Do Top-Shelf Spirits Belong In Cocktails?

Jennifer Hess

I'm hoping to get some discussion going this week. Topic: Top-shelf ingredients in cocktails. Question: Do single-malt Scotches, honest-to-Francois Champagne, and other premium ingredients have any place in mixed drinks, or are you wasting them by adding mixers?

I would argue that some fancy ingredients can be well suited to certain cocktails, and that it's not always a waste to use the top-shelf stuff in a mixed drink. Let's start with single malts.

Single-Malt Scotch

Several years ago, the cocktail writer Gaz Regan put together a drink called the Debonair, which blends a coastal malt, such as Oban or Springbank, with ginger liqueur. I love this drink, especially when I follow Regan's recommendations for the Scotch. And that's the crucial thing about mixing with malts: you need to know your whisky.

Paul Clarke has addressed the topic of blending with single-malts before, and his discussions raised a very important point. The world of single-malts is so diverse that you need to pay close attention to the flavors and aromas of a given malt before mixing with it.

Regan's Debonair works with an Oban or a Springbank because the salty coastal character of those drams works well with the sweetness and, well, gingerness of the ginger liqueur. Other malts would get man-handled by the spicy-sweet Canton.

Now, I understand that single-malts are pretty spendy, and when you start mixing with them, you risk wasting valuable barley juice. My solution to that is pretty simple. A bottle contains 750 mL of whisky, or about 25 ounces. Regan's recipe for the Debonair calls for 2 1/2 ounces of whisky, or one tenth of the bottle. I'll make one Debonair from my bottle (or two, if my wife is joining me), and save the rest for sipping.

Of course, you don't need to use 2 1/2 ounces of Scotch in a cocktail; you don't even need half an ounce! Follow this tip from Esquire's David Wondrich: Rinse a glass with 1 teaspoon of a smoky single-malt, and then fill that glass with a Manhattan. Mmmmmmmm.


Likewise, when is it appropriate—or even, when is it truly necessary—to use Champagne in a cocktail? In many cocktails that call for Champagne, you can usually get away with substituting in a less expensive sparkler. Many such cocktails, for example, will work very well with any sparkling wine, especially if made in the méthode champenoise style.

Before we address that, perhaps it's good to review the types of sparklers on the market, and get a feel for how their flavors differ. Knowing which sparkler to use depends greatly on knowing its flavor profile.

Many drinks, of course, don't even call for Champagne in the first place: a Bellini, for example, calls specifically for Prosecco. If you like it better with Champagne, more power to you, but the drink certainly doesn't need single-vineyard bubbles.

Some cocktails, however, really do seem to benefit from true Champagne. The French 75, I believe, is among them. The crispness and complexity of a good Champagne shine through in this cocktail. Using Prosecco would make it too sweet and change the texture of the carbonation; you may have luck with American releases, but you should be certain to taste the wine on its own first. If you're concerned about the price, get a small bottle (either 187 mL or 375 mL) and use it just for your cocktails.

Anejo, XO, Etc.

Aim for the center with your Sidecar. Jennifer Hess

And what of other top-shelf liquors? If a blanco tequila makes a good margarita, does a well-aged anejo make a great one? Not necessarily. Some drinks do benefit from an aged spirit, but only to a certain extent. The margarita is a great example; an unaged (or lightly aged) blanco makes a good drink; an aged reposado, on the other hand, makes a delicious one. With anejo and extra anejo tequilas, though, I feel you've reached the land of diminishing returns. The other ingredients (lime and triple sec) make up so much of the flavor that I don't think you gain much from an anejo.

Of course all this assumes you're making margaritas from scratch, with fresh juice. If you're using a premix, it's going to kill whatever nuances you'll find in an aged tequila. Stick with the bottom shelf.

The lesson: Quality matters, but only so much.

Another example of this principle is the Sidecar. Use a good cognac for this, or an excellent Californian brandy, and stay away from the cheap stuff. I've made Sidecars with bottom-shelf Californians, and damn did they taste skunky. Again, aim for the center here; you want a VSOP with age, texture, and complex flavor, but you certainly don't need to shell out for something old or expensive. And don't screw it up when it comes to the triple sec.

Now it's your turn. Which drinks do you think merit a top-of-the-line ingredient? Or should we save those for sipping on their own?