Spirits: Ten must-have bottles

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Write critical appraisals of anything -- books, songs, shoes, perfume, cigars -- and sooner or later, somebody will ask The Question:

If you were stranded on a desert island, what five [FILL IN THE BLANK] would you want with you?

I always cringe when I hear it. First of all, if I were truly stranded, I would wish for a very fast boat, a satellite phone, sunscreen, Ginger and Mary Ann. But I understand that The Question is not literal.

Second, my home liquor cabinet contains more than 200 bottles, and I'm not counting the Closet of Shame, where I keep crazy-flavored vodkas and unfortunate liqueurs. So forgive me; I always find The Question's total of five very limiting.

Last month I was reading the current issue of the influential trade newsletter Spirit Journal, in which critic F. Paul Pacult (whom I profiled in 2008) published his annual list of the "130 Best Spirits in the World." In addition, he listed five "Trapped-on-a-Desert-Island" spirits he couldn't survive without. I blogged about his list a few weeks ago and decided it was time to come up with my own.

It was far more difficult than I'd imagined. Are we talking about five bottles for sipping, or for mixing? If it was an expenses-be-damned, sipping-only list, I might go for Four Roses Single Barrel bourbon ($50), Bunnahabhain 18-year-old Scotch ($100), Siete Leguas D'Antaño Extra Añejo tequila ($200), Roger Groult Doyen d'Age Calvados ($240) and Pierre Ferrand's 70-year-old Ancestrale cognac ($750).

But those seem a little stuffy for island living. I could take along 20 great bottles for the price of that Ancestrale. What if I want to invite the guys and girls over from neighboring islands for a little get-together? I think I'd like to set up more of a proper bar on my island.

I decided to expand The Question a little bit, so here are my top 10 desert-island spirits. Instead of opting for fantasy, I chose the bottles I use the most at home: great for mixing cocktails, but also no slouches to sip on their own. The most expensive bottle on the list costs about $40.

In fact, as I compiled this, I also realized that anyone looking to set up a home bar would do well to seek out these 10 bottles. I get lots of e-mails from people asking for basic advice on a bar that won't break the bank. If you spring for the whole list, you'll be able to stock up on lemons, limes, Angostura and orange bitters, olives, club soda and tonic water, and still have a fully stocked bar for well under $300.

El Tesoro de Don Felipe Blanco Tequila ($40). It always surprises people how expensive good, 100 percent agave tequila is, but I find this one is always worth the money. Its fresh, peppery nose is beautiful, equally delicious in a margarita or neat, accompanied by sangrita.

Plymouth Gin ($30). It's a close call between this and Tanqueray. I would be fine with either. Plymouth, however, is much more subtle and, to my taste, makes a slightly finer martini.

Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($25). One of the best values in the world, with a spiciness and finish you'd expect from more expensive whiskey. There might be more complex bourbons, but few are more versatile. Beautiful in an Old Fashioned or simply alone with a couple of ice cubes.

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