Spirits: Ten must-have bottles

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; E05

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.

Russell's Reserve 6 Year Old Rye Whiskey ($25). Because I love Manhattans, I've tried lots of rye whiskeys. There are certainly cheaper (Rittenhouse Rye at $16) and more expensive micro-distilled brands. But this one feels just right.

Flor de Caña Grand Reserve 7 Year Old ($25). Yes, you can spend a lot more money on rum. But why should you? This old favorite of mine from Nicaragua is great in a mojito or daiquiri, or simply served with ginger beer or tonic water, ice and a squeeze of lime.

Laird's Bonded Straight Apple Brandy ($22). Over the years, I've come to view apple brandy as indispensable because of cocktails such the Jack Rose and Apple Brandy Old Fashioned or the odd Della Mella, mixed with the bitter Italian soda chinotto.

Cointreau ($35). Perhaps the one must-have liqueur for mixing margaritas, Cosmopolitans and the rum-based El Presidente.

Campari ($30). These are deeply personal choices as we move into bitters and liqueurs, but I wouldn't want to be stranded without the means to make a Negroni (using my gin along with sweet vermouth) or, better yet, a Boulevardier (with my bourbon) or Agavoni (with my tequila).

Vermouths, dry and sweet ($8). Okay, so this is two bottles. But I'll need at least Noilly Prat dry vermouth and Martini sweet vermouth, because about a million cocktails call for one or the other, and it would be a long island stay without them. If a boat arrived and upgraded me to Dolin ($15; dry and sweet), I would also be happy.

The worst part, in fact, about being stranded would be that my vermouth would start to spoil. Remember: Replace it at least once a month.

Follow Wilson on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist. His book, "Boozehound," is to be published in September by Ten Speed Press.

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