Ingredients Mixology Spirits

Stocking a Home Bar: Spirits

Properly stocking a home bar can be an expensive proposition. There are many different products you likely will want to buy, and a lot of them aren't cheap. The good news is, you probably won't be going through the bottles that quickly, and most alcohol stays good for a very long time.*

There are three different major styles of gin: London Dry, Old Tom and Genever. (You could also throw Plymouth Gin into the mix.) The good news is you only need to buy one bottle to start: London Dry. Tanqueray has long been my favorite, but Bombay Sapphire and Beefeater are excellent as well. Buy whichever one is cheapest.

It's easy to spend more money on vodka then you need to, especially if you reach for the Grey Goose because you "heard it's the best." By all means, pick up an expensive bottle if you're feeling flush. My favorite, which is medium-priced, is Stolichnaya. But you'll get by very well with some Sobieski.

Rum is a little more challenging, because rums vary a lot depending on what country they're from, what color they are (light/white vs. gold/dark), how long they're aged, etc. I would recommend starting out with two bottles, one of white rum and one of gold rum. Cruzan (from the U.S. Virgin Islands) is recommended — both cheaper and better than the ubiquitous Bacardi. But if you can find Flor de Caña (from Nicaragua) it only costs a little more and is excellent. If you don't drink much rum and only want to buy one bottle, I suggest you get some Appleton V/X, a very versatile and tasty rum.

Tequila has grown enormously in popularity over the past several years, which means there are now a lot of great choices on the shelves, in all kinds of prices. If your goal is to make Margaritas and other similar drinks, you'll want a silver tequila. I recommend either Camarena or Milagro. They're both affordable and easy to find.

This is a tough one, because there are so many types and so many choices. Do you go with a Scotch, Canadian or Irish? Bourbon, rye or Tennessee? If I were buying just one type, I would probably go with bourbon, and would probably get Maker's Mark. Maker's isn't the favorite whiskey of a lot of people, but it's a very good one and it's something that almost any whiskey drinker will drink without complaining. If you want to branch out and add a Scotch, I'd go with Johnnie Walker Black. Again, not always a favorite, but a crowd pleaser.

Cognac (which is brandy made according to certain rules in a particular area of France) was hot a decade or so back when the hip hop community discovered it, and brands like Hennessy and Remy Martin were name-checked in rap songs. It's cooled off since then, so there are plenty of good bargains to be found. (And also plenty of bottles that will cost you as much as a nice vacation.) If you want a simple brandy, I find Raynal to be quite good. It works fine in a lot of cocktails and won't set you back much at all. If you're looking for something a little more sophisticated, go for one of the cognacs made by Pierre Ferrand. (Their Ambre is very good and only costs around $40.)

If you're going to make any kind of cocktails, you're going to need some modifiers, with the most common being an orange liqueur. It might be triple sec or Curacao, but in order to make a Margarita or a Sidecar or Mai Tai, you're going to need something. There are many different types of orange liqueur, ranging from cheap to expensive. Unfortunately, the cheap stuff is usually not very good. On the upside, a bottle will last a long time, so it doesn't hurt as much to splurge. If you want a dryer liqueur, go with Cointreau. If you want a sweeter one, go with Grand Marnier. Yes, they're expensive. But they're so good that you'll be glad you spent the extra money.

If you're planning to make Martinis or Manhattans, you'll need to get some vermouth. Sweet (red) vermouth goes in a Manhattan and dry (white) vermouth goes in a Martini. There are some high-end brands that are delicious. But on the affordable end of things Martini (sweet) and Noilly Pratt (dry) work very well. 

You're not going to get this done without spending a couple hundred bucks. But once you do, you'll be able to make a lot of drinks — and save yourself a ton of dough over what you'd spend in a bar. Plus, with a little practice, you'll be able to whip up some great cocktails that will quickly make you the envy of all your friends and neighbors.

*Except for vermouth. Vermouth is only good for a couple of months once you open it. And only if you keep it in the refrigerator. And yes, I know vermouth isn't a spirit. Neither is orange liqueur.

News Spirits

Assorted News from the Spirits Business

We're mostly consumer-focused here at Professor Cocktail, but occasionally we come across news from the booze biz that we think you might be interested in.

  • The U.S. spirits market achieved steady growth in 2012, as vodka solidified its position as the leading category on the strength of its top-selling brands. Total U.S. spirits sales rose by 3% to 204 million cases, according to Impact Databank. Smirnoff vodka was #1, rising by 2.1% to 9.8 million cases. Bacardi rum was #2, approximately 200,000 cases behind.
  • Bulleit Bourbon is set to offer a higher-proof, higher-priced offshoot, Bulleit 10. The new 10-year-old Bulleit expression is 91.2-proof (the core brand is 90-proof) and will retail for around $45 a bottle, approximately $20 higher than the core brand, depending on the market. It’s expected to hit shelves this month.
  • In related news, the famed Stitzel-Weller Distillery (once owned by Pappy Van Winkle, now owned by Diageo) is reopening. No doubt the bourbon will be nothing like the stuff they used to make, but it's still kinda cool.
  • Grand Marnier is planning to introduce three new products over the next year: GM Titanium, a double-distilled, clear, Cognac-based spirit targeted at urban millennial consumers; Louis Alex Bourbon Barrel, a new cuvée, double distilled with essence of orange and aged in Bourbon barrels; and Grand Marnier Raspberry Peach, a new flavor extension.
  • Sazerac Co. is introducing Epic, a new French vodka, to the American market. Sazerac plans to start shipping Epic (roughly $13 a 750-ml.) to around 30 states in February, with national availability expected later in the year. Along with the core offering, Epic has six flavor extensions: Peach, Whipped Cream, Kiwi Strawberry, Cherry, Cake and Coconut. Sazerac said more flavors will be added at later dates.
  • Celebrity mixologists Simon Ford, Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric have launched a new venture, The 86 Co., starting with a portfolio of four mixology-focused spirits. The lineup includes Caña Brava ($34.99), a three-year-old rum aged in a combination of new uncharred American oak and used American whiskey barrels; Fords gin ($37.99), distilled in London and featuring a blend of nine botanicals; Tequila Cabeza ($42.99); and Aylesbury Duck vodka ($30.99).
  • Serrallés USA is launching a new ultra-premium Tequila brand, Casamigos, this month. Casamigos was created by actor George Clooney and nightlife entrepreneur Rande Gerber, alongside partner Mike Meldman.
  • Beam sells brands to Luxco for $65M. Including Rebel Bourbon, Calvert whiskey, and Dark Eyes vodka.
  • A. Hardy USA is set to introduce a new liqueur—Serata Amaretto Di Piemonte—to the U.S. market. Produced in Ghemme, Italy, the new offering will be available nationwide beginning next month, priced at $22.99 a 750-ml. bottle.'
  • According to GuestMetrics, the fastest growing cocktail flavors in restaurants and bars in 2012 were Mango (+35), Tea (+30), Ginger (+15), Melon (+15), and Cucumber (+10).



What to Expect in 2013 According to Professor Cocktail

Everybody likes predictions — especially when the predictor gets things horribly wrong and looks like a dolt. So here are my predictions for the spirituous world in 2013. Bookmark this page so you can come back in a year and see how I did.

An end to whiskey insanity:

The past few years have been crazy ones for the whiskey business. Prices are climbing steadily, yet a shortage of older whiskey remains. More and more rare expressions are hitting the market and there seems to be no ceiling on the demand for them — or the prices they fetch. Bourbons like Van Winkle and the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection have become almost impossible to find. Can all of this continue? I doubt it. Consumer trends are nearly always cyclical and there's no reason to think that whiskey will be any different. Eventually things will settle down and return to a more normal state of affairs. It might as well be this year.

Less complicated cocktails:

When the craft cocktail revolution hit full flower, things got a little out of hand. Cocktails with seven ingredients, two of which had to be made from scratch and one that cost $100 an ounce. Did these drinks really taste good enough to justify all the fuss and expense? Probably not. I think we'll see more normalcy coming to our mixology. Skilled bartenders are still going to make great drinks with delicious and unexpected flavors. They're just going to do so without the extra layer of nonsense.

The year for mezcal:

We all know how popular tequila is. But what about mezcal? Tequila's agave cousin from southern Mexico is poised to break through to a larger audience — and this just might be the year it happens. Look for more brands and expressions to hit the shelves. And give one a try.

More wine in cocktails:

We've been seeing this trend picking up steam the last year or two, and I think it's ready to go mainstream. Cocktails with port and sherry especially are going to start popping up everywhere.

Skinny is the new fat:

Although the merits of the "skinny" trend are debatable, it's not going anywhere. Skinny spirits, skinny wine, skinny cocktails — you're going to see plenty of them this year.

Drink local:

It's been years since Alice Waters began her push to encourage people to eat local. In 2013 we're going to see this trend really start to assert itself in the cocktail and spirits world. Fresh, local ingredients in cocktails, accompanied by regionally-made booze, will continue to grow. People want to know where the stuff in their drinks is coming from, and this desire to drink local will help support the growing craft spirits movement.

Carbonated spirits:

Carbonated cocktails have been featured in recent years in several of the high-end cocktail bars — especially when wizards like Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Jamie Boudreau are behind the stick. But now we're going to see booze that comes with the carbonation right in the bottle. Prevu and Nuvo are at the leading edge of this trend.

 What do you foresee on the horizon? Anything you're excited or horrified about?

(Stolen from

Gifts Mixology

Professor Cocktail’s Holiday Gift Guide: Non-Booze

Last week, we ran our holiday gift guide, with suggestions for spirits in different categories. We had posts with rum recommendationsbourbon recommendationsgin recommendations and other spirits recommendations. Today we're closing out the list with non-booze gift suggestions.

Professor Cocktail's Holiday Gift Guide: Non-Booze

You want to get that special tippler in your life a gift, but you don't want to actually give booze. Here are some suggestions that will get you started.

Pimento bittersDale DeGroff's Pimento Aromatic Bitters ($19)

The newest addition to the bitters landscape, crafted with the help of King Cocktail himself. These bitters really spice up classics like a Manhattan and are my new favorite for Tiki drinks.

Oxo jiggerOxo Double Jigger ($9)

One  of the keys to making great cocktails is precise measuring. For that, you need a good jigger. This is my favorite one.

Pdt cocktail bookJim Meehan's The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender's Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy ($16)

One of the best cocktail books to come along in recent years, this makes for both a useful guide and a fascinating read. Plus, it's a beautiful book.

Waring ice crusherWaring IC70 Pro Ice Crusher ($79)

I've been using this for over a year now and I still love it. If you want to crush ice in style, this is the way to go. (See our original review.)

Tovolo ice cube tray
Tovolo King Cube Ice Trays ($8)

Great for making big cubes, which are very useful in cocktails. Pop one into an Old-Fashioned or Manhattan and it will cool the drink fast, but melt slowly.

Gifts Liqueurs Spirits

Professor Cocktail’s Holiday Gift Guide: Other Spirits

This week we're running our holiday gift guide, with suggestions for spirits in different categories. So far we've offered our rum recommendationsbourbon recommendations and gin recommendations. We're closing the week with other spirits.

Professor Cocktail's Holiday Gift Guide: Other Spirits

Here is a variety of suggestions for booze that didn't fit into the other categories, but would make great gifts.

Grand marnier cherryGrand Marnier Natural Cherry ($40)

A limited edition flavor from the masters of orange liqueur. One of the most delicious cherry liqueurs you'll find. Buy some before it disappears from shelves. (The regular Grand Marnier always makes a great gift as well.)

Tequila avionAvión Silver ($40)

My favorite tequila, and the winner of our Tequila Taste Test. Makes brilliant cocktails or can be savored on its own.

Karlsson's Gold VodkaKarlsson's Gold Vodka ($30)

Vodka with flavor and nuance? Who'da thunk it! Made from seven different kinds of potatoes, this is primo stuff. Leave the Grey Goose on the shelf and give this instead.

Pisco portonPisco Portón ($35)

Pisco, the brandy of South America, is a spirit on the rise, and Portón is the best one I've tasted. Would make a great gift for the drinker who likes to try new things.

Carpano anticaCarpano Antica Sweet Vermouth ($27, 1L)

The champion of all sweet vermouths. Makes delicious cocktails, including perhaps the best Manhattan. It's pricey, so a lot of people wouldn't buy it for themselves. That's why it makes a great gift.

We've included links for each suggestion to K&L Wines (where available). K&L is a great spirits store, with impeccable service and a sterling reputation. You can order from them with confidence. Send them an email to see if they ship to your state. (Note: We're not being compensated for these links.)

Gifts Rum Spirits

Professor Cocktail’s Holiday Gift Guide: Rum

This week we're running our holiday gift guide, with suggestions for spirits in different categories. So far we've offered our bourbon recommendations and gin recommendations. Today we're doing rum.

Professor Cocktail's Holiday Gift Guide: Rum

Rum doesn't get the respect that whiskey does, but it's just as wonderful a spirit. Although it shines brightest in cocktails, the right rum is also delicious on its own.

Cruzan rumThe Bacardi Alternative: Cruzan Aged Light Rum ($14)

Both better and cheaper than the ubiquitous Bacardi, this rum is aged for two years and then filtered to remove the color. A very good all-purpose rum.

Appleton rumThe Best Jamaican Rum: Appleton Estate Extra 12 Year-Old ($35)

My favorite rum for a whole slew of cocktails, including the Mai Tai, this is also great all by itself. Everyone needs some in the cabinet.

El dorado rumSip, Sip Away: El Dorado 12 Year-Old ($26)

Rich, balanced and bursting with flavor, this is my favorite sipping rum. One of the best buys in all of spirits. Try finding a 12 year-old Scotch this amazing for under 30 bucks.

Banks rumThe Ultimate White Rum: Banks 5 Island ($26)

A great addition to any cocktail. It will make your Daiquiris, Mojitos and everything else sing.

Mount gay rumRum for Whiskey Fans: Mount Gay Extra Old ($40)

Convert the whiskey lover in your life to rum with this dry, complex spirit. Hailing from Barbados, the birthplace of rum, everything Mount Gay makes is good and this is probably their best.

We've included links for each suggestion to K&L Wines (where available). K&L is a great spirits store, with impeccable service and a sterling reputation. You can order from them with confidence. Send them an email to see if they ship to your state. (Note: We're not being compensated for these links.)

Ask the Professor Spirits Vodka

Ask the Professor: Allergic to Yeast and Corn

Jacqui M. writes in to ask:

I have recently developed a severe
allergy to corn and yeast. Can you imagine how difficult it is
to find something to drink for a cocktail? Help would be greatly
appreciated. I love vodka. Can you recommend a brand that would
be safe for me?

I'm not qualified to give medical
advice and you'd be crazy to take it. But I can comment on the booze.

One thing I can say for certain is that all alcohol is made using yeast. It is the key
ingredient in transforming sugar (glucose) into alcohol (ethanol).
Once the process of fermentation and distillation is finished,
however, I do not believe there is any yeast left in the final
product. But whether or not it is safe for you to consume is a
question for your doctor

Vodka is distilled from starch/sugar of
one kind of another. It can be made from corn, other grains (like
wheat or rye), potatoes, grapes, sugar beets and God knows what else.
The same goes for gin (which is basically vodka that is infused with
various botanicals like juniper).

In the United States, all vodka and
gin must be labeled with the commodity from which it was
produced. However, the statements don't have to be terribly specific.
So if you have a vodka "distilled from grain," you wouldn't
necessarily know if it was made from corn or wheat.

If you stick to
potato vodka (e.g., Chopin or Luksusowa) or grape vodka
(e.g., Cîroc), you can be sure it won't have any corn in it.
Some other vodkas trumpet their source ingredient — wheat with Grey
Goose, rye with Belvedere — so those would presumably be safe
as well.

As for other spirits…

Bourbon and corn whiskey are, by law, made from corn. Rye whiskey often has corn in it, although there are some 95% rye whiskeys out there (the other 5% is malted barley) and even a few 100% ryes.

Single malt Scotch is made from malted barley. But other whiskeys — blended Scotch, Irish or Canadian — could potentially contain corn.

Brandy (and Cognac) is made from

Tequila is distilled from the agave
plant. However, unless the label states "100% agave," it
can include other substances and spirits, including vodka. (This is
the case with the basic Jose Cuervo expression, for example.) So if
you want tequila that you're sure isn't made from corn, look for the
100% agave label. (You should do this anyway, as mixto tequila is

Rum is distilled from sugar cane or
sugar cane byproducts like molasses. So in generaly it doesn't contain any
corn. You should be aware, though, that rum can legally have a small
amount of additives in it. So I suppose they could slip some corn
syrup in there, although it's unlikely.

Most liqueurs and cordials — the
fruity, spicy, nutty, sweet stuff that goes into cocktails — are
made from a vodka base, so they could contain corn.

I hope that helps!




Professor Cocktail’s Grading Scale

one starDisappointing: Not recommended

two starsAverage: Not recommended

three starsAbove Average: Recommended

four starsSuperb: Highly Recommended

five starsClassic: Highest Recommendation


Read some of the Professor’s thoughts on grading.

Miscellaneous Spirits Reviews

Thoughts on Grading Spirits

When I started Professor Cocktail it seemed natural to assign letter grades when reviewing spirits. It just makes sense: the professor gives grades. But as I've written a bunch of reviews over the past year, I've grown to question the usefulness of a grading scale for booze that mirrors the familiar classroom model. I've asked myself more and more about the differences between a B and a B- spirit, and how they differ from a C+.

Are these differences discernible and meaningful? And, even more importantly, are they useful? Do they give the reader valuable information? I'm not so sure — and if they're not aiding the consumer, what's the point of doing it?

When I write book reviews, something I've done professionally for almost a decade now, I don't assign letter grades or give scores. I just write the review and allow the critique to stand for itself. I don't think it's ever unclear what I think of the book, because the review tells you.

Spirits are a little different, however, because we have to use words to convey flavors and aromas. We're trying to give the reader some guidance on what to expect from a spirit in terms of taste, etc., which is more nebulous than what they can expect from a book or film.

Because of this, I think it makes sense to assign some type of score along with the verbal review for spirits. But I also think it makes sense to use a more streamlined grading scale than what we have been. I think most consumers look to spirits reviews for two kinds of guidance: what to expect, and whether or not they should buy it. A grade can help make the picture clearer.

Out of all the scoring systems I've seen, I like the one used by F. Paul Pacult the best. He awards stars ranging from one to five with no fractional increments. How many stars the spirit receives indicates both its relative quality, and whether or not he recommends it. I like both the simplicity and the utility of this method. So I'm stealing it.

Here is the grading scale that we'll be using from this point on:

Professor Cocktail's Grading Scale

one star
Disappointing: Not recommended

two stars
Average: Not recommended

three stars
Above Average: Recommended

four stars
Superb: Highly Recommended

five stars
Classic: Highest Recommendation


New Booze: April and May 2012

The redoubtable Camper English has a regular feature on where he rounds up the New Booze that's coming out. It makes for an interesting read, both to admire the latest cool stuff, and to cringe at the dreck the marketeers are foisting on the public.

Here's a list of the last two months' worth of new products. Click through to read more about each item.