Premium cocktails and brand name spirits

I believe in brand name cocktails. I also believe in ultra premium cocktails, though, even typing the words, “ultra premium,” makes me a mark for any revolutionary to march me off to the guillotine. As for brand names, I believe in them, but not the way that they would want me too, or the way in which the pedestrian customer does. The same goes for the ultra premium cocktail, its a lie how its currently executed. But by now, you know how I do it, lets tear it down so we can build it back up.

The liars:

'cause you'll get to 3rd base

'cause you'll get to 3rd base

These are a few, and in no way a complete list of “call” spirits for brand name cocktails that if you order says one of two things about you: you buy what others around you order to seem cool or you buy drinks based on ads from porn mags, specifically, porn mags that you amassed shortly before you were able to get laid on a regular basis but not after. Jeez, not to delve too deep into porn, but seriously, men order drinks, grown men, in their 20’s 30’s and 60’s based on what ads were in Playboy when they were first able to get their hands on a Playboy. Dudes who were 18 in the 60’s, still like Galliano, 70’s Metaxa sidecars, 80’s Patron, 90’s Grey Goose and now, well I don’t know because those kids can’t get into my bar yet but I see fresh faced men ordering flavored vodka soda sometime and it make me wonder. At best right now this my correlative conclusion based on observation, however, when I can get a research grant to compare vintage porn to cocktails. I shall formalize my results. I just named a few already, but, back to a list:

Dry Bombay Sapphire Martini- whats the beef? Bombay Sapphire, I want to fuck that bottle, even though it has Queen Victoria’s face on it, its still sexy.

Sexy, only when on or in the bottle

Sexy, only when on or in the bottle

The Sapphire bottle look like the pendant on the neck of the woman you’ll meet in the bar, its the color of the sky when you are drunk and like both of those things its just a bottle of lies. Well, mis-truths maybe. So far as gin goes, Bombay Sapphire is belligerent, brash, heavy handed and lopsided with too much juniper. The product was designed to be a gin that goes into a martini, so actually, all of those afore mentioned criticisms can be discounted assuming you make a martini that is 30% fresh, quality dry vermouth and a dash of orange bitters. (but come on, thats martini is one in a thousand) Under those circumstances, it works, otherwise, dry, or no vermouth, it is a vicious cruel martini. If you want a dry martini, go clean, you know whats great? Beefeater, not a sexy bottle, great dry martini, or Martin Millers. Sapphire, needs to be smoothed out.

Dipped by a hungover me, and signed by Bill Samuels

Dipped by a hungover me, and signed by Bill Samuels

Not Too Sweet Maker’s Manhattan- I love Maker’s Mark. Its another bottle that is cool, its so cool that having wax dripping down the bottle (not the top seal, but dripping down the bottle) is copyrighted by them. They copyrighted sloppy bottle sealing, awesome. Anyway, Maker’s Mark IS FUCKING SWEET! That is why, when I’m in a dive bar, I gravitate towards Maker’s as the ideal whiskey to join up with my beer for team boiler maker. Its also why I drink Maker’s Manhattans (but I actually prefer cheap rye), because I like a sweet Manhattan. Maker’s has a high content of sweet red winter wheat in the mash bill, this makes for a smooth, sweet mellow bourbon. If you wonder how that works, go into your pantry, and you probably have everything that most whiskies are made from in your home. Eat some barley, corn, rye and then try flour made from all of them, and you’ll understand whiskey better. That is a side note, Maker’s Manhattan not too sweet? No, order a different bourbon. Why not try Knob Creek? That’s bitter as fuck. Or when I visit my family, I take the edge off with Booker’s Manhattan’s. Maker’s Old Fashioned, or Maker’s Mint Julep, YES SIR. Its also important to understand that bitters actually add much more sweetness to a Manhattan than any bitter flavor. Try it. If you like less sweet, order with only one dash, if they don’t have bitters, get a beer and a shot.

Grey Goose and Cranberry or Soda or Anything- I think we all know how I feel about vodka, and rather than pissing up that rope again I’ll just offer up this test: Pour 3 shots of vodka made out of different things, a potato, a grain and a rye or at least from vastly different places. Nose them. They will all be quite different, whether its is the vegetal or spicy rye notes in some or the after market additives of glycerin and citric acid in others. But lets pretend you are tasting the 3 best vodkas in the world, and they are: 42 Below (they paid me), Hangar One (yay! for the home team) and Crystal Head (Dan Aykroyd, the original Ghost Buster), all of which are additive free, and when flavoured, use real ingredients rather than extracts and things from the flavour lab. Anyway you’ll notice distinct differences on the nose, mouth feel and flavor. Now add an ice cube, a bit less so, soda water, even fades more, cranberry, (aka red sugar water) gone, can’t tell the difference any more. If you make a cocktail and worked off of the subtleties, then you’d have something, however, we know that most of the time, vodka is just fuel for girls gone wild. Thanks vodka.

Cuervo Gold Margarita- Ha. Hee hee. Giggle. Kind of like saying “I want a vodka Manhattan.” I guess, be definition, Cuervo Gold is tequila as it is made from 51% agave, but come on, you can do better than that. If patron is steak (and its not) the Cuervo Gold is sausage, in the most direct metaphor. Cuervo does however make any number of other bottlings that are 100% agave and good, why not try one of those? Patron? Its the sweetest most filtered tequila on the market. No one would argue its quality, its perfect for shots, but in reality its a stone throw from vodka. If you like a good margarita, start with a good tequila that is a real tequila. But really, there is not reason to call for a specific spirit in any margarita, if you don’t see fresh squeezed fruit, premium triple sec and maybe a bit of agave nectar which brings me to my next point. No premium spirit will ever matter with shit for mixers and poor technique.

Shit mixers or for example: pre made sour mix, cherry sugar red death juice or even melty ice, ruin drinks more than anything outside of technique. But lets assume you are in a place that has a premium or even super premium cocktail list, do the ingredients make it so? Sorry for being rhetorical. There are two schools of thought on premium cocktails and I disagree with both, but there aren’t enough of me to be a school yet. First school puts premium cocktails on the menu and gets ski trips, kickbacks and hand jobs from liquor companies. These guys are limited because no liquor company with a bottle that costs more than $30 would pay you for menu placement. The group says you can’t mix single malt scotch, good bourbon should be with a rock or neat and mixing is for cheap stuff. They are wrong, but mostly just lazy folks thinking themselves elites. Single malt drinks for example are divine, just difficult to pull off.

A common menu item I’ll see is a premium Manhattan. This will be a brand name vermouth, bourbon (should be a rye, but it never is) and hopefully bitters. I frequently see this drink for $25. Is it worth it, should it exist, and can it be done? If I had a bad day, got dough in my wallet and a skilled bartender, yes, yes, and yes. But lets consider what goes into this $25 drink.

The Whiskey

-is it rye or bourbon? Do they know a Manhattan well enough to get that much right?

-rye? Is this a bartender that knows how much rye is in the mash and how to compensate for that?

-the pour, for $25, I want a 2oz pour

The Vermouth

-is it a brand you like?

-do they keep it in the fridge, how long has it been open?

-the pour, a premium Manhattan doesn’t need the whisper approach to vermouth, its a full fledged ingredient

The Bitters

-there better be some

-house bitters, perhaps, barrel aged?

-use enough?

The Ice

-look in your water glass, can that ice make a $25 drink

-I also hope you are getting a chilled glass


-this Manhattan is to be stirred, no exceptions

-is should be built into a chilled glass with ice strained before the ingredients are poured


-Luxardo, house brandied, Griotines, but no marashino died red cherries

Your server

-is your drink brought right out to you, or does it sit for a while, warming up while the server finishes flirting

I could go on and on, you my reader thinking me more a bitch with everything I look for. But remember, this is what I need out of any good cocktail, regardless of price. Its just the spency stuff can really fuck right off if they can’t handle the basics.

Andrew’s 2.5 rules on what you can make a drink out of and what you can’t are simple. 1. don’t mix what you can’t afford. Don’t mix what you aren’t good enough to handle. And, don’t mix what doesn’t exist anymore. This is questionable, I’d make a pre prohibition whiskey old fashioned, but I wouldn’t brag about it.

I met Mike Meinke, of Triobar in Berlin a couple weeks back, we were discussing Thomas Handy Rye, just named America’s best rye. I told him that I didn’t like it but I thought it would make an amazing Sazerac, if only I could trust/afford to have someone make me one. The Mike laid down his hous Sazerac which is a follows. Take one bottle of Thomas Handy Rye, boil in with sugar. You now have a $100 bottle of non-alcoholic rye whiskey simple syrup. Chill your glass by filling it with ice, 1.5 ounces of absinthe and top it with champagne. Mix the rye with the rye syrup, 3 dashes of Peychauds, dump the “death in the afternoon” you made and pour the cocktail in the glass, twist o lemon.

I just did the poor man’s version for a friend last week, $25 bottle of bourbon simple, with Vintage 23 rye, a Shot of Marteau absinthe with French sparkling wine. This was only about a $60 cocktail. I’ll generally try not to brag, but this was the best drink I ever made. It took me years of work to be able to factor in every skill to make it, and summer for it to have a lemon good enough and be lucky enough to be shown the drink by Mike. You know, not to put too much pressure on the guy offering you a Woodford Manhattan from his drink menu, but, consider his skill.

Doesn't look different

Doesn't look different than normal, Photo by AJ Rathbun

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Premium cocktails and brand name spirits

  1. Pingback: Premium cocktails and brand name spirits | Bartender Empoyment

  2. I absolutely agree. What i try and tell my staff is that, most of the time, we the customer are paying for the process and not the product. A girl i used to date had a jovial (and very giving… strange) Scottish father. He and I used to bash about some fantastic whiskeys. Him not a big fan of bourbon or rye and especially not Irish whiskeys, he educated me on a few things regearding Scotch and i him with bourbons, tequilas, vodka etc. He told me to watch what most Scottish people would order.

    After serving quite a few British expats, especially men in kilts, I noticed that very very few of them would order an an incredibly old whisky. They would hover in the regions of the 12 to 15 to 18 year olds. Now the question was why?

    to which i got the response, ” why the fuck do you want to drink something that took 30 years to taste good?” And how right they were. With what i know about using oak barrels (which is dangerous) you would need a very volatile spirit to yield the best flavour from the barrels. Right?

    So, when purchasing a $200.00 (or ZAR1600.00 in my case) for a Glenlivet 21 year old, i wouldn’t even open the bottle. I would just look at it in the mantlepiece for the sheer dedication the distillers had to make something sit for that long. It doesn’t make me want to rebuild the Great Wall of China for a measure. It just doesn’t appeal to my palate. I prefer the 15 purely for the flavours it offers me with regard to the spicy fruitiness, leather and pear.

    My mixology is purely based on the flavour profile of the spirits I am using. One drink i found intriguing was a recipe i knicked from one of the bartenders who apparently works at PDT. A Caol Ila and candied ginger sour. I found it an excellent use of the peat and smoke from the whisky which was beautifully balanced with the sweetness and spicyness of the ginger.

    One drink I’m itching to make would be a (don’t cringe) Pina Colada made with Green Island rum from Mauritius. It costs ZAR 60.00 or $10.00 a bottle but what a flavour profile! Beautiful creaminess with hints of vanilla and COCONUT! so… my thinking is to use the rum that would best compliment the drink.

    I coudn’t give a toss if they only make four bottes of whatever a year because the blind, one eyed deaf Honduran orphans who make whatever spirit are executed after making X spirit to keep the recipe a secret and that is why X spirit costs what it does.

    There are no Holy cows in my dream bar. Only good spirits that taste great.

    When having the same argument with people who say to me,” How can you put X in there? It’s too expensive!”

    Number one… Fuck off
    Number two… What you put in is what you get out.

    If Kobe beef is the best beef in the world, then surely we shouldn’t cook it, season it, make a creamy pepper and brandy sauce to go with it.

    We should just wait for the cow to drop dead and eat it before it’s portioned.

    But it could just be me.

  3. Ruben says:

    What a great article and what a great comment by Mr. Wainwright. I’ve really enjoyed the read.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s