide to entertain and keep a simple bar at home, there are the basic 5 spirits you should have stocked since they are the most popular and diverse. However, remember your audience (or guests), if your friends are whiskey drinkers, you should ditch something like tequila and instead add in a bourbon. And likewise, if they are rum drinkers and/or the Tiki kind of crowd, then for certain you need at least one light/white rum and one dark/añejo whether for mixing or drinking straight.
Unless you are hosting a backyard party to the youngest of drinkers of legal drinking age, never go for the cheapest brand. That being said, often the least expensive can also be the most popular, so take that into consideration. I always find it surprising that Svedka vodka is imported from Sweden is less expensive than the US domestic Smirnoff, but far better. At the same time, you can go for the the ultra-premium like Absolut, but if you are going to mix it, buy the least expensive brand.
Here are the basics, have at least one of each bottle, but if you can afford it, have 3 of each type. One domestic, one imported and perhaps one luxury brand for those with more refined tastes. When it comes to rum or tequila, no sense in skimping, buy a decent brand and have all 3 types like white, gold or dark.
VODKA: This clear, nearly odorless spirit nearly for certain originated from Northeastern Europe, most likely Poland, Russia and/or the Nordic regions like Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Finland, etc.) While most can’t tell the difference because its often thought of the “tofu” of spirits (because it mixes and melds well with nearly any mixer), many vodka drinkers will tell you for sure there is a difference. Vodka can either be distilled from either wheat or potatoes, and someone with a finer palate will notice the difference, but otherwise its a clear, colorless, odorless tasteless spirit. This is not a bad thing because it can blend into almost anything, fruit juices, flavored liquors, straight in a martini, or even as a frozen shot from the freezer. It does not mix well with Coke, but does fine with Sprite, 7-up and/or other lemon/lime/orange sodas including juices like apple, pineapple, cranberry, just stay away from colas and you can’t miss with vodka.
SUGGESTIONS: Svedka and Smirnoff, but for the snobs Ketel One and Absolut should nearly silence anyone. Personally I love Mezzaluna from Italy, Tito’s from Texas is highly rated, and of course if you can find the rarer bottles like the Russian Smirnoff (black label), or Stolichnaya Elit, and you can afford it, go for it. Personally, when it comes to vodka, I don’t like the least expensive or the most expensive brands because its likely I am going to mix it and I can tell the difference from a Stoli & Cranberry from a Finlandia & Cranberry.
GIN: This is basically the same spirt as Vodka, except, its flavored with botanicals, herbs and spices. Juniper berries are the main profile, and a Martini without gin is simply not a martini. However, gin also goes well with highballs like Ginger Ale, Sprite, lemon or lime juice and of course the gimlet. While gin is an “older” spirit and more appreciated by those who are older in general, there are so many new brands out there that have a wide range of flavors. Some more citrus in taste, others more friendly toward cucumber.
SUGGESTIONS: All gins worth buying tend to be higher in price than other spirits. Perhaps because they are not as popular and harder to market, but for whatever reason, remember, especially in this case, the cheapest should be avoided. Also, gin is not your standard 80 proof but almost always higher than 86, so keep that in mind. I like Tanqueray, but there are others like New Amsterdam, Hendricks if I have the budget, but one of the “original” gins are brands like Plymouth and even Beefeater.
RUM: This can be a very complex spirit, as it is distilled from sugar, and can be in numerous forms like silver (clear), gold (brown), or Añejo (dark), additionally it can be spiced and even aged just as long as scotch in oak barrels. You can easily find rum from nearly every Caribbean and South American region. You want to use the light/clear rums for mixing almost always. You don’t want to be drinking light rum straight unless you are a judge at a rum tasting. For some reason, rum loves coke and vice verse. Its also great in fresh orange juice, pineapple, banana and coconut juice. Blond or gold is great for mixing with fresh lime or lemon juice, and Añejo is great over ice or straight. Of course if you want a classic Mai Tai, or any other Tiki drink, then you will need both light and dark and/or all 3 types of rum.
SUGGESTIONS: Bacardi remains a strong contender, but personally I won’t buy their brand anymore for many reasons, especially when you have other great rums like Caliche, Don Q, and Cruzan rums from St. Croix are my favorites. That being said, if you can ever get your hands on a bottle of Havana Club Añejo, grab it! Its like sugar, sweet and needs no mixers. All Cuban products are illegal in USA due to an embargo of over 50 years (see Cuban Missile Crisis). But if you are in Canada or Aruba, buy a bottle and enjoy it. Just don’t try to take it back to the USA.
WHISKEY: Now this is a really broad range. It can be anything from American Rye, Kentucky Bourbon, Single Malt, Canadian Whiskey, Irish Whiskey, even Japanese Whiskey and of course the pinnacle, Scotch Whisky. This deserves a chapter all its own, but remember the simple things, Whiskey and Scotch are more dry (not sweet) and bourbon and rye are more sweet.
SUGGESTIONS: Basics are Johnnie Walker for Scotch; Jim Beam or Makers Mark for Bourbon; Jameson for Irish Whiskey; and the old stand-by luxury brands (within reason) are Chivas Regal, and while Sinatra’s favorite, Jack Daniels, is technically not bourbon, it is Kentucky Straight Whiskey and other than it being sweet, most will not notice if its mixed in an Old Fashioned or classic Jack & Ginger or Jack & Coke.
TEQUILA: Unlike Rum, Gin or Vodka which can be produced anywhere, Tequila only comes from the country of Mexico. 30 years ago you might not have seen this as a main basic spirit, but now it is, and it is necessary for a Margarita and so many other cocktails. Like rum, it comes in white, gold and dark (Añejo), the longer its aged, the darker it gets, and the more complex the flavor. Drink a shot straight with salt and a lime wedge is the most popular, but add a bit more lime juice and its a Margarita, add to that orange liquor like Cointreau or Curaço and you have a Premium Margarita. For simpler, less sweet and sour tastes, mix with fresh grapefruit juice to create a Paloma. Of course there is a Tequila Sunrise too, but most aficionados agree, its best straight, and you can never have more than one, which is why its very dangerous.
SUGGESTIONS: Jose Cuervo is best for mixing and the least expensive, however, if you are going to drink it straight and have the money, Patron is good. Avoid “celebrity brands” – they are often over priced and not as good as other premium brands.
CORDIALS: Cordials are often lower proof spirits and far sweeter. Known as “dessert drinks” they are often best served straight, but also can be used in stronger cocktails like a Black Russian (Kahlua & Vodka) or Sambuca which is a full 80 proof but served with coffee – take that Red Bull & Vodka! This list is just as diverse as the Whiskey category. You have the range from 40 proof Frangelico which is hazelnut liquor to the 110 proof Chartreuse. Typically, the originals form this category were made by monks who used only locally available herbs and not just a secret formula, but due to the scarcity of the herbs because they were regional, are rarely replicated to perfection.
SUGGESTIONS: Amaretto; Bailey’s (or any Irish Cream Liquor); Kahlua; Frangelico; Anisette, Sambuca, Nocello.
AVOID: Spirits which are slightly lower in proof and sweeter like Honey Jack, any flavored vodka, and while spiced rum is great in mixed drinks, especially Coke, I prefer to just sweeten and add natural mixers myself. It just tastes better, its less expensive, and quite frankly, these highly-marketed spirits targeted toward a younger demographic are just plain lame. If you want orange flavored vodka, add fresh orange rind or just drink it straight with a splash of fresh orange juice. Strawberry vodka, use fresh strawberries. Cotton Candy Vodka, add sugar, or better yet, just click “close” on this browser window, this is not the blog for you.
SUGGESTIONS: If you are absolutely positively going to go this route, my old time favorites when I was young and innocent (if I ever was) would be Tropico (a mix of juice and rums, very light and flavorful, even fun) or Voyant (chai and cream, again light), or even Hpnotiq from France which is also fruity and tropical. I don’t recommend these, but if I had this or only nothing, I would drink it over Honey Jack.
When it comes to spirits, everything else are just mixers and/or more complex spirits depending on your levels of tastes and that of your guests. Remember, these are the “cocktail cart” basics the Rat Pack made famous. They have something for any guest, but once you get into serious mixology, you will need a wider array of liquors like Cointreau, Gran Marnier, Campari, etc.
To Be Continued…