This guide introduces you to all the base spirits like whiskey, gin, scotch, rum, tequila and vodka, plus a few relative newcomers to North America like cachaca and pisco. It also reveals how to source the best quality spirits without paying premium prices.
Finding The Best Liquor
How do you find the best tasting liquor in each class? Best is a relative term and it’s only relative to the individual doing the tasting.
Best means whatever you and your guests prefer. So if you have a favorite vodka, rye or gin, start with those.
If you don’t know where to start, search for spirit tasting competitions around the world. They award medals to the best in class. The gold medal winner may not be your personal taste, but the awards give credibility to the spirit when judged against its peers, so it’s a good place to start.
One such competition is the yearly San Francisco World Spirits Competition. There are hundreds of spirits submitted from dozens of countries. You can go to their site and download a PDF of the competition results. You’ll be surprised to find many of the gold and silver medal winners either cost less, or are in the same price range as the regular spirits.
Remember that a lot of hype around deluxe brands is just marketing. I tried a gold medal winner in the vodka category. It cost the same as any bar brand, but it tasted better than a vodka costing $20 more per bottle. So don’t buy into the hype. Buy what your taste buds like.
The rest of this section is a ‘very’ brief introduction to the nine base spirits and a couple of others that are used to make popular cocktails. Hopefully you’ve tasted many of them by now.
If you haven’t tasted many spirits, get ready for fun and adventure, because there are endless variations of whiskies, brandy, rum, etc. You can enjoy digging into the history, ingredients and manufacture of each, as you enjoy sipping cocktails, swapping stories with your friends and guests.
Introduction to the Base Spirits
There are nine base spirits that are used to make most cocktails. They form the foundation the cocktail world is built upon.
There are three main kinds of whiskey; Rye, Scotch and Bourbon. There are two main kinds of Rum, white and dark. Plus there’s Gin, Vodka, Brandy and Tequila.
A couple of other base spirits you’ll bump into along the way, that are worth noting here, are Pisco and Cachaca. Neither are well known outside their geographical areas, but they are used in a couple of popular cocktails.
All of these base spirits come in three different price classes. They are bar, premium and deluxe. You’ll find them in your favorite liquor store grouped roughly by cost.
The least expensive are the ‘bar’ brands. This is what the average drinking establishment uses to make cocktails. They use the least expensive, because they have to worry about paying the bills, employee wages and making a profit.
The premium and deluxe brands are often referred to as ‘call booze’ in the trade, because they are ordered by brand name, instead of the generic name for the spirit. Premium brands are usually 10-30% more expensive than the bar brands. Deluxe brands cost 30-50% more than the bar brands, but they really have no price limit.
Whiskey – Rye & Bourbon & Scotch
Whiskey – spelled whisky in Canada and Scotland, whiskey In Ireland and USA – is distilled from corn, barley, rye, wheat and other cereal grains. After distilling they are aged in wooden barrels, each according to its own local laws, to mellow the spirit, absorb flavor and darken in color. Each whiskey has its own flavor profile and characteristics, depending on the manufacturer and country of origin.
American rye whiskey is distilled primarily from rye and other grains, but must contain at least 51% rye. It is then aged in barrels for two or more years. It is often described as spicy and fruity when compared to other whiskies. It’s also interesting to note that Canadian whisky – which is what most people think of when they think rye – isn’t legally required to have any rye in it, but just to be made in the ‘rye style’.
Scotch whisky is distilled primarily from malted barley that’s been roasted over a peat fire, which gives it a distinctive smoky character. It is then aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years. Scotch can be either single malt or blended. Due to the overwhelming flavor profile of single malts, choose a good blended scotch to make your cocktails and serve the single malt straight up.
Irish whiskey can be made from malted and unmalted cereal grains. They can be single malt, single pot still, or blended, and must be aged at least three years in wood. The most popular whiskies are blended, to be lighter in body and flavor than scotch whisky. They are allowed to add caramel coloring, which is noticeable in many best selling brands.
Canadian whisky is made from a variety of grains, including corn, wheat, barley and rye. It’s usually much lighter in taste than most other whiskeys, making it well suited for cocktails. It must be matured for at least three years, but the barrel type isn’t regulated. They also allow caramel and flavorings to be added, which leads to a wide variety of flavors.
Bourbon is a distinctly American whiskey that’s made from at least 51% corn. It is aged in charred new oak containers which gives color and flavor to the spirit. If aged more than two years, it is given a ‘straight’ designation as in straight bourbon whisky. No artificial flavorings or colorants are permitted.
Gin is distilled from cereal grains and flavored primarily with the juniper berry, which comes from a type of evergreen tree. The finished gin is usually transparent in color, but the strength of the juniper flavor varies greatly among brands.
Some brands flavor neutral spirits with the juniper berry and other aromatics. Better brands steep, or soak the berries and aromatics prior to distillation, creating a greater depth of character and flavor.
The citrus-like quality of the juniper berry mixes well with lemon and lime. It also matches well with herbal wine and aperitifs like vermouth. For making cocktails, start with a dry ‘London Style’ gin and experiment with different types from there.
Rum – White & Dark
White rum, also known as silver or light, is produced by many countries. It is distilled from molasses, sugarcane, or its juice.
After distillation, white rum is usually aged in stainless steel vats for at least a year and filtered to be clear in color. It is slightly floral and somewhat sweet, making it a pleasant drink that’s easy to mix in cocktails. Cachaca from Brazil is similar to a white rum, but it’s only used in cocktails that call for it, due to its strong flavor.
Dark rum is made from caramelized sugarcane or molasses. It is dark in color, heavy in flavor and may be aged in old brandy, or Bourbon barrels, to produce dark, rich, complex flavors. There are also amber rums and spiced rums available, but use dark rum for rum cocktails unless the recipe calls for something else.
Vodka made in North America is usually distilled from cereal grains. It is triple charcoal filtered to remove any impurities, or distinctive flavor characteristics, leaving little scent, taste, or color.
On the upside, vodka is adaptable, mixing well with just about any juice, syrup or bitters. It is handy as a gin replacement, if a guest finds the taste of gin too strong. On the downside, vodka has no discernible character when mixed in cocktails, bringing only purified alcohol and water to the drink.
An exception to vodka’s lack of character is the flavored vodka, which comes in everything from raspberry, to lemon, to melon. These are little more than flavorings and colorants added to regular vodka. They may be artificial chemicals, so be sure to read the labels and get natural ingredients. Better yet, make your own flavored vodka using fresh juice and then add soda for hard seltzer.
Brandy & Cognac
Brandy is distilled from wine that was made with fruit, most notably grapes, that impart strong regional flavors to the spirit. It can range from clear, harsh, grappa and pisco, to golden elixirs over 100 years old.
Cognac is also a type of brandy, but by law comes exclusively from the Cognac region of France. For mixing cocktails, use a quality barrel aged brandy, unless a recipe specifically calls for Cognac.
Tequila is unique to a particular region of Mexico. It is a type of mezcal, made from distilled blue agave syrup, which is a type of desert plant, that’s not related to the cactus, or aloe which it resembles.
Tequilas range from clear to dark gold, but it has a very distinctive peppery taste. A mild version of the white variety is used to make cocktails like the popular margarita.
Additional Base Spirits
Being an aspiring mixologist, you’ve probably tried all the base spirits. You may even have a good memory of their flavor profiles. If you’d like to know more about the base spirits, there are entire books dedicated to each of them. In addition to the book store, visit the websites of the major brand manufacturers and the competition websites, to continue building upon your expertise.
In addition to the big nine, there are two other base spirits that you may not have tried, but are likely to hear about. They are Pisco and Cachaca.
Cachaca (pronounced “cah-shah-sah”) used to be known as Brazilian rum, but it finally got its own designation as a unique Brazilian product. It’s made from fermented sugarcane juice, not molasses like most rum, so it has more in common with brandy than it does rum. Like rum it comes in every shade from white to dark, with the latter being barrel aged.
Cachaca’s aroma is very spicy and quite sour compared to white rum. It also has notes of citrus, pineapple, white chocolate, mint and cedar. It has the spice and zing of tequila without the bite. It also has the sweetness and harmony of a good white rum. So the best way to describe the flavor, is a cross between white rum and tequila, but with more sweetness, citrus and floral notes than either.
If you don’t have cachaca you can substitute white rum but the scent of the drink won’t be anything like the original. Adding a dash or two of tequila to the recipe, or a spritz of it on the finished drink would be more accurate imitation.
The rough, young spirit known as pisco, is a product unique to Peru and Chile. It is made like a brandy by distilling grapes. What’s different is the type of grapes they use. Instead of using the European Vinifera wine grapes, pisco is made from the Labrusca family of table grapes, which are noted for being musky, or foxy in flavor, like the concord table grape.
Pisco’s aroma and character is largely affected by the grapes used, soil and production methods. Most examples, have a pronounced muskiness, notable lees or yeast scent from the fermentation, along with a strong young brandy scent. It is very similar to Italian grappa in flavor, but not as harsh.
Pisco is best consumed straight, but it is used in some popular cocktails. It’s one of those spirits like grappa, that can be thought of as an acquired taste. So it’s a good idea to have a tasting with a couple of friends at your favorite lounge, before deciding on which brand to try in Pisco Sours.