Category: Tequila
Basement Bar
Rule 4

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

Academia Patron Comes to Columbus

pinas On October 5th, Tequila Patron brought its Academia Patron program here to Columbus, and I was fortunate to join a host of USBG and other industry types for the all day event. Patron only puts on a few of these education seminars a year, making us fortunate to see it here in Columbus. Attendance was tremendous, and we had bartenders making the journey here from as far away as Pittsburgh and Louisville. The presentation was densely packed with information, some of which I already knew, and some of which I really didn't want to know, but it was overall hugely interesting and useful. This will be long enough without trying to digest the whole day's training, but I thought it would be fun to go over some of the things we discussed that stood out to me as either fun or particularly useful. The first two-thirds of the seminar was presented not by Patron, but by Consejo Regulador del Tequila, or The Tequila Regulatory Council. This is the Mexican quasi-governmental agency that regulates everything tequila, from agave farming to labeling. IMG_6782 Legally, "Tequila" is an Appellation of Origin, a legal definition the same as for "Cognac", and more strict than, say, bourbon. The differences are technical, but suffice to say that the tequila folks are far pickier about how and where you can and cannot make tequila. Imagine if all bourbon had to be made with one and only one variety of corn.... Among the most important things to be clear on as a consumer or purveyor of tequila is that there are two distinct categories of the spirit: Tequila 100% Blue Agave, and Tequila. The former is made from only the Weber Blue Agave plant. The latter may employ up to 49% sugars from other sources. The distinction here looks similar but is fundamentally different from the distinction between, for example, single malts and blended scotches. Blended whiskies add other alcohols after distillation, whereas the other sources of sugar, principally molasses, are added into tequila before the initial fermentation begins. All tequila, in both categories, can use only Weber Blue Agave. If you want an agave liquor made from other agaves, try mezcal, which conversely may not legally contain any Weber Blue. To make tequila, you cut all the leaves off of your mature blue agave, leaving you with a stem that looks like a gigantic pineapple, so much so that it is called just that, a piña. The piñas are then very slowly roasted in a sealed oven or autoclave to break down the sugars to something that won't give yeast indigestion. The piñas are then subjected to any of a variety of processes each horrible enough to have given the Spanish Inquisition pause in order to extract the juices. If you are not making 100% blue agave, you add your molasses or other sugars at this point. Tequila can be distilled in either pot or column stills, and pot still tequila is usually twice distilled directly to bottling strength, while column still tequila must be diluted back down. Silver tequilas are essentially the pure distillate, straight from the still. It may be filtered, but can have zero additives. We were told that many true tequila wonks prefer silvers to geek out with, as you get the truest expression of the agave flavors and sweetness. I surmise this means that it is in silver tequilas that the difference between a half-assed product and one made with great care will be most apparent. Despite the requirement that silvers have no additives, you will often see some that have a slight color to them. This is because they may be legally aged in wood for up to two months. The other main types of tequila are all aged for more than two months. Reposados (literally, "rested") may be aged at least two months. Anjeos ("Aged") are aged more than a year. Extra Anjeos ("Extra Aged") must be aged at least three years. Those are the literal translations. The US legal translations are Reposado–Aged, Añjeo–Extra Aged, and Extra Añjeo–Ultra Aged, because bureaucrats hate you. You will seldom find Extra Añjeos much older than three for two reasons. It is hot in Mexico, which means the angels down there are serious lushes. Also, tequila simply does not age terribly well. The distinctive agave flavor compounds that make tequila what it is are overwhelmed or destroyed by enough time in oak. There are few restrictions on what barrels are used to age tequila. Distillers use and reuse new and used, and the used barrels come from wine and all types of other spirits. Patron's aged tequilas are a careful blend of tequilas from several different kinds of barrels. Right off the bat, you can often tell by taste what kind of barrel was used to age a tequila. If the barrel aging process for reposados and añjeos are all over the place, the last group of tequilas, Golds, are the Wild West. Gold, or joven, tequila is a silver tequila to which colorants and/or flavorings added. The wild west comes in here because the flavorings could be almost anything. Most jovens are colored and sweetened with caramel colors and sugars, but there are some that add only some amount of aged tequila. In other words, your gold tequila could be an Early Times analogue... or a Johnny Walker Black. With almost everything else about tequila so strictly controlled, I do not know why the gold classification is left so wide open. All I got is, again, bureaucrats hate you. A final important point about the making of tequila is that agave plants take seven to ten years to grow to maturity and harvest. Farming economics being what they are, this has historically lead to crazy cycles of glut and scarcity in agave production. My guess is, the next time you see a sudden wave of premium producers touting the virtues of their mixtos, it is because there has been a scarce harvest, and there isn't enough agave to make as much 100% blue agave tequila as they'd like. IMG_6783 The main feature of Patron's portion of the session was the tasting, of course, but it was accompanied by a fascinating discussion of how Patron does business and how their production processes affect the finished product. The government speaker, representing all tequila makers, could not go into many value judgements about how different distilling options affect quality, although she was very strong on the point that 100% blue agave is not an automatically superior liquor. There are applications and significant portions of the market who actively prefer mixtos. But Patron can of course brag all they want about the choices they make. The most interesting point was an admission that in some segments of the craft bar world, Patron is becoming a victim of its own success. Its basic Silver expression in particular is sometimes sneered at as bland because of its ubiquity, rather than any actual blandness. Their response, rather than stomping their feet and insisting anyone who doesn't like basic Patron Silver is a visigoth, is to suggest their Roca Patron line of expressions as alternatives. I quite like the Roca Silver, a lot. But whatever your personal opinion of this line of expressions, "bland" won't likely be included. Patron uses two distinct processes to crush their roasted piñas. One is a modern roller mill, which is highly efficient in extracting the juice from the pulp. The other is an almost pre-industrial device called a tahona which is a giant stone wheel that rolls around a circle, crushing the agave. Patron's nod to the modern world with this setup is to replace the mule with a tractor to pull the wheel around. The tahona process is much less efficient in extracting the juice, and leaves a lot of the fibrous pulp behind. Patron leaves this pulp in the "mosto" which goes into the stills. For most of their tequila, they blend the resulting distillates together before bottling. But for the Roca brands, they use only the tahona process. The result is a big, vegetal flavor that strikes me as almost rustic. Hipster Cred Status: Restored. I'll wrap up with two final interesting things we learned. The first is that due to the unique chemistry of agave, there is a much higher level of methanol in tequila than any other liquor. No, it's not high enough to be harmful, but yes, it is high enough to be part of the basic flavor profile. In fact, the experts at CSI:Jalisco are usually able to detect illegally aldulterated tequilas simply by demonstrating a low methanol level. And yes, there is actually a tequila board "crime lab" where they ferret out counterfeit tequilas around the world. Finally, there was the Mexican goddess of fertility, who was named Muyahuel. She had 400 breasts, which understandably caught the attention of the great god Quetzalcoatl. They ran off from her abusive grandmother and had 400 babies, called the Rabbits of Drunkenness. At any rate, wedded bliss was not long for Muyahuel, as her granny tracked her down and killed her. Her husband memorialized Muyahuel by turning her into the agave plant. Now, if you drink too much of her "milk", one of her rabbit children will come and possess you...
I'm not quite sure what made the god choose this form to represent Muyahuel....
Source: Ben Olivares
Rule 2
Tiki Month 2014

National Margarita Day in Tiki Month: The Margarita Atoll

Margarita Atoll-A Tiki Margarita Today is National Margarita Day. Since just about every day is National {Put name of liquor/cocktail/food/something else that hires PR people here} Day, I usually ignore these momentous occasions on the blog. But every once in a while, circumstances come together to demand a post. This is that point in the current while. I have been happily perusing the results of this month's Mixology Monday, hosted at Ginhound. The theme is Sours, and like yours truly, many of the participants chose to set their offerings in the very Sour-friendly arena of Tiki drinks. Another entrant is Bartending Notes' simple and elegant post on the Margarita (the Gospel of Tequila). Despite a kind shout-out to this humble repository, the Margarita Ceccotti presents is a fairly straightforward, if a touch sweet for my preference, version. Not a Tiki drink, really. But then you look at the picture used:
marg It's BLUE.
Two things here:
  1. I don't know how this azure concoction arose from the recipe in the post
  2. Doug's Rule of Tiki #4 is: If it is blue and has citrus in it, but mostly just if it is blue, it is a Tiki drink.
So today's Tiki Month project was to construct a truly Tiki Margarita. The right recipe was pretty easily obtained. I simply used my standard Margarita recipe, substituted Bols Blue Curaçao for half the Cointreau to obtain the wanted color of Tahitian coral shallows, then backed off the tequila slightly and added a whisper of honey syrup for the sweeter, more undefined Tiki flavor profile.
  • 1 1/4 oz. good silver tequila
  • strong 1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 oz. Cointreau
  • 1/4 oz. Bols Blue Curaçao
  • 1/4 oz honey mix
Combine in shaker with ice and agitate until frigid. Strain into a cocktail coupe rimmed as below.
Since I'm trying to emphasize the Tiki-ness of this drink, I wanted a garnish somewhat beyond a simple lime wedge, even a nicely tattooed one. I also do not like to rim my Margaritas with salt. If you use good tequila, I've always maintained that the salt rim just wipes out the character of the spirit. But others continue to be wrong disagree. So I chose to split the difference by caving on the second problem to solve the first here. I hauled out my black Hawaiian salt (a great origin for a Tiki drink, yes?). You have to crush this further, since the gravel size it usually comes it is to big and heavy to rim with. I just use a muddler on a plate, but if you have a mortar and pestle you are better off. You don't want to powder the salt, just break it down a little so it can stick. Black Hawaiian Salt I then, both to allow an anti-salt guy like me a way to not taste the salt and for garnish purposes, rubbed the outside of the rim with a lime wedge, but only in patches, before rolling the outside of the glass in the crushed black salt. The result is a nifty look, reminiscent of the ring of volcanic islands of a south Pacific Atoll, surrounding the light blue waters of the sunken caldera. Margarita-Atoll-Rim The drink's not half bad
Gnostic Gospels

The Gnostic Gospels: The Margarita

I've written before of the four bedrock drinks of cocktailia. Each based on one of the four foundation spirits of classic cocktail mixing: gin, bourbon, rum, and brandy, I refer to these cocktails as The Four Gospels. There are other great and/or popular spirits that people mix with, of course. And there is for most of them an emblematic cocktail as well. I'll refer to these drinks as the Gnostic Gospels, since the spirits they use aren't quite canonical for one reason or another. With Cinco de Mayo fast approaching, let's discuss the (Gnostic) Gospel of Tequila: The Margarita.

Margaritas! Woo Hoo!
Um, no. Not quite what I want to talk about here. The Margarita suffers from all sorts of problems, few if any of them its own fault. The biggest is that, like the Gospel of Rum (the Daiquiri), the Margarita has been largely debased from great classic cocktail into a machine-dispensed, umbrella party drink that is consumed rather than savored. It's a shame really, because when made well, the Margarita is a delicious, sophisticated cocktail that you can order in the finest cocktail bars in the world with your head held high. Please note, I'm not totally dismissing the frozen Margarita here. There are times when a slushy, salt-encrusted bowl of green agave bomb is just the thing. They can truly rev up a party, and if you either cannot afford or do not want to pop for the good stuff on this set of guests, Frozen Margaritas are the best way to go to hide the genuinely crappy flavors of cheap tequila. Cheap or expensive, Tequila really does seem to have a higher than average ability to knock down inhibitions. I banned the stuff from my own parties back in my late twenties after two incidents. The first ended with me rolling up and down the hill in our back yard in the wet grass with several of the neighborhood wives. The second had my own wife finding me taking a shower in the guest bathroom, fully clothed, but dry as a bone since I'd forgotten to turn on the water. But this blog is a high-falutin' operation, so I'll leave off the frozen Margarita discussion with a single piece of advice for those who came here looking for insight into cold, green, party punch for St. Patrick's Day (South of the Border Edition). Forget the blender. It is a hassle, loud, and unlike with lots of frozen cocktails, unnecessary. If you are going to do the Margarita Party thing, just try one of these products. The freezer bucket mixes just need a bottle of cheap tequila and some freezer space, and they make a plenty serviceable faux Mexican party drink. Let's start with what is in a Margarita: Tequila, lime, an orange liqueur, and a bit of sweetener. Within this, there is a lot of room for variation and experimentation. Here is the recipe I use when my fancy takes me to Margaritaville:
  • 2 1/2 parts silver tequila
  • 1 part Cointreau
  • 3/4 to 1 part fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 part agave syrup
Combine ingredients in a shaker with ice and do the hat dance until it is seriously cold. Strain into a properly salt-rimmed cocktail glass.
I'll go through each bit to show where you might want to vary the program, and why I don't. For the most part, I stick with silver tequilas in my Margaritas. The added character is largely wasted in this mix, and frankly, I don't like the color as much in the final cocktail. Rather than spend your money on a reposado or anjeo, spend it on a better class of white tequila and you'll be well ahead of the game. Whatever tequila you use in making your real Margarita, make sure it is actually drinkable. If you take a sip and have to bite into a lime and lick salt just to survive the experience, it isn't good enough tequila. If you do want to use a dark, aged tequila, I suggest you do it on the rocks, where the color will be less of an issue. Which brings us to the choice of up or on the rocks. As I mentioned above, the frozen version is a fine drink, but it is not a cocktail. A good Margarita cocktail can be served either chilled or with ice, and in either a cocktail glass or a rocks. I prefer up, in a cocktail glass, because I think it is more elegant. But since it is so important that your Margarita be cold when you drink it, you may find rocks to be a better choice if you like to pour a larger portion. In either case, please don't use those giant, thick "Margarita" glasses. These things are ugly, clunky, and take up unnecessary space in your cabinets that could be devoted to booze. If you must use these things, do it with the slush.

Not the Devil, but it is what he drinks out of.
Cointreau is apparently the original liqueur in Margaritas. I use it because, well, I seem to use Cointreau in every damn thing I mix. Also, it is a magnificent step up from basic Triple Sec. You can also use Grand Marnier, or other orange liqueur such as Patron's Citronage. Why you'd bother, I don't know. Cointreau is delicious. Fresh lime juice. 'Nuff said there. You may or may not want the sweetener. I like a little myself. I use agave syrup here, and in precious little else. It is not flavor neutral, and in most cocktails that is a problem. But for obvious reasons, it does go quite well with tequila. The last big thing is the rim. In an Art of Drink post two years ago, Darcy says a lot about the salts to use on your rim. For my part, I just want to focus on where, not what. Below is not how to rim your glass, for Margaritas, or any other salt or sugar-rimmed glass. Ever. The salt needs to be outside the glass, not inside, and the standard bar rimmer, while fast, will put just as much or more material on the inside of the glass as the outside. Rimming materials that are inside the rim of the glass will wash into the drink. If you wanted the salt dissolved in the drink, you'd add it when you are shaking. Outside the rim, the salt will only dissolve on the drinker's tongue, in the amount he or she desires. To that end, always leave a gap at least a quarter of the way around the glass clear of ice, so the drinker can start out with a span of rim where they can be completely salt-free, even on their first sip. You should do this with any rimmed drink you make, salt, sugar, or Peruvian cocoa and parika dust. Achieving this kind of rim, with the salt only on the outside and leaving a perfect gap, is harder than just slamming your damp glass into a ring of salt, but not by much really. To make the salt stick, take a freshly cut wedge of lime and run it around the outside rim of the glass as far around and down the outside as you want the salt to coat. Then lean the glass over on its side and pat its outside gently into a high pile of your chosen salt. Don't turn the glass while it is in the salt, or you'll get a messy rim and your salt pile will get contaminated. Instead, pat the glass down, lift and twist slightly. Repeat until you have gone as far around as you want. The result is a gorgeous, evenly crusted outer rim. With the slightest of practice, it takes 30 seconds, tops. Before I leave you to your newly sophisticated Conco de Mayoing, I should explain why I classify the Margarita as a Gnostic Gospel. Good Margaritas have all the hallmarks of a gospel cocktail. They are delicious, simple to make, complex, beautifully showcase the quality of the base spirit, and they are the quintessential means of serving tequila. But whereas vodka is so devoid of character it is relegated to the gnostic status, Tequila's conversely overwhelming character makes it just too limited a spirit in its own right to merit full gospel status. It is a bitch to mix with in general. Its unique flavor profile is problematic with a host of the usual cocktail ingredients; so much so that most every tequila cocktail ends up being some kind of Margarita derivative. Also, despite tremendous money spent in recent years by the industry, with lots of creative advertising and a concurrent increase in sales, tequila remains a boutique or niche spirit. Most Americans drink it only in Mexican restaurants or on Cinco de Mayo. Similar to what I said about Old Fashioneds and Mad Men season premiers, 95% of everything you will see written about tequila this year, will be written this week. abc
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