Building a Bar Part 2: Vodka, Tequila, and Orange Peels
What you need:
- A Decent Vodka
- Silver Tequila
- An Orange Liqueur
(these were bottles 5-7 on our bar essentials post)
Vodka and tequila are the liquors on the list that tend to bring up bad memories for people. Remarkably frequently, when I offer a tequila drink, I get a shake of the head and, ‘I haven’t had tequila since college.’ When I suggest vodka, people give me the hand, and go a little pale.
But tequila is for more than just cheap shots, and vodka comes in other forms than jello. Some people are simply too scarred by their early, less discerning experiences with tequila and vodka; it’s best just to offer them a gin drink. For others, tequila or vodka in the right hands make for some great cocktails that will help them move on from those dark memories.
Adding vodka and tequila to your bar, along with an orange liqueur, adds margaritas, Negronis, many martini variants, and more to your repertoire.
In our bar, vodka serves as a substitute for gin in certain cases. Vodka has a more neutral flavor than gin; so we use it when we want the flavor of secondary ingredients to come out more strongly–if we want the vermouth or liqueur to stand out in a martini, for instance. One thing you’ve certainly noticed when you’ve gone to the vodka section of the liquor store is the shelves and shelves of different flavored vodkas. Ignore them all, and get yourself a bottle of straight vodka. You can easily add whatever flavor you want for a particular drink; so why tie yourself down to a whole bottle devoted exclusively to raspberry or coconut or whatever. We’ve found that the very cheapest vodkas have a bit of a strange flavor and have a thicker texture than we like. Apart from that, as long as it has a crisp, clean taste, it serves our needs. Ketel One and Svedka have both fit the bill nicely.
The distinctive flavor of a particular tequila comes through in a cocktail perhaps more clearly than with any other base liquor. Even when mixed with multiple other ingredients, a tequila has a way of making its presence known; so, it’s important to find a tequila you like. In general, you get what you pay for with a tequila. That being said, we still gravitate toward the mid-range, like 1800 or El Jimador. Recently, reposado (slightly aged) and anejo (more aged) tequilas have become very popular, and it’s easy to see why; the mellower flavor of reposados and anejos is particularly suitable to sipping. Since we mostly mix our tequila rather than sipping it straight, we buy silver (aka blanco). There are definitely some cocktails best served by a reposado. Once again, though, we choose breadth of options over the ability to perfect one particular cocktail.
Orange peels turn out to be a shockingly crucial contributor to cocktails. They’re the key ingredient in triple sec, curacao, Grand Marnier, Cointreau, Aperol, and Campari. It’s amazing just how handy having a bottle of orange liqueur of one kind or another ends up being. They all have their distinctives. Triple sec is cheap and sweet, perfect for making pitchers of margaritas. Curacao is cheap and bitter. Grand Marnier and Cointreau bring in the more mellow, rounded notes of the brandy they’re based on. Campari is like a slap in the face, but in a good way–a bracing combination of refreshing and bitter. If we were to choose just one bottle to get started with, it would be Campari’s slightly sweeter, more restrained sister Aperol. Once again, it’s because Aperol is the most flexible option. It’s moderately priced; and it’s sweet enough to substitute for Grand Marnier and bitter enough to do Campari’s job. A perfect example of Aperol’s ability to sub in for Campari is the Contessa…
And a drink for you: The Contessa
A variant of the Negroni, in which Aperol takes the place of Campari. We’ve found the Contessa has something for everyone: bitter, sweet, complex, easygoing.
- 1 oz. gin
- 1 oz. sweet vermouth
- 1 oz. Aperol
Stir the ingredients well in a mixing glass. You can serve it over ice with an ounce or two of soda, as a refreshing summer drink; we usually prefer it straight up in a cocktail glass.