Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Spirits >
Mar 14, 2008 09:20 PM

Liquor brand/quality used in cocktails

Sorry if this is a dumb thread to some but I'm newcomer when it comes to cocktails(and spirits for that matter). Right now, I'm trying to put togeter a inventory so that I can make an array of cocktails, but I am a little confused what the general brands used for cocktails. I dont want to be buying the lowest end stuff, but at the same time I don't want to be buying spirits that are meant more so for sipping. All in all, I want the taste to be taken in respect to price. I was wondering what alcohol you guys use when you serve up cocktails? Should I imitate what the well liquor is for most bars?
Any insight would be great.

Vodka: ___________
Gin: ____________
Tequilla: ___________
Rum: ___________
Whiskey: ___________

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Some bars have crap in the well, others respectable basic spirits, so be careful of your choice of examples.

    I avoid generic and no-name brands, which I think are often unkind to your head the next day. I'll always pay a premium for quality liquors meant to be sipped neat or with nothing more than ice or a little water, but recognize that super-premium prices aren't always guarantees of quality. There's a lot of stuff out that in which you're paying for packaging and marketing, and the taste of the actual stuff in the bottle doesn't measure up.

    I sometimes use super-premium sprits in cocktails, but most often when I'm mixing I go down market a bit. Vodka is the biggest scam going in the super-premium segment, and every other spirit maker is trying to ape their success. A few thoughts:

    Vodka. Read the NY Times taste test before you spend a cent on any prestige brand.
    I'm now listening to my Ukrainian pal's longstanding advice ("Smirnoff is the best vodka on the American market, period"), though I also use Ketel One, Skyy, and Wyborowa in cocktails, and keep a few of the super-premiums (Goose, Belvedere, etc.) on my bar for my unenlightened vodka-snob friends.

    Gin: certain super-premium brands like Hendrick's have a unique character worth seeking out, notably a less-forward juniper note, which makes them useful in specific cocktails, or for wooing my gin-hating friends over to gin's virtues. My favorite gin that wanders from the juniper-centric London Dry style is Plymouth, still relatively cheap, though not the bargain it used to be. For basic cocktails, I like Gordon's (an excellent budget label) and Tanqueray. Of the London Dry style premiums, I like Old Raj and hate Bombay Sapphire.

    Tequila: super-premium tequila marketing is at work big-time, with brands like Patron getting $50/bottle and up and not deserving it, in my opinion. I think it's worth it to avoid mixtos (a blend of pure-agave tequila with grain neutral spirits, like the entry-level Cuervo) in favor of pure-agave tequilas (read the labels), but prefer less highly advertised bottlings. My favorite values are Cazadores and El Tesoro. It's a matter of preference, but blanco tequilas are the cheapest and often the best mixer for cocktails; the stronger flavors of the costlier aged tequilas (the golden resposado and the even deeper-hued, longer-aged añejo) being generally favored for sipping (though I occasionally use reposados in cocktails).

    Rum: another spirit where you can go crazy on fancy stuff that is probably meant to be sipped, or pursue exotic, hand-crafted rhum agricoles (made from fresh cane juice instead of molasses), or go for specific rarified flavors in your mad pursuit of perfect Tiki cocktails. I don't know a lot about rum, so I stock a few basics for mixing: Bacardi white for things like blender drinks, Prichard's Crystal for more refined drinks calling for a light rum, Appleton Estate and Pusser's for gold rum, Myer's and Gosling's for dark rum. I keep some Bacardi 151 around for floats. I'm just starting to experiment with the fancier, longer-aged, rarer rums, mainly by sipping them at a couple of Boston bars that carry a good selection (Green Street, and the hideous but well-stocked Rumbar).

    Whiskey: This is the beginning of a much longer discussion, depending on whether you mean bourbon, rye, Tennessee, Canadian, Scotch, Irish, or something else, in blended or unblended varieties. I favor rye and bourbon these days, so let me suggest a few basic brands I use for whiskey cocktails at home. Rye: Old Overholt (cheap and rough, but blends nicely) and Sazerac 6-year-old (not too expensive to mix, a nice compromise between smoothness, character, and costliness). Bourbon: Maker's Mark (which leans toward "you're paying for the advertising" territory, but is reliably sweet and smooth), Jim Beam (a solid budget brand), and Dickel's (a Tennessee whiskey very much in a bourbon style, another respectable budget choice). Scotch: I don't use single-malts in cocktails, so for mixing, I favor a few basic blended brands, including Grant's and The Famous Grouse. Canadian: a good choice for highballs and other mixed drinks, as it's kind of smooth and innocuous: VO and Canadian Club are my usuals, though I have neither on my bar at the moment. Irish: I don't mix it much, but don't know much about it, either. I keep Powers around for sipping, it's my favorite in the value category.

    Hope that helps!

    3 Replies
    1. re: MC Slim JB

      Thanks MC, thats a really good range to give me something to start with

      1. re: MC Slim JB

        What an outstanding post. While I mildly disagree with some of your picks (MILDLY), your writing is exceptionally clear and educational for a novice like mrpotato.

        I am going to look at other postings of yours.

        I am now a fan.

        1. re: Dave and Stuff

          Hey Dave. Im just curious, but what would you replace out of MC's list?

      2. Darren,

        MC's post is indeed wise and worth paying attention to. I only have a couple of things to add, if I may . . . .

        There is a difference between drinking spirits straight, and mixing them in cocktails. If you enjoy them straight, it is quite often worth spending the extra dollars to get something "better." For example, read what MC wrote about blanco, resposado, and añejo tequila (absolutely right, IMHO). It is worth it TO ME -- and I'm only speaking for myself -- to spend more on certain "better" spirits I enjoy straight.

        But I'd like to shift gears slightly, and ask a question: what is "better"? The answer, it seems to me, is up to you: you need to find which spirit is better in which category for yourself.

        One way to do that is to do to a well-stocked bar and order different drinks/cocktails. Order, for example, four different Gin-and-Tonics -- one made with Plymouth, one with Gordon's, one Bombay, one Hendricks (or four different margaritas, using Cuervo blanco, Sauza blanco, El Tesoro blanco and El Tesoro resposado [for example]) . . . see which you prefer. (Do this with some friends!) The next time, order another one of the one you liked best, and try three more, DIFFERENT gins. This can be done with ANY cocktail, and -- though four cocktails can be expensive, it's cheaper then spending the money for four bottles of liquor, three of which you may not like.

        Just a thought . . .

        But -- again -- MC is spot on!


        1. For the most part I'm with MC (actually almost entirely with some minor quibbles). Smirnoff is a good vodka for mixing, as if Stoli. But in general I prefer Ketel One to most other vodkas. Grey Goose is certainly good, but not worth the money. I have always enjoyed Vincent van Gogh Vodka as well. I'm not sure how some of the new vodka's made from grapes are (Ciroc for example), but they seem to be worth a taste at least.

          Gin is an interesting spirit, and the flavors run the gamut because of the botanicals and herbs. Personally, I think investing in the premium stuff is worth it for a good G&T. I hate Bombay Sapphire, don't go near it. Plymouth is great, and so is Tanqueray. Tanqueray Rangpur was great because the Rangpur limes have a distinct flavor. My personal favorite is Hendrick's though because of the subtler flavor which is a sharp constrast to gins like Tanqueray.

          I agree with MC on the high end tequila racket. Patron Silver is not bad, its good in drinks but is not worth the price tag. I personally find Don Julio and Cabo Wabo to be worthy of sipping, but I am still a novice when it comes to tequila.

          Avoid Bacardi Rum for anything other than mixing. I have not found a good quality white rums, so I am looking for suggestions. There are some excellent dark rums out there like 10 Cane (i'm not sure what the price tag on it is), Mount Gay and Myer's are good stuff to buy.

          There are many other spirits and liquors you should consider tasting and using for cocktails such as cahaca, ouzo, arak, fruit and nut liquers. Good cocktails are also made with good quality ingredients like juices, rinds, fruits, etc.

          Hope this helps, and bottoms up.

          1. I'l chime in, though I don't consider myself an expert, just someone with personal tastes and a limited budget. I usually buy lesser priced stuff for myself, which turns out is what my wasp parents and friends drank in the 70's. It's not top shelf, but it's perfectly respectable. For guests, I usually "upgrade". It's mostly for appearances. I don't think many people can tell one way or the other, but I don't want a rep for serving what's perceived as "cheap booze".

            Vodka: Basic Smirnoff for myself. For friends I usually get Absolut, Stoli, or Ketel One because they're popular but not insanely expensive.
            Gin: Gordon's is the old standby for me, but I also like Seagram's. They are both cheap and taste great with Schwepp's tonic water. They don't make bad martinis either, but at home I prefer to drink these with ice in a rocks glass. For guests, again, I usually upgrade to Tanqueray, Beefeater's or Bombay.
            Tequilla: Don't drink it, but would probably get a mid-priced thing like Cuervo Gold.
            Rum: Don't usually drink it, but I buy Mount Gay spiced rum if I suspect anyone will ask. No one's complained yet, and I find it agreeable when I've had to finish up the bottle.
            Whiskey: For Scotch, I used to buy Dewars regularly, but now alternate that with Walker Red or Famous Grouse, whichever is the best buy. Also I don't rule out lower priced Grant's or John Barr. I have tried Cutty Sark and J&B, but these never taste right to me. For Bourbon, I go Jim Beam, but have noticed that a cheaper brand like Early Times tastes pretty darn close. Guests in my opinion shouldn't gripe over Dewars, Walker Red, Famous Grouse, or Jim Beam, so I don't bother upgrading these.


            1. It took me *years* to get my bar right for me, so this is a noble ambition of yours. Doing some research probably beats what I did back in the 80s when I walked into a liquor store and said "give me one of each". It took years to get rid of some of those nasty things I picked up that day.

              The best advice has already been given you: try things with friends and take notes on how popular each one is, and count yourself 3 times.

              Here is what I have on hand right now:

              Lukusowa. an inexpensive and good potato vodka that is commonly available.
              Absolut Citron.
              Stolichnaya (get as high a proof as you can).

              Myers dark
              Tortuga gold (aged)
              Appleton reserve
              Pussers. Warning-people tend to like or hate pussers, it has a very specific flavor.
              Bacardi 151
              10 Cane. a clear rum made from sugar cane rather than molasses.

              Cabo Wabo. I refused to even try this for years, liked it when I did.
              Sauza. my old standby.

              Several varieties of home-made moonshine, you'll have to get this yourself.

              Martel Cordon Bleu is always in my bar for when I need brandy, for whatever purpose.

              Bombay - regular and sapphire, and I happen to like sapphire, myself (comment included because the sapphire haters are pretty vocal about it)

              Tullamore Dew. both of these are inexpensive Irish whiskeys, and you won't make an Irishman unhappy if you offer these.
              The Macallan. In a variety of bottles, including cask strength. This is scotch.
              Rebel Yell.
              Wild Turkey 101
              Pappy Van Winkle. (don't give this to just anyone).

              Several different bitters and vermouths
              Pear Liquor, with a pear in the bottle
              Hungarian or other eastern european Slivowitz (triple distilled plum brandy)
              Pama pomegranite liquor (for visitors)
              Peachtree Schnapps
              Apple jack
              Pimm's #1
              Irish Mist
              Grand Marnier

              I get by on this, but periodically pick up something else just for variety.