At some point in life, future spirits enthusiasts stop keeping one bottle of vodka in the freezer that needs replacing every time friends come over. Instead, we start to gain a palate for the crisp botanicals in gin, the chocolate and cherry notes in a beautifully aged whisky, the versatility and rich mouthfeel of an elegant bitter liqueur. We begin noting the familiar traits of regionally selected spirits, like the unmistakable fresh apple and pear notes of South American pisco, or the rich, sweet smell of Alberta rye.
People are interested in making proper cocktails at home right now, more than they have in decades (possibly ever). With that in mind, I’m going to provide an objective list so short that it’ll easily be picked apart by spirits snobs and liquor geeks alike. But this serves as a starting point for investing in a better home bar, and an insight into how bartenders select certain products over another when considering things beyond price.
Above all, versatility is key: if the flavour and aroma seems out of place in classic, simple cocktails, then it’s better as a novelty addition to your home bar after you’ve stocked the basics.
Canadian craft distillers have released a diverse range of often funky, farmyard-tasting vodka. Many release white dog: unaged whisky labelled as vodka, to get return on investment while waiting for the planned releases of their whiskies matured in oak. An ideal home-bar vodka should be creamy on the mouthfeel, with faint vanilla undertones. A spirit that can be trusted when making a vodka martini for your friend that only drinks (insert international brand here).
Recommendation: Three Point Vodka from Alberta’s own Eau Claire distillery in Turner Valley shows unaged barley whisky character a little, but not to the point of distraction. It has a great vanilla base with smooth mouthfeel.
This is a category of spirit that has exploded in the number of different options available in a range of styles, from Canadian versions of London Dry with citrus and juniper forwardness, to a New Western style with various botanical explorations and experimentation. Even Old Tom—the richly flavoured “missing link” in the evolution between genever and gin—is making a comeback. Liberty Distillers may be the only Canadian distillery to have a current release of Old Tom available, but it’s best to start with London Dry-style gin, as its mixability makes it most the most go-to style.
Recommendation: Liberty Distillers’ Endeavor Gin is made by an experienced distiller and delivers a wonderfully realized balance of citrus and alpine botanicals. It’s an easy fit with gin and tonic, but also serves other recipes well.
The elegantly spiced workhorse of the whisky world, rye is the liquor you want to have on hand for a perfect Manhattan, or to mix with maple, coffee and a dollop of fresh whipped cream. There are many Canadian ryes currently barrel aging at craft distilleries across Canada right now—it’s going to get interesting very soon.
Recommendation: Dillon’s released its white rye in 2013; sometime in 2016 the company will release its first barrel-aged whisky. I love Dillon’s white rye and have high expectations for this new Ontario rye.
Single Malt Whisky
Single malt is the spirit you are most likely to associate with sipping near a campfire, or on a leather couch with a cigar in hand. While you may have a rye whisky in the collection, there’s no comparison to the terroir unlocked in a sip of perfectly realized single malt. A few years ago there were less than five entries in this category in Canada, but that’s about to change, big time. Expect to see 30 or more Canadian single malt whiskies released in the next few years.
Recommendation: Track down a bottle of Two Brewers Single Malt Whisky, brewed in Whitehorse by the team behind Yukon Brewing.
A wine fortified with spirits and infused with complex botanicals, vermouth has been treated very poorly for decades by an uninformed drinking public. Vermouth is usually left to collect dust and die an oxidized death in a cupboard, rather than being properly refrigerated and used promptly after opening. When part of a perfectly ratioed Manhattan, Rob Roy or Negroni, vermouth will make your heart sing with joy. Vermouth is a tiny category in Canada, but that’s changing as Canada’s wine industry continues to grow.
Recommendation: Odd Society Bittersweet Vermouth, which is made with BC-grown Viognier grapes and aromatized with 25 herbs and botanicals including citrus, rhubarb root, wormwood, cinchona bark and centaury.
Liqueurs have a spirit base and can be flavoured with almost anything, including fruit, nuts, botanicals, cream and flowers. They are sweetened enough to make them pleasant and form a key ingredient in many cocktails, as well as for sipping straight as a digestif after a meal. As such an open-ended category, there are literally thousands of options for your home bar—and that’s not counting what the old German couple up the street are cooking up in their spare time.
Recommendation: For the sake of versatility, try the Sour Cherry Liqueur produced by Okanagan Spirits. It is a great addition to an Old Fashioned or mixed in other classic cocktails, or simply poured over ice cream.V
Tarquin Melnyk is an Edmonton native who has been tending bar in numerous cities for the past six years. Named bartender of the year at the 2013 Alberta Cup, he is a published cocktail writer and photographer, and a partner in justcocktails.org.