Below you’ll find recommendations for each of the 12 bottles we use on this site. There are many equally wonderful products on the market, so feel free to substitute your favorite brand for any that we mention. Periodically, we will include new brands that we believe warrant attention.
What’s Your Pleasure?
Simply stated, all Cognac is brandy, but brandy is most definitely not Cognac. Like Champagne, Cognac is a region of France that produces a product bearing its name, a product that has protected European Union status. Brandy is essentially a generic term that encompasses spirits made from fermented fruit juice — including grapes, apples, peaches, and other fruits. Here, we are focusing specifically on grape spirit (other fruit brandies are referred to as eaux de vie.). Historically, brandy has been a key spirit in mixed drinks, lending its particular flavor — warm, slightly sweet with a bit of a burn — profile to everything from the Japanese Cocktail — brandy, orgeat, lime juice — to a simple brandy buck.
If we had to make a desert island pick of only one bottle, brandy/Cognac certainly would be the first to spring to mind. Not only is it tasty; it’s so darn flexible. Mix it with liquor, mix it with citrus or cream; drink it hot, cold, warm, or straight — whatever the occasion calls for, brandy is there for you. As long as you purchase a decent bottle of brandy — we opt for one that blends real Cognac with American brandy — you will not be disappointed. Spend a bit more money and mix with Cognac if you want to elevate your flavor profile even more. We hate to admit it, but Diddy and Kanye got it right. There is something magical about Cognac that even hip hop grotesquerie can’t obfuscate. In a mixed drink, it’s just sublime.
So, why VSOP and not the coveted XO? And, more to the point: what do VSOP and XO mean? To answer the second part first: Cognac is an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) or “controlled appellation of origin,” which is a very French way of saying that where and how it can be made are strictly controlled under French law. The standard rating system for Cognac (based on age, not quality) is VS, VSOP, and XO. For more on what these mean and Cognac in general, just Google. There’s more to it than can be explained here, but the 5¢ take is that as you go from VS to VSOP and to XO, the Cognac gets finer and pricier.
You will notice we only chose two bottles in this section. Both of them are readily available in liquor stores and are of solid quality. If neither of these is to your liking, try another brand until you discover the slight variations in flavor profile that appeal to you.
BUDGET ($20 or less / 750 ml)
It’s affordable, it’s tasty, and it’s made from American grapes, as well as real Cognac. It is aged at least four years in American oak barrels, which gives it a nice level of spice. Other flavors include vanilla, caramel, and a general fruitiness. For the price and quality, this brandy can’t be beat.
PREMIUM ($30 – 50 / 750 ml)
Remy Martin VSOP Cognac
Remy VSOP is 55% Grande Champagne and 45% Petite Champagne — the most central and, arguably, the finest Cognac grapes. Why Remy? It’s mostly a matter of taste — we like the profile. All Cognac houses (Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, Hine, Remy, etc.) have a standard style that is similar across all of their products. As almost all Cognacs are a blend of grapes from different regions within the Cognac area, each blending style will be slightly different.
Given a limited bar of only 12 bottles, genever may seem an odd – if not downright foolhardy – choice. Part of our devotion to genever comes from its utterly unique profile, while another part comes from the historic significance of “Dutch Courage”, as the English soldiers referred to it during the Thirty Years’ War. Even though today the spirit is a minor player on the bar scene, there was a time when – along with whiskey, brandy, and rum – genever was a cornerstone of any respectable drinking establishment.
Modern genever is essentially a blend of two distinct spirits. The first is triple or quadruple pot-distilled “maltwine”, equal amounts of corn, rye, and malted barley. The second is neutral spirit like that used in London Dry. And then, of course, there are the botanicals, which must include juniper. It’s the use of juniper that has caused many to call genever “gin”; the term “genever” translates quite literally as juniper. Indeed, when genever made its way to America in the mid-1800s, it was often referred to as Holland gin. And, while it is easy for some people to simply continue to refer to genever as “Dutch gin”, it is a phrase that truly rankles genever purists. So, for the record. Genever is not gin. Gin is not genever. One taste will tell you what genever lovers know. With its use of malty grains, its rich, fiery flavor has far more in common with whiskey, especially when compared to the crisp, clean profile of London Dry.
While genever and gin are vastly different in profile and origins, it can still be said without any quarrel that gin would not exist without genever – much like CDs would not exist with vinyl records having come before. In fact, as dominant as London Dry gin is today (which is much less than it was before vodka took hold), genever is the “gin” of the history books. For the bulk of the golden age of the cocktail (which we’ll claim to be 1803 to 1912), in America, genever dwarfed the sales of its English cousin. In fact, Bols tells us that in 1880, six times as much genever was imported to the Unites States as English gin. As far as we are concerned, both genever and gin — gloriously distinct yet forever linked comrades — belong in any proper, old-school bar.
PREMIUM ($30 – $50 / 750 ml)
An American “genever” worthy of our bar is Anchor Distilling’s Genevieve, so named because of the EU naming restrictions as to where genever can be made. Anchor’s version is as true an evocation as ever produced, even going so far as to be pot-distilled as traditional genever has always been. At 47.3% ABV, you might expect Genevieve to pack a punch, and it does — but a punch of malt and botanicals. Not for the faint of heart, but oh so delicious.
The 12 Bottle Bar staple genever is Bols. The recipe is based on one from the early 1800’s and is geared toward the American and British markets. It has a high malt wine content (over 50%), which offers up that tremendously meaty, malty mouthfeel, as well as a hint — not an overabundance — of juniper. Note, Bols also produces an 18-month barrel-aged genever that has even more in common with whiskey.
Genever is heady stuff to begin with. Bols Barrel-Aged Genever takes it a step further. The combination of rye, wheat, and corn is triple-distilled in copper pot stills then aged for eighteen months in old and new French oak barrels. Juniper and other spices like clove and anise are present, as with the standard Bols, but the barrel-aging adds a complexity and intensity of flavors that make this genever worthy of sipping. Should you find yourself in an indulgent mood, it will make splendid cocktails, particularly a anything where whiskey is at the forefront.
In our opinion, gin is the trickiest of spirits. It’s a shape shifter, a blank slate on which almost any flavor can be plied. Because it starts as a grain neutral spirit – let’s cut to the chase and just call it vodka – it can be floral or herbal, piney or citrusy. It all depends on exactly what botanicals the distiller decides to add and how he or she decides to add them. There are many, many gins on the market today that are utterly unique. Hendrick’s seduced me on first whiff with its heady bouquet of cucumber and Bulgarian rose petals; it makes a gorgeous cucumber-tinged gin & tonic. Cadenhead’s Old Raj is the key to the smoothest, high-octane martini you’ll ever taste. And Tanqueray is amazingly classic stuff, but its 47% ABV isn’t always the best idea in a cocktail.
So the question for us has always been this: If we could only have one gin, what would it be? Ah, that’s the rub. One gin. To make a stellar martini. A classic gin & tonic. A traditional gin fizz. Well, that’s another story. Make no mistake. Leopold’s is still our go-to bottle. Its crisp, citrus character works perfectly in every cocktail we’ve made here at 12BB; its clean taste is refreshing in the way only a well-crafted, balanced gin can be, plus its small batch mystique makes it darn cool to have behind the bar. But, rest assured, there are other bottles that meet our criteria as well, in every price range. Herewith, then, are the 12 Bottle Bar suggestions for gins both “high” and “low”.
BUDGET ($20 or less / 750 ml)
Gordon’s is probably the gin that your grandmother drank, if she drank gin that is. It is the most popular gin in the world and, even though it’s now made in America, it retains its essential lemony, juniper character, making it a dependable mixer at a supremely low price point. Plus, as one of the original post-Gin Craze London Dry gins, it has some cool history on its side –when it was first exported to Australia, the Aussies paid for it in gold dust.
Only a bit “younger” than Gordon’s, Beefeater is also one of the original “dry” gins. The 24-hour steeping process used for the botanicals produces a complex brew, with a citrusy, piney personality. Distiller Desmond Payne, who works off the original Beefeater recipe, is an industry guru (he created the fragrant, tea/grapefruit-laced Beefeater 24 which was introduced in 2008). This gin is, in a word, classic.
PREMIUM ($30 – 50 / 750 ml)
Things get a little murky here, boys and girls. The super high-end, “artisan” gins all have their supporters. If you have dineros to burn, try everything you can lay your hands on. If not, these two will serve admirably.
Cardamom and coriander and pummelos, oh my! Dorothy, this is definitely not Kansas anymore. Despite changing the balance of the botanicals, Leopold doesn’t stray from its roots as a true gin of the juniper ilk. It is lovingly made, as the name suggests, in small batches and the care taken shows in each sip.
This is the only style of gin with a Designation of Origin under European law, meaning it can only be made in Plymouth, England. Use Plymouth and you will have a singular cocktail experience. Like Leopold’s, there is a strong citrus component. Unlike typical London Dry gins, which are defined by their heady juniper quality, Plymouth uses less juniper and more Angelica root, a botanical that brings a distinct sweetness to the mix.
As time goes on, we will happily bend your ear with our gin-ventures. New gins are coming to market every day and many of them are reinventing the way we think of gin. Gin is no longer just “dry”. It’s sweet and earthy, herbal and perfumey. From Whitley Neill’s baobab fruit to Caorunn’s Scottish heather, the new gins are remaking the playing field. Will we use them as our bottle of choice? You never know. But the journey – along the gin road and all the others — sure will be fun. Stay tuned for further spirits reboots in the following months.
You could spend years learning about rum in all its complexities – and still not know everything. Just as there are whiskey aficionados, there are rum dudes, who swear their soul to the great sugar cane spirit. We are admittedly still novices in the world of rum because, as we said, one’s schooling can take a lifetime., albeit an incredibly enjoyable lifetime at that. You may or may not want to go the scholarly route, so if you don’t, here are some basics about amber rum that will help you along.
First, why the term “amber rum”? We are sure to get people decrying this label as inaccurate, but in truth, few rum labels are completely exacting. We couldn’t simply call our darker rum choices “aged” because even white rums are aged to some extent and, while “dark rum” is a useful term, but also vague. So, we have chosen the moniker “amber” and in our book we define it, on the advice of rum expert Martin Cate, as “a rum of medium to full body with a far richer richer profile than its cleaner, white rum brother.”
While the Caribbean Community’s eco-political organization CARICOM does offer legal definitions of what rum is, legal definitions don’t quite tell the flavor story we are looking for. So, for starters, let’s look at the rum styles, based on where they are made. English-style rums – from islands once or currently under British rum – are aromatic in structure and flavor. Vanilla tones give them a rich base note, while stone fruits and tropical flavors, as well as spice, round out their profile. Overall, we find ourselves leaning toward English-style rums most frequently simply because, in cocktails, their rich, non-funky flavor is stellar.
Spanish-style rums tend to be white, aka light, rums from places like Cuba and Puerto Rico. Even though white rums are aged, the style is cleaner because they are filtered after aging to remove color and the funk or complexity that usually comes from aging. Finally, there are French-style rums called rhum agricole that are made from sugar cane juice, rather than molasses. The ones from Martinique have their own AOC (Appellation d’Origin Controllee) and they give new meaning to the word funky. They also have a group of rum devotees all their own.
MID-RANGE ($20 – $30 / 750 ml)
If anyone had told us that this was an “entry-level rum” when we first tasted it, we probably would have said, “then entry level it is!” For the incredibly reasonable price tag, Cockspur takes far more expensive than it is. There’s the familiar vanilla and stone fruits you taste in a lot of the amber rums, particularly, English-style ones, plus a faint sweetness that is likely the product of aging in whiskey and bourbon barrels. From Barbados.
Like Cockspur, you would expect Plantation to cost far more, but happily, it doesn’t. The first flavor we get is something akin to “banana custard”, meaning it is both sweet and creamy and tropical, all in one fell swoop. Vanilla is also present along with aromatic spices. With English rums, the age on the bottle refers to the age of the youngest rum used in the blend, so this style can contain rums of much longer aging as well, which is part of what adds to their distinct structure and flavor.
PREMIUM ($30 – 50 / 750 ml)
As with our other choices, Smith & Cross is an English-style rum, which immediately should tell you it is well-structured and complex. If butterscotch candy were ever bottled, it might taste like Smith & Cross – but with a major alcoholic kick because this Jamaican puppy is 57% ABV, aka Navy Strength stuff. The spicy, buttery, tropical fruit flavors can make you think this is candy, but the kick after – or even while you are sipping your drink – will tell you otherwise. Those old-timey sailors got their kicks, so fair warning then, mates.
No summer is complete without mojitos and daiquiris, so 12 Bottle Bar wasn’t complete until we included white rum. Because of the vagaries surrounding rum production (styles, aging, blending, adding spices), rum is a spirit of infinite complexities, and one could spend a lifetime mastering them. We will leave that up to you, but here are a few basic facts about white rum.
While the assumption might be that white rum isn’t aged, that is not the case at all. Almost all white rums are in fact aged at least a few years. The youngest of our selections is aged three years. Once the rum has been aged, it is then filtered to remove any residual color left from the aging process, resulting in the clear, clean-tasting spirit that is bottled.
“Clean-tasting” is a hallmark of white (also called light or silver) rum. Along with that clean flavor, there is a distinct sweetness, due to the fact that rum is made fromj sugar cane or cane products like molasses.
BUDGET ($20 or less / 750 ml)
The low price of this rum belies the quality in the bottle. Aged for four years, Flor de Cana is smooth, bright, and sweet tasting. It’s also available in liter bottles perfect for big parties. (Made in Nicaragua)
Aged for three years, this rum is full of tropical fruit and vanilla aromas. Imagine elements of pineapple, guava, and coconut and you can understand why this makes such lovely cocktails.
MID-RANGE ($20 – $30 / 750 ml)
Dollar for dollar, this is one of the most amazing spirits values on the market. The quality/pedigree is impeccable and the flavor is out of this world. It will make one of the best daiquiris you have ever had.
The truest expression of white rum is what we can loosely call the “Cuban” style. The original white rum — Bacardi — was made in Cuba and was known for round, rich, vanilla sugar flavors. Once the U.S. set up sanctions against Cuba, Cuban-style rum was no longer imported into the U.S. The 86 Company, which makes Cana Brava, tracked down a fellow named Don Pancho Fernandez, who had made rum in Cuba for 35 years before setting up a little distillery in Panama. The rum is aged in un-charred oak and whiskey barrels, which give it a richness uncommon in white rums.
“It leaves you breathless.” That’s what Smirnoff told us in the 50’s and, boy, did we believe it. For the ladies who lunched and the men who wanted to tie one on between clients, it was the perfect tipple — no one could tell you had had a few. Moreover, by its very nature, vodka is tasteless. Now, let’s not get into an argument about this. We realize that many vodkas these days do indeed have a mild flavor profile. After all, that’s why people sidle up to a bar and order a Ketel One/Grey Goose/Chopin and soda (which we call a “why bother?”) And, granted, each vodka does have a certain character. We would argue however that vodka is merely a flavor delivery system — in the best of all possible ways. Want your fruit and veggies to shine through in a cocktail? Use vodka. Need to give your drink a bit more kick? Grab some vodka. Friends hate the taste of booze? Vodka’s your bottle.
When we first started the 12 Bottle Bar site, we were staunchly opposed to vodka in any way, shape, or form. It wasn’t part of the Golden Era of Cocktails, so we avoided it entirely. Well, times change and so did our opinion. First, vodka is the most popular spirit going, so ignoring it wouldn’t be logical. Further, when you have a limited 12 bottles, anything that gives you a chance to add to that arsenal is a valuable commodity. With vodka, you can make infusions and liqueurs. Infusions — from vanilla to cucumber to coconut — allow you to customize drinks. Liqueurs — like blackberry and raspberry — open the door to many additional cocktails.
Suffice it to say that 12 Bottle Bar and vodka are now well-acquainted and good friends indeed. Like brandy/Cognac, we only offer to basic and practical choices here. We don’t believe you need a premium or super-premium vodka for cocktails; you need a well-crafted, clean spirit. If you already have a favorite, by all means, mix away.
BUDGET ($20 or less / 750 ml)
Sure, we could have recommended Ketel One, which is the vodka we opt for if going higher end, but Absolut is a workhorse that you can find everywhere. It has very little discernable flavor, except for a lingering sweetness, and it works in every vodka-based cocktail we make.
MID-RANGE ($20 – $30 / 750 ml)
We had to include at least one vodka made in Russia. Well, originally made in Russia; it comes from Latvia now. This is your go-to for liqueur making as the higher proof creates a better environment for the flavors to coalesce. Just bear in mind the higher ABV.
PREMIUM ($30 – 50 / 750 ml)
First off, let it be known that when we talk whiskey at 12BB, we’re talking rye (sorry, Irish, we had a good run). Growing up as children of the Saturday morning matinee, we had much of our perspective of the American West shaped by the lens of John Ford. In any given Ford Western (or, for that matter, any other Western before or since), there is always a scene where one hombre cozies up to the long oak bar and orders a drink. Depending upon the drink ordered, you could tell a lot about the man. If a sarsaparilla was his poison, it stood to figure that someone would be getting the better of him before the sun faded into the end credits. However,if he slammed his palm on the counter and — in a gravelly,trail-weary voice — demanded a rye, well, he was not somebody to be taken lightly.
So why rye and not bourbon or any other style of whisk(e)y for that matter? Rye is Deadwood in a bottle. It’s what the aforementioned gunslinger ordered, and every time you pour it, you’ll remember that. Now, we have nothing against bourbon, but rye is simply… cooler. From a drinks perspective, rye mash adds a spicer character to whiskey than corn’s sweetness, which makes for a spirit which mixes more readily without loosing its distinct personality. Admittedly, rye has a reputation of being little more than “red eye” — a tipple so harsh that its very name conjures up something akin to brown moonshine. Sure, the bad stuff probably was just that, but fortunately, we live in an age where the rye being produced isn’t just decent, it’s damn fine.
There are so many ryes available these days that, for us, only one or two choices wouldn’t do. Admittedly, with five choices here, we went a bit crazy. Once you see how versatile and dynamic rye can be, we are guessing you will go a bit mad as well.
BUDGET ($20 or less / 750 ml)
This is the least complex of our ryes, but it still offers the classic spice profile that makes rye stand out among whiskies. Because it is so affordable, it’s our go-to rye for budget-minded drinkers. Oh, and by the way, if you fancy yourself a true gunslinger then Old Overholt is for you. It’s reputed to be the drink of choice for none other than Doc Holliday.
MID-RANGE ($20 – $30 / 750 ml)
While Bulleit is known for its bourbon, the company makes a fantastic rye as well. Bulleit bourbon has a lot of rye in it; Bulleit rye is 95% rye and 5% malted barley. It is aged in oak barrels and the result is a slightly sweet, mellow spirit with flavors of vanilla and spice.
Rittenhouse can be a bit harder to find than Old Overholt, but it’s worth the effort. First, it is bottled-in-bond. Basically, that means that it complies with the terms of the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, whereby the U.S. government guarantees that it’s the real deal. If we want to drink like the cowboys, we should stick by the cowboys’ rules, so bottled-in-bond it is. Second, it’s 100-proof, which means that it will accentuate the flavor delivery of your drinks as all overproof spirits will. Finally, it’s delicious. And that alone should be reason enough.
PREMIUM ($30 – 50 / 750 ml)
Like High West below, this is an indulgent rye and not one you want to just break out for a party. Spice, jam, and caramel make this rye worth every penny. The distillery uses sheared rye, which concentrates the flavors.
This rye is a blend of 6 year and 16 year old rye whiskies, resulting in a spirit that is simultaneously spicy (the 6 year) and incredibly aromatic (the 16 year). The mash bill (the grains used in distillation is 955 rye, which is very old school, harkening to a time when “rye” meant rye, not a bunch of othetr grains mixed in. If you are feeling indulgent, make yourself an Old Fashioned with this beauty and contemplate the universe.
Of all the bottles, this one was the most difficult decision to make. Not because orange liqueur was a late round draft pick. Actually, it was one of the easiest choices, as its place in the cocktail chemistry set has long been secured. No, the hard choice was which of three fabulous orange liqueurs to pick.
Grand Marnier and Cointreau are household names. Odds are you have one of them sitting around the kitchen. Marnier is cognac-based. Cointreau is a triple sec (far-removed from the cheap Bols stuff). The difference? The cognac ones are creamier, and the triple sec is cleaner. The problem of selecting a single winner arises from other factors, however — both are simply brilliant.
In his canonical cocktail history, Imbibe, David Wondrich errs in favor of Grand Marnier being more reminiscent of what would have been available in the 19th Century. That was my initial leaning as well, chiefly because it’s what I had on hand when I conceived this blog and took the above-the-title picture (see it front-and-center, up above). But, during practical application over the past five years, Cointreau has become our reigning bottle for the simple reason that it’s clear presentation and definitive orange-y taste make it more flexible than Grand Marnier. But here, I’ll repeat something we’ve said all along: drink what you like. When it comes to orange liqueur, either will do, and if you have one or the other on-hand already, all the better.
Something simple and well-made is the key to every classic cocktail and every drink we’ll be exploring here. In the end, use the one you like or the one you have, and if you have more than one on-hand, go with whatever the drink recipe specifies. Then, experiment the next time and try one of the others. Soon enough, you’ll have your own signature twist on an old classic. And, really, that’s the fun in all of this.
PREMIUM ($30 – 50 / 750 ml)
Created in 1875, Cointreau is billed as “the original triple sec”. A blend of sweet and bitter orange peels, this is a liqueur that can be sipped on its own, as well as used in cocktails of course. Its crystal clear color and balance of juicy sweetness with a slightly tart note makes it ideal for mixing with light spirits like gin and white rum, but we use it as our orange liqueur of choice in general.
The Cognac used as the base for Grand Marnier gives it a velvety mouth feel and an extra richness not found in triple sec, which tends to be lighter and brighter. If you cook a lot, you probably already have Grand Marnier in your kitchen. It makes an insanely wonderful addition to French Toast, bread pudding, and crepes, of course. But since we are talking cocktails, let’s focus on the bitter orange flavor and the creamy texture. Use it with darker spirits when you want a richer character.
Liver complaints. Headache. Biliousness. Indigestion. Loss of appetite. Colds. Fever and Ague. Coughs. Palpitation. Jaundice. Salt Rheum. Constipation. Dyspepsia. Humors. Diarrhea. Fever Sores. Colic. Sour Stomach. General Debility. And all diseases of an impure state of the blood.
Bitters cures them all.
At least, that’s what the bitters-mongers would have had you believe. If you’ve seen even one Western, then you’re sure to remember the huckster peddling snake oil out of the back of his wagon. What was in that magical elixir? You guessed it — bitters. So what are they? Basically, botanicals and citrus steeped in alcohol. In today’s world of Whole Foods and herbal remedies, the concept of taking a “natural” supplement really doesn’t seem that crazy. Well, it didn’t two-hundred years ago either. Why pay a visit to the doctor (assuming there was a doctor within a day’s ride) for each little ache and pain when one little bottle could cure them all?
Without straying too far into the ephemera of the tiny, tart bottles, let’s cut to the chase and state, flat-out why bitters need to be in your bar: because bitters turned the lowly Sling (spirit, water, and sugar) into the magnificent Cocktail (spirit, water, sugar, and bitters). We’ll cover the recipes for both very soon, but suffice it to say, that you’ll probably only whip-up a Sling once — without the bitters, there’s really no reason for it. One of the best rationales I’ve heard for bitters is that they are to mixed drinks what salt is to food. The goal isn’t to make the food salty (or the drink bitter); it’s to enhance the flavor of the other elements. Bitters keep your taste buds sharpened so you can truly appreciate the company they keep.
On their own, bitters more than live up to their name, and despite their purported health benefits, they were really hard to, uh, swallow. It was the Cocktail that really brought bitters home. Mix bitters with some alcohol and take each morning for the “constitution” — well, that’s something our forefathers could really get behind. Especially, as doing so was supposed to be good for them. There are plenty of bitters on the market today, but the two classes presented here are more than enough to get you started. Why two? Aromatic and orange bitters have very different profiles. Whereas aromatic bitter typically conjur all spice and Christmas, orange bitters encapsulate the essence of bitter orange and citrus tartness.
BUDGET ($10 or less / 750 ml)
When a cocktail calls for bitters, the first one to grab is Angostura. It’s what is called for in an Old Fashioned and it’s what makes Pink Gin “pink”. The category to which it belongs is that of “aromatic” bitters, which essentially means a bitters that uses a variety of spices and herbs rather than one or two specific ones. Created in 1824 by Dr, Siegert, the surgeon general of Simon Bolivar’s army, these bitters were originally used to treat scurvy and other various ailments. The flavor is herbal, a bit spicy and quite singular.
Fee’s orange bitters have a good deal more sweetness to them compared to many other orange bitters. Fee’s has been making bitters since the 19th century, so one might say they’ve gotten it right. This particular bottling gets its sweet-bitter flavor from the skins of West Indian oranges. /h4>
MID-RANGE ($10 – $30 / 750 ml)
Many years ago, before the modern cocktail revolution flooded the market with all many of old-fangled products, gaz regan was frustrated that he couldn’t find orange bitters, a standard ingredient in classic cocktails. So, like many enterprising sould, he created his own. Regan’s bitters seem to embody the word “bitter” but they also possess a bright orange flavor that comes through beautifully in cocktails. If you can only choose one orange bitters, make it Regan’s.
As one of the pioneers in the modern cocktail trade, Dale DeGroff has had a lot of time behind the stick to figure out what works and what doesn’t. His aromatic bitters, a collaboration with absinthe maker T.A. Breaux, strike a lovely balance between the heavy spice notes of Angostura and the more licorice-forward quality of Peychaud’s bitters. The defining element, as seen in the name, is the pimento allspice berry, which gives the bitters a heady, rich foundation.
Vermouth is an essential part of any bar. Two of the most important drinks on the planet – the Martini and the Manhattan – simply cannot be made without it, and despite what you may believe, it’s the vermouth that makes a martini a martini. So what is the stuff? Nothing more than wine infused with botanicals and fortified with alcohol, chiefly brandy. Fortification — sometimes in combination with oxidization, a process which robs the wine of much of its living, breathing goodness (something vinophiles will protest in a bottle of Haut-Brion) – preserves the wine far beyond its natural lifespan but substantially changes it in the process. Other fortified wines include port, sherry, and Madeira – many bottlings of which are as prized as their non-fortified counterparts. This is important to know because, under the right circumstances, one of these bottles can be used in place of another (dry sherry for dry vermouth, for example). In a pinch, the appropriate bottle of table wine can also be substituted – just make sure it has the same basic profile as the vermouth it’s replacing.
In cocktails, vermouths bring depth, balance, and low-alcohol volume. At roughly one-third to one-half the ABV (alcohol by volume) of your standard spirit, vermouths help tame drinks. This partially explains their boom in the 1880s. As Americans, we always believe that bigger is better, so vermouth allowed people to enjoy their booze in greater volume without finding themselves under the table after one round. Early martinis were often half vermouth and half gin. Prohibition, of course, put the brakes on alcohol imports, and since we don’t really make much vermouth here (France and Italy are the predominate sources), vermouth quickly lost its foothold. Once twin spectres of the 18th Amendment and WWII were behind us, the world had become enamored by the “wave the cap of the vermouth over the glass” martini recipe, and vermouth gained an undeservedly bad reputation. Most bartenders with a foot in pre-Prohibition culture will tell you, of course, that this is hogwash. In fact, the bulk of the bartending industry today – neoclassicists excluded – is still mired in a Volstead Era mindset that is absolutely antithetical to the production of proper cocktails.
In other words, drinking your martini without vermouth is a bit like driving an automatic transmission Ferrari – it just shouldn’t be done. Still, we’re accepting of all comers here, but we really must encourage you to give vermouth a chance. You’ll need both the dry and sweet varieties, but keep in mind that, like any other wine, every brand is very different. In the scheme of things, vermouths are cheap, so don’t be afraid to try a new bottle. We recommend starting with these fine examples:
BUDGET ($10 or less / 750ml)
Post World War II, Noilly Prat started a martini revolution in America by exporting a very particular style of dry vermouth only to the USA. Americans got used to this stuff, so much so that when Noilly discontinued it and introduced the European bottling, American martini drinkers revolted. Behold the answer – Noilly Prat Extra Dry, which is the discontinued post-WW II version now alive and well once again.
Noilly Extra Dry is a slightly drier and fruitier version of the company’s European style, which is now called Original Dry. Both styles use the same 20 herbs and spices, but in different proportions. More importantly, Extra Dry is completely clear, which is essential in a martini, while the original has as light yellowish cast.
As mentioned above, the Martini & Rossi is much bolder than the Dolin, boasting an almost Campari-like bitter orange quality. This is perfect for those who like big flavors, especially in drinks like a Negroni. Over ice with a twist of orange, it makes a lovely summer cooler all its own.
MID-RANGE ($10 – $20 / 750ml)
From Chambéry, France, the recipes behind Dolin have gone basically unchanged since 1821. They bill themselves as “lighter, drier and less pungent than their larger commercial counterparts” and this is very much the case. The Dry is dry but never harsh, as some less expensive brands can be. This is our go-to martini vermouth, but it’s lovely even straight out of the bottle.
Punt E Mes is a regional style of vermouth known as vermouth amaro. As is the Turinese custom, this vermouth adds bitters and sugar to the mixture. The result is quite glorious, full of deep, dried fruit character, particularly prunes. Punt E Mes is made by Carpano, whose Antica bottling is the brasher, bolder, more chocolate-y big brother to Punt e Mes.
PREMIUM ($20 – $40 / 1L)
Regarded as the original vermouth from 1786, there is simply nothing else on the planet quite like the Carpano Antica. Full of tobacco, cinnamon, cloves, and bitter chocolate, this is a powerhouse that simply must be tasted to be believed. While not for everyone, if you happen to find yourself among the converted, this will quickly become your sweet vermouth of choice, especially in a Manhattan or Negroni.
A couple of tips for buying and storing your vermouth: Most of the bottles listed above can be found in smaller (375 ml) formats. Unless you use a lot of vermouth, buy these. Not only do they cost about half of the listed amounts, you’ll restock more quickly, which is a good thing. According to many in the spirits trade, vermouth will start to go bad once opened. We have friends in the wine trade that refute this, but we lean toward the “better safe than sorry” camp. Once opened, store your bottles in the fridge and use them as quickly as possible (hence, smaller bottles are better).