Category: blogging
Basement Bar, Brandy, Gin, reviews, Rule 4, Rum, Tequila, Vodka, Whiskey

The Best Value in Each of the Six Base Spirits

Value-Quality-puzzle-pieces 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. Four Roses Yellow Label 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.

2. Gin

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 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.

3. Rum

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 Grand Reserve 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.

4. Brandy

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. Maison Rouge VSOP 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.

5. Tequila

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. Olmeca Altos Blanco 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.

6 Vodka

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 Vodka 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. abc
columbus, Gin, Marketing, Rule 2

A Watershed Distillery Documentary

This lovely little video tells a bit of the story behind one of Columbus's fine local distilleries, Watershed. It is a student project by Kelly Insinga here at Columbus College of Art & Design. The quality of this little six minute documentary says great things about Insinga's talent, and the instruction at CCAD. I've featured Watershed's products on this blog before, as well as a (far less impressive) video of my own, but they are worth talking about again. And again. There are small distilleries popping up all over the country, and I visit every one I can when I travel. I have taken to using Watershed, which I have studied since they opened, as a benchmark by which to measure all these other brave ventures. And most every visit to another micro, whether I'm impressed with what they are doing or not, leaves me a bit more impressed with Watershed in one way or another. Their Four Peel Gin is my favorite among their products. I like the citrus-forward profile. The price is reasonable. But most importantly, They have locked it down. Gin is a deceptive spirit to make. It requires no aging, so the economics make great sense for a startup, but it is devilishly hard to make consistently over time, especially for a small manufacturing concern. Watershed definitely had some wobbles after a great start in their first few batches. I know a number of people who first tried it back when their production first started to accelerate... um. I had some of those early two-digit batches myself. I didn't find them bad, just not as special as those very first runs were... or as special as the current gin is, batch after batch. Consistency is the key in gin, and Watershed has had it for a while now. Right now, you can only get their products in Ohio for the most part. Given Watershed's success so far, and the way they've achieved it, I expect that will change in future years. In the mean time, come visit Columbus. Drop me a line.abc
drinking, Rule 4, science

Thoughts on “The Wagon”

[caption id="attachment_11186" align="aligncenter" width="2000"]Not this wagon, more's the pity. Not this wagon, more's the pity.[/caption] So March was an interesting month for me. I always have a big motivation hangover after Tiki Month in February, so this year I decided to lean into the curve and just go fully dry for the whole month... up until a family wedding at the very end. I'm not crazy. Why do people take a temporary ride on The Wagon? Lots of reasons, I suppose. There is a custom called Dry January, which seems to have originated in the United Kingdom and has in recent years become a fund-raising event as well. A number of my Twitter friends and followers seem to give it a go each year as well. My reasons for trying it (albeit in March) were two-fold. First, and most importantly, I wanted to make sure I could. My family has had its share of members who have suffered from problems controlling their drinking, from simple difficulty with portion control to full-blown alcoholism. I do not wish to go down any of those roads. In fact, one reason I like cocktails so much is that I firmly believe that one way to control the slippery slope of Just One More is to choose to drink things that are just enough of a pain in the ass to make that you think twice before each and every one. Thus, March was an on-going experiment in measuring how much difficulty I would have in not drinking, and how I felt during the effort. What I expected to happen was much like what this British writer describes: cravings, dreams, cheating, and an altered social life in aid of succeeding. I was ready for all that, but I found that I had relatively little difficulty at all. First and foremost, I never felt like I just needed a drink. I never found myself reaching for something unconsciously. The number one most important thing I learned is that not only am I not overly dependent on alcohol, I really don't feel dependent on it at all. I'm not saying I didn't miss cocktails. I missed them often, but what I was fantasizing about was flavor. I've claimed for years that what I value in drinking is the culinary value, not the buzz. I was a little bit surprised, honestly, to discover that I haven't been bullshitting. And keeping sober was easier than I expected in other ways too. Lots of wagoneers change their social habits in self-defense, just like smokers who avoid the things they used to smoke during while going cold turkey. While I didn't go out as much during March, I still did go, still sat at the bars, even ate there (or didn't). I wasn't miserable, or even particularly tempted. I also deliberately did not encourage the PeguWife to get on the wagon with me. I sat beside her evenings while she had her glass of wine, and I did not feel jealous. I even made her cocktails. Testing a drink before serving has become a habit for me, and remembering not to do that may have been the hardest thing during the month. I genuinely did not know how I'd handle the test, and I'm almost smug about how well I did. But I will never stop being careful on this front. Second, my liver is not getting any younger, and I'd like to remain friends. The liver is designed to handle toxins like alcohol, that's what it is there for. But there is no doubt that a relentless workout takes its toll over time. Years of alcohol consumption will inevitably leave scars on any liver. But there is some pretty solid science that demonstrates the liver's amazing ability to regenerate itself, given a break. A month of teetotaling gives the body's waste processing plant a chance for a lot of maintenance. Liver health will improve, in many cases rather dramatically. Major changes include reductions in organ hardness and liver fat deposits, both precursors of serious liver problems. Other health benefits claimed on behalf of a month of sobriety are weight loss, lowered blood sugar, and a host of other lifestyle effects like better sleep, etc. I didn't do any clinical tests on myself, but I did take a careful inventory of how I felt and how my body treated me before, during, and after March. I have sleeping problems whether I am on the wagon or not, but they are different. Going to bed with a few drinks in me, I usually wake between two to four in the morning for a brisk half hour or so of wrestling with whatever haunts me currently. When I wasn't drinking, I woke much less in the middle of the night, but I had a lot harder time actually getting to sleep in the first place. That was pretty much a wash. The big difference was how I felt in the mornings. Until I went dry, I didn't realize how bleary I was feeling many mornings. I felt a lot better before lunch all of a sudden. The best part is, now that I'm back to regular drinking levels, I still feel better in the morning than before. Not as good as I felt when sober, but still markedly better. I will be interested to see if this keeps up over the next year, and if I can tell. I also have lost a good bit of weight, but I doubt the sobriety had anything to do with that. I've been keeping to a low-carb diet since I put away all the Tiki Month syrups, etc. I've enjoyed nice, steady, noticeable weight loss the entire time, and going off the wagon has not changed that. But that's another post. I will say here, that most Dry January weight loss seems more due to reductions in carbs and calories from beer or wine. If you are a cocktail drinker with tastes like mine, I seriously doubt you will get much weight loss from stopping booze. What makes a month so special? Probably nothing, other than humans' need for nice round numbers. The science says some benefits appear well before a month. What the sweet spot is maximizing benefit for amount of effort is not known. It could be two weeks, it could be seven. What is known is that a month seems to give pretty good results. And for someone who is less lucky than me in terms of the mental effort needed to stay sober, a nice, defined period of "suffering" would likely make chances of success a lot higher. My March on The Wagon was well worth it. I will do it again. I may not do it again the same month, and depending on the results of my annual physicals, I may not do it every year. But I feel it was certainly worthwhile. I'm going to press the PeguWife to try it soon. And I suggest, if you haven't given it a shot, and you are no longer so young as to imagine yourself to be indestructible, you ought to try it too.abc
General Cocktails, Rule 2

Outstanding Video on Cocktail First Principals

I just want to highlight an outstanding new video from The Mixology Guys on the Small Screen Network's YouTube cocktail channel. Embedded below it is a brisk 90 seconds of slow-mo drink pr0n and four bedrock principals in making any drink the best it can be. For those who can't watch it for whatever reason, here are the four elements that go into a truly good drink:
  1. Mix Ingredients. You might say, "duh", but until you understand why this is important, you don't really understand the Dao of cocktails. The purpose of making drinks is to produce a potable that is better in some fashion than any and all of its component ingredients. A few years back, I went to a session at Tales of the Cocktail where some of my favorite big names in the liquor industry discussed how seldom they actually drank cocktails any more. The gist of the argument from much of the panel was, "the distiller's art has reached previously unheard of heights. There are so many beautifully crafted spirits out there, it makes sense to enjoy them on their own to fully appreciate them." Fair enough. There are indeed many truly fine, expensive bottles of whiskey, brandy, rum, and even gin out there that are so crafted as to make them immune to the "improvement" of the mixed drink. But if you can spend your life drinking nothing but ultra-premium liquor with naught but the occasional splash of water or ice, you are either a wealthy alcoholic... or a brand ambassador. (Some might argue that the difference is that brand ambassadors are seldom wealthy.)
  2. Dilution. Enough said. Until you understand the effects of dilution, you can't really understand how to make a really great drink. Anyone who sneers at dilution on general principals doesn't know the first damn thing about cocktails.
  3. Temperature. Make sure your cold drinks are cold. (And your hot ones actually hot.) Ever get into a really good argument with someone and turn back to your Sidecar, only to discover it has gotten warm? Ew.
  4. Aeration of Ingredients. This is both perhaps the best element of this video, and the only part I have a quibble with. For the vast majority of mixed drinks, air is critical to making it the best it can be, for the reasons they outline beautifully. But not for all drinks. I strictly adhere to the "clear ingredients—no shake" credo. I like my Martinis stirred. I will call Child Services and report you if you shake your Manhattans. I don't muddle fruit in my Old Fashioneds, so I also don't add any soda. Air is amazing in what it can do to for drinks that can benefit from it. 90% of the drinks I make can, and I take great care to ensure that I apply aeration liberally there. But please, please remember that this rule is NOT universal!
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