Tips for beginners: Ingredients

May 25th, 2007

Getting started in the world of cocktails can seem like an expensive venture to those with few spirits in their alcohol cabinet. There is a huge variety of alcohol available, from the key base spirits like gin, vodka and whisky, to the more exotic likes of rye and Cachaça, and the huge array of liqueurs. I know I definitely found the whole process very daunting, and what made it even more confusing was that for each spirit you looked at, the price difference between various brands varied enormously.

Bottles behind a bar

In truth, you don’t need to spend a massive amount of money to start making cocktails. The method I used, and still use today to some extent, is to pick a certain cocktail you either know you like, or like the sound of, and buy the ingredients for that. This will normally only require the purchase of two or three bottles, meaning you won’t be spending a massive amount of money. You’ll also find that using those two or three bottles you may well be able to make several other cocktails with the addition of different juices.

You can then find another cocktail, which perhaps uses some but not all the ingredients you have purchased, and add another bottle to your collection. In addition to growing your drinks cabinet this means you will get to know each ingredient and learn cocktails to make with each of them. If you start out by buying 10 different spirits you won’t know where to start, and sometimes too much choice is even worse than too little. Eventually you’ll get to the stage where you have most ingredients you need, and purchasing will then be limited to replacing existing bottles, and trying anything new you learn about.

The other key consideration is which brand you purchase. Spirits are broadly divided in to generic brands and premium brands, with further categorisation like super-premium and ultra-premium, just to confuse things. 90% of the time you would be wise to avoid the budget brands. As a rule cheap spirits taste harsh, and lack the character that their more expensive siblings offer. It’s not a steadfast rule, there are cheap spirits which hold-up well, but these are few and far between. When I started out making cocktails I was a student and brought the cheapest brands I could get my hands on. No-name vodka that cost nearly half what something like Absolut or Finlandia costs, and tasted like it too.

I soon learned that taking the step up to a premium brand is worth the small increase in price, which averaged out over each cocktail you’ll make can be as little as 30p per drink. I firmly believe that the reason most people claim to dislike things like gin and tequila is because they’ve only ever tasted ultra-cheap brands when they were younger. So in general, avoid supermarket-own brands, or anything that seems too cheap to be true.

Where you decide to move up to more expensive super-premium brands is a more personal decision, based on which spirits you enjoy the most, and which you find the extra cost has the most benifit. I’ve personally found that the brown spirits, like Cognac and Whisky, gain the most improvement when I spend more, so while I use relatively cheap Finlandia vodka I pay the premium for good VSOP Cognac and decent Bourbon like Woodford Reserve. However, if you’re a Vodka Martini fan you’ll probably want to get a super-premium vodka, and if you’re a tequila sipper you’ll want to move on from Jose Cuervo Blanco.

The issues of where to find decent brands of alcohol in the UK, and which I prefer, will be dealt with in a post next week, but I hope this has given anyone thinking of getting started the confidence that you don’t need to go out and purchase twenty expensive spirits to get started making cocktails. Decide on a cocktail you like, find the recipe, purchase just those ingredients, and most importantly, enjoy…

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Posted in Ingredients, Tips for beginners

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