Now through Sunday (7/27/14), spend $150 at Caskers and you’ll get free shipping. They’re a company that curates a selection of hard-to-find and craft spirits, usually at good prices. I’ve found stuff on there that I haven’t been able to get elsewhere. They ship to most states.
I’ve made three purchases from Caskers over the past year or so and been pleased with their service each time. I recommend them.
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.*
GIN 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.
VODKA 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 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 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.
WHISKEY 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.
BRANDY 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.)
ORANGE LIQUEUR 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.
VERMOUTH 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.
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:
Société Perrier, the nightlife and culture website, has a profile of me that just went up yesterday. I thought it came out nicely and hope you find it entertaining.
Here's their intro:
A fourth-generation Californian, David J. Montgomery spent close to 20 years in Bakersfield, learning, as he puts it, "…the joys of Coors Light, Picon Punch, Fernet after dinner, and plenty of cheap red wine." Now residing in D.C.'s Northern Virginia suburbs, the longtime author and book critic is the scribe behind Professor Cocktail. On the blog, Montgomery documents his spirit sampling, awarding As to bottles he'd happily drink forever, and lesser grades to those falling short of world-class status. While he admits to occasional grade inflation (enthusiasm over new distilling techniques is to blame for that) his professor title is 100 percent legit. Montgomery spent several years teaching college history, and is well versed in the influence spirits have had on U.S. culture. Naturally, when we asked him a few questions about his blog and drink preferences, we were more than happy to play the role of student.
Punch is the host's best friend. Easily made ahead of time, you can have everything in place when your guests arrive, allowing you to relax and enjoy the party. It also enables you to immediately serve your friends a refreshing, delicious beverage without having to ask what they want and try to mix it up on the spot.
David Wondrich is something of a punch expert, having literally written the book on the subject. Now, over on Liquor.com, he's offering up tips on making the most of your summer punch:
While you can make punch out of any liquor, the most successful ones tend to call for the old-fashioned, pot-distilled variety: cognac; the funky, rich rums for which Jamaica used to be famous; single malt Scotch; things of that ilk. No matter where the alcohol is from, though, it should be full-flavored and high-proof, as it will have to stand up to a lot of dilution.
The sour element is the essence of punch. So, add lemon or lime juice, as fresh as you can squeeze it, to the tune of one cup for every quart of spirits. But one of the few true secrets of punch-making is to incorporate the oil in lemon peels (lime peels are usually too bitter), which contributes a great depth of flavor. The easiest way to do this is to muddle the peels of four lemons (use a vegetable peeler to remove them from the fruit) with each cup of sugar you use and let it sit for three or four hours: This will wick out the sweet oil.
Raw sugar has a lovely sugar-cane note. Use it. You want the same amount of sugar as lemon or lime juice.
Use enough. Punch is not a cocktail; you’re meant to have multiple small cups as you chat with your friends, which means it should be about the strength of sherry. I like to start with the same quantity of water as spirits, plus an additional 25 percent—so 40 ounces of water for every quart of booze. Oh, and there’s ice, too: a quart-sized block (freeze a bowl or other container of water overnight) will keep that much punch cool without melting too quickly.
Don’t overdo it; you want people to taste the punch, not the spice. I enjoy a simple grating of fresh nutmeg over the bowl (about a third of a nutmeg seed should do). Others like to play with cordials, bitters and infusions, which are fine if used sparingly.
Wondrich also includes a recipe for a classic rum-brandy punch that sounds delicious.
I've yet to try making punch on a large scale, but I want to. If you have any favorite punch recipes, please share them in the comments section.
Writing in Esquire Magazine, David Wondrich muses about the changes ever-present in the spirits business. In favor of "innovation" and the drive for something new, old brands disappear, new expressions appear, formulas are changed, and the world as we know it is turned upside down.
But not with these four spirits that Wondrich recommends as perennial favorites that you can find anywhere and always count on. Absolut is not a vodka I drink very often — my go-to is usually Stoli — but the other three are favorites of mine as well.
Absolut vodka ($20). Absolut's core expression — the plain-old 80-proof Absolut — is as stable as granite, probably because every drop has always been made from winter wheat, yeast, and artesian water in one distillery in southern Sweden. Impeccably clean and slightly yeasty. Perfect.
Tanqueray gin ($20). It's what real gin tastes like: piney, a little bit sweet (but not sugary or in any way cloying), and slightly lemony, with a bracing whiff of clean alcohol to remind you it's bottled at the traditional 94.6 proof. The martini gin of all martini gins.
Wild Turkey 101 bourbon ($20). Okay, back in 1979, the bottle had a big red "8" on it for the number of years this classic premium bourbon had been aged. Now the eight-year costs extra. But if the 101 is younger, it isn't by much — the whiskey is still big and warming, not hiding its high proof but still smooth and rich and just what you want in an old-fashioned.
Courvoisier VSOP ($35). Fresh and appealing. Just put it in a glass and drink it.
You know what your Dad really wants for Father's Day: booze! He doesn't need another necktie or a pair of slippers or whichever 1950's cliche you choose to bestow. Liquor is the gift that is never turned down. Because even if it's not your brand, even if it's not your spirit, it's still alcohol.
Here are some suggestions for bottles to give, in each of the major categories.
Rum: Appleton Estate Extra ($28) – One of the all-time great spirits, and one of my favorite rums. It's hard to go wrong with this one. It's good to sip on its own, and brilliant in cocktails. Every dad who enjoys a drink should have a bottle of this rum.
Bourbon Whiskey: Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon – There are so many great bourbons, this is a category where the choices are virtually endless. I'm recommending the Four Roses Small Batch because it's reasonably priced and of very high quality. If you'd rather go up a step, you can get the Four Roses Single Barrel ($40), which we reviewed recently. Or if you're trying to save a little, you can give the Four Roses Yellow Label ($17). They're all good.
Irish Whiskey: Bushmills Black Bush ($30) - The ultimate in blended Irish whiskey, Black Bush is a spirit for all seasons. Great flavor, great balance, great whiskey.
Rye Whiskey: Wild Turkey Rye 81 ($20) – There are several excellent brands of rye that I could recommend, but Wild Turkey is a straight-ahead, good-tasting rye whiskey that is easy to find. If you see the 101 Proof version, buy that instead. (The higher-proof version has gotten much harder to find.)
Canadian Whisky: Canadian Club Classic 12 Year ($16) – Canadian whisky is often gifted for Father's Day, and for good reason. It tastes good, there's nothing extreme or esoteric about it, and it's very affordable. The Canadian Club Classic is a perfect example of that.
Gin: Tanqueray ($17) – Gin is a beautiful spirit: classic, elegant and refined. There are many different brands on the market, a lot of which I like. But I keep coming back to Tanqueray –pure distilled magic in a bottle.
Vodka: Stolichnaya Elit ($50) – Maybe your Dad is a man of refined, but simple tastes. In that case, give him a bottle of one of the best vodkas in the world. Yes, it's expensive. If you don't want to spend that much, you could give Stolichnaya Gold ($30, 1L) instead. Even the basic Stolichnaya ($17) label is top-notch stuff.
Tequila: Avión Silver ($39) – This is my favorite blanco tequila, as revealed in our tequila taste test a while back. It's one of the few silver tequilas that you can enthusiastically drink neat, and it also makes a killer Margarita.
Scotch: The Balvenie DoubleWood ($44) – A lot of people immediately think "single malt Scotch" when they're planning to give a gift. I try to steer people in other directions, since Scotch drinkers tend to be picky about their brands. However, if you're committed to giving Scotch, this is an excellent choice.
Brandy: Pierre Ferrand Ambre 10 Year Cognac ($39) – The Pierre Ferrand company has been making a lot of noise the last couple of years by introducing excellent new products to the market, and this is one of them. A fine brandy that's better than most of what you'll find from the better-known producers.
Liqueur: Cointreau ($35) – Perhaps the finest orange liqueur in the world, it's absolutely essential for making cocktails. A lot of people avoid buying it, though, because it's expensive. That makes it a perfect gift. The difference between Cointreau and cheap triple sec in a Margarita or Sidecar is akin to the difference between chicken salad and chicken…
“Drinking is an emotional thing. It joggles you out of the standardism of everyday life, out of everything being the same. It yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you against the wall.” –Charles Bukowski
In the Washington Post, Jason Wilson gives advice on how to host a rum tasting. This is very timely advice, as I'm planning to do some tastings this summer.
Is Spodee the worst name ever for a beverage? Steven Grasse, the brains behind Hendrick's Gin and Sailor Jerry Rum, doesn't think so. It's a blend of fortified wine and high-proof white whiskey (aka moonshine).
The organizers of Tales of the Cocktail, the most popular cocktail festival in the United States, have announced the finalists for the 6th Annual Spirited Awards. The awards recognize the bartenders, bars, writers and cocktail experts that are working to drive the cocktail industry into new, exciting directions.
The complete list of finalists is included after the jump. Congrats to all the nominees!