Written by Dr. Dickoless III
Foreword by Nick Parker
It’s time to tackle the large realm of the base of all cocktails, spirits. Dr. Dickoless III will cover everything from a brief history of 6 of the most popular spirits (Vodka, Whiskey, Tequila, Rum, Gin, and Brandy) to a short buying guide in the context of building out your home bar. The intention of this series has always been to provide the bare minimum of knowledge so you don’t waste your money on trial and error in a world dominated by hundreds of years of misinformation and branding. From the bottom of my heart, enjoy.
All spirits are basically the same thing. Ethanol and water. Vodka is the purest. The only differences are how the ethanol is made and how the spirit is aged, if at all. These methods grew out of distilling traditions specific to a region—the region they came from usually based on whatever was cheapest since distilling uses up a lot of whatever you are fermenting. Colonization has had a huge effect on this as well. Many spirits began as medicine. The cocktail was originally used as remedies to different ailments. They stuck around because it turns out we all like to get drunk.
For mixing any kind of spirit other than vodka I’m looking for flavors that cut through the other ingredients without overpowering them. I like to taste what I’m putting in. As with anything, taste it before you mix it. If you don’t like it outside of a cocktail you won’t like it inside of a cocktail. I prefer to lean hard into what makes each spirit unique and drink what showcases that. If you don’t want that, just drink cheap vodka or else you are wasting your money on marketing for a homogenized mess of artificially colored nothing in a fancy bottle.
Vodka is ethanol + water. That’s it. It isn’t aged. I don’t drink much vodka because I like flavor. With vodka you want tasteless and odorless. There isn’t much of a reason to spend a ton of money on vodka. You will be able to tell very quickly if a vodka is bad. Vodka is like the tofu of liquor. It will match the flavors of anything you put in it. It's the alcohol part of a mixed drink. If you want to spike something but don’t want to taste it, use vodka.
I prefer subbing other spirits when a recipe calls for vodka. Instead of using vodka in a Bloody Mary try using gin or tequila. The benefit of vodka is that it's cheap af.
When I was 19 I worked at Jet’s Pizza as a delivery guy. One of the other drivers had a good night in tips and used it to buy a $90 bottle of vodka. I think about this a lot. That line of reasoning is why I only worked there for a summer and he probably still works there. Anyway, don’t spend $90 on a bottle of vodka.
Recipe to try:
1 oz vodka
1 oz scotch
Garnish with a bootlegged dvd copy of The Room
Serve over a giant ass ice cube in a rock's glass like Don Draper on a Tuesday morning.
Whiskey (Bourbon, Scotch)
Whiskey is basically vodka aged in a barrel. Bourbon is whiskey made from at least 51% corn, distilled at 160 proof or less, barreled at 125 proof or less and aged in a new charred oak barrel. Scotch is whiskey made in Scotland. The differences in flavors come primarily from the aging process. Distillation by its very nature filters out all of the impurities that could impart nuance in flavor from the ingredients leaving behind water and ethanol. After that all the flavor comes from the container it's stored in. A lot of people will disagree with me on this. A lot of people are wrong.
"There are exactly five things that make a bourbon more than just a whiskey... 1. Bourbon has to be made in America (not specifically Kentucky, even though everyone knew Kentucky bourbon was the best bourbon).
2. Corn must make up fifty-one percent or more of the grains used.
3. It has to be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
4. The liquor can't be distilled at more than 160 proof; it can't enter the barrel at higher than 125 proof; and it can't enter the bottle at less than 80 proof.
5. Nothing can be added to it but water." - Liz Parker, Novelist
More expensive whiskeys will actually taste significantly better. Cheaper bottles are made from combining a bunch of different barrels of whiskey together to create a homogenized, branded, consistent taste. You can call a whiskey bottle aged 4 years as long as the average time of the aggregated liquid has been aged 4 years. So you can have some 7 year and some 1 year and some 3 year as long as they average out to 4 years you can call it a 4-year whiskey. The more expensive whiskeys are aged longer and come from single barrels. The really expensive whiskeys come from honey barrels, which are barrels that are in the warehouse at just the right spots so that they taste better than everything else. Everyone should have the privilege of tasting a $300 bottle of whiskey at some point in their life.
A good whiskey will have a woody, sweet flavor profile. Bourbon leans sweeter. Scotch can have a peaty, grassy profile, or smooth and crisp depending on how it’s made. Rye tastes dryer and woodier, with a stronger burn in the back of your throat. For cocktails stick with the $30-50 per bottle range. You should be sipping anything more expensive than that.
Tequila & Mezcal
Tequila is vodka made from blue agave distilled in arbitrarily selected places in Mexico. Mezcal can be made from other agave plants, can be distilled in more designated areas and the agave is generally baked in holes in the ground giving it a smoky flavor. The same things that affect whiskey quality affect tequila since it's pretty much the same thing, just made from agave. The more expensive tequilas are generally aged longer. The longer they are aged, the darker their color (silver, reposado, añejo respectively). I prefer reposado for mixing unless I’m batching margaritas or something where the slightly aged nuance won’t come through, then I’ll just go for silver. It really depends how much I like you. Añejo is always worth it if you are going top shelf.
Be careful, oftentimes you are just paying for a fancy bottle. Look for plain and unassuming branding. Those bottles don’t need to be flashy because they contain quality. Stay away from that golden skull dildo shaped bullshit. Unless you want a $2000 bottle for whatever reason. But you can probably buy the bottle on eBay for significantly less than the price of the bottle with tequila in it.
For mixing you can get away with sticking in the $20-30 range with tequilas. A bad tequila will completely destroy your drink. An excellent tequila's nuance of flavor won’t necessarily translate to a mixed drink.
There is a special place in my heart for rum. It might be because my Mom grew up in Nicaragua and her parents were friends with the family that produces Flor de Caña. It could be because my grandfather retired in Puerto Rico where Bacardi is produced. It could be because of my love of pirates. Yar. In any case, I love rum.
Rum is vodka produced with sugar cane or molasses and black treacle, the byproducts of making sugarcane. Spiced rum is mostly trash. If you absolutely need spiced rum you can make your own or buy Kraken. You can get a TON of value with rum. The best rum in the world often comes in under $200 because people don’t generally associate rum with high quality. Stick with under $30 for mixing unless you are making a rum old fashioned. Which you should definitely be making. Use El Dorado for this.
Types: Dark Rum, White Rum, Aged Rum. Gosling’s trash rum.
Gin is vodka with botanicals added after distillation. Gin is America’s Spirit. Aromatic, light, herbaceous, fruity, juniper. A bad gin reminds you of your grandmother’s perfume in church or potpourri. A good gin harkens all the best smells of an apothecary or herb garden. The only rules around the production of Gin in the US are it has to have Juniper berries as it's primary flavor and be bottled at greater than 80 proof. Juniper berries are indigenous to North America.
Gin is a very personal beverage. There is a gin for every personality. Try some to find what you like.
Brandy is vodka made with grapes. It can also be made with other fruit like apples. Brandy has gained a lot of steam in the last few years as people discover there isn’t anything inherently special about whiskey and you can get way more bang for your buck with Brandy. Brandy includes cognac and Armagnac. Brandy tastes like a softer whiskey with less dry, woody flavors and a ton of nuance. It tastes like whiskey without the flavor of burnt asshole lathered in syrup (I’m coming at you Jack Daniels).
There are cocktails that call for brandy, and there are other cocktails where you can sub brandy to make it something different. I really like an Armagnac old fashioned.
Again don’t spend more than $50 on a bottle of brandy for mixing unless you want a super top shelf old fashioned. $30 is a good price range.
When buying spirits you are going to be limited by what’s available in your location. Many areas have weird liquor laws that limit what can be imported. Most of my experience comes from the Nashville, TN, market. Most of Tennessee’s counties are dry or only very recently became wet. The distribution market is cornered by 3 companies, and this strictly limits what you can get, where you can get it and how much it costs.
I live in California now, and I can actually find and buy some bourbons here for cheaper than what I could find in Nashville. I have greater access to tequila and mezcal, and I can find everything in a grocery store. In Nashville you have to go to boutique wine stores to find anything good. I can’t even find a boutique wine store in Monterey County. I’m sure I could find one closer to SF or LA, but that will have to wait until after we all die from the COVIDs.
Be careful! You don’t want to buy anything you won't actually use. Set a budget. This can very quickly get out of control and VERY expensive. Especially as we move into buying actual alcohol. Making a list often gives me the same amount of joy as actually buying something.
Writing this article has made a huge case for vodka. I might try some now lol.