Base Spirits

Lined up and ready for action.

On base spirits

A good base spirit for mixing cocktails is not usually among the cheapest offerings of its kind nor the most expensive. Cheap spirits are generally (although there are exceptions) not worthy of inclusion in a quality cocktail. Normally spending just a little more will give a better flavour and smoothness. On the other hand the nuances of more expensive spirits of a given type may be lost when mixed. In short, a good mixing spirit will not necessarily make a good sipping spirit and vice versa. Happily, the mid-price ranges of most spirits contain an abundance of excellent choices for mixing and I’ll list some of my recommendations below. However, in some drinks where there is little content other than the base spirit, for example a Sazerac or an Old Fashioned a higher grade of spirit can certainly be worthwhile. Of course there are wide variations in the availability and prices of spirits in different countries but trial and error is all part of the fun. If you are just beginning on your cocktail adventure work with what is available to you rather than driving yourself crazy looking for obscure spirits. That comes later. Start off with one or two of each of the spirits listed below and expand based on what you find most enjoyable. Please bear in mind that I haven’t personally tasted every available spirit (yet) and that my recommendations may reflect this.

Cognac

Surprisingly, in the early days of the cocktail, Cognac was king. The French – with a good deal of encouragement from the Dutch, Irish and British – had developed a remarkably well produced and marketed spirit in the 18th and 19th centuries while most other spirits were, shall we say, a bit inconsistent. While there were other spirits and, indeed, other brandies, those with a bit of money wanted nothing other than the brandy of the Cognac region and the locals were more than happy to provide it. It followed naturally that it was the go-to base spirit in the early days of the cocktail in the middle of the 19th century. In my opinion the cocktail most likely started off as a cure for an upset stomach: a glass of brandy, a dash of medicinal bitters and a spoonful of sugar or honey to make it more palatable. Damn, I feel better already Doctor, give me another one…

Then, at the peak of Cognac’s success came disaster. In 1875 the grapevines that are the feedstock of Cognac were devastated by the Phylloxera fungus that all but wiped out wine and brandy production for a generation. This coincided with and presumably encouraged a boom in whisky production and quality in Scotland, Ireland and North America. These grain based spirits quickly took the place of Cognac both for sipping and mixing and, while a solution to the fungus was eventually developed, Cognac had lost its head start. Being invaded by Germany twice soon afterwards didn’t exactly help either. Nowadays Cognac and brandy are minor players in the cocktail world that are well due a comeback. While you may enjoy a VSOP or even XO for sipping after a good meal, for mixing a solid VS is quite sufficient. There are many excellent choices including Remy Martin, Martel, Hennessy and Courvoisier but my favourite is Chateau Montifaud. If you are trying to assemble a cocktail cabinet on a budget you might be best advised to put Cognac to the back of the queue otherwise stock one VS Cognac from the list above.

Whisky

First off let’s get the spelling straight; it’s spelled as above unless it’s American or Irish in which case stick an ‘e’ between the last two letters. As detailed above, whisky got a boost when American aphids came over and infected the roots of all French grapevines. Coincidence or biological warfare? Who knows. Whisky picked up the ball and ran with it. And how. I suspect whisky also nicked some ideas from Cognac on production, ageing and marketing to add insult to injury. Until then whisky, wherever it was made, was pretty much an illegal or semi-legal working class home-brew. It would have been rough. But now it was respectable. And it was mixable. Just. Whisky is an unforgiving mixer. A recipe that works with one whisky can be totally undrinkable with another. And it’s hard to predict which way it will turn. In addition there are fair number of styles of whisky which, while all having a place in one recipe or another, are far from interchangeable. But we need to go back to the history for a minute, because history has a sense of humour. The French must have had a good giggle when the USA decided to make whisky illegal. Oh, the irony. To be honest the Canadians found it even funnier when prohibition caused previously legal Bourbon and rye to be replaced with bootleg Canadian whisky from just over the world’s longest and most porous border. And hot diggity, but wasn’t that previously ignored canuck lumberjuice pretty damn smooth stuff that mixed particularly nicely? Although some American whiskies had dodged the prohibition bullet by declaring themselves “medicinal” the industry was dealt a second massive blow by a production ban during WWII – although at least the French weren’t laughing this time. Meanwhile, across the pond, Winston Churchill either understood the importance of morale or was scared of losing his favourite tipple when he took the opposite approach. The devastation of the America whiskey industry allowed Scotch to dominate the markets that it hadn’t already throughout the post war years. While the fortunes of whisky have periodically waxed and waned it’s certainly riding high at the moment and it seems to this writer that its darkest days are forever behind it.

Whisky needs to be broken down into broad categories to be understood. The following relates strictly to mixing, the sipping field is another thing altogether. The main mixing categories are:

Scotch single malt. This is a premium product made from barley by a single distillery in a time honoured traditional process. Assertive, expensive and often idiosyncratic single malts have considerable cachet and but are best left to collectors and connoisseurs. My advice is to stick to the standard expressions that have stood the test of time. This usually means those with the age range of 8 to 12 years clearly marked on the label. Malts can tricky and to mix with and are mostly best left for sipping. Mostly, because in skilled hands they can be the base of some very special creations. For mixing we might best consider the malts of the Lowlands and Speyside which tend to be lighter and more floral in character. Yet at the opposite end of the scale peated smoky island malts have considerable interest to us for use cocktails as they can be used in small quantities to add aroma and body, for example in the Penicillin. Or you can go nuts with them as I did with the Lord Lucan. You should stock one Islay malt for such purposes and there are a number to choose from including, but by no means limited to, Laphroaig, Caol Ila and Talisker.

Blended Scotch. Even on its own this is a broad category with an array of flavours and prices. Blended Scotch is a mix of grain spirit (so basically vodka) with a carefully chosen mixture of single malts. Therefore it is a milder spirit than single malts and is generally, cheaper, more accessible and more mixable. Yet there is still a range from mild and light to smoky and heavy bodied. I advise having one light bodied mixing blend such as Johnnie Walker red label or Famous Grouse. More characterful budget blends for mixing include Vat 69, Black Bottle and William Lawson’s.

Irish. Irish whiskies follow the same basic guidelines as Scotch. Or is it the other way around? Anyway, Irish whiskies have the body without the smoke. Jameson is a rock solid Irish whisky for mixing if you feel you need an Irish. Which you probably don’t.

Bourbon. American Bourbon whiskey is very different from most other whiskies because it is mostly made from corn rather than grain. It has a natural sweetness and the better ones also have a spiciness that works well in cocktails. For a mixing Bourbon, again, look beyond the basic expressions to the middle price range where there is a broad selection of spirits with more character and subtlety. Bulleit Frontier Bourbon is a good mixer at a sensible price and I particularly like Wild Turkey 101 as a ballsy Bourbon with rye-esque properties. Ultimately, pick one that suits your palate. Tennessee whiskies (Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel), while not marketed as Bourbon, should be considered as part of this category.

Rye. These curious American whiskies almost died out but now they’re back and they’re kicking ass. The use of rye instead of corn gives rye whiskey a robust spiciness that cocktails just love. During rye’s wilderness years Bourbon wormed its way into many recipes, not always for the better. It’s time to put things right. Get a bottle of Rittenhouse Rye 100 proof, Old Overholt or George Dickel Rye and join the battle!

Canadian. Canadian whisky such as Seagram’s VO or Canadian Club just love to mix it up. Their careful use of a mix of grains, including a little rye make them smooooooth operators. You could just stick with a mild Scotch blend but if you like to mix with whisky I think it’s worth having one of the above to hand.

Gin

The third of the old school base ingredients is that English stalwart that isn’t really English. They nicked the idea from the Dutch and more of it is produced in Scotland than in England. Gin, the word and the spirit, is derived from the Dutch spirit jenever which is itself named after the juniper berry that almost always features in the list of botanicals (flavourings). Let’s get it out with right away. Gin is flavoured vodka. Or vodka is unflavoured gin. There I said it. Sue me. Having said that, the flavouring process – or botanicalizticating or whatever they call it – originally an attempt to temper the harshness of the spirit has become a finely developed art that is only now reaching it’s zenith. Gin has had a good run in cocktails only getting temporarily yet almost  totally crushed by the horrible vodka fad of The Dark Ages (c.1970 – 2000). It could hardly escape anyone’s notice that gin’s rehabilitation is well under way. And then some. But beware there is a lot of BS hiding among the botanicals in some of the more recent gins.

There are a bewildering array of gins these days (some rather expensive) but for mixing we again should look to the middle ground. You absolutely must have a London dry gin (which is a style and needn’t actually be even English) and a sweeter gin which can be represented by either jenever (Dutch “gin”), Old Tom gin (if you can find any) or Plymouth gin (of which there is but a single, but most worthy survivor, handily enough called Plymouth Gin). The dry will be used more often and it may be worth having more than one as there is a range of unlabeled sub-styles. Gordon’s is a reliable piney gin that might look a bit prosaic among the new kids on the block but will always have a place on my shelf and not only for its use in a Singapore Sling. More common is the aromatic and citrus kind of gin and I favour Broker’s gin in this group but there are many other excellent choices including the wonderful – and yet affordable – Blackwood’s gin from the Scottish Shetland islands as well as the ever popular Bombay Sapphire.

Rum

Rum didn’t quite make it into the earliest cocktails because, frankly, it was considered a bit uncivilised. Rum was for soldiers, slaves and, most of all, sailors – and they had a reputation as an unruly bunch. Given that a sailor in the British Navy was handed half a pint of 57%+ ABV rum every day that hardly seems surprising. However the plantation slaves and sailors were accidentally creating their own cocktails by adding lime and sugar to their rum – the sailors to keep away scurvy and the slaves because it was all they had. Hundreds of years later rum’s reputation and those proto-cocktails are still with us.

That rum caught up quickly with gin, Cognac and whisky is unsurprising because rum is, arguably, the most mixable spirit. Gin would fight it for the title but rum would win because rum would fight dirty and gin wouldn’t. Rum was another big beneficiary of American prohibition. Those who missed their tipple often headed for Cuba – then America’s playground – and came back with a taste for rum. Caribbean rum, much like Canadian whisky, was ripe for bootlegging into the USA. The rum based Tiki movement got started as soon as prohibition ended (1933) and suddenly rum was, for the first time, in with the moneyed classes. Rum took a bit of a pounding in The Dark Ages but it’s back with a vengeance. In some quarters it is whispered that rum is the new whisky. You’ll hear no disagreement from me.

Rum is always made from sugar cane – mostly via molasses but sometimes directly from raw sugarcane juice. Despite the consistent source there is a very wide gamut of styles and flavours, partially because, unlike most other spirits, rum is almost entirely unregulated. Told you it was tough. Added to this, it’s notoriously difficult to push rum into neat categories. Many have tried and most became hopelessly confused. Apparently it’s my turn…

I’m going for the colonial roots split which gives us three (obviously) broad super-styles each with a clutch of sub-styles.

Spanish style rum

In general Spanish style rums come form countries which historically had a Spanish oppressor. These places seem to produce crisp, dry rums in the white (blanco) and gold (anejo) ranges but sometimes a sweet dark style too. Cuba plays a big part here and things can get very complicated when we start to mention brands like Bacardi and Havana Club so I think we’ll keep that for later. In general when we talk about a Spanish style rum we mean:

White Spanish style rum. Light and crisp. Great in a Mojito or Daiquiri. I suggest Havana Club 3 Años which I think towers over most other white rums in that it actually tastes like rum. If you can’t get genuine Havana Club due to your government being in a 60 year huff try Brugal Especial Extra Dry.

Gold Spanish style rum. As above but with increasing body and spiciness. I suggest Havana Club Anejo Especial, Brugal Anejo or Abuelo Anejo, three most illustrious amigos in the mixing department.

Dark Spanish style. Zacapa, Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva, and Pampero Anniversario are very tasty rums in this style but are more sippy than mixy. Mostly. While the lighter Spanish style rums are dry (free from added sugar) some of the darker ones tend to be on the sweeter side.

British style rum

Those regions oppressed by the British generally produced a sweeter more heavily bodied style of rum. We don’t really need a British style white rum very often so we won’t go there but we have bigger fish to fry in this category anyway.

Gold Barbados rum. All of these that I’ve tried are solid mixers but you might need to pick between this or the next category or you’ll just run out of space.

Gold Jamaican rum. What I look for in a gold Jamaican is funk. Wha? Funk is an underlying flavour that’s hard to explain. Some say akin to rotting bananas but I don’t find that helpful in selling the concept. You love funk or you hate it. I love it. Both kinds. I get my liquid funk from Coruba NPU (40%ABV), Smith & Cross (57%), or Wray & Nephew overproof (63%). The last looks white but is actually a filtered gold rum. The Coruba story is a bit complex. In Europe we get Coruba NPU which is a super funky gold Jamaican rum. In the US (see below) they get a totally different, dark, molasses-y Coruba. And never the twain shall meet. But both are excellent and inexpensive. If you dislike the funk go Barbados.

Dark Jamaican rum. Rich, sweet and dark. Look no further than Myers – or if you’re in the US – Coruba. If you use a dark Jamaican instead of a Spanish style rum remember to cut back a bit on the sweet portion. At the premium end Appleton Estate 12 year old/Extra is very fine stuff.

Dark Demerara rum. Fabulous, dark, smoky rum from Guyana. If you are going Tiki you need Lemon Hart 151 (75.5%ABV) or a substitute. I say substitute because LH151 distribution is very unpredictable, especially at the moment. Alternatives are Hamilton 151 (USA only), Plantation OFTD (69%) or my special mix of equal parts Wood’s 100 Navy Rum and Plantation 73% overproof – which comes acceptably close (and averages out to 65%ABV). There are also more regular strength Demeraras from El Dorado (I like the 8 year old for mixing) and some oddballs such as the very mixable “Scottish” OVD (Old Vatted Demerara).

Navy rum. The British Navy, which for a long time was a superpower in its own right, ran on rum. Lots of rum. More rum than could be produced by entire islands or regions. The Navy bought high strength rum from lots of the colonies (mostly those listed above plus Trinidad) mixed it up and stored it in oak barrels in cold waterside cellars in London and Glasgow until it was needed. They were accidentally making top quality, dark, age smoothed, rumble juice without even knowing it. One brand, Pusser’s, is a direct descendant but anything that claims to be “Navy Rum” will suffice. Often it is sold at “Navy Proof” which is 57% ABV or 100 proof in old money (US proof is different). This meant that even if you spilled your rum ration on the gunpowder, it would still fire big balls of iron at the French, Dutch or Spanish, apparently an important consideration at the time.

French style rum

Those under the thumb of the French (Haiti, Martinique and Guadaloupe) did things a little differently. Instead of using molasses much French style rum – rhum agricole – uses the juice of pressed sugarcane and is made with the sort of attention to detail used in Cognac with which it often shares a similar age labeling system. This makes for a very different rum with more earthy or grassy notes. Some like it and some don’t. I like it, but then you were expecting me to say that. The rule is if it’s not labelled rhum agricole it’s probably normal molasses based rum (rhum traditionnel). Unless it’s from Haiti where it’s made from sugarcane juice and just called rhum. Nobody said this would be easy. I particularly like Clement Select Barrel and Rhum Barbancourt 8 year old which are both aged gold rums. These are the rums that put the punch in a ‘Ti Punch.

Those are just the basics for rum. I could go on all day. Ah, but which ones do I need you ask. It depends. Even if you’re not too interested in rum and Tiki you need a minimum of a white Spanish style and a dark Jamaican. A more rum friendly cabinet would welcome a gold rum of Cuban or Barbadian origin. If you want to go all out Tiki I’m afraid the answer is basically all of the above. What about coconut and spiced rum? Nah, we’ll make our own. Trust me it’s gonna be delicious, and easy. Later.

Tequila

Generations of non-Mexicans have had bad experiences with tequila. Almost everyone I talk to is wary of the stuff. The problem is that was all bad cheap-ass tequila. Tequila is amazing if you stick to one simple rule. You only drink it if it has the exact words “100% agave” on the label. This is the good stuff, none of that mixto crapola. There are three grades; white (aka silver or blanco) is unaged, reposado is slightly aged (“rested”) and anejo is barrel aged. The latter two make the best cocktails. Tequila can be expensive but there are competitively priced 100% agave reposados and even anejos too. Made from the roasted heart of the blue agave plant, tequila is heavily regulated – you can trust the quality. There should be a little NOMxxx number on the side that is you assurance that all is as it should be. Stock at least one 100% agave reposado or anejo tequila. The wide selection can be confusing but for mixing I’d suggest El Jimador or Espolon reposado’s as reliable starting points that are fairly widely available.

Mezcal

Mezcal is closely related to tequila but has the freedom to use other varieties of agave and comes from a different region – mostly Oaxaca. The same caveats as above apply but, put simply, the best stuff doesn’t have a drowned worm in the bottom of the bottle. Again, people are suspicious of mezcal but the good stuff is a wonderfully complex, smoky and often floral taste sensation. I’m telling you right here, right now, that good mescal is an amazing spirit and it’s gonna be B.I.G. Get started with a bottle of Del Maguey Vida or Nuestra Soledad.

Vodka

Why is vodka down at the end? Because we almost never use it. There are a few reasons why. The main one is that we are exploring flavour combinations and synergies in our drinks. Vodka doesn’t have any flavour. Or if it does it’s so mild that it would be overpowered by virtually anything else you added. Then there’s flavoured vodka. OK, but we’d rather add those flavours to our drink with the actual fruit or juice itself and cut out the middle-man. Another reason is that we still haven’t forgiven vodka for its role in The Dark Ages where vodka was king and more deserving spirits, recipes and skills died off. In other words it’s in the dog-house. Any way that you cut it vodka is struggling to justify its way into serious cocktails. That said, millions of people drink vodka in their Coke, orange juice, tonic or just straight and I certainly have no plans to stop them. While we don’t really need vodka very often for making drinks it’s really great for making certain home-made liqueurs and the like. If that sounds like your idea of fun get some 50% ABV vodka. I’ll show you what to do with it later.