Newly Rebellious, Part I: Knowing Your Ingredients

Facing down the liquor aisle for the first time is a task to test the will of any aspiring mixologist.  So many different bottles!  An endless variety of colors and shapes!  Where do I look first?  What on earth is “framboise”?  Is there a difference between liqueur and schnapps?  Why is there a Mrs. Butterworth’s bottle and a Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch?  Jesus, did they misplace the decimal on the price?  How do I know that I’m not shelling out $30 for something horrid?

If you think American liquor aisles are intimidating, you should see them in Scotland...

That last question is often foremost in the newbie’s mind, as liquor doesn’t come cheap.  Sure, you can just poke around and buy whatever bottle catches your eye, but if you’re serious about this mixology thing, over time you’re going to be investing quite a bit of cash in your liquor collection.  Therefore, it’s a good idea do some research on which items will give you the best return on investment.  Expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better quality, but buying the bottom-shelf version of everything isn’t the way to go, either – the only person that Winner’s Cup Vodka is making a winner is the person pocketing your hard-earned $8.

So before you go stare at the pretty bottles, look up recipes for the type of drinks you’re most interested in trying.  What ingredients get mentioned the most often?  What brand names do people recommend?  Visibility is often more a matter of marketing than quality – Malibu is probably the most widely-mentioned coconut rum, despite being thin, watery and harsh in flavor – but if enough people refer to a brand by name, chances are it’s at least mixable.

Liquor reviews can be helpful, especially if you can find an individual reviewer whose tastes align with (or diametrically oppose) your own.  Sadly, the Internet has not yet provided us with a good centralized crowdsourced liquor-reviewing website a la Yelp or Amazon (seriously, Internet, what’s with that?), so finding out the general opinion of a particular product is a bit of a haphazard undertaking – liquor-oriented discussion communities and Google will be your friends here.  Be on the lookout for paid promoters writing overly positive (or negative, for the competitor’s product) reviews; generally, these aren’t hard to pick out due to their overly effusive or venomous content.

Once you’ve made your selections and brought them home, the fun part begins.  The first thing to do with a product you haven’t tried before is to open it up and pour yourself a small sip (cordial or shot glasses work well for this, but you can also use the bottle’s screw-cap in a pinch).  Give it a whiff – taste and smell are very closely linked, and given how quickly alcohol evaporates, most liquors aren’t at all shy about expressing themselves through scent.  Note any components that are noticeable or overpowering.  Then, close your eyes and take a sip.

Don’t swallow right away – this is the part that differentiates the enthusiasts from the amateurs.  You’re not looking to get drunk, you’re looking to get an idea of the flavor – is it herby? sweet? fruity? sour?  Is the smell similar to the flavor, or misleading?  Does it remind you of one thing in particular (vanilla extract? banana Runts?) or is it a combination of tastes?  Get a notebook to keep by your liquor cabinet and use it to jot down your impressions.  Even if you don’t look at them again, taking the time to sit and identify flavor notes keeps them fresher in your mind.  Additionally, the discipline of paying attention to what you drink helps expand and refine your palate, which comes in handy once you start mixing up your own recipes.

Now that we’ve addressed the booze, it’s time to think about the non-booze ingredients.  This might seem a little overkill, but consider – per unit of volume, most cocktails have equal or larger amounts of nonalcoholic ingredients, and, just like alcohol, these can vary in flavor.  Don’t believe me?  Try two different brands of tonic water, or cranberry juice.  The more expensive one may or may not taste better to you, but they’ll certainly taste different.

The juice of fresh citrus fruit is delicious in drinks. Plus they're handy for garnish!

Fortunately, finding a favorite type of juice or soda is a little easier – they’re less expensive, for one thing, and chances are you already have a favorite type of cranberry or orange juice.  If a recipe calls for a fruit juice you’re unfamiliar with, try to find a not-from-concentrate version – a lot of subtleties of flavor are lost when it’s boiled down and reconstituted.

Some recipes may refer to seltzer or sparkling water; others to club soda.  Be aware there is a slight difference in flavor between the two (club soda has a small amount of mineral salt added), but it’s not strong enough that you can’t substitute the one for the other in a pinch.

The only hard-and-fast rule the Rebel Bartender will lay down is this:  Resist the temptation to buy the little plastic bottles of lemon and lime juice.  They may look convenient, but if you try them next to fresh-squeezed, there’s just no comparison – and the fruits themselves are inexpensive enough that you can generally have several on hand at any given time.

But, the Bartender hears you ask, how do I get that proper fresh-squeezed flavor from a lemon?  How much will I be shelling out for a stir-stick or a shaker?  What on earth is that doohickey that looks like a large flat spoon with holes and a spring around it?  Will I need a jigger?  Am I even allowed to say “jigger” in polite company?

Never fear, young pupil.  Join the Rebel Bartender next Saturday and learn all about the tools of your new hobby!

The Rebel Bartender thanks LiveJournaler Fivecats for permission to use his photo of the Perth Tesco’s breathtaking liquor aisle.

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About Ambrosia Rose

Professional drinker, blogger, storyteller, and critic. With a healthy dollop of sarcastic wit on the side.

Posted on 18 February 2011, in Discussion, For Beginners. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Tesco’s!

    Liquor reviews can be helpful, especially if you can find an individual reviewer whose tastes align with (or diametrically oppose) your own. Sadly, the Internet has not yet provided us with a good centralized crowdsourced liquor-reviewing website a la Yelp or Amazon (seriously, Internet, what’s with that?)

    I don’t suppose WordPress is really set up to dedicate part of the site to something like this?

    • Sadly, no – that’s the kind of project you need to have a whole separate infrastructure to support, and building said infrastructure is complex enough that no one’s released theirs under a free license. In my searches I came across one or two attempts at a booze-rating database, but the UI was universally awful and (as a result) there weren’t enough participants to make it worthwhile.

      A large part of the problem is likely that there’s no immediate fiscal reward for doing so. Amazon and Netflix both use their systems in order to sell products (quite effectively, I might add), but the shipping restrictions on alcohol are such that centralizing its distribution that way is damn near impossible.

  2. Many thanks for both the photo credit, but the fine use of my photograph as well.

    Had I known you were going to make a Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch reference, I would have offered the following photo, taken on the same trip (or maybe the next year) when we made a pass through Cambridge to visit a long-time LJ friend. (“What’s in Henry’s hand?” he asked. You likely know my reply)

    Oh, and I wholeheartedly agree: fresh fruit is an absolute necessity in making a good mixed drink. Try a true, homemade lime juice and simple syrup margarita and you’ll never go back to bottled anything.

    — Tom
    (and all five six of the cats)

    • Why, thank you! I’m glad you approve.

      I grew up in a teetotaling family (surprise, surprise), so the first time I entered a liquor store my brain nearly overloaded with all the different shapes and colors and designs. I didn’t know what hardly any of them were, but I knew that *they were shiny and I wanted them*. (Which is probably why I got into mixology in the first place, as I then needed something to do with the contents of the pretty bottles.) As you might imagine, the Chambord bottle stood out amongst the unfamiliar shapes.

      I’ve actually never tried making a margarita, largely because I have yet to find a type of tequila that I didn’t hate. I know, I know…how can an avowed professional drinker hate tequila? Especially one living in Arizona? But I’m not discounting it completely. Perhaps someday the clouds will part and the magical Good Tequila will arrive on a sunbeam with a heavenly chorus. Or, more likely, borne by a good friend who couldn’t stand to see me miss out.

      I’m working up a sort of coda to this post, addressing things like local produce and making simple syrup – inspired by a comparison between a Safeway lemon and one bought from the co-op. I would have put it here but the post was pushing the upper limit of the average Internet-goer’s attention span, anyway. 🙂

      P.S. I applaud your cat-caretaking abilities. Our two by themselves are troublemakers enough for me, although I love them dearly. If my husband had his way I have a feeling we’d be closer to your number…

  3. hmmm… i had forgotten wordpress does not accept html image references in comments. how rude of it.

    here’s the page reference to the image mentioned above:

    What's in Henry's right hand?

    — Tom

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