Beyond Basic Booze

A Kiss for Luck, Author, Isa McLaren, Keep the Mark Happy -

Beyond Basic Booze

Now that you have your basic bar set up with the necessary tools, some glassware, and a few bottles, it’s time to add more booze. As I said in the earlier post, start with the alcohol you like. Next, add what your friends like. Within reason. Just because Joel only drinks carrot-beet shrubs doesn’t mean you have to keep some on hand. Nobody likes Joel anyway.

Grey cat with his tongue out sits in front of a cocktail with sugar rim.

Let’s start with vodka. It’s the prime ingredient for Cosmos, Screwdrivers, Black Russians, Bloody Marys, and my personal favorite, Lemon Drops. If these classic cocktails sound good, you’re in luck. Mixing vodka with juice or other booze means the vodka isn’t the star. In fact, you don’t want the vodka flavors to stand out. A neutral vodka is less expensive than the top-shelf brands which means you save money! But you don’t want to go too far in the other direction, either. While I have a particular fondness for bottom-shelf oily vodkas, those don’t work well in cocktails because they are far from neutral.

The same is true for other spirits. There’s no point in paying for big name-brand gin or bourbon if you’re making cocktails that rely on other ingredients for flavor.

A tiered shelf holds miniature liquor bottles.

That said, there are times when you do want the extra flavor profile of quality booze. A martini is gin with a little vermouth, sometimes almost no vermouth. (In my case, there’s no gin, either. I prefer vodka.) If you use a basic neutral spirit, it will taste like a vermouth cocktail with olives. Not sure which high-end booze you like? That’s what the little airplane bottles are for. Test them out.

An amber cocktail with sugared rim has a lemon wheel garnish and sits in front of a group of yellow flowers.

I was gifted with a really nice bottle of cognac. Cognac is brandy with pretensions of grandeur, the same way champagne is different from sparkling wine. I don’t drink brandy neat (straight from the bottle, no mixers, no ice). Sure, I own brandy snifters. But I only use it in Sidecar cocktails, the perfect fall cocktail in my never-humble opinion. So what am I going to do with that expensive cognac? I’m going to make Sidecars. But just for me. I have a middle-shelf brandy for mass consumption. And when Meyer lemons come into season, you can find me in the corner, cognac in one hand, sucking on a lemon, and surrounded by sugar.

The author peers through black cat-eye glasses as she pretends to be fierce. She flexes her bicep that has a tattoo of a skull with wings attached and the words Death and Whisky.

Whiskey is an entire category of liquor. Irish whiskey falls in this one, to nobody’s surprise. As does Japanese whiskey, Canadian whisky, Scotch whisky, Rye, and Bourbon. Rye and bourbon are American whiskeys, made from rye grain (as in rye bread) and corn, respectively. No, those aren’t typos. The whiskey vs whisky spelling depends on where it’s from and some people get testy if you use the wrong one. 

Whiskeys make great cocktails, like the classic Manhattan or Old Fashioned. But if you use my Jura Prophecy to make a whisky sour with store-bought sour mix, I will dig up my long-dead Scottish grandfather and use his mouldering bones to beat you about the head and shoulders. And then teach you how to make proper sour mix. Use a blended whiskey/whisky instead.

Gin follows these same rules. I’m told there is a vast difference in taste between the high-end one in the blue bottle and the one in the green. Don’t ask me. I hate gin. If I wanted to suck on a pine tree, I’d blow Euell Gibbons. I only stock gin in airplane bottles in case one of my friends (or my oldest kid) wants a gin cocktail.

A dark-colored Manhattan cocktail sports a skull garnish pick to hold the cherries. The glass is flanked by a pair of decorative skulls.

You can also mix booze with your booze, as I mentioned before. A Black Russian is vodka and coffee liqueur. (Add some cream to abide like the Dude.) Coffee liqueur is also used in a Revolver cocktail, along with bourbon. A Manhattan is bourbon whiskey and sweet vermouth.

Liqueurs have a lower alcohol content (ABV) than liquor and are much sweeter, with citrus or herbal components. Kahlua is probably the best known coffee liqueur. Cointreau and Grand Marnier are orange liqueurs. Cream liqueurs like Baileys add milk or milk substitutes, while cremes like creme de menthe or creme de cacao  use added sugar to get the thicker consistency. Each of these have mid- or bottom-shelf versions that are just as good as the pricey brand names.

Amaretto and schnapps are common mixing liqueurs. A word of caution about these: quality and taste vary wildly within this subtype. If you don’t like one brand, try another. Most of these come with lower price tags so you won’t break the bank trying them out.

Herbal liqueurs include Jägermeister, which you may remember from your college days. Unless you drank it a lot, in which case good luck remembering any of it. Benedictine, Chartreuse, Sambuca, and amaros are also herbals. Amaro is a subtype of the herbal subtype of liqueurs and includes Aperol and Campari—a necessity for making a negroni sbagliato with prosecco.

You can even combine liqueurs with other liqueurs as in the B-52 which uses equal parts coffee, Irish cream, and orange liqueurs. Another word of caution here: these make super-sweet drinks. Tasty enough that you want several but the high-sugar content will hit you like a truck when it comes time for the hangover.

A metal recipe box has vintage images of shifty people. Some hold cocktails. Mind-blowing information inside.Text reads

Now you have a bar selection that covers a wide range of options. Feeling ambitious? There’s always more to add. Over the years, I’ve been gifted with unusual liqueurs and liquors. Capel, Pisco, Galliano, and St. Germain sit in the depths of my liquor cabinet just waiting for the opportunity to come out and play. The maple syrup Canadian whisky will probably be used. It might make a tasty Old Fashioned; I’m just not keen on maple. There’s also a juniper brandy hiding behind these others. See my comments above about pine trees. I’m never using that one and should just recycle the bottle.

In my next boozy blog post, I’ll cover holiday themed cocktails and mocktails so you can impress your friends and family with or without alcohol.

Until then, drink responsibly so you don’t spill on the nice rug. Count your shots, drink water, and look out for your friends. And remember: you can’t drink all day unless you start in the morning.

Find the first article here:


Isa McLaren is a cocktail aficionado with a penchant for crime. She lives in central North Carolina along with a trio of burglar cats. 

1 comment

  • Lyssa Medana

    You have some very interesting shaped bottles!

    I saw someone perform a sex act with a Malibu bottle back in the eighties and I’ve never been able to drink the stuff since. I can usually manage unflavoured rum, though.

    If you dissolve Werther’s Originals (? like butterscotch candy) in vodka, you get a smooth tasting sweet drink that doesn’t taste like it needs a mixer but absolutely does. I used to make it for my old neighbours, along with chilli vodka for the man of the house. They always kept on my good side for that.

    Looking forward to the next post.

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