Cocktails: Recommended Drinks Brands

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Published on: February 7, 2013

In my last article I gave a basic stock list for someone starting up their own cocktail bar at home.  It’s pretty organic, if you like a certain kind of cocktail, you should buy the drinks for it!  Then, you can look for cocktails with similar ingredients and build up from there.  I’m (un)lucky in that I go crazy, buy a bunch of different drinks and start making cocktails without having to worry too much about what I’m spending.  Most people, will only want to buy one or two bottles at a time and start making cocktails – and that’s fine! In fact, that’s the right way to do it because you get to pick a cocktail you enjoy and practice it over and over until you have it just the way you like it.  Then a week or two later (maybe more) you can go out and add another bottle or two and start making cocktails using similar ingredients.  I would say, if you can, go for those “5 white spirits” and the other items on that barlist because it will cover a lot of the classic cocktails with just one or two additions, so it will last you awhile.

Of course, now that you’ve got a rough idea what you need to stock, you’re asking “but what brand should I buy?  Which one is good?”.  At some point I will do a more detailed review of certain drinks, or do a range in a taste test.  But for now, I will give you a brief overview of what (I think) is a good starting point to each thing I’ve listed to stock in your bar at home.

Light Rum – Havana Club 3yr old Anejo Blanco.  Most people will be thinking “what about Barcadi?” No.  Bacardi superior is everywhere and it’s dirt cheap, but it’s almost a vodka it’s so un-rum like.  If you want something that actually tastes like rum, use Havana Club.  I’m not saying Havana Club is the be all and end all of Light Rums but it’s cheap, widely available and it is a decent quality rum – wouldn’t sit and sip it but for cocktails, it will do the job.

Vodka – Finlandia.  I could have picked Russian Standard or Wyborowa, both of those are also good choices.  I picked Finlandia because Wyborowa has a fairly strong taste for a vodka and Russian Standard isn’t quite as smooth or interesting.  But, I’d say it’s a toss-up.  Wyborowa is a very good vodka but it might influence the flavour of some cocktails and you’d notice it if you put it in your home-made simple syrup.

Gin – Bombay Sapphire. I’m picking this over something like Tanqueray because it is widely available and it’s a good representation of a London Dry Gin.  It’s hard to pick one Gin over all the others because they are so different. But I think Bombay Sapphire is a good standard to judge others but if you don’t particularly like London Dry Gin you might want to try something different like Plymouth Gin or Hendricks Gin.  I generally like to have two types of Gin on my shelf because the variation in taste can really make a difference in some cocktails and they completely change a Martini.

Tequila – 1800 Blanco OK, confession time.  I’m no expert when it comes to Tequila, my knowledge of it really isn’t what it should be.  But I do know one thing, it has to be 100% Agave.  So no Jose Curevo 51% Agave (Jose Curevo does do a “Tradicional” version that is 100% Agave), that’s not real tequila, it’s what is called a mixto.  People who say “I hate tequila, it gives me such a terrible headache” are usually saying that after a night of Jose Curevo.  If you try the real stuff (any Tequila that is 100% agave will clearly display that fact) you will know the difference.  In fact, even in something like a Long Island Iced Tea, you will be able to pick out the Tequila flavour.  It is identifiable in nearly all cocktails, it has such a distinctive flavour.  I’m picking 1800 because I know it’s not a bad Blanco Tequila (it does well in taste tests), it’s not the greatest example but it’s solid and it’s available here in the UK at a very reasonable price.

Triple Sec – Cointreau.  Cointreau is THE Triple Sec.  It’s more expensive that most Triple Secs but that’s because most of them taste artificial.  Triple Sec, for those than don’t know, is an orange liqueur – specifically a Curacao orange liqueur, in a similar mold to Blue Curacao.  Triple Sec is made with a neutral spirit, so you just get the flavour of the oranges.  Grand Marnier is another alternative but its base is Brandy and that gives it a different (though similar) flavour.

Dry Vermouth – Martini Bianco Extra Dry. I can’t really give one specific dry vermouth that everyone should buy.   I think Dolin Dry Vermouth (my personal favourite) goes great in a Hendricks Martini but it doesn’t work all that well with Tanqueray Ten but then Noilly Prat does.  Martini Bianco is probably the most common and well-known dry vermouth and it’s a decent all-rounder, it’s usually cheaper than the others but that’s not always a sign of poor quality.  Dry Vermouth loses it’s flavour quickly once opened so you have to store it in the fridge, then you will get more life out of it but realistically you’ll need to use it within 3-6 months before the flavour changes.  The higher quality vermouths will change into a lesser quality vermouth, given the cheap price, I would buy a good quality one, store it in the fridge and then chuck it or cook with it (works well in a risotto) after 6 months in the fridge.  Out of the fridge it will last no more than 2-3 weeks.

Sweet Vermouth – Vya.  I’ve changed this from Martini Rosso to Vya, as I wasn’t a fan of Martini Rosso.  Vya is wonderful, it’s very sweet but excellent over ice and does well in most cocktails.  It’s not too expensive and it is available online and even in some UK supermarkets.  I like Dolin Rouge but it’s hard to get.  Sweet vermouth lasts longer than dry vermouth, but similar rules apply – store it in the fridge and use within 6 months of opening.

Grenadine – Monin Pomegranate Syrup.  “But Monin do a Grenadine syrup?” I hear you say… yes and it’s awful, like most “Grenadines”.  I’ll do a more detailed video or article on why you should avoid grenadine but for now, just get this Monin Pomegranate syrup instead.


I generally use The Whisky Exchange to buy most of my drinks.  It’s usually amongst the cheapest and delivery is always cheap.  There are other sites, that you might prefer or find cheaper, but I find the Whisky Exchange to have a wider selection (including some things you can only find outside the UK) and if it’s only a few pounds difference to order from one place, it’s saving on deliveries from two different companies!  If someone has a better suggestion, let me know.

The drinks I’ve just recommended can be bought for a grand total of about £110 plus delivery.  And yes, the Whisky Exchange do international delivery, so if you are reading this from some other part of the world (hello!), you can still order from that website and you won’t pay the 20% VAT that I pay… still delivery is going to be expensive, but if you order enough it might cover the additional cost of delivery.

Now I realise this list I’ve just put together will probably get a bit of criticism… why did you pick Finlandia for Vodka and not Grey Goose or Belvedere?  Well for things like that, firstly this is a starter list.  Secondly if you want (and can afford) to go and buy the super-premium drinks then go for it but I’m making this list for the majority.  Thirdly, in a lot of cocktails, those super-premium brands are going to get lost in the mix, that subtle hint of vanilla in your rum?  Well if you can pick out rum mixed in with 5 other drinks or spirits good job… but can you still pick out that subtle hint of vanilla in that super-premium rum?  Of course, it does make a difference, buy the bargain basement stuff and you will end up with a pretty rough drink, particularly in those drinks that are largely spirit based and don’t have a lot of sugar to mask the harshness of the cheaper alcohols.

Hopefully what I’ve given you over the past 3 articles or so is something to get you started or at least interested in cocktails.  Maybe, you’re looking at this list and saying “£110? Are you nuts?” well you don’t have to get it all at once, as I said at the beginning, pick a cocktail you like and start there, build it up.  The great thing about a home bar, is you can stock the drinks you like.  If you go out to most bars, even cocktail bars a lot of these drinks won’t be on the shelf.  If you’re unsure just what type of cocktails you like, then go to a bar, go to a couple of bars, order a few cocktails, find a cocktail you like, ask the barman for some variations or similar cocktails and then go out and buy the drinks you need, start slow and work your way up from there.

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