The Bottles We Are Using
Gin ~ Bourbon ~ Italian and French vermouth ~ Campari ~ Angostura bitters ~ Dark rum ~ Light rum ~ Orange liqueur ~ Tequila ~ Absinthe ~ Brandy
IF you want to up your home cocktail game - and make the most of your subscription to the Spirits! - you don’t need a whole cellar’s worth of bottles. You just need a good first team with a strong spine: a few stalwarts that will commune happily in various different formations to form Negronis, Martinis, Manhattans, etc - but will also make welcoming consorts to any lemons or passion fruits or bottles of bubbly or interesting sodas that pass through your kitchen.
The bottles listed below are chosen to open up the classical cocktail canon; the first six (gin, bourbon, Italian and French vermouth, Campari, Angostura bitters) formed the core cabinet in the first section of my book the Spirits - and I’m adding a few more over time to keep things nicely up to date. All the rest can be done with basic supermarket stuff like lemons, limes, eggs, mint and sugar: dissolve two parts golden caster sugar in one part water for an all-purpose sugar syrup. I will always post a shopping list of what to get in for next time at the bottom of each post - do scroll all the way down and you want be short of pineapple juice or whatever next time! In the meantime, these are the cabinet basics and a few recommended brands. These aren’t exhaustive, it’s just a few I’ve had and liked.
The most in-demand cocktail spirit is happily the most economical too. Most supermarket own-brands are decent. Some (e.g. Aldi’s!) outclass better-known names in blind tastings. It’s not a bad idea to have a basic gin for fruitier mixtures and a classier one for Martinis. Just avoid flavoured gin-based liqueurs which have added sugar and so behave more like liqueurs that spirits.
Gins I like include: Beefeater (excellent value for money!), Plymouth, Sipsmith, Sacred, Hepple, Hendricks, Mr Kamm, Tanqueray (especially Tanqueray 10), No. 3.
The All-American Dad of the cocktail, essential in Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, Whiskey Sours, Brown Derbies and more. (Scotch, Irish and Japanese whiskies are usually best sipped). Decent bourbon is an outlay but worth it. Feel free to use American rye whiskey if you like - usually more peppery and hardcore than bourbon.
Bourbons (and ryes) I like include: Maker’s Mark, Buffalo Trace, Tin Cup, Rittenhouse Rye, Sazerac Rye, Woodford Reserve, Elijah Craig, Four Roses.
🏰 FRENCH VERMOUTH
By “French” vermouth I mean dry vermouth (sometimes known as extra dry vermouth. This is the less sweet, herbaceous, straw-coloured type of vermouth, essential if you are a Martini drinker. No need to break the bank - the best ones cluster around the £12 mark - but do keep in the fridge so it stays fresh. A French vermouth doesn’t have to be literally French, but I find the best ones are indeed French.
French vermouths I like include: Dolin Dry is the best. Noilly Pray is nice too (but sweeter) and Martini Extra Dry is perfectly OK (quite steely and herbal).
🏛️ ITALIAN VERMOUTH
This is the sweeter, spicer, caramel-coloured in the Torino style, sometimes known as sweet vermouth or red/rouge/rojo/rosso vermouth. Italians, as a general rule, do it better.
Italian vermouths I like include: Martini Rosso is absolutely fine. Dolin Rouge is really good despite being French. Cucielo Rosso Vermouth di Torino and Antica Formula are both classy steps up.
A non-negotiable position for me: Campari is a permanent member in my cabinet thanks to its starring role in the Negroni, the Americano, the Jungle Bird and the true Spritz. There are paler substitutes (like Aperol) and interesting alternatives (like Fernet-Branca) but why mess?
Camparis I like include: Campari. Duh. There are me-too products called things like ‘Italian aperitif bitters’ but as with Coke, I’d stick with the real thing.
So much power in such a small bottle. Bitters is simply the single most useful ingredient you can own. A true “cocktail” is spirit + sugar + water + bitters. And it’s only going to set you back a tenner.
Bitters I like include: Angostura Bitters is basically the only choice. But I’d also recommend Bitter Truth Travellers’ Set if you’re interested in exploring further - a useful gift set of five styles of bitters, including orange bitters and New Orleans-style bitters.
🌴 LIGHT RUM
Aka white rum. A party essential and now that parties are illegal - party substitute? No need to spend more than £25 but it’s well worth looking beyond the usual supermarket suspects (i.e. Bacardi) for something a bit more floral and flavoursome.
Light rums I like include: Havana Club 3-anos from Cuba is good but El Dorado 3 Years and Flor de Caña Extra Seco are heavenly. Doolys if you feel like splashing out. Bacardi Carta Blanca if it’s all you can find.
🏴☠️ DARK RUM
Rum is a world unto itself, so much range and variety, from light, honeyish Puerto Rican golden rums to your dark, brooding Jamaian rums with everything in between. Always worth getting more bottles in! Try subbing for bourbon in Old Fashioneds or Manhattans; create a tropical symphony with extra liqueurs, syrups and fruits as you like; or master a traditional Rum Punch (soooo much better than mulled wine). Approach spiced rums with caution.
Dark rums I like include: Mount Gay 1703 Eclipse is a great all-rounder. So is Appleton’s 8-Year Old Reserve Rum, a fine example of the darker Jamaican style (everything from Appleton’s is pretty good). Flor de Caña, El Dorado, Chairman’s Reserve, Diplomatico and Plantation are reliable distilleries; Foursquare is second-to-none. If in doubt, go for Barbados.
🍊 ORANGE LIQUEUR
A cocktailing workhorse. Don’t worry about the finer differences between triple sec, curaçao, Cointreau etc: we’re talking a sweet, warm, bright orange liqueur that will do the heavy lifting in Margaritas, Sidecars, Mai Tais and a million more. Blue curaçao if you dare; though be warned, Grand Marnier won’t quite work as it’s orange liqueur mxed with brandy.
Orange liqueurs I like: I use Cointreau. And occasionally Edmond Briottet Blue Curaçao if I’m in the mood. Bartending types swear by Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curaçao but I have never quite been able to justify the price (£30!).
You can buy cheap tequila - but you will suffer for it. If it says 100% agave on the label, you won’t go far wrong. The blanco (white) unaged style is usually what’s called for in cocktails but if I had to buy one bottle, I’d go for reposado, which is ‘rested’ in barrels to give it a pale-straw colour and a hint of age. Anejo, fully aged, can be delicious but is best for sipping. And it’s always worth trying mezcal in tequila contexts but the smokiness makes it a slightly more formidable beast; I wrote a little guide to it here if this is a taste you feel like acquiring.
Tequilas I like: I’m no tequila expert, but I’m a fan of Olmeca, Ocho 8, Arette, Aqua Riva and Dobel. Patrón is nice but way overpriced! Del Maguey do the best mezcals for the novice.
Brandy means liquor that’s distilled from fruit. Any fruit! Calvados is an apple brandy; slivovitz is a plum brandy, etc. However, what we’re mostly talking about is grape brandy that’s been distilled from grapes. The fancy stuff comes from Cognac in France; as with Champagne, a few well-publicised brands dominate. VS = posh, VSOP = very posh, XO = stupid posh. But Armagnac is also nice and there are generic French brandies (like Three Barrels or St-Rémy) which are… serviceable. Germany, Spain, South Africa and a whole bunch of other wine regions also produce brandies.
Brandies I like: Decent cognac is expensive but worth splashing out on. Rémy Martin and Hine are my favourites to mix with; Rémy Martin 1738 Accord Royal is particularly heavenly (£45+ I’m afraid). And if you see Courvoisier, Martell, Hennessey, etc on special offer, go ahead. However, you will usually find more value with supermarket own-brands. Tesco’s VSOP has won awards (£27); and Aldi does a famously decent VS cognac called Chevalier for £15! Asbach German brandy has a minor cult following too.