Learn the basics about some of the most popular liquors out there and you'll be mixing up perfect party cocktails in no time. By: Brooke Smith
Colorless and relatively neutral tasting, vodka provides a versatile base for mixing cocktails. Distilled to a high strength and then filtered through charcoal to remove impurities before bottling, vodka can be made from a wide range of materials including grains, potatoes and even grapes. This ubiquitous spirit can vary in quality and texture from harsh with a “bite” to soft, creamy and smooth. Originally hailing from Eastern Europe but now made all over the world, vodka mixes well with a diverse array of fruit juices and fresh herbs. Combine the two with vodka for a simple, yet flavorful Rosemary Lemon Drop cocktail.
Steal: Seagram’s Vodka
Splurge: Square One Organic Vodka
Most rums are made from molasses, but a few are made directly from fermented sugar cane juice. There are many different styles and colors of rum, which are influenced by varying factors such as the raw base material, the manner of distillation and whether it’s aged in oak or sweetened with added sugar or caramel. While produced primarily in South America and the Caribbean, rum can also be made in other warm-climate countries across the globe. Enhance this island spirit’s inherent sweetness with warm, baking spices such as cloves and cinnamon in a Warm Apple Pie Cocktail.
Steal: Cruzan 9 Spiced Rum
Splurge: The Kraken Black Spiced Rum
Native Americans have been making what is now known as tequila for hundreds of years. Named after the Mexican town where the production process was refined in the 17th century, tequila is made from the fermented sweet juice of the blue agave plant. After distillation, the spirit is reduced in strength and may be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two months (Reposado) to more than a year (Añejo). Unaged tequila is referred to as Plata, Blanco or Joven. Tequila can range in flavors from earthy and peppery to spicy and complex, but always finds its balance in a crisp, refreshing Classic Margarita.
Steal: Cazadores Tequila Blanco
Splurge: Partida Tequila Reposado
Pungent herbs and spices were originally used to mask the flavors of harsh spirits. Ones flavored with juniper, a botanical thought to be good for the kidneys, became known as gin. This colorless spirit made from grains or molasses counts juniper as its most dominant flavor, but botanicals such as coriander, citrus peel, licorice and anise can also be used. Due to its naturally fragrant and complex profile, gin pairs well with clean citrus flavors and fresh herbs. A refreshing Lemon Verbena Gimlet Cocktail allows the spirit’s best qualities to shine.
Steal: Tanqueray Gin
Splurge: Hendrick’s Gin
Understanding the entire spectrum of the whisky category can get complicated quickly. Even the spelling can be confusing (it’s the Scotch version that has no e). Here are some basics: all whiskies are made from grains; distilled to less than 95% alcohol by volume; and are wood aged. The raw materials range from malted barley to grains such as corn, rye, and wheat and they can be produced in one single distillery or blended from the product of different distilleries. While Single Malt Scotch and small-batch bourbon are best sipped solo (neat or on the rocks), a full-flavored, oaky, vanilla-scented bourbon provides the ideal base for a Classic Mint Julep.