There was a time not so very long ago when cocktail recipes simply called for bourbon, vodka, gin, rum or whatever other base spirit was to be used.
They didn’t dictate brand, instead leaving the choice entirely up to personal taste.
But times have changed. Cocktails are now tailored to specific spirits and liqueurs, which oftentimes are esoteric, hard to find and/or expensive. If you don’t happen to have the required ingredient, you can’t make the drink. Or can you?
I recently put the brand question to Beau Williams, bar manager atManifesto
. His answer to whether or not brand really matters? It depends.
“With the cocktails we create at Manifesto, of course brand matters,” says Williams, who also owns the cocktail consulting and catering companyHawthorne Julep
and the soon-to-open bar Julep with his wife and business partner, Keely Edgington. “If we change a brand, we tinker with everything else we’re using.”
That’s not because of the brand per se, though, but rather because of that particular brand’s characteristics. Understanding how different ingredients play together is essential to creating balanced cocktails. A juniper-forward London style gin mixes differently than more floral or citrusy versions, which behave all together differently than sweeter Old Tom gins.
Rums can be light, aged, dark, spiced or over-proof; other sugar cane-based spirits as varied as rhum agricole, cachaca and arrack also act in a rum-like manner. Tequila, mezcal and other spirits have their own range of flavors and entire books have been devoted to whiskey’s complexities.
Even within the fairly narrow world of rye whiskey, brands vary dramatically, Williams says.
“For Old Fashioneds, I use Old Overholt,” says Williams. “But in a Sazerac, it’s not spicy enough to stand up to the absinthe, so I use Rittenhouse 100. It makes a huge difference.”
The more you know about a particular brand, the better you understand how that style works the way it does in a cocktail. Then it becomes easier to substitute spirits with similar characteristics — thus making the actual brand specified in the recipe less important.
You still might have to adjust proportions, tweak the sweetness, or add another dash or two of bitters. But that’s what cocktail crafting’s all about, whether you’re at home or behind the bar, Williams says.
“When you’re at home, making your own drinks, that is your bar,” he says. “If you’re having a great time, and you think it tastes great, that’s all that matters.”Old Fashioned (original template)
When Beau Williams published his take on the originalOld Fashioned on Feed Me KC
, he left the brand decision up to readers. His only admonition: use a quality spirit. “The biggest thing for me is using quality ingredients,” Williams says. “You have to use good ones, or else it’s going to show.”2 ounces well-crafted spirit (Williams prefers rye whiskey) 1 teaspoon rich simple syrup (recipe follows) 2-3 dashes Angostura Aromatic Bitters lemon twist or orange twist for garnish
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and fill three-quarters with ice. Stir well until cold and strain into a chilled old fashioned glass. Garnish and serve.
To make rich simple syrup, combine 2 cups turbinado sugar (such as Sugar In The Raw) and 1 cup water in a sauce pan and place on medium high heat. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Simmer until sugar is completely dissolved. Cool, transfer to a jar and refrigerate. Tightly sealed and refrigerated, it has a “virtually limitless” shelf life, Williams says.
Anne Brockhoff is an award-winning spirits writer who writes a monthly column for The Star’s Food section, as well as food features. She blogs at food_drink_ life.wordpress.com .