Fun and creative cocktails are a welcome addition to any festive gathering with friends and family. But, how do you know what to prepare? What spirit tastes better with fruit juices —vodka or rum? How many drinks will you get out of one bottle? To assist you in the decision-making process so you can focus on the fun stuff—shaking, stirring, and sipping —we’ve put together a handy guide to spirits for the at-home bartender.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To ensure that the cocktail well doesn’t run dry mid-party, plan on two drinks per person for the first couple hours and then one drink per person per hour as the celebration continues. A standard-sized 750 ml bottle yields approximately 17 servings (of 1½ oz. per drink). So, once the RSVP list is finalized, calculate how many bottles you’ll need to keep the occasion a spirited one. To save time, mix cocktails ahead of time and pour into a pretty glass pitcher. Add ice to individual glasses as guests arrive. And, don’t forget the essentials: a shaker, strainer, ice and fun glassware!
For optimum storing conditions, keep bottles upright and tightly sealed at room temperature without exposure to direct light. Unlike wine, unopened bottles of liquor will keep indefinitely as long as they’re properly sealed. Once opened, a bottle will keep for 8 months to a year, after which the alcohol will begin to evaporate and the spirit will fall flat in flavor. Which means you shouldn’t wait too long for your next celebratory shindig.