Since my cocktail videos are appearing in the monthly “Nichi Bei Café” segments on YouTube, I thought this might be a good opportunity to rehash things I may have discussed in the past, as these cocktail videos typically run no more than five minutes, not nearly enough time to discuss individual liquors on their own. So, to simplify everything in one article, I’ll just divide it into base liquor, flavoring agents and bitters.
The Base Liquor
The base liquor is the liquor that a cocktail is based on. While it may not be the majority of the liquid in any given cocktail, it is the primary liquor in that given cocktail. For instance, while soda makes up the majority of a whiskey and soda, the whiskey is still the base liquor. And for simplicity’s sake, I divide base liquors into clear liquor and dark liquor. The clear liquors, like vodka and gin, usually create cocktails that are refreshing that you might sip while the sun is still shining, whereas the dark liquors, like bourbon, rye and brandy, create what I term “savory cocktails,” that one typically samples once the sun has set.
All liquor or alcoholic beverages start with the fermentation of some type of simple starch by yeast under an oxygen free environment. In the case of beer, that starch is barley, with the malting process converting long starches into simple sugars that yeast can ferment. In the case of wine, grapes are used as the sugar source, while sake uses rice. However, if you take beer, wine or sake and distill the initial product, you can remove the impurities and concentrate the alcohol to create liquor. Sometimes this initial distillation is bottled and sold. Often the distillate goes through several more distillation processes and the final liquor can then be bottled and sold or aged depending on the type of liquor.
Probably the most popular dark liquor consumed in the U.S. is America’s own whiskey, bourbon. By regulations, bourbon must be fermented with at least 51 percent corn mash, produced in the U.S. and aged in charred, new oak barrels. If it’s labeled as straight bourbon, it must be aged for two years. You can find bourbon at any grocery or liquor store, starting from Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark, all the way up to the legendary Pappy Van Winkle, ranging in price from $20 all the way up to Pappy Van Winkle’s four figures after-market price.
That other dark liquor — Rye whiskey — is my personal favorite. It must contain at least 51 percent rye mash. Unlike bourbon, which is usually associated with the South, rye is associated with the Northeast and was just as popular as bourbon until Prohibition. I prefer rye, as some of its spicy characteristics (imagine eating a slice of toasted rye bread) carry over into the distilled product. Corn simply adds sweetness to a finished bourbon, but you never describe bourbon as tasting like sweet corn, whereas rye whiskey still maintains the mother grain’s spiciness. However, because bourbon has been the primary dark liquor preferred by Americans for the past 10 to 20 years, traditional rye-based cocktails like the Manhattan and Old Fashioned use bourbon as the base liquor instead of rye.
The last dark liquor that you might find in cocktails is the distillate of fermented grapes or brandy. When it’s created in specific regions in France, it’s known as Cognac or Armagnac, but outside of these regions, it’s simply known as brandy. If you’re creating cocktails that require brandy, stick with a label that simply says brandy instead of Cognac or Armagnac, as these upscale brandies are aged and meant to be sipped on their own. Using these specific French brandies is like using vintage Champagne for a mimosa.
The most common clear liquor originally was created in the vodka belt of Eastern, Central and Northern Europe, primarily from fermented cereal grains to basically produce a distillate of alcohol and water. Today, you can find vodka created from the usual cereal grains to rice to grapes and even sugar beets. On its own, I don’t find vodka interesting at all, as it’s simply a 40 percent solution of alcohol. I do have friends that enjoy vodka on the rocks, which to me indicates someone who simply wants a “buzz,” since vodka on its own doesn’t really have any flavor. Now, when vodka is infused with fruits or vegetables, that’s the start of an interesting cocktail. I always have a bottle of vanilla vodka on hand for my Chocolate Martini and a bottle of cucumber-lime vodka for my No Longer Envious.
My favorite clear liquor is gin, which is basically vodka that’s infused with juniper as well various herbs and spices. Whether served straight up with just a hint of dry vermouth as in a martini, mixed with tonic water for the basic gin and tonic or shaken with Campari and vermouth for the classic Negroni, the herbal infusion adds a multitude of flavor characteristics to cocktails.
I know I simply separated liquor into clear or dark, but there are two liquors that span the range of colors, namely rum and tequila. Distilled from either molasses (rum) or sugarcane juice (rum agricole), rums span the color spectrum from clear to amber to brown and almost black.
The distillate of the blue agave plant, tequila also comes in several hues from clear silver tequila to amber reposado (aged two to 11 months) to the darker anejo (aged one to three years in oak) and extra anejo (aged more than three years in oak).
However, I still follow my basic rule that the lighter rum and tequila are for refreshing daytime cocktails, reserving the darker versions for evening cocktails.
These liquors are used in smaller amounts to enhance the flavors of the base liquor. One of these are the vermouths, which are wine-based spirits infused with herbs and spices and fortified with neutral grain spirits so that they’re slightly stronger than wine. The basic vermouth are either sweeter red vermouth or dry white vermouth.
The largest and most diverse class of flavoring liquor are the amaro (Italian for bitter). Most are based off of grain alcohol, which is then infused with herbs, roots, bark or citrus rind and may also be dry or slightly sweet. The infused plant matter ranges from artichokes to rhubarb to unripe, green walnuts (nocino) and because of the underlying bitterness, are usually used in small quantities.
My favorite flavoring of liquor is the bitter red Campari, as well as its sibling, which is sweeter and lower in alcohol, Aperol. Because of its popularity in the cocktail world, several other companies also now make their own bitter red liqueur, some even using the original coloring agent, the cochineal “beetle” to produce the striking red hue (Campari and Aperol switched to food coloring in 2006).
And though there are many other smaller categories of liqueur used to flavor cocktails, two of the most important are the Chartreuse twins. Both the Green and Yellow Chartreuse were created by Carthusian monks back in the 1700s from a secret blend of 130 herbs, flowers and plants, which gives the liqueur a bitter and vegetal flavor with the Yellow version being sweeter with less alcohol. They run upwards of $75 per bottle, but usually only a small amount is used so one bottle lasts for quite a while and supposedly, the flavor improves with age. The downside is that only two or three of the monks know the full secret recipe, and that they travel together from the monastery to the distillery in the same rickety automobile, driving on partially paved roads, so if an accident were to occur …
Lastly, most cocktails are enhanced by a dash or two of bitters, specifically grain-based alcohol infused with various flavoring agents. During the rise of the cocktail several decades ago, the two most common bitters were Angostura (used in Manhattans) and Peychauds (used in the Sazerac). However, it’s not uncommon for mixologists these days to stock at lead a dozen bitters often creating their own. I personally like to use my Xocolatl Mole bitter with whisky-based cocktails and grapefruit bitters in sparkling wine-based cocktails.
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a recently retired clinical pharmacist and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster. He writes from Kane’ohe, HI and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.