I thought it would be interesting to put up a list of what I view as the single best value out there in each of the six great cocktail spirit categories. To be clear, these are hardly the best exemplars of Whiskey (North American), Rum, Gin, Brandy, Tequila, and Vodka, nor are they the cheapest. Far from it in both instances. These hit the sweet spot where the price and quality curves intersect. Prices, of course, will vary wherever you are, and in what mood the bottlers, distributors, and Chet behind the counter are in…
These bottles also are Swiss Army Knife products, in that they aren’t just good, they work well pretty much across the spectrum of drinks you might make with each. There might be a better gin, price to quality, if you only make Dry Martinis with it, but that gin might not be so great a value in an Alexander or a Pegu.
So let’s begin.
1. North American Whiskey
In the whiskey category, I immediately discarded the Scotches and Irish. (It’s OK, we Scots-Irish have been discarded for centuries.) I love both, but neither is remotely a common cocktail spirit. I settled on a bourbon simply because of market share. My choice will be familiar to long-time readers: Four Roses Yellow Label Kentucky Straight Bourbon. The price wobbles a bit, but you can almost always hand over a single Andrew Jackson and get your Yellow Label back with change.
I’ve blogged quite a bit about Four Roses already, and I don’t want to do anything like a full review of these six bottles anyway. Suffice to say, you can put a bit of this in a glass with some water, frozen or not, and hand it with confidence to just about anyone and know that if they turn their nose up at it, they are not a connoisseur but an ungrateful jerk. Further, it possesses enough character and polish to feature well in spirit-forward cocktails, but enough fortitude to remind you it’s a bourbon drink in more… distracting recipes.
Among gins, I’m going with one that I’ve never blogged. It is also the closest call on this list. Among these six bottles, it’s the only one I don’t naturally reach for when looking to try a new recipe at home. (Gin is my first cocktail love, and I tend to overspend within the range. Sue me.) At about twelve bucks a bottle, it is damned hard to touch New Amsterdam Gin.
New Amsterdam is no sipper. But much as I love gin, if you like to sip gin you either have an unlimited budget, or a drinking problem… quite possibly both. (Sorry Angus, you know I love you.) With in the two main categories of gin today, New Amsterdam was among the initial vanguard of citrus-forward, “New American” gins that have risen with the resurrection of cocktail culture. It is a solid cocktail gin that may fall short for a Martini lover, but be a super entrance drug for your juniperphobe friends. It’s consistent, reliable, free from any unpleasant notes… and it is twelve damn dollars.
You cannot just say “this is the best rum”. It would be a bit like saying “this is the best motor vehicle”. Silver, Gold, dark, and Spiced rums all serve different, sometimes extraordinarily different purposes. But the rum I chose to put on this list, Plantation Grand Reserve 5-Year, is obscenely good for the price (about twenty-two bucks) and very versatile.
Plantation 5 Year Rum is a Barbadan gold, and as I said, quite versatile. They make great rum on that island as a rule, but this bottle has just a hair more character than most. It also far, far too good on the rocks all by itself for any low-twenties purchase. It pairs well with Jamaican pot-still in a Mai Tai, yet slips easily into a standard Daiquiri as well. It’s the baritone of rums.
Here’s the thing about basic grape brandy: Americans are only now beginning to grasp what it takes to make it really well. For now, and a while to come, I expect, if you want a brandy to stand up with other world-class products, you go to France. But Courvoisier is in the mid thirties for just a VS, and cognacs tend to go up from there. That’s tres cher if you are whipping up a round of Sidecars, or if you are curled up on the couch on a Tuesday night, catching upon NCIS and craving a snifter of something. And then Maison Rouge VSOP entered the State of Ohio, and my life, at just over twenty bucks.
I do not understand this product. Yes, the packaging is painfully boring. No, no one in the US has heard of this juice since Hardy spends no money on marketing, as far as I can tell. But it is a perfectly fine sipper for non-special occasions, and it is as good a mixing cognac as you will find. And it clocks in at about two-thirds of the big names’ entry offerings, while Maison Rouge is a VSOP. If you can find it, buy some. You are welcome.
Choosing a bottle in the tequila category was easy. Añejos and Extra Añejos, delicious as many are, are mostly too delicate (and too pricey) to mix with. Some of the best tequila cocktails I’ve been served were made with Reposados, but let’s be honest, tequila as a category simply doesn’t need wood the way whiskey does to be a legitimate, finished product. Silvers are the most versatile tequila category, as well as the best value. And the price and quality curves are so strong for Olmeca Altos Tequila Plata, I hardly buy much else from the tequila section these days.
Is it special? No. Is it unique in some way? No. It is just good. You could sip it, I suppose. You can definitely shoot it, with no need to lunge afterwards for salt or lime. And you can mix the hell out of it. There’s a balance in making tequila in commercial quantities between over-reliance on traditional methods, which can add taste elements here and there that can narrow the appeal of a product, and over-indulgence in industrial processing, which usually either sands so many edges off the profile it doesn’t feel really like tequila… or just makes it taste like ass. Olmeca seems to have hit the sweet spot, and I hope they stay right there.
The final great cocktail spirit (the youngest or the oldest, depending on how you look at it) is unique in its place for making cocktails. All the others are crafted to bring certain flavor profiles to the foundation of a cocktail. They are ingredients. Vodka is an accelerant. Yes, yes. I know. There are lots of vodkas out there that are “interesting” in one way or another. But vodka is in a cocktail to wake up and otherwise showcase the flavors of the other ingredients. (Unless the cocktail is a Vodka Martini, in which case, it’s just there to get you bombed.) For making cocktails, a vodka should offer the highest purity of ethanol (with the lowest number of other complex molecules) to do its job right. Sobieski vodka does the job beautifully, and at about 12 bucks runs about a third of most vodkas of equivalent purity.
Sobieski was one of the very first product samples I was ever sent as a blogger. They still have a link to my eight year old blog post about them, right on their website. I shudder to think how much money I’ve saved since then, not buying other, more expensive vodkas. (Disclaimer: I’ve still bought a bunch of other, more expensive vodkas… just not as many as I might have) Sobieski has boring, usually plastic bottles. It’s marketing is plain, cheap, and highly intelligent. And it lives in an obscure position down on the bottom shelf, low-rent district of the vodka section of your liquor store. Get some.
That’s the list. What do you think? I’m always open to better suggestions.