Category: bourbon
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
Cachaça, Garnish, Recipes, Rule 2, Tiki Month 2016, Whiskey

Modern Tiki Drink: Honor Amongst Thieves

Honor Amongst Thieves Honor Amongst Thieves is a modern Tiki concoction by Alex Renshaw, and can be found in the 2015 edition of Food & Wine: Cocktails. (The quality of recipes collected in recent editions of this anthology, incidentally, are far superior to what they put out in early days.) I was twigged to this particular entry by Boston's Fred Yarm.
Did you know that Apple's spellcheck does not recognize the word "amongst"? I blame Tim Cook!
To be more on point, Honor Amongst Thieves is yet another of the modern Tiki drinks I'm focusing on this year that do not feature rum as the base spirit. This one goes with bourbon and cachaça as the spirits.
  • 1 oz. aged cachaça
  • 1 oz. triple digit proof bourbon
  • 1 oz. fresh pineapple juice
  • 1/2 oz. falernum
  • 1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 oz. simple syrup
Combine ingredients in a shaker with lots of ice and shake well to get a good head from the pineapple juice. Strain over a large chunk of ice in an appropriate glass. Garnish prettily, but with restraint.
I have several notes on this recipe. Fred gave this the full Tiki treatment, with ceramic mug, and a huge mint and edible flower garnish, but I prefer Alex's original, modernist presentation. While the flavor profile of this drink is squarely in the Tiki zone (boozy/spicy/citrusy), the texture and the finish are less so. It lacks the unctuous mouthfeel of my usual Tiki vision, and the finish is much cleaner than is the Tiki norm. This isn't a criticism, but if you dress Honor Amongst Thieves up like a Zombie, these characteristics are actually highlighted as incongruous. The original recipe calls for 3 dashes of Peychaud's on top as a garnish, but I omit it. I don't think it is needed, and I just can never picture Peychaud's as a Tiki ingredient. A personal failing on my own, I'm sure.... Finally, Fred doubles the simple syrup. If you want to go full Tiki with crushed ice, you will need that extra sugar. Another reason to serve this in the original presentation is that it adds some nice variety when serving a bunch of different Tiki drinks. When every other drink you are serving is in in a hollowed-out pagan idol with a citrus plantation hanging over the rim, the Honor Amongst Thieves actually looks a bit exotic in
Lime Juice, Rule 2, Syrups, tiki, Tiki Month 2016, Whiskey

Modern Tiki Drink: Permanent Holiday

As I said in my Opening Post for Tiki Month, I want to focus to a large extent this year on the new creations that illustrate the strength of the current Tiki revival. The first drink I want to examine this month also illustrates how modern Tiki is expanding upon the previous array of commonly used ingredients to find new ways to create the feelings that somehow define Tiki. [caption id="attachment_10891" align="aligncenter" width="550"]Permanent Holiday Permanent Holiday, by Trey Jenkins via The Hardest Working Blogger in the Cocktailosphere[/caption] Here's the recipe. You'll see that it follows the Tiki formula of a bunch of different boozes, some citrus, and some syrup that defines the overwhelming majority of Tiki drinks. But the alcohols are all out of whack to the traditional eye.
  • 1 part bourbon
  • 1 part Averna
  • 1/2 part Licor 43
  • 1 part (pink) grapefruit juice
  • 1/2 part fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 part passion fruit syrup (Homemade or BG Reynolds')
Shake with ice until well chilled, then strain over crushed ice in a Tiki vessel. I used an orange peel wrapped around a spent tattooed lime husk. Depending on who's drinking it, a sprig or even a bunch of fresh mint would not go amiss.
I was seriously curious how this collection of ingredients was going to come out feeling Tiki. When you think upon the genre, bourbon (though a certain prominent exception applies), Italian amaro, and a Spanish liqueur that did not reach American shores until well past Tiki's formative years are not the ingredients that leap to mind. But it works. First of all, it is a good drink. It tastes good. It is interesting. It has a whole lot going on. Secondly, it has that exotic, somewhat undefined flavor profile that triggers all sorts of different flavor impressions in different people which I associate strongly with the best Tiki drinks. This is just the sort of new creation that will help keep Tiki in the craft's consciousness. Drinks like this one expand the "artist's" palette and creative options, while at the same time expands the Tiki market to that guy thinks Tiki drinks sound great, but "who really only drink (Spirit X which isn't rum)".abc
Marketing, Political Controversies, Rule 4, Whiskey

Everybody Panic, We Are About Out Of Whiskey, Or Something

Whiskey Shortage Crisis I feel a bit like Kevin Bacon today, folks. There is a sudden surge of panic stricken articles and posts out there proclaiming the "Whiskey Apocalypse", and that the world is on "the Brink of a Whiskey Crisis". No less luminary a publication than Esquire suggests you start hoarding. Everybody freak out! Run in a panicked mob down the street to the nearest taverns and drink all the brown grain liquor before someone else does! Just let me get out of the way first, since I don't want to be crushed flat like a cartoonish Chip Diller. All clear? Good, for those of you still here, instead of lying face-down on a bar top, clutching the last empty of Jim Beam in your desperate fingers, let's calm down. Yes, there is a whiskey shortage. It has been going on for some time. It is only going to get worse for years to come. This is not news. As near as I can tell, the latest round of hand-wringing over how you won't even be able to buy a Manhattan in a few weeks stems from this press release by Buffalo Trace, a company which has recently become the indisputable king of marketing by media hype. It is entitled "BUFFALO TRACE DISTILLERY UPDATES BOURBON INVENTORY SHORTAGES", and every article written recently about the coming Bourbon Dust Bowl seems to lead back to it. The writer should get a raise. There is precisely one item of news in the seven paragraphs, and that is that Buffalo Trace has hired a new distribution guy... OK, a new "full-time barrel allocation manager", a move that is apparently part of their already existing business plan, not some Hail Mary pass to preserve the Republic. What is going on with Bourbon, and other premium American whiskeys, is called Capitalism and Market Forces, and everything is going to be all right. Can we please get straight what is going on? Several things that are commonly being freaked out about in the stuff being written in this latest wave of bourbon hysteria are either incomplete, or misunderstood. First off, there is the question of what is causing the shortage. Most people realize there are two sides to this, the supply of the product and the thirst for it. The proximate cause for the "crisis" comes from the demand axis of the graph. There has been, and will absolutely continue to be, a huge increase in the numbers of in the numbers of bourbon drinkers, and how much they drink. But it isn't because of this guy: It's because of these guys:
Chinese Businessmen "Yeah, we just finished building another empty city that even we don't have any people to put in. Fly us in another eight cases of Willet for the ribbon cutting."
If it was just the current Cocktail Renaissance fueling whiskey demand, the demand spike would be much smaller, probably already peaking, and possibly a bigger problem for the industry. But half the world's population is only now having its first taste of bourbon, and at the same time it is gaining access to the means to buy its subsequent tastes. It is a reasonable bet that foreign desire for American whiskey is going to continue to drive up demand. I suspect that this is actually a good thing. Human industry handles long-term growth in demand very well over the long haul, thank you. Look it up. (Kids, that's a turn of phrase people used before "Google It" came into vogue. To "look something up" you bike down to a storefront search engine called a "library". Be sure to stop off at the malt shop on your way down.) Demand spikes, as we would be looking at if this were really a hipster led issue, lead to bubbles. Bubbles lead to crashes. Crashes lead to economic dislocations and bankruptcies. Bankruptcies in the whiskey business lead to orphaned barrels of good stuff being sold off at fire sales and being diluted with water and caramel coloring and put in Early Times bottles. No one wants that. The challenge for the distillers is going to be balancing pricing with the new demand, not getting too far out in front of the price wave and getting a reputation for being over-priced or gougers, nor too far behind and becoming competitively disadvantaged because of all the money left on the table. Most of these guys are damn sharp businesspeople. So be happy that the economic health of the people who make the good stuff is largely assured, as long as they manage their businesses well and don't bollix up a good thing. If they do, screw 'em, it'll be because they deserve it for being bad at capitalism. So no, demand pressure is not a new thing. Nor is it a bad thing. Yes, bourbons are going to get a bit more pricey in the next few years. And yes, when Buffalo Trace's new full-time barrel allocation manager or one of his colleagues at other distilleries mess up, you may find your favorite bottle is not available during all given runs to the package store. But prices for bourbon will not get out of control, and supplies will not run out. Why? Because this exists. And so does this. And many others. In the long run, demand for bourbon will in fact be easily satisfied. Why? Because, Malthusians (Motto: Being utterly wrong about our core beliefs since 1798!) aside, the world is not running out of corn. Most people understand this last fact at a deep core level, so this current mini-hysteria wave has felt the need to discover two new, completely unheard of things that will not ever let bourbon production catch up to demand. Barrels and angels. Yes, not only are there ravening hordes of hipsters, roaming Williamsburg and guzzling Knob Creek like there is no tomorrow, but also God has sent a horde of Angels to punish us for our wicked ways by stealing half of all bourbon made from inside sealed barrels before it can be bottled! To hear all these writers go on about the Angel's Share, you would think this was something new that presents some sort of barrier to increased whiskey production. Please. You might equivalently say that we will have difficulty producing more milk in the future because we have to pump it out of cows. We have always had to pump milk out of cows, and always will. Likewise, Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and the rest of the gang have been swilling barrel-strength Jack Daniels since the day Jack first put his whiskey in wood. Transpiration losses are simply a part of how whiskey is made. They are known and expected and nothing out of the ordinary, and they don't make it take any longer to make a good whiskey. If you are wondering how this sudden rash of heavenly drunkeness became a concern to anyone, may I suggest you check a certain press release mentioned above? Nearly the same goes for barrels. Yes, American cooperage operations are stretched tight right now, but in truth, they have been for a long time. Overall, cooperages are getting bigger, at a responsible rate in reaction to demand. We are not running out of white oak for making them either. (One of the ways that the US does a far better job of decreasing net carbon dioxide emissions than any other industrialized nation on Earth is our aggressive program of re-forestation. That's right, folks! Drink more whiskey and you can help stop Global Warming!) Distill all you want, the coopers will manage to make more barrels. Again, yes, increasing demand for barrels and for corn will put pressure on prices as well. It doesn't help that the government keeps spending our money on turning good corn into bad fuel, but again, not enough to really matter in this situation. So what is a drinker to do? First, do not follow the recommendation of Esquire. Don't rush out and put all your ready cash into cases of booze. That is a bad idea for the market and everybody else around you. When consumers start to hoard en masse, they end up causing the very circumstances they wanted to hoard to avoid. You get a huge spike in demand, which causes outrageous prices and shortages all over the place. So don't hoard, or my whiskey drinking self will end up like Kevin Bacon—squashed under your spooked feet. And in case your response is, "Hey bub! Every man for himself," don't hoard because it is stupid for the hoarder, too. A stock of booze, while it doesn't go bad, is a non-productive asset. It is not going to appreciate faster than the market. It does not improve with age. And the money you spent on it, you could have saved or spent on something you use to make yourself more productive, either of which would give you more money to spend on the same booze when it is more expensive later. In the mean time, your spouse will be yelling at your during the intervening years to give them back their storage space. If you are going to hoard some whiskey, lay down something like Jim Beam or Jack. Should the apocalypse come, that shade tree mechanic you need to fix your car so you can get out of town in front of the zombie horde will just as happily take a bottle of that as he will a bottle of Angel's Envy Rye. Second, there is lots that drinkers and bartenders can and will do to alleviate the issue. Look into rum... and gin... and brandy... and so on. Lotsa good stuff to drink out there besides American whiskey, people. That's called responding to a market signal. It fixes things. And in the process, tunnel-visioned whiskey aficionados may remember the rest of the world of fabulous spirits. Try coming up with some uses for less popular spirits. Convince the hipsters that Seagram's VO is the PBR of whiskey, and the ironic lifestyle requires consuming nothing else in their (not your or my) Old Fashioneds. Do all that, and the industry will be healthy, your bank account will be healthy, everything will work itself out in a few years, and I can still buy Bourbon without a bank loan I can't get