The most common types of base spirits are gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, tequila, and brandy. If you can stock one bottle of each at home, that will offer you the broadest cocktail options. Or choose the two or three that you enjoy the most, and work with those.
Gin starts as a neutral base spirit (often distilled from various grains), which is imbued with botanicals, most notably juniper (which gives gin that “piney” flavor). We developed our recipes using London dry gin, the standard-bearer of modern gin, which has an extremely versatile juniper-citrus flavor profile. That’s what we recommend for a basic home bar, but if you love gin you might also try other styles, which include but are not limited to Plymouth gin (earthier and less dry than London dry and currently made by only one distillery), Old Tom (sweeter and less herbal than London dry), and Navy Strength (similar to London dry but with a higher alcohol content).
The most neutral-tasting spirit, and probably the most versatile because of that neutrality, vodka in some form was made in Russia way back in the 14th century. It was traditionally distilled from potatoes, although in modern times it is more likely to be distilled from various grains, like wheat. It can even be made from fruits, like apples or grapes. Vodka is often overlooked in the modern bar because of its neutral flavor, but we love it in our Bichon Frise. It can also balance and temper other, stronger flavors, as it does with the tea liqueur in our Teatini.
The world of whiskey is wide, with countries as divergent as Canada and Japan producing excellent whiskeys. All whiskey is made from grain, but different rules apply to depend on the type of whiskey, and many factors affect their flavor profiles. In developing our recipes, we used primarily American whiskey, with a few exceptions (such as the Highlander, and Irish Coffee). We recommend having a bottle of both bourbon and rye in your liquor cabinet, if possible. Additional bottles beyond those are up to your preference.
Bourbon is the quintessential American whiskey. It must be made from at least 51 percent corn and be aged in new charred oak barrels. It must be made in the United States (but not necessarily in Kentucky). The corn contributes a certain sweetness and round, full-body to the whiskey. We prefer it to our Old-Fashioned.
While Tennessee whiskey has the same legal requirements as bourbon for raw materials and aging, it must be produced in Tennessee, and it is filtered through charcoal before aging. This extra filtering removes some of the stronger flavor compounds, resulting in a lighter-bodied, smoother-tasting whiskey. It’s often a good substitute for bourbon, as in our Old-Fashioned, or for rye, as in our Manhattan.
Rye, which has many of the same legal production and aging requirements as bourbon, must be made from 51 percent rye. This results in a drier, spicier flavor and a slightly lighter body than the corn-heavy bourbon. We think it is ideal in cocktails that have a sweeter element, such as the Fancy-Free, which has maraschino liqueur.
Scotch has strict production and aging requirements. It must be made in Scotland and aged in oak barrels (often used bourbon barrels are employed to age Scotch). Many Scotches are made from malted barley, though other grains can be used. There are many terms used in relation to Scotch, each of which comes with specific requirements.
The majority of Scotch is blended, and that’s what we recommend for making cocktails. Depending on which you use, Scotch may bring a smoky or peaty note to cocktails.
Irish whiskey was the most popular spirit in the world during the 19th century. In fact, the word “whiskey” is derived from the Gaelic phrase uisce beatha, meaning “water of life.” Irish whiskeys are generally made from malted barley or other grains, and they generally have less smoky or peaty flavors and aromas than Scotch. In our opinion, Irish whiskey is a must in Irish Coffee.
Canadian whiskey can be made from corn, wheat, or rye. (Confusingly, it’s allowed to be called “rye whiskey” even if it doesn’t include any rye.) Canadian whiskey often offers great quality for a lower price than that of other whiskeys.
Japanese whiskey has a style that is strongly influenced by Scotch, but it tends to have a silkier, smoother texture. Also like Scotch, it tends to command high prices.
Rum is one of the more complicated spirits to understand because it’s so diverse and lacks the consistent production and labeling regulations that govern many other spirits. Rum can legally be made anywhere in the world, and the rules for making it vary accordingly. It’s been produced in America since the 1600s. The one thing all rums have in common is that they are made from sugarcane and its products—more specifically, in most cases molasses.
Traditional classifications based on geography or color can be misleading: Raw materials can come from multiple locations, and regional styles and production methods have evolved over time. While most rum is aged to some degree, gaining complexity, a darker rum does not necessarily mean an older (or better) rum, because in some countries the color can come from additives (including sugar and caramel coloring) or filtering methods. White rums (sometimes called silver) may simply have been filtered to remove any color. More recent rum categorizations are attempting to clear up this confusion by classifying rums according to what they are made from, their production method, and their aging time.
For our cocktails, we found that we could rely primarily on two types: a white rum (an unaged or lightly aged—1 to 4 years—rum that may have been filtered) and an aged rum (a rum aged anywhere from 5 to 14 years). The lighter-bodied style of white rum was ideal for daiquiris and mojitos, while tiki drinks, in particular, benefited from the more complex, full-bodied flavors of aged rum. For our Dark and Stormy, we particularly liked the burnt-sugar flavors of Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, though you could use aged rum. Be aware that rum, unlike other spirits in this section, can have sugar added to it before bottling, and this can affect the balance of flavors in your cocktails.
The national spirit of Brazil, where by law it is made exclusively, cachaça could be considered a type of rum. It differs in that it is made directly from fermented sugarcane juice rather than molasses, so it’s a bit more floral, grassy, and herbaceous.
By law, tequila must be produced in Mexico, from the blue agave plant (which is not a cactus). It can be bottled young (blanco) or be aged for up to 1 year (reposado) or 1 to 3 years or longer (añejo or extra añejo). We found that blanco and reposado are often interchangeable in cocktails, so you can purchase whichever one you prefer. Blanco tequila will generally give a cocktail a brighter, cleaner flavor, whereas reposado tequila will bring more nuanced, oaky notes to your drink. If you enjoy tequila, you might also like mezcal, which is made from various agave plants that are roasted, often adding a smoky component to its flavor profile.
Brandy is essentially distilled wine, of which cognac, made in the Cognac region of France, is considered the apex. But “distilled wine” doesn’t have to mean grape wine; it can mean any fruit. For example, Calvados and applejack are both types of brandy made from apples. The cocktails in this book use cognac-style brandy unless otherwise specified.