Cocktail and liquor advice for a first-timer?
June 13, 2009 4:41 PM   Subscribe

Just turned 21 -- seeking advice on cocktails and rounding out my first-ever purchase of liquor.

So after a few hours of searching through recommendations on AskMe and other parts of the web, I've decided on the following:

- Sailor Jerry's Spiced Rum (1.75L)
- Maker's Mark Whisky Bourbon (1.75L)
- Tito's Handmade Vodka (1.75L)
- Gran Centenario Azul Reposado Tequila (750mL)
- Firefly Sweet Tea Infused Vodka (1.75L)

First question: Should I exchange the handles for fifths and get two other bottles? If so, what would you recommend adding to this? I'm considering Kahlua, but have no other ideas aside from that.

Second question: Using the above and basic mixers (juice, soda, fruit, etc.), what cocktails would I be able to make? I've done a bit of research, but would love to hear of any personal favorites.

Bonus: What tools are absolutely essential in making a cocktail? A book I have in front of me boils it down to a shaker and a strainer. A jigger would probably help as well. Anything else?

This wasn't exactly what I had in mind for my first question, but it'll have to do. Any tips would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
posted by pinsomniac to Food & Drink (44 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I would never be without gin.
posted by at 4:47 PM on June 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm not a fan of bourbon; it actually makes me wretch. But I find Irish whiskey delicious. Michael Collins is my current favorite, although Jameson's will do in a pinch.

Not sure about tools, but don't forget about garnishes - salt, and olives (preferably stuffed with bleu cheese!) if you want to make a killer martini.
posted by artemisia at 4:50 PM on June 13, 2009

Get a gin - I really like Martin Miller's or Citadelle; neither one has a lot of juniper and both mix well. Good quality bitters will also extend the range of what you can make, as will a decent vermouth.

With the above and a decent number of mixes, you should be able to make almost anything; highballs, martinis, vodka martinis, etc.
posted by benzenedream at 4:52 PM on June 13, 2009

Best answer: If you want to make cocktails I would change almost that whole list.

Spiced rum is dandy, but for making classic cocktails a simple rum is better. Regular baccardi will get the job done and well.

Vodka is vodka. Seriously. The difference between high end and well is pretty small compared to other liquors. Svedka is cheap and good.

A second vodka? Other than to sip, why?

For cocktails I would pick up some Old Overholt rye, Plymouth gin (very traditional flavor), Angostura bitters, and Noilly Pratt dry vermouth (big bottle) Noilly Pratt sweet vermouth (a little one will do).

With your vodka you have the makings of almost any cocktail you can get in a liquor store. Now all you need is some super fine sugar (not confectioners), soda water, limes, and some lemons.

The shaker you can do without really, unless you are making some drinks with eggs you will be able to make most drinks well with a glass, ice, and a spoon.

But, you don't learn what duck tastes like by having a bacon wrapped turducken. The same way, you don't learn about your ingredients by having tall, fruity affairs with a dozen ingredients. Start simple with gin fizzes and whiskey sours (make your own sour mix too, it is so easy and so much more delicious). Graduate to martinis and old fashioneds. Then, when you have the palate, move on to the dozen ingredient pot luck drinks.

posted by munchingzombie at 4:56 PM on June 13, 2009 [5 favorites]

You've already got lemons and limes and sugar and stuff, right?

I'd ditch the sweet tea vodka in favor of gin, but then, if you want flavored vodka, you're perfectly capable of making it yourself. Similarly, I'd consider trading the Sailor Jerry's for a nice gold rum.
posted by box at 4:57 PM on June 13, 2009

For mixed drinks using vodka, I suggest saving your money and buying one of two inexpensive but highly filtered vodkas: Platinum (by Sazerac) or Burnett's. This will save you a great deal of cash and the difference in mixed drinks is not discernable to most... well, anyone, really.
posted by bz at 4:57 PM on June 13, 2009

The Dude likes his white russians. Do get the kahlua and some half-and-half and go nuts. can tell you what you're capable of with your shortlist of ingredients. You can add whatever you plan on purchasing or already have in stock.

My current favorite libation would have to be a dark and stormy, though. Four fingers of Gosling's dark rum in a old fashioned glass over ice, splash of ginger beer on top (Barritt's if you can find it; Bundaberg works in a pinch. The Jamacian ones tend to be a bit more spicy and throw the flavor off. Squeeze in half a lime and top it off with a lime slice.
posted by cannotremember at 5:08 PM on June 13, 2009

Oh my god I came in here to suggest sailor jerry's and im pumped for you that it's at the top of your list. Im drinking a sailor j's dark and stormy as we speak. You must track down Barritts Bermuda Ginger Beer, mix with the J and add a slice of lime: heaven.
posted by pwally at 5:09 PM on June 13, 2009

For all but the most fanciest of cocktails, many of the cheaper liquors are probably fine, and depending on what you're making, it won't really matter unless you want to be a snob about it. Dropping a few hundred bucks on liquor just didn't make sense to me when I was 21. The time to buy expensive, 'name brand' specialty liquor is when you are shopping at a duty free shop. But I'm cheap.

But, please, ditch the bourbon and buy a bottle of Jim Beam Rye Whiskey right now, and drink that. Really, you'll thank me later.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 5:22 PM on June 13, 2009

Don't listen to the bourbon-haters. Maker's Mark is excellent, drink it neat, or at most, with a little ice.

Re vodka or tequila: Chill in a freezer, pour a little in a glass with a tablespoon of fresh lime juice, and chase with a slice of lime.

Vodka is also excellent to mix with fresh, good-quality, fruit juice. Try some fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice.
posted by mikeand1 at 6:05 PM on June 13, 2009

"Vodka is vodka."

I beg to differ. For one thing, if you drink too much, you will get a much, much less intense hangover with a quality vodka that has been distilled multiple times.

Tito's is excellent for the money. Ketel One is also good, but a bit more expensive.
posted by mikeand1 at 6:07 PM on June 13, 2009

To round out your traditional well you're going to need a gin and a triple sec - or some other high end orange liquor, usually Gran Marnier. I like Sarticious gin.

Sweet and sour is one of the most essential mixers, and get a good one.

You may needed a muddler (little bat shaped stick) for some drinks - particularly those with mint and old fashioneds. When I was tending bar I pretty much used a shaker, with a pint glass for mixing - no strainer but that's a personal choice. If you want to make martini's you'll need dry vermouth.
posted by bitdamaged at 7:06 PM on June 13, 2009

Yep, you need gin (Plymouth and Hendrick's are my favorites, for what that's worth). And an orange liqueur for making margaritas and cobblers. Have some superfine sugar on hand for cocktails that need a little sweetening.

I'd really recommend that you not buy these giant quantities of anything you haven't tried yet, though. Why buy a 1.75L bottle of Maker's Mark when you might find out that you think it's disgusting on the first sip? Though if you do happen to do just that, I'd be happy to take it off your hands... Besides, some of what's fun with learning your cocktails and liquors is the comparison. Why not buy 2 750s of bourbon, and start learning what flavor profiles you prefer.

And same thing on the rum. Spiced rum is lovely for some drinks, but ruins others. So get a 750 of the Sailor Jerry, and a 750 of something else. Perhaps a light rum if you think you might like to be able to make mojitos.
posted by amelioration at 7:24 PM on June 13, 2009

While I think you are going about this the wrong way (cart before the horse) I have a couple suggestions ... I prefer a potato vodka for mixed drinks due to the extra clarity of the flavor, but most mid-price vodkas will do. Do your own infusions, delicious and easy!

I'd also disagree with a few posters and say that for cocktails, Maker's Mark is great. It's overall a pretty agreeable bourbon and doesn't add too much undue sweetness to cocktails.

You might want to get some ginger syrup (or make ginger vodka) as that goes great with a lot of different drinks (try it with bitters or with citrus, and some whiskey). Don't forget vermouth, triple sec, etc! Champagne is also pretty good in drinks but better for a get together because it is not going to stay well.
posted by shownomercy at 7:37 PM on June 13, 2009

I agree with most of the stuff already said here. Go for plain rum instead of spiced. Go for smaller bottles, not the 1.75 L. Gin is must, Gordon's is fine as an introduction. Decent vodka probably won't taste much different (maybe less burn on the way down the hatch) but lower quality usually (in my experience) results in brutal hangovers if consumed in large quantities (true for most spirits and beer and wine). Get a triple sec, it is needed for some of the basic cocktaisl such as a margarita and a daquiri (hard to go past Cointreau in my view). I am a big fan of kahlua. Consider getting some grenadine syrup, that should be pretty cheap.

This all depends on what sort of drinks you want to make, what sort of flavours you are going for. As you don't have any experience with this sort of thing yet, I would go for a well balanced selection so you can try all the different wonderful tastes possible.
posted by atmosphere at 7:40 PM on June 13, 2009

You are going to go bankrupt on most of these people's suggestions.

Can't comment on rum, never liked the stuff.

Maker's Mark is fine for sipping I guess, although personally I've never liked it on its own. If you're going to make a cocktail though, either really go top-shelf or get something cheaper for cocktails (I like Jim Beam fine for this).

When no one know what they're drinking, Smirnoff has done pretty well in taste tests. It will be perfectly fine for any cocktails.

In my experience, tequila enjoyment can be really subjective. Before you even think about buying a bottle, go to a bar/restaurant with a good selection of tequilas and try a few. You may find that a cheaper tequila is perfectly fine for your tastes (I liked Jimador pretty last time I did a comparison taste test although I understand that the brand may have changed a bit since). One dirty secret for margaritas is Two Fingers Gold, which is dirt cheap but makes a very passable bottom shelf margarita.

Go crazy with the sweet tea infused vodka, but it seems awfully specialized for a base set of liquor. Probably more useful to buy something generic, like the gin people have mentioned above (do not buy Hendricks for this unless you already love gin; otherwise you're paying way too much).

I absolutely agree with amelioration that you should start with smaller bottles. Actually, if you can get them, airplane bottles can be a really good way to taste a nice variety of liquors. You could probably get your hands on 10 different bottles for $20-30. That's enough to try out at least 2 each of bourbon, vodka, rum, gin, and tequila.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:49 PM on June 13, 2009

Also, for those warning you about hangovers: I drank fairly lightly overall in my early twenties (and hardly at all now, so my tolerance is zilch), but I generally could get drunk and suffer few ill effects when I was younger, only getting hangovers if I went really overboard. Otherwise I'd be fine. I don't think I had anything you could really call a real hangover until I was 25 or so. So although that will be a consideration later on, I wouldn't worry about it now.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:52 PM on June 13, 2009


Things to mind when you drink: There is no drink with vodka that you can't make better with gin. People will tell you otherwise—the proper alcoholic response is to headbutt them. Milk and Cheese swear by gin, and when you drink there are no better role models.

That said, if you can find it, pick up the following gins: Leopold's, Hendrick's, Aviation.

Black Seal rum is the best rum I've had. Spicy, well balanced.

If you're thinking about a bourbon drink, a rye can often do it better. Bourbon, if good, is good neat. While I drink rye neat, I think rye makes better mixed drinks. Try Old Overholt for a rye available pretty much everywhere.

Angostura bitters go in nearly everything worth drinking.

You can and should make your own simple syrup. You can and should make most your other syrups too, but you don't have to.

Don't fear vermouth. It's easy to get all macho hardcore about wanting super dry martinis, but Winston Churchill was wrong about a lot of shit, and that's one of those things.

I see you're in CA—if you're in LA or SF, look for real cocktail bars (there will be insufferably pretentious articles in your local paper about them). Your bartenders will be able to teach you what drinks can taste like when they're not made by frat boys in plastic jugs. You can use those powers for good.

(If you're in LA, I can give more recs.)
posted by klangklangston at 7:59 PM on June 13, 2009 [7 favorites]

Best answer: To support what other people have said:

Yes, dump the spiced rum and get a regular one. For your purposes, probably any 'big name' will do. If you'd like a decent quality rum without spending too much, go Appleton. (If you do want to spend more, my house rum is usually a Rhum Agricole from Martinique, Clément or Neisson, but that's me.)

And for cocktails, you'll get a lot of bang for your buck with rye. Jim Beam rye is cheap and excellent value for the dollar. Old Overholt probably just as good, haven't tried it myself.

And my house gin is Citadelle, too. You'll probably do okay with a 'big name' gin in a slightly lower price range, if you want to cut costs, but Citadelle is pretty good.
posted by gimonca at 8:34 PM on June 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're getting Firefly, a "John Daly" is a great summer drink. It takes its name from the non-alcoholic Arnold Palmer - half lemonade / half iced tea - add vodka and you've got a John Daly. Pour lemonade and Firefly over ice in a 1:1 ratio or to taste.
posted by Andy's Gross Wart at 8:38 PM on June 13, 2009

Bombay (non-Sapphire) is a fine mixing gin. Beefeater's not bad. Rye is a very good addition to any stash. Buy smaller bottles of spirits. Get triple sec or Cointreau (small bottle) and order some orange and Peychaud's bitters from the internets to supplement the Angostura you can buy in the shop.

Oh, and don't overlook brandy. The Sidecar is a somewhat neglected mainstay, even in the current old-school revival. E&J VSOP does the job: get a 375ml bottle.
posted by holgate at 8:47 PM on June 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The handle of flavored vodka seems like an oddball choice. What are you thinking of making with it? It's not a very flexible product; not what I'd think of as a core product to stock a bar with. I would ditch it and buy gin instead.

Gin, vodka, bourbon, tequila, and rum — get decent but not atrociously expensive varieties of each, and you'll be able to make just about anything.

Just remember: 99% of the time, it's liquor that's expensive and mixers that are cheap. Buy flexible liquors, ones that you can use in a lot of different drinks. Don't buy a bottle of liquor for a specific drink unless you're having a party or something and you're sure you're going to make a lot of them (or you're really sure you like that particular drink).

Go for plain rum instead of spiced.

Agree with this, with the same logic as avoiding the flavored vodka above. Spiced rum is not real rum. It is adulterated (generally low-quality to begin with), and useful only in drinks that specifically call for it. You can substitute regular rum for spiced rum pretty easily, but not the reverse.

Vodka is vodka. Seriously. The difference between high end and well is pretty small compared to other liquors. Svedka is cheap and good.

I disagree with this; although cheap vodka may not be quite so bad as bottom-shelf tequila or rotgut whiskey, it can still be bad enough to ruin a stiff drink. (E.g.: I think Smirnoff tastes like paint thinner; even in a Screwdriver I think it's gag-worthy. But a nicer mid-grade brand like Finlandia? Smooth as silk IMO. I wouldn't pay more than that until you develop a taste for it, though; it does become a diminishing-returns proposition pretty quickly, once you get out of the plastic-bottle realm.)

But, please, ditch the bourbon and buy a bottle of Jim Beam Rye Whiskey right now, and drink that.

I actually agree with this, but it's definitely a matter of taste. In the old days (pre-Prohibition), most "whiskey" drinks (whiskey sour, etc.) were made with rye in the United States. In many places, if you asked for whiskey, what you'd get is rye. After Prohibition, corn-based bourbons came into fashion and basically took the place of rye. Rye is a little spicier and less sweet than bourbon, and some people prefer it (it's making something of a comeback right now). However, people who are used to bourbon in their "whiskey" drinks — which is the vast majority of drinkers in the U.S. — may not appreciate it. If you are bartending for guests, I would use and have bourbon, but you should definitely try both and decide which you prefer.

I would buy, if you can, one of the flask-sized bottles of each — rye and bourbon, of about the same quality/price — and make up some drinks and see which you like. When you decide, then you can buy a bigger bottle. Don't go whole hog for one or the other before you (and any friends who you'll be drinking with) try both.

As for the question of mixers, I drink mostly highballs — one liquor and one mixer in a tall glass, typically over ice — because I'm far too lazy to do any sort of complex bartending. I always keep small bottles of Club Soda, Tonic Water, and Ginger Ale around (get the little glass bottles if you're not going to use them right away, they keep better), and only buy perishable mixers for special occasions. If there's OJ or cranberry juice in the fridge I'll sometimes take advantage of it, but I wouldn't buy it just for the bar.

On the topic of glasses, it really makes drinking more pleasant to have proper glasses, and not have to drink everything out of water glasses, coffee cups, or whatever you happen to have around. I would not spend any great deal of money on this, though. Yard or estate sales are a great way to pick up glassware for next to nothing, and then you don't mind too much when they inevitably get broken.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:49 PM on June 13, 2009

Oh, and regarding shakers: I think the "Boston" shaker is in every way superior to the prissy three-piece or "Cobbler" shaker. If you can, buy only the steel part of the Boston shaker, and then use a pint glass* for the top; don't pay extra for what's basically just an expensive pint glass packaged as a set with the steel part.

I never use a strainer, either; with the Boston it's pretty easy to strain as you're pouring out of the shaker and into the drinking glass. One less thing dirty means one less thing to clean. I use small cube ice, though — if you use crushed ice, straining can be more difficult. (Solution: don't use crushed ice. Some people may think this is anathema, though.)

* Be sure to use a glass you don't care too much about, not your favorite (or your SO's / buddy's / dog's favorite) glass. It's easy to break a glass when removing it from the shaker if you're not careful and if it gets pushed in too tight. Again, another good argument for only buying glasses from yard sales or, if that fails, a restaurant supply store.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:13 PM on June 13, 2009

You want some mixing liqueurs--some Cointreau or Grand Marnier for margaritas, some Kahlua for White Russians (you can get ultra-pasteurized half and half in a range of sizes for these and it keeps a long time--not in my house, but I've heard tell). All of these come in small bottles so you won't have them around collecting dust forever when you go off a certain drink for a while.

I nth the suggestion to keep bitters on hand. When you need to celebrate something, you get a bottle of sparkling wine (look for "Dry" on the label--you can get a decent bottle of prosecco or a California sparkler in the ten buck range, and Barefoot has a perfectly okay champagne-style wine for less than that), you drop a sugar cube at the bottom of a cheap flute, moisten it with bitters, and fill 'er up. Champagne cocktails rule. I personally feel that everyone should have a bottle of sparkly something in the fridge just in case.
posted by padraigin at 9:53 PM on June 13, 2009

Oh, hey, pick up Hansen's Tonic. You can also grab their sodas to use as a quick fruity mixer (I'm partial to vanilla cherry creme soda and gin or rye).

I'm also getting a kick out of the rye resurgence. Way back when I had just started dating my girlfriend, what, eight or so years ago, a liquor store near her house went out of business. In addition to totally destroying the poor ignorant bastards who'd bought the stock and were doling it out by buying their scotch for felonious prices, we found rye (sweet, delicious rye) on the cheap. We were like, man, rye, it's hard to get—we're gonna bring it back. We've told everyone about it that we could, and well, it seems to have worked (if you allow me to take credit far beyond my actual effect).

I disagree that it's spicier—to my taste, it's sweeter and smoother. But there are a lot of different ryes, and they're pretty widely dispersed across the flavor spectrum. Canadian ryes are much, much smoother.

Oh, and Appleton is a pretty fine rum, and you can make spiced rum at home if you want. You can also pretend you're in Wisconsin and make every whiskey drink with brandy, which is often tasty. E&J is pretty tasty, even with 7 Up. You can also use it to cook.
posted by klangklangston at 10:00 PM on June 13, 2009

Oh, and also--instead of buying gigantic bottles of a few kinds of liquor, buy a few small bottles of each--low-, mid-priced and pricier ones, even, so that you can pay attention to distinctions between them and variations on styles and flavor profiles, that kind of thing. When you're not, y'know, getting blitzed, I mean.

And if you're making one big alcohol shopping trip, buy a decent waiter's corkscrew with bottle opener, or something else if you're fancier-minded. As is often the way, the tools are a big part of the ritual.
posted by box at 10:12 PM on June 13, 2009

Best answer: First of all, I wouldn't get anything too expensive if you're having a party or something where once the cheap alcohol is gone people will scour your house for anything. The real expense in keeping a well stocked liquor cabinet, in my opinion, is the non-alcoholic components which tend to go bad fairly quickly (fresh fruits and such).

That said there's a fine line between good liquor cabinet and a liquor cabinet that looks like you bought it out of a GQ magazine. Don't be that guy! The liquor cabinets I most admired and emulated have been a real working man's mix, as in these people actually consume the alcohol enough to where buying something that looks nice because of its label is not as important as tasting good and not breaking the bank. As such I recommend the following:

- J&B Scotch
- Tanqueray (there's a lemon or lime infused version out now, and while I recommend staying away from those gimmicks all the time, I highly recommend picking this up)
- Chopin or Belvedere vodka (not much of a difference)
- Skip the rum unless you have a drink in mind you want

In fact skip bitters and vermouth unless you had a specific drink in mind. Really, if you're making your own drinks you need to stick to highballs because after maybe the second drink it is all downhill and martinis turn into vodka + ice. Sorry but I'd save my money and invest in some nice highball glasses.

PS I find alcohol is a lot like theater equipment. There's a mid-high level that really seems worth the money if it is a bit pricey and anything after that might be better but not nearly worth spending $10k on a subwoofer. Does that make sense?

PPS What some of these posters don't seem to remember is that 21 means a lot of friends who will drink gasoline if it gives them a buzz. Seriously if you're having people over hide your god stuff and buy bottom of the barrel kind of vodka. Quantity trumps quality, no one cares if you have an awesome liquor cabinet, which is unfortunate when a group of really hot girls walks in wanting to do shots and you bring out your $40 bottle of whatever and it is gone before you know it and they step outside to "talk on their phone" and you realize they're never coming back. :(
posted by geoff. at 10:16 PM on June 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I second the mini-bottles. You're in CA, so I'd suggest that you head over to a BevMo!. They have a whole mini tree, with 50ml sizes of most of the spirits recommended on this thread Full disclosure, I work for BevMo!, but not in CA. I'd also recommend asking staff members. It may be hit or miss, but if you find someone enthusiastic and knowledgeable it'll make the process much easier.

Spirit Recommendations (best bang for buck)
Gin - Nth Plymouth, but also try Tanqueray Rangpur if you like lime. Bombay sapphire makes soft gin and tonics. Hendricks and Aviation are specialty gins and have flavor profiles that are different from a "typical" gin. Worth to try in a mini if curious, but I wouldn't invest in a large bottle right away.

Vodka - Ignore the vodka haters. If you have vodka on hand, you'll always be able to make something for your friends. Try Monopolowa or Lukosowa, both polish potato vodkas sub $15. Or try the ever popular French wheat vodkas, like Grey Goose or Belevedere. Costco has a great private label french vodka (1.75 only) that was #1 in my vodka tasting of industry friends.

Bourbon - Rye, while a classic, might be a little spicy for a beginner. Try Four Roses for a light, fruity sipping bourbon. For cocktails, try the Old Forrester 100 proof or the Old Granddad 114 proof (I wouldn't recommend drinking these straight, but they balance well in cocktails).

Rum - Bacardi (any) is good, but also try both Flor de Cana gold and white. They have more of a characteristic rum flavor, while being the same price or cheaper.

Mixers - Put some money into these, whether by getting fresh fruit or (even) buying pre-made. Try the Dr. Swami and Bonedaddy sweet and sour. It's real fruit and real sugar. Get some angostura and orange bitters. If you can't find orange bitters easily in stores, you can order it online. Avoid the Stirrings Orange Bitters, as it is non-alcoholic and the proportions are off. Buy the smallest size available of vermouth, sweet (red) and dry (white). After opening, keep in the fridge as they are wine based and will go bad. If available, try some of the upscale versions of tonic like Fever Tree.

Classic Cocktails to Try
Martini and Manhattans An article about bitters, scroll down for both recipies
Gin and Tonic
Tom Collins
Kir Royale
Side Car

Sorry I didn't link all of those, my pizza is here! You should be able to google all of those. Good luck!
posted by lizjohn at 10:35 PM on June 13, 2009

Best answer: I would hesitate to recommend a new drinker try the hardcore old-school cocktails like the Old Fashioned and other straight up cocktails, it'll almost certainly sour you to the drinking experience.

I would start simple, vodka+fruit juice (grapefruit, cranberry and orange are favorites) and rum+cola (Captain and Coke, yes please.)

You can also try the vodka+tonic and gin+tonic, they seem to be big favorites, though I don't care for them.

My one recommendation for a cocktail is a classic daiquiri. It's by far my favorite cocktail and super easy to make.

Classic Daiquiri

-2 oz White Rum
-1 oz Lime Juice (Key lime juice is the best)
-1 oz Simple Syrup (dissolve 1 part sugar in 1 part water on the stove, cool and store in the fridge)

Shake everything with a lot of ice and serve.

Feel free to adjust the quantities to taste. I like mine a little more lime-y whereas the missus likes hers a little sweeter.

As far as gadgets, I disagree that you don't need a shaker. I think a shaker is a great tool in the cocktail world (we have this one and love it). When making a daiquiri, the shaker yields great little ice bits that add a certain specialness to the drink. You can get and use a jigger, but a shot glass works just as well.

I would also recommend that you buy cheapo mixers to test cocktails out. If you like the flavor and can see yourself having them often, you can invest in quality ingredients, but why waste 20 bucks on a mixer you may use once? I buy the cheapo liquers (Creme de Cacao, amaretto, Creme de Menthe etc) to play around with, but buy midpriced liquors (Captain Morgan, Smirnoff Vodka). I don't think you NEED to have the topshelf booze for normal drinking, maybe for special occasions.

Good luck with your experiments!

Oh, one last thing, you should pick up an actual bar guide, something like the Mr. Boston Bar Guide or something similar. Webtender can only get you so far :-D
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 11:17 PM on June 13, 2009

Also, I agree with everything Geoff said.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 11:22 PM on June 13, 2009

I have found that spiced rum is amazing in eggnog. I don't know if you'll be able to find it/want it this time of year, but, for future reference, it's awesome. I also think its fun to put spiced rum in hot drinks like coffee and hot chocolate. It's good for the wind-down of the party when everyone is getting a little tired but not really ready to quit drinking yet.
posted by delicate_dahlias at 11:35 PM on June 13, 2009

Response by poster: Much, much thanks for all the replies so far. Let's see if this list is any better:

- Sailor Jerry's Spiced Rum (1.75L)
- Firefly Sweet Tea Infused Vodka (1.75L)
- Maker's Mark Whisky Bourbon (750mL)
- Tito's Handmade Vodka (750mL)
- Gran Centenario Azul Reposado Tequila (750mL)
- Kahlua Coffee Liqueur (750mL)
- Citadelle Gin (750mL)

Jerry's is staying — I enjoy the occasional spiced rum and coke, and the difference in price between the sizes is $3. Firefly is also staying, although I should have mentioned that it's not intended as a base. I'm picking it up as a summer drink that, from what I've read, is wonderful with equal parts water or lemonade. Should be a crowd pleaser with very little work.

The above comes out to roughly $130 before tax. Sound about right? A bit more than preferable (was aiming for ~$100), but it should last a while.

That said, I have a couple more questions. My apologies, as again, I'm new to this:

- A quick glance shows that I could pick up a 750mL Noilly Prat Dry and 375mL Noilly Prat Sweet for $10 total. Angostura costs about $6. Triple sec (any size/brand recommendations?) is roughly the same. If I drop Firefly down to 750mL, it would almost even out. I have no experience with these items, though, so I'm trying to understand their role and importance in cocktails. What do I need them for? Is the trade-off worth it?

- I'm also not entirely sold on rye over bourbon, although I admit to having no experience with either. FWIW, Jack Daniels is about the only whiskey I've tried so far. Rye advocates: Is it a matter of the corn's sweetness being overwhelming? Is it rye's distinct spice that's desirable? I'd like a whiskey that could be enjoyed either mixed or straight — what should I look for?

Oh, and if it helps any of the locals make recommendations, I'm a Berkeley kid. Thanks again!
posted by pinsomniac at 12:18 AM on June 14, 2009

I'd get the bitters and a triple sec over vermouth unless you're sure you like martinis. Also, vermouth has a limited shelf life unlike most spirits.

As far as orange liqueurs go, I love both Cointreau and Grand Marinier but they are fairly expensive to use for mixed drinks and most people can't tell the difference. Save them for sipping or desserts. Trader Joe's sells Patrón's Citrónge which is a good substitute and much cheaper. Since you're in Berkeley, I'd go to TJ's on a student budget for booze. They do a good job of getting palatable relatively cheap liquors - they have an austrian vodka (Monopolowa) that's sub-$10 for 750ml and tastes fairly good. They also have bottles of TJ-brand mixed scotch that are surprisingly tasty and cheap.

If jack Daniel's is the only whiskey you've tried thus far, don't spend much on bourbon, rye, or whiskey until you know what you like - Jack Daniels tastes very different from other bourbons or whiskeys to me and isn't properly a bourbon. There are a lot of flavors and it's hard to know what your own taste will be. You might want to try a midrange rye like Old Overholt, which mixes well and can be drunk on the rocks.
posted by benzenedream at 12:55 AM on June 14, 2009

Since you're in Berkeley, you should head to Bourbon and Branch in SF, a wonderful bar with very knowledgeable bartenders who make amazing drinks. They also offer classes on different types of alcohol (origins, varieties, mixing possibilities). The class on Whiskey was excellent.

The drink list and the classes make this a great (but expensive) place to learn about your tastes.
posted by bargex at 6:17 AM on June 14, 2009

Angostura bitters goes in pretty much everything. Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Artillerys, it's pretty much the only thing in Pink Gin, Sazerac, anything called a NAMEOFBOOZE Cocktail is pretty much booze plus dry vermouth and bitters (sometimes a little triple sec or cointreau), a good Martini is made better by bitters, Moscow Mule, Rum Kiss, High Balls, Mai Tais, I think it's good in Mojitos (which are over rated but trendy—a Julep's even better)… Basically, make a drink you like. Then try it with a dash of bitters.
posted by klangklangston at 8:23 AM on June 14, 2009

Your Firefly is going to go fast for the reason you list - fun summertime quick drink. It's a fun and easy drink when friends are over and goes down like punch when mixed with lemonade. Might want to keep the bigger bottle, particularly if it's for a party.

Another perfectly serviceable and versatile gin is original Tanqueray. It's cheaper than Citadelle and does just fine all around. Not as froufy as some in the botanicals department. If you're not sure you're going to be much of a gin guy, you might save a bit of money by starting out with something midgrade like that instead of something higher up the shelf.

You don't necessarily have to have all your bar bases covered right off the bat. You could stock up on a few basics and a few versatile accessories and just focus on those until something runs out. Maybe bourbon this time, maybe rye the next time. Syrups this time, bitters the next. Vodka now, gin later, etc.

Also unless it's a special occasion, people drinking casually around the house or at a party often stick with basics like rum and coke, bourbon and coke, gin and tonic, vodka tonic, vodka cranberry, etc. as opposed to things with multiple special ingredients, garnishes, and preparation steps. So your target drinkers are a variable in what you purchase. Have a great time.
posted by Askr at 2:34 PM on June 14, 2009

benzenedream: As far as orange liqueurs go, I love both Cointreau and Grand Marinier but they are fairly expensive to use for mixed drinks and most people can't tell the difference.

This is a joke, right? You can't taste the difference between the 3$ triple-sec and Cointreau? Never mind a cocktail, you can tell the difference even when you cook with them. Cheapo triple-sec is disgusting stuff.

pinsomniac seems to be ignoring most of the sensible advice, so I won't waste my time trying to explain what is wrong with that list or how to shop for an interesting liquor selection, or how to develop a taste for these things. If all you want is to get drunk, then just buy the biggest bottle of the cheapest vodka and whatever fruit juice or soft drink is on sale at the grocery store. It isn't rocket science.
posted by paisley henosis at 2:53 PM on June 14, 2009

Oh, and you are talking mixed drinks. Cocktails are a different thing. Cocktails are wonderful, delicious and incapacitating. You want hard alcohol with a mixer to make it palatable, which is a mixed drink.

If you want to sure-fire, can't-fail route, just buy some liter bottles of tonic water, a bottle of any gin a bottle of any vodka. Maybe a bag of lime or lemons, whichever you prefer. Frankly olives are great in a xxxx-n-tonic, but most people don't like the idea.
posted by paisley henosis at 2:58 PM on June 14, 2009

Response by poster: paisley henosis: Thank you for your input, but there's no need to be condescending. I'm making an honest effort here to learn about this, so I'd appreciate it if you could cut me some slack. If it helps, let's ignore the selections of Firefly and Jerry's — we'll just say I'm purchasing these for my personal use.

Regarding the advice: I assume you're referring to the recommendations on light and dark rum. It's been duly noted, and I'll go ahead and pick some up when I get the chance in the future. In the meantime, I'm on a relatively tight budget — I can't afford to purchase a fifth of orange liqueur that costs more than any other bottle I've listed — so I'll pass on the Cointreau and wing it with Hiram Walker Triple Sec. Along the same lines, I've gone ahead and replaced Maker's with Old Overholt.

I have zero experience, so I feel that my set would give me more than enough to tinker with. It's not complete, but it'll cover margaritas, martinis, Manhattans, White Russians, etc. Those that are looking for a more comprehensive list can follow the advice others have provided, but for my needs, this should be sufficient.

Is this list more agreeable?

Citadelle Gin - 750mL
Tito's Handmade Vodka - 750mL
Gran Centenario Azul Tequila - 750mL
Old Overholt Rye Whisky - 750mL
Kahlua Coffee Liqueur - 1L
Hiram Walker Triple Sec - 750mL
Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth - 375mL
Noilly Prat Sweet Vermouth - 375mL
Angostura Bitters - 4oz
[Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka - 1.75L]
[Sailor Jerry's Spiced Rum - 1.75L (Replace with light & dark rums, if desired)]
posted by pinsomniac at 5:33 PM on June 14, 2009

Heh. Dude, here's the thing: Drinking's subjective. And AskMe is big enough that there're gonna be competing experts, especially at something like getting elegantly faced.

It's a bit like coming in and saying, I just bought my first turntable—what are the ten essential vinyl albums? You'd get folks telling you that you need to pick up a remastered Kind of Blue on 180 gram vinyl, or that if you're going to buy it on vinyl, you need to try to get the mid-'60s reissue, and some folks will tell you to save up for an original pressing, because that's how it sounded, man.

So, like, you don't have to feel particularly insecure about it—you'll end up drinking weird, vile shit every now and then. And some stuff, you just won't ever really like. Not only that, you're going to keep finding stuff that's weird and vile if you keep trying new drinks (I was just trying to use some sort of weird-ass "Ice Cream Soda" Pakistani soft drink as a mixer, and it was like a horrible hybrid of sweetened rose water and Ecto Cooler).

The bright side is that there are a lot of good liquors to try, and with some stuff it's hard to go wrong once you're above the plastic jug level. Like, I like gin. I like gin a lot. I can tell the difference between Bombay Sapphire and Bombay London Dry, or any of the Beefeater, Gibson, Gilby, Seagrams gins. None of them are bad—the Trader Joseph brand is pretty tasty too, and what I usually roll with (though Seagrams is what's flavoring the tonic today). But I have a fifth of Leopold Bros gin, which you can buy in Berkeley and I can't in LA (sad face) because I made a special trip to get it, and it's that good and totally worth it. Is it "better"? Well, it's a delicate gin that leans toward a cucumber flavor with a hint of anise and citrus flower, and one you can drink with just a splash of water. It's not a workhorse gin, and it's not something I'd necessarily use in a martini, because a vermouth can walk all over it. Likewise, I don't personally like Tanqueray very much (not just because I can't spell it). But I'd never say it's not a good gin, I'm just not wild about the flavor profile. I certainly wouldn't turn it down if someone made it for me, but it's never going to be my top choice for my personal cabinet.

Likewise, whiskeys—every one of them is different and there are plenty of pretty good ones. Maker's Mark is a tasty whiskey, but one I tend to think of as overpriced. I love me the rye, and Old Overcoat is a tasty one, but if you don't like it, you don't like it. I think it makes a fine Manhattan, but so does the Jim Beam rye.

You've got decent enough choices there. Don't sweat it too much. Someone will always be willing to drink liquor you don't like, usually some fresh fruit or homemade syrups will save stuff you're not wild about.
posted by klangklangston at 6:41 PM on June 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

pinsomniac: paisley henosis: Thank you for your input, but there's no need to be condescending. I'm making an honest effort here to learn about this, so I'd appreciate it if you could cut me some slack. If it helps, let's ignore the selections of Firefly and Jerry's — we'll just say I'm purchasing these for my personal use.

Regarding the advice: I assume you're referring to the recommendations on light and dark rum. It's been duly noted, and I'll go ahead and pick some up when I get the chance in the future. In the meantime, I'm on a relatively tight budget — I can't afford to purchase a fifth of orange liqueur that costs more than any other bottle I've listed — so I'll pass on the Cointreau and wing it with Hiram Walker Triple Sec. Along the same lines, I've gone ahead and replaced Maker's with Old Overholt.

Fair enough.

The advice I was referring to, which I think is the absolute best, is to find your own taste. Either go into a store with a large selection of small bottles hip-flask size or as small as airplane bottles, and buy a wide variety of things. As wide of a variety as you can. They are inexpensive, and a whole lot of stuff is available in them. This gives you the widest level of exposure with the smallest amount of time & money spent. Buy a tiny bottle of Bushmills and a tiny bottle of Johnny Walker Red and a tiny Johnny Black and a tiny Makers Mark and a tiny Canadian Club and a tiny Dewars and a tiny [whatever], and then compare the various types of whiskey. Repeat with gins. You can do vodkas if you want, but honestly anything in a glass bottle is going to be pretty much the same stuff.

The other approach is to essentially take the opposite road to the one you have now: instead of mapping out an ideal bar selection, just buy a bottle a week, and taste it. Maybe compare it to the other stuff you have, if you already have some similar stuff. Build up your selection gradually, and the cost will not hurt nearly as much.

As for tasting things, if you want to be serious about what you are drinking, then you will need to learn to drink grain alcohol, at room temperature, with nothing else in the glass. You don't need to especially prefer it that way, but it is the only real way to know exactly what you have in your hands. After your taste buds adapt, you will notice a whole level of flavor to the spirits that you were missing in the beginning, and things will start getting very exciting. If you don't want to do this, or if trying to do this turns you off of the whole thing, that is fine. Completely fine. But take that as a sign not to spend too much on any single bottle.

As for the triple-sec, a bottle of Grand Marnier costs as little as 20$, and you only ever use a splash at a time, so it should last you. Not that you can't live without it, just to let you know that the little bottles are not a bad idea, nor are they (as) ridiculously priced.

Generally, I would +1 everything Klang said. For example, I don't especially like bourbon. That doesn't make me an idiot because I don't like it, and it doesn't make the many many people who quite enjoy it idiots either. But it does mean that a whiskey cocktail at my house will be made with some other type.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:17 PM on June 14, 2009

And AskMe is big enough that there're gonna be competing experts, especially at something like getting elegantly faced.

Yeah, half the answers in this thread seem like a continuation of an argument someone's had in real life. Like they'll convert the new drinker to their side.
posted by smackfu at 7:20 PM on June 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're drinking gin and tonic, stick a small slice of cucumber in there, along with an eighth of a lime. Does wonders.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 4:32 AM on June 15, 2009

Just to put this into perspective, Pinsomniac is being more thoughtful about his liquor at 21 than 95% of the drinking population. Most 21 year olds are going for Red Bull + vodka or Jager shots. Best of luck with your new hobby, and don't take any of this too seriously!
posted by benzenedream at 11:06 AM on June 15, 2009

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