Lesson One: Mixology

Chapter Two: The Good Stuff

This is what you should get for Booze, er…ingredients. The fundamental building block of the cocktail is of course liquor—distilled spirits. Here, in a recklessly brief round-up, are the basics about the basics – you’ll find a great more detail about each of these categories in Lessons Three, Four and Five.


The oldest of the major liquors, brandy is simply fermented fruit juice that has been run through a still to concentrate the alcohol. It can be made from any kind of fruit, but “brandy” by itself usually means it’s made from grapes. If it’s made by traditional means in one corner of France (a place actually called Cognac), it gets to call itself Cognac. If it’s made by slightly different traditional techniques in another part of France (helpfully called Armagnac), it’s Armagnac. Both of these are aged in oak, for not very long (VS), a little longer (VSOP), or quite a while (XO). It’s hard to assign precise numbers to these letters, since they represent averages—just about all Cognacs and most Armagnacs are blends of young brandies and older ones.

There are plenty of other fruit brandies out there. Calvados, from Normandy, is made from apples and aged like cognac, for which it can be substituted to interesting effect. Kirschwasser is made from cherries and their pits, and is unaged. It has a peculiar tang of its own which, if handled with care, can make for a great cocktail. Note: in the United States, “apricot brandy” and “peach brandy” generally mean grape brandy heavily sweetened and flavored with those fruits—liqueurs, in other words.


Vodka is simply raw alcohol, distilled from grain (historically) or potatoes, sugarcane, grapes, soybeans—you name it—to high proof (that is, a very high percentage of alcohol), filtered heavily to remove various compounds that aren’t alcohol or water, then diluted and bottled. Some will argue that, for cocktail use, it scarcely matters which vodka you use, provided it’s a decent one: some subtle differences between high-end vodkas will be scarcely detectable layered under powerful mixers. But quality has its own merit, and you and your friends deserve the best, don’t they?

Meanwhile, flavored vodkas exist to make the mixologist’s job easier, but rather like frozen foods make the cook’s work easier as well. In almost every case, it’s better to make the extra effort and use fresh flavors.


London dry gin, the primary style of this essential cocktail fuel, London dry gin is basically vodka that has been bubbled through a mix of “botanicals” – juniper berries, orange peel, this and that. Traditionally, it is bottled at a brisk 94 proof, give or take a couple of degrees. Genever is a Dutch style, sort of a cross between gin and whisky (it tastes malty like a young Scotch, but with gin’s botanicals; when mixed, these are less prominent than in the case of London dry gin). Plymouth gin is both a brand and a style, similar to London dry but perhaps a little softer. It hails from the British naval port of the same name, which explains why it’s the traditional gin of the Royal Navy.


Whiskey” (in the United States and Ireland) or “whisky” (in Scotland and Canada) is used to describe a mash of fermented grain that is distilled to a (relatively) low proof and then aged in oak casks, without filtering. In the United States, whiskey is made primarily from corn (Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey) or rye (rye whiskey). Canadian whisky is usually a blend of other whiskies, made from corn, rye, wheat, and/or barley; Canadians often call it rye, which with rare exception it isn’t, at least not by reasonable standards. Scotch whisky is either unblended: 100 percent peat-smoked malted barley from a single distillery (single malt whisky) —or mixed with something that is essentially barrel-aged vodka (“grain whisky”), yielding “blended Scotch whisky.” Irish whiskey is generally made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley distilled together (with a few other grains thrown in), and no peat smoke.


Distilled from molasses or raw sugarcane juice, rum is the most variable of all liquors. It can be as light and clean as vodka or as dark and funky as rye, with plenty of stops in between. There are essentially four main styles on the market today. There’s the old-fashioned pirate style, a dark, heavy distillate with notes of sulfur and funk. This used to be a Jamaican specialty, but these days Australia and Guyana lead the pack, with Jamaica and Bermuda contributing somewhat toned-down versions. Then there’s the Cuban style, as featured throughout the Latin Caribbean—light-bodied and smooth, when aged it approaches Cognac for suavity. If the Cuban style takes its cues from France, what one can call the “modern style” looks to Kentucky for inspiration. These days, many of the rums from Barbados, Jamaica, and the Virgin Islands are medium-bodied affairs that sport a good deal of the woody spiciness of bourbon and are designed as much for sipping as they are for mixing. Finally, there’s the French style, rum made in the French Caribbean from sugarcane juice instead of molasses. These well-made rums—known collectively as rhum agricole, “farmer’s rum” – combine the dry tang of the pirate style with the lighter body of the Cuban style.


When you roast the massive heart of the blue agave plant (a kind of aloe), squeeze out the sweet juice, ferment it, and distill it, you get tequila. You do have options, though. You can stretch the juice out with other sugars, or you can leave well enough alone and use 100 percent agave. You can bottle your tequila straight out of the still, or you can age it in wood. Age it over two months, and it’s a reposado, which means “rested.” After a year, it’s añejo, or “aged” (things age fast in hot, sunny Mexico). For libationary use, stick to the pure agave—it really does make a difference. And there’s no need to splurge on an añejo, which is not only expensive but also has woody notes that mask the distinctive tequilaness you want in a cocktail.


Also known as “icky-stickies,” liqueurs are liquor (usually neutral spirits) that’s been sweetened, flavored, and bottled. There are approximately 167,843 different kinds on the market (so it seems, anyway), with several hundred new ones popping up each day. Of these, at least 167,800 can be ignored. The rest fall into a few general categories:


These are flavored with orange peel and come in two main types: white Curaçao or “triple sec,” which is based on neutral spirits (the classic brand is Cointreau), and the heavier bodied orange Curaçao, which is generally based on brandy (the classic brand is Grand Marnier).

Herbal Liqueurs

Medicinal tipples drawing on the healing powers of multiple herbs are quite ancient. Prominent examples include Bénédictine, Chartreuse, Drambuie (Scotch whisky with honey and herbs), absinthe and its various legal substitutes, such as Pernod; Herbsaint; (from New Orleans); Versinthe; Absente; and, yes, Jägermeister.

Fruit liqueurs

Self-explanatory. This is pretty much the most popular category of liqueurs, and the one where artificial flavorings and diabetic-shock sweetness are the most prevalent. In general, try to use an imported brand, such as Marie Brizard or Stock.

Nut Liqueurs

A popular category, mostly pretty straightforward—although here’s where you’ll find maraschino, the gloriously funky tasting Croatian/Italian cherry-pit liqueur that happens to be one of the great cocktail flavorings.

Cream Liqueurs

These are as little used in grown-up cocktails as they’re overused in college drinks. In general, if you want cream in a drink, it’s better to add your own.

Spice Liqueurs

Crème de cacao, crème de menthe, anisette, Kümmel (a caraway/cumin flavored thing from Northern Europe), so on and so forth. Again, the imported ones are the best.


French for “appetizers.” Aperitifs are wines that have been fortified with alcohol and zinged up with herbs, spices, and other flavorsome thises and thats. Vermouth is the one that leaps immediately to mind—it comes in two kinds, red (or Italian), which is sweet, and white (or French), which is not—but Europe abounds in these things: Lillet and Dubonnet from France (although Dubonnet’s also made here) and Campari from Italy (which is actually spirit-based, not wine-based, but works in all other respects like any of the others) are also cocktail staples. In general, these pleasant, smooth compounds are used to soften the blow that straight liquor delivers, but not soften it too much. Occasionally fortified winesMadeira, Port, Sherry—appear in their place, and don’t do a half-bad job.

How to Use a Jigger

Andy Shows You How to Use a Jigger.

Selecting Glassware

Andy Helps You Select Glassware.

Reproduced from “Killer Cocktails” by David Wondrich.