McAfee’s Benchmark No. 8 bourbon whiskey (first appearance: 002 – Old Fashioneds)– Bourbon is a quintessential American whiskey, classified as having a mash bill with at least 51% corn (the mash bill is the initial mixture of cereal grains used in brewing and distilling). Benchmark has perhaps the best price-to-quality ratio in the bourbon world: it’ll never win any awards, but is alarmingly drinkable for how little you pay for it. I’m no expert on whiskey flavor profiles, but bourbons by and large tend to be a bit sweeter and carry a bit more body than other varieties.
Redemption Rye whiskey (first appearance: 002 – Old Fashioneds) – Arguably the other quintessential American whiskey, rye was consumed much more in pre-Prohibition days, although it’s currently seeing a promising comeback. Similar to bourbon, the whiskey’s mash requires at least 51% rye to be labeled as “rye,” although as a buyer you want to look for a much higher quantity in order to highlight rye’s specific qualities. Redemption Rye touts a 95% rye mash bill and is distilled to 92 proof – I’ve found it a good mid-range choice, price-wise, and it ably demonstrates rye’s spicier, drier character.
Miller’s London Dry Gin (first appearance: 004 – Negroni) – Martin Miller’s London Dry Gin – This is honestly a step above my usual go-to gin (Tanqueray), but it was kindly given as a gift and I’ve been seeing it put to good use. Miller’s is very well-regarded as gins go, and it certainly doesn’t skimp on the botanicals that make gin…well, gin. Since I’ve started delving into spiriturgy, gin is probably the spirit that’s grown on me the most – which I may partially attribute to abuse caused by the gaping disparity between bottom-shelf gin (which many of us may know from days of yore) and its more respectable brethren.
Angostura Bitters (first appearance: 002 – Old Fashioneds) – A classic flavoring agent and a vital member of any bar, Angostura bitters hail from Trinidad & Tobago have been produced since 1830. I first purchased them not really knowing what to expect, but upon smelling and tasting them in drinks I’m not sure precisely how I coped beforehand. Despite their name, Angostura bitters don’t add nearly as much bitterness to a drink as you’d expect – rather, it’s their semi-sweet, herbal and aromatic qualities that enrich oodles of drinks. Of course, though, your palate is the best judge in terms of how heavy a hand to dash them out.
Fee Brothers Orange Bitters (first appearance: 002 – Old Fashioneds) – Flavored bitters arrayed in a row are a more common sight in liquor stores these days, and I suspect that you see a lot of gimmicky and unorthodox flavors (curry, anyone?) alongside the actual classics. Since bitter-buying could easily be a slippery slope, I’m sticking to fairly low-priced options until I get more familiar with the subject. Fee Brothers Orange Bitters lack the herbal and aromatic complexity of Angostura, but they do have a potent orange flavor that almost crosses the line (“reminiscent of Tang,” per one of my guests). I’m curious to try other makers of orange bitters as time and money allows.
Dolin Rosso vermouth (first appearance: 003 – Manhattans) – Vermouth generally comes in two varieties, sweet and dry (there are more types, but those are the fundamental two). However, just to confuse things, there are multiple names for each variety:
– Sweet vermouth – aka Italian vermouth, red/rouge/rosso vermouth, etc.
– Dry vermouth – aka French vermouth, white/blanc vermouth, etc.
Whitfield generally refers to vermouths as either Italian or French. We’ll be getting into French vermouth in a few weeks with martinis, but for now only the Italian variety is in play.
Vermouth, in general, is a sweetened and fortified wine that also has various herbs, spices, and aromatics introduced during fermentation and fortification. The brand I’ve relied on thus far is Dolin, which is very affordable but still generally well-regarded.
One thing to remember with vermouth is that, having a lower alcohol content than spirits (for example, Dolin’s sweet vermouth is 16% abv), it’s not as impervious to the ravages of time. Once opened, you want to store vermouth in a refrigerator instead of on the bar with your other bottles, to keep it fresher longer. However, there’s no need to plow through a bottle in a night – vermouth still has a healthy lifespan, easily three months when kept in the fridge (and I’m sure you could push that date a bit with little trouble).
Campari (first appearance: 004 – Negroni) – The first time I tasted Angostura bitters, I thought to myself “well, these aren’t particularly bitter.” The first time I tasted Campari, by itself, I thought “now that is bitter.” Taken by itself it requires a very stern palate, but its flavors are complex and add a great deal of maturity and character when mixed with other ingredients. If you haven’t had it before, I recommend taking the tiniest sip by itself so you get a sense of what Campari brings to the table – perhaps someday I’ll graduate to drinking it solo on the rocks, as some do, but by that time I might as well go full Fleming or Hemingway and sweat gin while I’m at it.