There is an assumption that to make top quality cocktails you need to use top quality ingredients. In general this is true, and there are several areas in which you should never compromise on quality. Using freshly squeezed lemon/lime juice over any alternatives is a prime example.
But this is not always the case, especially for spirits. Quite often using the highest quality, top shelf spirits is simply a waste. A rather expensive waste too.
In this post I’m going to lay down some general guidelines on the subject. I go into more detail regarding individual spirits in their own dedicated posts. And also in posts for certain cocktails where the quality of the spirit used is vital to making a good quality version of it.
First things first. Lets define what we’re talking about.
It can be quite difficult at times to determine the quality of any given spirit. There are a plethora of terms used to describe them. It’s not always clear what they all mean. And their meaning may actually vary between spirit types. Plus, lets be honest, the marketing departments responsible for advertising these products aren’t exactly known for their rigourous application of universal standards. And usually this biased marketing is all the information customers have to go on.
Here are an example of some terms or classifications used in association with spirits: VS; VSOP; XO; Anejo; Reposado; 12 years old; Sistema Solera. What each means I will deal with in individual posts on the spirits to which they apply. e.g VS, VSOP and XO for brandy.
But there is a lack of consistency regarding these terms and their application which can be very irritating. For example, “XO” implies a very high level of quality when referring to Cognac. Quite often it also does when referring to rum too, but not always.
An even better example is the age statements of Scotch vs rums. When a Scotch claims to be “12 years old” this means that every separate batch which went into making this whisky was aged for at least 12 years old. However, when you see a rum such as Ron Zacapa 23 sistema solera this does not mean the same. The solera process is complex, but the net result is a blended product whose oldest component has been aged for 23 years. This doesn’t make it a bad rum (far from it). But it does cause confusion.
The reason for puzzling discrepancies such as this is mostly legal. All Scotch is made in Scotland, and so comes under one set of legal standards which have been in effect for generations or even centuries. The same is true for all Cognacs or all Bourbons.
But rum is made across the Caribbean, and so across a couple of dozen different countries. Some of which actively thrive on having very different laws and regulations to the rest of the world. Given that part of the world’s history of piracy we really shouldn’t be surprised at the independent nature which still pervades the region. Some Caribbean islands are known as tax havens, and so have no interest in agreeing upon universally binding standards. And anyone following the news these past few years will know that Venezuela, source of my favourite rum of all time, Ron Diplomatico XO, does not conform to international law and legal codes. And let’s not even start with Cuba.
In general terms I divide spirits into three major quality brackets:
First off you’ve got your cheap shit that is too poor in quality to use in cocktails at all. We’re talking about rocket fuel good for nothing but causing hangovers. Your cheap supermarket “own brand” stuff. You can usually tell this stuff by its price, but not always. Some truly awful products like Bacardi masquerade as though they were halfway decent, with a price tag to match. Don’t go near them.
Then there are the mid range of spirits. These make up the bulk of the spirits we would use for cocktails. They hit the right balance between quality, character and price. The lowest level of this mid range I sometimes refer to as “entry level” spirits. These are still typically good enough to make a quality cocktail except when the the flavour of the spirit itself makes or breaks the cocktail.
Finally we have the top shelf spirits. These are the premium vodkas and gins. The XO Cognacs, the sipping rums and tequilas which are typically crafted to be slowly sipped neat. They have a price tag to match. Correspondingly, we tend to use them only sparingly and when the circumstances demand.
Telling which grade any given spirit bottle belongs to can be a challenge. Price is your first indicator, though not always a reliable one. I try to give appropriate guidelines on this topic in individual spirit posts.
Horses for Courses
I’ve made this point in the past. That part of the skill of creating cocktails is choosing the right quality of spirit for the cocktail at hand.
To illustrate this point, I’ll use a couple of gin cocktails as examples.
First, the Dry Martini. Now the raison d’être of a Dry Martini is to bring the absolute best out of a gin. To subtly enhance its flavour by complementing its unique blend of botanicals with a merest hint of vermouth. And then to present it to our taste buds in the optimal manner – ice cold.
As such, there is absolutely no point in making a Dry Martini with an entry level gin. There are no subtle and delicate flavours to tease out of of such a gin. No matter what their marketing may tell you. Instead, you really need to go for a premium gin with a price tag to match. Giving a top end gin the Dry Martini treatment is to create an iconic legend. It’s well worth the extra cost. Though unless you are a gin connoisseur it will likely be wasted on you.
But on the other hand, what if I’m going to make a Bramble? I’d be mixing my gin with lemon juice and sugar syrup. Diluting it with crushed ice. Then drizzling blackberry liqueur over it. Or perhaps just splattering some muddled blackberries on it.
The subtle botanicals of a premium gin will simply be eclipsed by these potent ingredients. But the bolder, harsher flavours of the entry level gin will stand up to them. So ironically using the entry level gin makes for not only a cheaper Bramble, but actually a better one too.
Time for some general rules or guidelines to follow.
First off, we should always stick to mid range spirits to make cocktails unless we have a good reason to do otherwise. The cheap shit isn’t good enough. The premium spirits are too expensive to use for everything.
When we can get away with using entry level spirits without compromising a cocktail’s quality we should, for reasons of cost. This tends to apply to cocktails which rely heavily on other flavoured ingredients to carry them. Much of the Tall and Fruity taste profile follows this trend, e.g. the Piña Colada or Singapore Sling. The creamy, coconut and pineapple flavours of a Piña Colada would simple overwhelm a quality rum. While the sheer number of other strongly flavoured ingredients in the Singapore Sling almost require a tougher, less delicate gin to stand up to them.
As cocktails get shorter, as for the Neo-Martini and Short and Serious taste profiles, they become less easy to predict. Sometimes the fruit flavours dominate, meaning that entry level spirits work just fine, e.g. the Basil Grande, Bramble or Strawberry Daiquiri. But sometimes the other ingredients complement and enhance the base spirit to such an extent that you need a higher grade of spirit. A Sidecar, Aviation and Natural Daiquiri all need spirits in the upper mid range to work properly. Such as Remy Martin VSOP for the Sidecar.
Finally there are the top shelf spirits. These really come into their own in cocktails belonging to the Alcoholic Powerhouses taste profile. Since these cocktails are all highly alcoholic, they require a higher quality of base spirit to work properly. As it is the flavour of the base spirit which carries the cocktail. Though for many of these an upper mid range spirit would still be sufficient.
The best examples of cocktails absolutely requiring top end spirits are the Dry Martini and the Old Fashioned. Each is more of a process than merely a cocktail. A process for taking a top end spirit, subtly enhancing and bringing out its delicate flavours, and presenting it to our palates in an optimal manner. We absolutely can’t screw around with these. If we don’t have top quality stuff, we should simply not even attempt to make them.
This may make some of these Alcoholic Powerhouses seem a little excessive, or out of reach. But conversely they are also an opportunity to use some ridiculously good spirits which you may have at the back of your liquor cabinet. Spirits you’d never dream of mixing with soda, so they just sit there gathering dust.
As I said, horses for courses. And understanding when we need to use what level of quality of spirit is a financially invaluable skill.