It's time to start nameing names.
Based on some of the feedback I've been getting from you, instead of simply providing some general rules of thumb and information about stocking your bar, you want me to name names, and tell you specifically what brands you should be buying.
I would never presume to assume that there is "one" Brandy that you should buy over another, or even that your own tastes and preferences would be anything similar to my own. But perhaps I can alleviate some of your confusion by simply listing out just a few of the products that have become a standard component of my own home bar. So in this article I'll touch upon the primary products for your bar, a brief description of the product to help you understand it, and list the brands that I usually by. With the gigantic variety of different brands available, I haven't even come close to trying them all yet, and so over time I will almost certainly discover other brands that I will lean towards.
Here in Washington State (and I believe Oregon as well) there is a brand that appears to make virtually every major type of spirit and liquor that there is. Vodka, Gin, Bourbon, Scotch, Tequila, Triple Sec, Coffee Liquor, etc. While not always the cheapest brand available, the "Monarch" brand was always fairly low on the price scale. When I first started out stocking my bar, I chose Monarch for most of what I bought just as a good starting place that would not hit my wallet too hard.
As I built out my liquor cabinet, and had a chance to compare one brand against another, the Monarch bottles very quickly disappeared from my shelves. Today, if I see a bar using "Monarch" as their well brand, I will often stick to something safe, like beer. The approach of going cheap is not a bad one however. If you really want to build out your bar quickly, and don't have a lot of cash to spend on the process, then going with inexpensive brands is a fine way to start. Just remember, that if you aren't really familiar with what a good gin tastes like, don't allow a cheap gin to be what you judge the entire category on.
NOTE: Any prices listed below are representative of prices as of May 28, 2001 in Washington State Liquor Stores.
The time used to be, that Brandy was one of the most common ingredients for cocktails. Today, it has become fairly uncommon, with few "new" cocktails coming out that use it. Brandy is more commonly used sipped "neat". It is important to remember that both Cognac and Armagnac are both brandies, but are distinguished by the location at which they are produced in France, but also are often (but not always) of much more refined flavor and character. A very good Cognac or Armagnac can also fetch a very high price, and unless you are feeling very flush, would really not be appropriate for mixing cocktails with. My current "favorite" cognac is "Kelt" ($50.15) (http://www.keltcognac.com/) but since it appears to have dropped off the brands being sold here in Washington State, I'll be nursing my one remaining bottles very carefully.
The selection of brandies always appear to be rather limited, tending to either focus on the high-end sipping cognacs, or the more low-end brandies that are barely appropriate to cook with. My current "house brand" for making cocktails with is "Salignac" brand Cognac ($19.95), but I have also been known to pick up "Raynal" brandy ($13.95), although a taste comparison between the two shows the Salignac to be notably better in cocktails.
For a beginning bar, I'd recommend picking up a brandy in the $12+ a bottle price range, if you go below that, you won't be getting a very drinkable product.
Like brandy, this is also a very classic ingredient for cocktails, and fortunately it is still fairly common today. However many people tend to shy away from gin, claiming not to like the flavor. Gin is essentially a "flavored vodka", where the flavors are a complex (and often secret) combination of various botanicals with Juniper always being the predominate flavor. I often expect that many people aversion to Gin is either the result of exposure to too much of it at one time in their life, or not having had a really good gin and allowing themselves the time to appreciate its flavors.
You should find a fairly large selection of gin in your liquor stores, which will of course provide for a lot of confusion as to which one you should select. I would definately stay away from the cheaper brands, since a bad gin can be very, very bad. Personally, my favorite gin is Plymouth ($28), but that might seem a little pricey for some folks on their early purchases, so a slightly less expensive brand would be Beefeater ($22), or Bombay regular ($20). For even cheaper alternatives, you could try Seagram's ($12) or Gordon's ($11), but avoid anything cheaper then that.
For a beginning bar, I'd recommend starting off with Beefeaters, and then over time comparing it to other brands and figuring out your own preferences.
Rum's is a distilled spirit, made from fermented molasses, which is made from sugarcane. We are almost all familiar with this spirit in the variety of "Tiki" cocktails or other concoctions that we often associate with the South Sea Islands. While you probably won't find as many rums in your liquor stores as you do Gins, there will almost certainly be more then you'll see of Brandies. Unlike brandy and gin, you'll see a variety of distinguishing sub-categories or rum, which will add a little to your shopping confusion. In addition to the common "white" and "gold" rums, you'll also see dark, spiced, coconut, limon, anejo, and a variety of others. My recommendation is to stick with the "gold" rum for now. A good classic rum to stick with is of course are the various selections from Bacardi, I almost always have a bottle of Bacardi Gold ($12.45) in my cabinet. But if it is available in your area, I think that Appleton Estate ($17.45) is a better rum, for only a slight bit more. There are many recipes that make use of dark rum, any for this Myers Dark Rum ($15.95) is the most common brand you'll see around, however I've lately been using Goslings Black Seal ($17.95), which I feel is an excellent product.
Rums appear to be picking up in popularity, and so you will most likely start finding a much more diverse and exciting collection coming to your stores. Take the time to experiment a little bit and try out different brands. Usually trying out a shot or two at a good bar is cheaper then buying full bottles yourself, only to find out too late that you bought something you don't like.
For a beginning bar, I'd recommend picking up Bacardi Gold.
Tequila has already been in a resurgence in the last several years, and this should guarantee that your liquor stores will be carrying a fairly good selection of some very good tequilas. Of course "very good" will often also translate to "more expensive", so for your first time purchase I'd definitely suggest that you stay away from the higher end tequilas and focus on finding a decently priced brand that works well for cocktails.
Tequila comes in different styles, Bianco (silver), Reposado, Anejo, and Joven (gold). Bianco is totally unaged, Reposado has limited aging (60 days to 1 year), Anejo is aged longer (at least a year), and Joven isn't aged at all but instead has coloring and flavoring added to it to make it "taste" aged. Many people feel that the aging of a tequila not only softens its flavors, but also diminishes some of its unique characteristics, so while a nice Anejo Tequila might be more gentle and relaxed for sipping, silver tequilas are gaining favor for use in cocktails.
While Cuervo Gold ($20.85) might be one of the most common tequilas available, it is rarely considered as a good quality tequila for any use. There are other brands that are both better, and cheaper. Myself, I've lately been using Sauza Blanco ($17.95) as my standard brand, and for a more upscale tequila, I always keep around a bottle of Patron Silver ($44.30) and Patron Anejo ($49.85), but of course those are both a little pricey to start out with. Another popular brand, which I think is quite good, is Herradura (Silver $31.95), but also on the higher end of the scale.
For a beginning bar, I'd recommend a bottle of Sauza Tequila Blanco.
Vodka is actually a fairly new arrival on the scene. While it has been around in the US since the late 1800's, it was rarely used for cocktails or mixed drinks. It wasn't until the 1940's when Smirnoff launched an expensive advertising campaign that suddenly people started using it as a common ingredient. Today, it is probably used more then any other major spirit, which most likely is the reason why the vodka section of your liquor store is the largest, and with the most variety of brands.
When considering vodka, it is important to know a little bit about how it is made. Unlike any other spirit, it can be distilled from virtually any fermentable product. The key is to distill it out to approximately 190 proof, at which point it is almost pure alcohol, with very little remaining of the original product that might provide any distinctive flavor. The next step is to add enough water to bring this down to the more acceptable 80 to 100 proof. This means that 60% of Vodka is made up of added water, which also means that the quality of the water is extremely important to the final product. In many cases, the various vodka brands do not actually distill the base (190 proof) spirit themselves, but instead buy it from a bulk distiller who is also selling the same base spirit to their competition. Think about this the next time you get into a debate with a friend as to which vodka is best.
This doesn't mean that there isn't any difference from one vodka to another. I once criticized a friend of mine for asking for a Vodka Tonic made with a named brand vodka. While I had never actually taste tested the concept, I assumed that the flavor of the tonic water would mask out much of the differences in vodka, so I ordered a Vodka Tonic using the well brand. Well, needless to say her vodka tonic definitely tasted better then mine. Lesson Learned. Cheap Vodka, is still cheap vodka. The quality of the distilling process used will definitely have a significant impact over the resultant "texture" of the vodka. So if you want to keep your friends, don't shop on the bottom shelf. For a good starting point, I recommend something like Gordon's Vodka ($9.45). Other favorites are Skyy ($14.95), Ketel One ($20.90), Grey Goose ($27.95), and Stolichnaya (aka. Stoli) ($18.95). Personally, my favorite vodka at the moment is Pearl ($19.90).
For a beginning bar, I'd recommend a bottle of Gordon's Vodka.
Whiskey is where things can start getting a little confusing. The subcategories here are Irish, Scotch, American (Bourbon, Rye, Tennessee), and Canadian. While these are all whiskeys, you really can't substitute one for the other very well in recipes, except you can sometimes get by with substituting a Canadian Whiskey for an American.
For cocktails, Bourbon is the most common whiskey to be used, so as a start, you can focus on just getting a bourbon. Perhaps the most common Bourbon is Jim Beam ($12.45), and fortunately it is a pretty good choice. There are of course far better bourbons out there, but almost all come at a higher price. My own personal favorite for an all-around bourbon is Makers Mark ($19.95), with Rip Van Winkle ($18.55), Knob Creek ($28.95), Woodford Reserve ($29.95), and Blantons ($49.95), all being good choices as well.
For a beginning bar, I'd recommend a bottle of Jim Beam Bourbon
While this selection just scratches the surface of building out a well stocked bar, it does provide you with a decent start. Using the specific recommendations I've listed above, the cost for this trip to the liquor store will be about $75. In further articles I'll cover some of the other ingredients that you might consider including in your bar.