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Best Buys for the Summer Bar

By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

First things first: There is nothing finer than sipping an añejo tequila, a special-reserve single-barrel bourbon or a martini made with a craft-distilled gin. I could spend hours extolling the virtues of the super-premium spirits you can now find in your local liquor store. Those are the spirits of my dreams.

Dreams, however, are not what this is about. This is about snapping back to reality.

The rise of big-ticket booze is, I hate to say, getting a little out of control: $35 for a flavored vodka, $45 for an aged rum, $55 for a whiskey (a rye whiskey, no less). Certainly the quality of many of these spirits more than justifies the high price tag. Yet often they are overkill. Even for me, the really high-end bottles are primarily for special occasions.

I believe that drinking a cocktail should be a regular, everyday pleasure. So how much money do you really need to spend to make a good drink? I've gotten that question from many people who feel bewildered in the vast caverns of the liquor superstore.

We decided to see whether we could answer it by stocking a solid home bar on a reasonable budget. We decided to shoot for an average of about $20 a bottle. That ruled out just about every decent single-malt scotch, cognac or significantly aged rum or tequila. That might seem like a shame, but we decided our budget bar would be focused primarily on cocktail mixing.

We dedicated $200 to the basic setup: the six bottles every bar needs -- whiskey, tequila, rum, vodka, gin and brandy -- plus several essential mixers.

But no one drinks the same cocktail season after season. You wouldn't sip a Campari and soda, mojito, or gin and tonic outside in the snow. Nor would you drink a hot toddy or eggnog on a sizzling day at the beach. Allowing for that, we decided to dedicate an additional $100 for seasonally appropriate spirits. We purchased bottles with summer in mind.

In the end, we were able to get 15 bottles, plus the two small bottles of bitters, for under $270, leaving us with $30 of wiggle room to allow for store-to-store price variations. And it put each bottle at an average of less than $16.

So what did our budget buy us?

The vodka and gin were easy. There's a reason why Stolichnaya and Tanqueray are two of the most popular brands in the United States. For whiskey, we chose Maker's Mark bourbon, which at $22 is possibly the best value in the entire liquor store. And we went with a light rum, because that style offers the most mixing options. I chose an old favorite, Flor de Caña Extra Dry 4-Year-Old.

Good tequila and brandy are expensive, so those two presented the biggest quandary. I am vehemently opposed to poor-quality tequila, which always reminds me of a bad night in college. So I decided to spend a little more, $30, on the Sauza Hornitos, a lightly aged (reposado) tequila made from 100 percent agave.

That left us without enough for a worthwhile brandy. So we substituted a bottle of Laird's Applejack instead. Applejack, a mix of apple brandy and neutral spirits, is a staple of early 20th-century bartending guides that's making a comeback in drinks such as the Jack Rose.

As for mixers, we needed a great sweet vermouth and a great dry vermouth. End of discussion. We chose Martini & Rossi as our red sweet vermouth and Noilly Prat as our dry vermouth. Further, small bottles of Angostura bitters and orange bitters were essential.

For me, there was one other essential mixer, also worth paying $30 for: Cointreau. Expensive, but it simply makes better drinks than banal triple sec. It is the one mixer I'd hope to have with me on a desert island, where a classic margarita would certainly help pass the time. Finally, I added a half-bottle of the overlooked and underrated Benedictine, which brings an exciting complexity to cocktails.

As for our summer-specific bottles, I tried to choose five that would allow for a lot of use as mixers. But I was also looking for spirits that might be enjoyed by themselves. Campari, Lillet Blanc and Martini & Rossi Bianco vermouth are all low-proof aperitifs, perfect on the rocks, perhaps with club soda and a slice of lemon or orange. Campari is also a prime ingredient in one of my essential cocktails, the Negroni.

The last two I chose with specific drinks in mind. I added a bottle of Gosling's Black Seal dark rum because I've lately had a thirst for Dark & Stormy cocktails, which I find more enjoyable than mojitos. Finally, as a splurge, I added the absinthe substitute Pernod because I've recently acquired an appreciation for the anise-flavored kick of pastis, and I love what it brings to one of my new favorite drinks, the Monkey Gland. Besides, absinthe is still illegal in this country.

This under-$300 bar should get you through summer and beyond. When the cold nip of autumn is upon us and you're ready for hot toddies and eggnogs, we'll restock you for winter.

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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