Category: tequila
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

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
Recipes, Rule 2, Tequila, 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
Marketing, Rule 5, Tequila

Sauza Tequila Restores My Faith In Ad Men

Blogging Rule 5, the (in)judicious use of sexy images to draw attention is considered by most to be a staple of booze advertising as well. "Sex Sells" after all, right? This new ad from Sauza Blue Tequila, a Rule 5 treat for the female readers, illustrates perfectly an important corollary of Rule 5 for advertisers, and because it does, it is well worth watching for the guys, too. See? Now that is funny folks. And that is what an overtly sexually-tinged booze ad has to be. I think there are a couple of reasons for this phenomenon. First and foremost, both men and women buy hooch, and if you just do a straight appeal to below-the-gut, you will usually end up appealing to only one sex or the other. Worse, you may well end up turning off the gender not targeted. Make those folks at least laugh, and everyone feels OK. Second, humor engages the brain, which I imagine is important to an advertiser. Effective sexual imagery kinda shuts it down, no?
Well, the big brain at least!
If the mind is too focused on "desire", there is little room for assessing the product on offer, which is why a lot of very sexy ads ultimately fail. Humor breaks up the focus, letting the mind wander over and ponder the ad, if only briefly. But that broadening is likely what your mind needs to remember that there is even a tequila bottle in this ad to begin with. Plus, kittens!abc