A few years back, a meme bounced around bartending circles. It featured a picture of a service ticket showing the printout of a peculiar customer order: Johnnie Walker Blue & Sugar-Free Red Bull. Beneath there was a caption, something sarcastic like “oh look, a connoisseur.” This was passed on for much the same reason tawdry gossip magazines are popular, as a way to reaffirm community morals by judging the everloving shit out of whoever is ordering a $45 glass of scotch mixed with what is essentially rocket fuel.
The supposition was that the subtle nuances of the scotch—the very things that make it expensive—are utterly drowned out by Red Bull, which is roughly the flavor equivalent of a boat horn. And while that’s mostly true, there would invariably be a bartender in the comments (usually a more experienced and talented one) who will point out that it’s not 100 percent true, that great scotch will taste better than bad scotch in every situation, even when mixed with something loud. That it’s a cost-value relationship, and our judgment is misplaced because it may not be worth it for us, but it’s certainly worth it for someone.
The simpler the drink, the more impactful it will be to upgrade the base spirit in it. In that particular case, the Blue Label costs 400 percent more than the well, but mixed with an energy drink probably only tastes 20 percent better. As far as returns go, that’s the cocktail equivalent of investing in WeWork. But scotch, in general, can frequently be worth the upgrade. Every spirit has its own relationship to that cost-value analysis, and some are better suited for it than others.
So, generally speaking, assuming you’re at a good bar where the well products aren’t garbage—or you’re at home mixing a drink from a set recipe—when is it worth the money to upgrade your spirit in your cocktail?
When considering an upgrade to gin, you should know two things. First, world-class gin does not cost much money. Beefeater and Tanqueray are about as good as gin can be, and neither is particularly expensive. Second, gin upgrades are more about personality than quality. Something like Beefeater provides the perfect structure and flavor for a Tom Collins or French 75, but perhaps you prefer the citrusy finesse of Suntory Roku or the rose petals in Hendrick’s or the herbal softness of Monkey 47… gins range widely, so it may be worth your time to find a favorite, especially for stirred (no citrus) drinks, where its personality will be more on display.
I know I know, you all feel attacked by this, but there are some facts to consider. Vodka is designed by talented people with expensive and elaborate equipment to taste as much like nothing as possible. There are certainly bad brands, but above the $15-per-bottle mark or so, they’re probably all equally good. I’m not saying they’re the same. I’m saying they’re likely of similar quality.
If you’re drinking it neat, on ice, or with soda, I agree that individual vodka characteristics can reveal themselves, and brand loyalty makes sense. But if it’s in a cocktail, or just with something like cranberry juice or tonic water, the mixer will be so much louder than the inherent traits of the spirit that all vodkas will taste the same.
I’m sorry. I’m trying to help you.
There is more diversity within rum than any other major spirit, which is to say, a rum from Martinique and a rum from Jamaica barely resemble each other. For something simple like a Daiquiri, specifying your favorite rum makes sense, but if it’s for a cocktail on the list, I wouldn’t mess with it. The drink is probably designed with that specific rum in mind and swapping it out can have unpredictable results.
There is nothing at all wrong with the normal whiskey in cocktails. Part of the inherent function of cocktails is to mask imperfections in spirits, and a serviceable well bourbon can be absolutely delicious. That being said, whiskey is probably where you see the most dramatic quality increase.
Bourbon and rye are heavily regulated, and all exist on more or less the same spectrum of flavors. Because of this, one bottling can usually be swapped out for another, and the overall balance of the cocktail will remain strong. Odds are that your bar has a perfectly acceptable bourbon in the well like Evan Williams, which again is great in cocktails. If you felt like upgrading, though, something with more age and power would offer great flavor returns on your money.
Scotch and Irish whiskeys are different, with less woodiness and more of a range of barrel finishes or quotients of smoke, so it’s not quite as simple to just swap out one brand and put another in its place. That being said, for cocktails, specifically stirred cocktails, an upgrade to a favorite single malt can easily bring a commensurate upgrade in taste.
Tequila is hard, because here are two types of drinkers who love tequila, and they want very different things from one another. The aficionados are looking for dynamism, expressiveness, roasted agave and earth and as much flavor as possible in the glass. The casual fans are looking for something that’s easy to drink, no burn, light, smooth. Functionally, “smooth” and “flavorful” are more or less opposites of each other, which makes it difficult to talk about tequila generally.
That being said, if it’s a blanco tequila in the cocktail (and it probably is), I wouldn’t upgrade it. Complexity usually increases as price does, and for things like Margaritas and Palomas, I personally like the simple snappy refreshment of them. As long as the tequila is 100 percent agave, not only is an upgrade not necessarily worth it, but the simpler, more straightforward, less expensive tequila might actually work better.
If it’s reposado or anejo tequila, on the other hand, much of the flavor will come from the oak, and then it gets pushed into whiskey territory, where a modest upgrade can be both pleasant and tangible.
Mezcal is a bestiary, and it’s difficult to predict how it will behave when mixed. Different mezcals will present all kinds of crazy flavors based on the agave used, how it’s made, what kind of wood smokes it, etc. Like rum, the cocktail was likely designed with a particular mezcal in mind, and even a bottling you like more on its own might clash with what the cocktail is trying to do, so personally I wouldn’t mess with it.
Every week bartender Jason O’Bryan mixes his up his favorite drinks for you. Check out his past cocktail recipes.