Getting Started: Basic Spirits January 30 2015
So you’ve got your Rejigger and your basic bar tools—now you need some liquor to fill them with. Craft cocktails commonly use five basic spirits: whiskey, vodka, gin, rum, and tequila. These are the alcohols that usually form the base of your cocktail, filling the large compartment of the Rejigger.
Of course, you don’t have to buy all five of the spirits at once! Think about what drink (or drinks) you most often order at a bar, and get what you need to make that drink. An old-fashioned aficionado should probably invest in bourbon first, while a tiki fan might want to bring home a bottle of rum for mai tais instead. You can add more spirits to your home bar as you expand your repertoire of drinks.
Buying multiple bottles of liquor, even one at a time, can get expensive. So in this installment of our Getting Started Guide, we’ll recommend two bottles for each spirit: a “splurge” option that represents a quality starter alcohol in the category, and a “save” option that costs under $20. All bottles are thoroughly tested and approved for mixing by the ReJigger team, but we encourage you to experiment and find the spirits you like best.
(Prices are for a 750 mL bottle except where noted.)
Whiskey is one of the most diverse spirit categories on this list, with different varieties that have totally different ingredients. All whiskeys start with fermented grain mash, and most of them spend some time aging in oak barrels. But that’s about where there generalities end. There’s sweet, sippable bourbon, which is made with at least 51% corn; bold and spicy rye, which is made with at least 51% rye (duh); and other specialized varieties including blended whiskies and scotch (though that last one is technically a “whisky,” natch). All of this makes it difficult to pick just one bottle to start.
Lucky for you, we at ReJigger HQ were able to do just that. Though rye whiskey is traditional in a lot of cocktails, its more sippable cousin bourbon is probably a little bit more approachable as a starter whiskey. Besides, with its high rye content, our “save” option Old Grand Dad will still give your manhattans a little spice. (We’ve included the 80 proof version here, but for a couple extra dollars you can upgrade to a 100-proof bottle and get a little bit more bang for your buck.)
Save – Old Grand Dad 80 Proof ($17-$20)
Splurge – Bulleit Bourbon ($29–$33
Colorless and (almost) flavorless, vodka can mix with almost anything, making it an ideal cocktail ingredient. It can also be distilled from almost anything (within reason). Though most vodkas you see on the shelf are made from grains, there are also vodkas made from potatoes, fruits, even straight sugar.
Since flavor is not a huge factor, the difference between vodkas largely comes down to texture. Our “splurge” pick, Stolichnaya, tends to be thinner and less oily than competitors like Absolut, and might go down a little smoother than Sobieski—though, with #1 honors from the Beverage Testing Institute, our “save” selection is a safe bet for mixing in cosmopolitans, too.
Save – Sobieski Polish Vodka ($10–$12)
Splurge – Stolichnaya ($19–$23)
With its strong, piney flavor, gin can be a challenge for first-time drinkers—but rewards those who take the time to get to know it. Virtually the only requirement for calling a spirit “gin” is that it have a “predominant flavor of juniper,” but almost all gins are distilled with other fragrant botanicals like anise, coriander, and citrus peels. The result is a complex and aromatic drink that adds a unique flavor to craft cocktails.
Gin has experienced a resurgence in recent years, with craft distillers cropping up all over the U.S.. Our “splurge” pick, Hendrick’s, is a good representative of these so-called New American gins, which have much less juniper flavor than their classic cousins. Of course, if you do want a more classic taste in your Rejigger negroni, you can’t go wrong with the classic London Dry style of our “save” pick, Gordon’s.
Save – Gordon’s London Dry Gin ($11)
Splurge – Hendrick’s ($30–$42)
With its mellow, sweet flavors, rum anchors many classic tiki and tropical drinks. It can be distilled from various sugarcane products, including molasses or sugarcane juice, and may be aged to intensify its taste. Many beginning cocktail guides will advise you to go with unaged light rum to start, which is why we’ve picked good old Bacardi as our “save” option here. But if you’re planning to make lots of strawberry daquiris with your Rejigger, you might want to invest in an aged version like our “splurge,” Mount Gay Eclipse. It will add a little more flavor to all your classic tiki drinks.
Save – Bacardi Superior White Rum ($13–$14)
Splurge – Mount Gay Eclipse Rum ($18–$22)
Tequila is another spirit where a little bit of aging can make a big difference. Blanco, or white, tequilas are aged for under two months, if at all, and feature the bold flavors of distilled agave (that’s the succulent whose sap tequila is made from). By contrast, reposado (“rested”) tequilas age for two months to a year in oak barrels, where they generally become smoother and subtler in flavor. Anejo (“aged”) tequila, which ages for one to three years, is generally not used in cocktails, but sipped straight.
Our “splurge” pick, Cazadorez, is a reposado that mellows out in new oak barrels for two months before bottling. Cazadorez is also made from 100% agave—something you’ll only find in more upscale tequilas. Our “save” pick, Sauza, can’t boast of the same purity, but it will still mix nicely in your Rejigger blackberry paloma.
Save – Sauza Gold or Sauza Blanco ($12–$15)
Splurge – Cazadorez Reposado ($22–$32)