What To Drink (Booze Edition)

On January 19, 2005, in Food and Drink, by peterb

Since psu covered cooking equipment yesterday, I wanted to talk a little about ingredients. In particular, alcohol. The typical home bar — and I use the term “bar” loosely, in my house it’s just The Cupboard With The Booze In It — is stocked more by happenstance than by planning. If, as is common, you buy your alcohol on an as-needed basis (“Oh, I need two ounces of Jasper’s Honeydew-and-Prosciutto Liqueur for these cookies…”) and don’t drink a lot yourself, then you end up with large quantities of comparatively expensive bottles that neither you nor anyone else will ever drink taking up lots of space. If you plan what you want or need, you can avoid that.

As in yesterday’s article, the goal here is to describe a reasonable minimum that you can have. This should give you flexibility in cooking, a small buffer with which to entertain your friends who drink, and provide a little room for growth and experimentation. If your heavy drinkin’ cousin Bartleby comes over and starts hitting the sauce, this might not satisfy his needs. Although maybe that’s a good thing.

Before we begin, I’d like to note that while alcohol is a common and useful ingredient in many cuisines, not everyone can have it. Some people are allergic to it, it’s generally considered inappropriate for children in anything but the tiniest quantiies, and many people — possibly you, or possibly one of your guests — have problems with alcoholism. For some of these situations, any alcohol is too much. So please remember as you read that when I say things like “You need a bottle of such-and-such in your pantry,” I’m referring to situations where alcohol in food (or a little social drinking) is acceptable. Obviously, if having booze around is going to result in disaster, you don’t “need” it.

Things You Need

-several bottles of red wine (I’ll go into more detail about exactly how much and what type below)
-one bottle of white wine
-one bottle of vodka
-one bottle of brandy
-one bottle of whiskey (optional, for entertaining guests who drink)
-one bottle of some form of digestif, aperitif, or cordial.
-equipment: glasses and a corkscrew.

That’s it. Obviously, this gets modified a little by your personal preferences. I like Porto. I love Porto. Therefore, I always have some. But I wouldn’t suggest that it be part of everyone’s standard kitchen stock.

Red wine is a gimme. It’s the thing you should be drinking a little of several times a week. In addition to being healthy and delicious, it adds depth to just about any tomato or meat dish. If you haven’t planned a sauce for any given meal, you can simply tack on “…and then deglaze the pan with a cup of red wine, and reduce until it starts to thicken” to the end of any almost recipe. Congratulations. Now you have sauce.

Wine is an intimidating topic for most people, because there’s such a variety of products out there, and most of us can only afford to sample a small percentage of what’s available. So what should you keep in the house? In order to answer this, we have to understand the fundamentals of wine. Yeah, yeah, nose, color, mouth feel, whatever. Those are incidental to the topic of wine. Here’s all you need to know to get started.

-Trust your own taste buds.

It doesn’t matter what Robert Parker, your snobby friends, or anyone else think of a wine. If you think it tastes bad, it does. If you think it tastes good, it does. The reason we turn to experts on wine is because of the expense incurred in figuring out what we like. If you luck out and find an expert whose tastes match yours (or, equally useful, an expert whose tastes completely oppose yours), then go ahead and trust them. But in the end, it’s all your call.

peterb’s Theorem of Wine Tasting: Let Ps represent an value indicating how good a given wine tastes, higher values meaning tastes better. Let E represent the price you personally paid for the wine. Pe, the amount of enjoyment one receives from wine, can be expressed by the formula: Pe = Ps / E

The obvious corollaries to this rule are: expensive wine tastes best when someone else is paying for it. Furthermore, if you like two wines about equally, the cheaper wine is better.

Since we’re stocking your kitchen, and since I’m not going to pay for your wine, the thing to do is to find an inexpensive red wine and stock up on it. For me, a case of Charles Shaw (“Two Buck Chuck”) Cabernet meets my base level needs just fine. If you’re in Pittsburgh where there aren’t any Trader Joe’s, and you can’t get that, ask friends who cook for their recommendations. Stick one bottle in the cabinet, put the rest of the case in the basement, and buy another case when you’re down to just a few bottles. And at $3 / bottle, I don’t feel guilty using it in whatever recipes I need, in copious quantities. (Personal note to Mario Batali: recommend just one more time that some poor schmuck upend a $60 bottle of Barolo into your recipe for braised beef and I’m going to drag you down to Nobu and shove two chopsticks so far up your nose you’ll be able to breath through your ears. Not only is Two Buck Chuck a more economical wine for that recipe, it tastes better in that sauce. If you want a $60 bottle of Barolo with that recipe, why not try drinking it, you testa di cavolfiore).

You only need one bottle of white wine because it’s better used younger, and so you’ll want to replace that bottle more frequently rather than buy a bunch and sit on them. Also, white wine is not as good as red wine, and people who like white wine more than red wine are the devil.

Vodka is a good neutral spirit to have around. I always keep some in the freezer. Get a small screw-top jar, put in a couple of split Madagascar vanilla beans, and fill the jar with vodka. In a couple of months, you’ll have your own vanilla extract that is cheaper per-ounce than what you can buy, and will also taste better. Top off the bottle with the vodka as you use it. There’s a lot of variability in vodka, so it’s worth avoiding the very bottom tier, which will taste more or less like battery acid. I favor Stolichnaya because it’s not too dear, but there are plenty of options that will work. If you plan to use the vodka for drinking, stick to 80 proof. If you’ll only use it for cooking and baking, 100 proof is fine.

Brandy is versatile. Any time you’re making a dessert, it’s worthwhile asking yourself if some brandy could play a role. It’s a volatile spirit, but it has a very interesting flavour, and quite a lot of it. This means you can add it to any sort of heated concoction and boil off the alcohol, but still infuse the dish with the taste and (psychological) warmth of the brandy. Brandy matches with any sort of fruit desserts perfectly, and is should also be your liquor of choice for flambé. There’s no limit to the types and varieties of brandy, and not coindentally there’s no limit to the amount of money you can spend on the high end. If you’re not going to be drinking it, something like Hennessey VS Cognac should only cost you around $25 / 750ml, and will last a long time. If you’re going to sip it, you might look in to a more unusual and tastier choice, such as a good Armagnac, but then you probably won’t want to cook with it. So let’s stick with VS for our kitchen cabinet.

You generally speaking won’t use much whiskey in cooking. Yes, I know there are recipes that call for it, and bourbon particularly matches well with coffee and chocolate, but remember that there’s some recipe that calls for nearly any liquor, and our goal here is to hit the common cases. No, whiskey is on my list simply because, ounce for ounce, it’s likely to be useful when entertaining guests who drink. It’s a fair approximation of the truth to say that if a randomly chosen cocktail recipe doesn’t call for vodka, it probably calls for bourbon or scotch. And plenty of people just like whiskey on the rocks. I could write a little treatise here about the different sorts of whiskeys, sour-mash bourbon versus scotch malts, but this isn’t the time for that. Pick a midrange name bourbon or mixed scotch; bourbon is probably a bit more useful in cooking because it’s sweeter. Put it in the cabinet. Now you’re set.

Cordials are tricky. The problem with cordials is they’re meant to be drunk a very small amount at a time. Which is fine. Except that means that you open the bottle, and you pour a couple of tiny glasses of Grand Marnier or what have you, and then it sits in the cabinet and then you buy another, because you tried one at a party and kind of liked it, and then the next thing you know, your liquor cabinet has 150 bottles in it: a bottle of wine, a few bottles of spirits, and 146 different varieties of cordial, each 7/8ths full, except for that “egg liqueur” thing your parents gave you that they bought in 1962 in Verona, which is only 1/8th full, because over the years it has evaporated away leaving a gloopy, disturbing yolk-coloured pudding on the bottom of the bottle. (Note: egg liqueur really exists.)

But a good cordial has its place, particularly one classified as a digestif. They really do work. I’ve found that if I’m feeling a little ill, for example, often a small glass of creme de menthe or Sambuca can help settle my stomach. So find one you like (how? Visit your friends who have the aforementioned 146 bottles and try theirs) and buy one bottle. The rules for inventory management of digestifs is simple, but you have to keep on top of them and actually enforce them: If the bottle is unopened a year after you buy it, give or throw it away, and if you haven’t returned to an open coridal a year after you opened it, give up. Throw it away.

For equipment, there is again no end to the goofy booze-related merchandise you can buy. All you really need are a set of wine glasses that you like, and a reliable, well-made wing-type corkscrew, although there are of course other varieties available. There is a real pleasure in fine, special-purpose glasses for given drinks, and if you have the cash to burn, go for it. But a nice set of simple wine glasses goes a long way. For your “survival kit” needs, make sure you get glasses that are dishwasher-safe. And while I’m a little skeptical of those wine vaccum pumps to try to “save” your wine for a few days after opening, they are inexpensive and do seem to let you eke out maybe an extra day. Since most corks expand after being removed, the kits are convenient if for no other reason than to have some extra plastic corks.

That’s everything you need. Obviously, there are exceptions — if you cook Japanese cuisine, for example, you’ll want a bottle of sake for mixing with miso — but if you need to invoke those, you’ll know it.

Things You Don’t Need

-Rum. Shut up. You don’t need it. I know, you think you need it, particularly that Myers’ dark rum. But you don’t need that. You need a bottle of molasses. Use that instead of the rum. For recipes that call for rum that actually need alcohol, use your brandy and a little molasses, instead.
-Gin. It’s useful in martinis and gin and tonics, but that’s it.
-Rye. Remember when I said just pick some random whiskey and be done with it? Small modification: don’t pick rye. Nobody likes it (except me). I don’t know why, but that’s just the way it is.
-Any cordial developed after about 1975. It’s hard to identify those if you don’t already know a priori, but if it is a strange colour and looks like it’s marketed at college chicks, stay away from it. Also, avoid anything made by Jacquins.
-Most other alcohol-related paraphernalia. Swizzle-sticks. Shot glasses. Shakers. Little umbrellas (hey, I said need, not want). Maraschino cherries.

There are maybe two more things you should have when stocking your kitchen with booze.

First, you should have a sense of adventure and a willingness to experiment. If you can, taste the ingredients that you’re using. Ask yourself what characteristics they have, and if there’s some booze that would do a better job. Look for opportunities to try new things when out and about so you don’t have to gamble $50 on a bottle of something that turns out to not be what you hoped.

Second, you should have a sense of what it means for you and your guests to drink responsibly. Let me reiterate that some people are allergic to alcohol, or have problems with alcoholism. Just as you would when serving nuts or shellfish, make sure you know the dietary restrictions of your guests before you serve them drinks or food with alcohol.

And with all that said, na zdorovie!


11 Responses to “What To Drink (Booze Edition)”

  1. Nat Lanza says:

    Pete, I love you like a brother and/or a secret lover, but you’re wrong about a few things here.

    First, wingcorkscrews are clearly inferior to the fold-out waiter-type ones. I used to always buy wing ones, ’cause they’re nice and pretty to play with, but Laura managed to convert me to the waiter ones by demonstrating how it’s actually a lot easier to open wine with them. And since that’s really kind of the point, I gave in. She’s right, they just work better.

    Also, it’s true that you don’t need dark rum. The secret is that dark rum isn’t really very good. Neither is spiced rum. You want a decent gold rum, which I like better than vodka for making vanilla extract. It’s not very expensive, and it can go in a ton of things — I’d use it in many of the places you describe using brandy. There isn’t very much that can beat bananas flambÈd in rum, and it goes fabulously in hot cocoa.

    Also also, if I were going to pick a liquor to have as a “guests might drink this”, I’d go with gin instead of whiskey. I personally like whiskey better than gin, but I know far more people who’d be happy with a simple gin&tonic than people who’d ask for a whiskey drink. It’s also easy to end up having the wrong whiskey for people’s tastes — some people like scotch, some only like bourbon, some like blended whiskeys, some like single malts, etc, etc. There are variations in gins, but pretty much everybody who drinks gin will be happy with Bombay Sapphire.

    Oh: I know you’ve mentioned avoiding the bottom tier, but it’s probably worth mentioning that “bottle” should mean “glass”. If you’re not in college anymore, it’s time to stop drinking the nasty plastic bottle stuff.

  2. Jon says:

    Two quick dumb questions:

    1. Where do you get raw vanilla beans, and how do you split them?

    2. The extract bottle is kept in a cupboard, not in the freezer (that’s for drinking), right?

  3. peterb says:


    1. Penzey’s Spices (http://www.penzeys.com) sells various varieties of vanilla beans via mail order, or you can find a local source. To split them, just run a knife down one edge. If you just put the vanilla bean in without splitting it, it’ll work just fine, also. A couple of beans should last you for years.

    2. Yes.

    “Nat, you ignorant slut….” I’ll defer to your experience with the corkscrews. I recommend brandy over rum because I find rum, even gold or white rum, to be too sweet and a little less versatile. But if rum suits you better, rock on.

    I still disagree with you on the gin front, for two reasons. First, you already have the bottle of vodka in the freezer, which can be use to make vodka martinis or vodka and tonics, both reasonable replacements for their gin brethren. Second, bourbon can be reasonably used for more _cooking_ than gin can (are there -any- recipes that call for gin? lingonberry flambe or something?) Put a little bourbon in coffee and you get a nice irish coffee. Put a little gin in your coffee and you get a coffee cup hurled at your face. Bourbon matches with chocolate as well, gin doesn’t (to my taste). Bread pudding with some bourbon: a bold yet sassy dessert. Bread pudding with gin: an affront against god and nature.

    Your point about the plastic bottles is absolutely correct, and appreciated. Also, it’s considered polite to decant the wine from the box before serving it to guests.

  4. Nat Lanza says:

    You’re right about bourbon being more useful for cooking. Really, I’d suggest just picking up both, since for either a decent bottle is maybe $20, but I guess strict minimalism may require choosing.

    Pretty much all of the places you just described using bourbon, though, are places where I’d probably use rum, which might be why we differ there.

    Well, except for the irish coffee. Then I’d just use a nice bottle of Bushmill’s or Jameson’s, for I am picky and want actual irish whiskey for my irish coffee.

    As for vanilla beans, you’ll probably also be able to find them at Whole Foods or a similarly yuppie-ish grocery store. You can pretty much spend as much as you’d like on them, but I wouldn’t bother with the super-expensive varieties. And yeah, the bottle just sits out in a cupboard and not in the freezer.

  5. I like having a good drinking vodka, and a mixing vodka. Can’t have guests making crappy mixed drinks with $27/bottle vodka… and since I like my vodka straight-up, I won’t settle for the cheap(er) stuff.

    I’d say the one cordial to have is Kahlua. It’s tasty, and is a key ingredient in many a mixed drink. Good on ice cream too.

    It’s also a good idea to get a six pack of Tonic and Soda waters in little glass bottles. It keeps forever, and they are a handy size… little waste for one or two drinks.

  6. Dr. Click says:

    No tequilla? Sure, maybe if your definition of “tequilla” is the stuff they serve at quarter-shot nights in a college bar. But there are tequillas that rival whiskies for smoothness and complexity of taste (though they do come with price tags to match). I keep a few around. Perhaps that falls into the “personal preference / Porto” let-out.

    On the other hand, I can’t see what you’d *cook* with tequilla.

  7. Nat Lanza says:

    Tequila’s a damn good marinade base for chicken, actually.

    Tequila, lime, a dash or two of hot sauce. Mmm.

  8. Christina says:

    I don’t like vodka myself, but if you’re looking to save money on it, you can get pretty good results running swill-grade vodka through a Brita filter five or six times. Try googling for “vodka brita oh my god it burns” (without the quotes) to find some courageous researchers’ write-up of the procedure.

  9. Amos the Poker Cat says:

    Sorry, this got posted under the wrong message. Probably operator error.

    Ya, I too have to disagree with you about not needing gin in a minimal bar collection, especially during the summer time. Although, I am a rye fan as well.

    Doing a search by ingredient on iDrink.com (http://www.idrink.com/drink_by_ing.html), I turn up 1584 recipes with gin, 493 with bourbon, and 681 with rye/whiskey.

  10. Bud Greeny says:

    That “things you dont need section” is lame… rye whisky rules, and so does jacquins and gin. You sound like the kind of guy who would offer michelob ultra as the beer, too, or bud light simply because it’s the best selling beer in the world. Have some originality and turn people on to stuff is what I say.

    And vodka– tasteless and orderless– is NOT a reasonable alternative to gin!!!

  11. Bud Greeny says:

    That “things you dont need section” is lame… rye whisky rules, and so does jacquins and gin. You sound like the kind of guy who would offer horrible michelob ultra as the beer, too, or bud light simply because it’s the best selling beer in the world. Have some originality and turn people on to stuff is what I say.

    And vodka– tasteless and orderless– is NOT a reasonable alternative to gin!!!