The Alchemist tasting panel reviews their at-home essential spirits
For most issues of The Alchemist, we gather our tasting panel and sit in a room somewhere sampling our way through a dozen or so bottles of, say, rye whisky or vermouth. But with a pandemic upending everything, we couldn’t do that this time around. At the same time, since we’ve all been spending so much time chez nous, we wondered what our panelists were drinking at their own homes. So we asked them to recommend a bottle they consider essential for a home bartender, and what cocktail they’d make with it. This issue, our team comprises bartenders Sabrine Dhaliwal, Adam Domet, J-S Dupuis, Robyn Gray, Jay Jones, Trevor Kallies, Jeff Savage and Kaitlyn Stewart. Here’s what they had to say. Sip and shop accordingly.
Hennessy Very Special Cognac
40% ABV, $68.99 (750 mL)
“A lively and fruity Cognac on the nose with a soft vanilla undertone remains a staple on my home bar,” says Dhaliwal, bar manager at Juke Fried Chicken. “This Cognac is anything but vanilla. It’s a full-bodied Cognac explosive with spice, apricots and toasted almonds, with long finishing notes of orange marmalade that leave you wanting more.”
Cocktail: Sidecar, Sazerac and tiki cocktails. “It’s also a great spirit to enjoy neat or over ice,” she says.
Angel’s Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon
43.3% ABV, $79.99 (750 mL)
“Locked down at home, COVID zombies are taking over, there is only one bottle I could possibly think of having—Lincoln Henderson’s own Angel’s Envy,” Domet, bar manager of Pourhouse, says of this whiskey finished in Port wine barrels. “The soothing, intricate aromas of pecan, toasted bread and raisins calm the dread of being stuck inside, while the mouth-warming palate notes of bitter chocolate, ripe fruit and Madeira inspire us for the world waiting for us on the other side.”
Cocktails: Old Fashioned, Bourbon and Bubbles.
Jean-Sébastien (JS) Dupuis:
21% ABV, $34.65 (1 L)
“Cynar is an Italian amaro, deriving its main flavour from artichoke (Cynara scolymus), hence the name,” says Dupuis, the beverage director of Wentworth Hospitality Group. “It has a total of 13 ingredients, giving it very earthy aromas and flavours of caramel, toffee, coffee, dried leaves, menthol, aloe and of course artichoke. Cynar differentiates itself by being more on the earthy side of amaros, still providing richness, sweetness and a drying bitterness. If I had to choose one amaro for the rest of my life, it would be Cynar.”
Cocktails: “It can be used as a substitute for Campari, but due to its earthy and caramel tones, as opposed to bright and citrusy flavours, I prefer using Cynar with barrel-aged and spicy spirits such as rye whisky, bourbon or a sharp Canadian whisky,” Dupuis says. “I use it instead of adding sugar and bitters to an Old Fashioned.”
Cinzano Rosso Vermouth
15% ABV, $11.99 (1L)
“Vermouth takes its name from vermut, the German word for wormwood, its defining ingredient,” says Gray, bar manager of Homer Street Cafe and Bar. “Cinzano Rosso, in my opinion, is the most versatile sweet vermouth for a myriad of classic cocktails. Not too sweet or overpowering, it has just the right amount of herbal complexity and cherry vanilla persistence to lend itself to a Negroni as well as it does to a Manhattan—while not breaking the bank at only $12.”
Cocktails: “My favourite way to enjoy Cinzano is with a splash of soda water and a slice of orange,” Gray says.
40% ABV, $29.99 (750 mL)
“I remember fearing this bottle in my teens, that dust-caked green potion lurking in the back of my parents’ liquor cabinet,” says Jones, the bar development leader for JOEY Restaurants. “Once I started bartending, it continued to haunt me from its neglected corner of the back bar. I curiously cracked it open one day, many years ago, to be rewarded with spicy aromas and sweet tastes of my childhood.
“While not made of licorice, Pernod’s anise persona is kindredly warm with robust personality—sparking memories of candy and ice cream treats. (I was a weird kid that loved big quirky flavours. Still am.) Though distinctly sweet with shameless aniseed and hot with spirit, it reveals layers of depth, bitter structure and a drying finish—equally nostalgic and modern in tone; a legendary taste that is inimitably delicious. Whether in a lead or supporting role, the personality Pernod Anise brings is indistinguishably captivating.”
Cocktails: “Pernod bottles do not collect dust in my home bar as a nightly indulgence of a generous pour mixed with ice and water is simply perfect,” says Jones. That said, he also enjoys Pernod in his own take on a Swizzle or a rum-based drink he calls Nautical Disaster.
Beefeater London Dry Gin
40% ABV, $23.99 (750 mL)
“Citrus! The nose of Beefeater is essentially citrus,” says Kallies, the bar and beverage director at Donnelly Group and president of the CPBA. “Think of a bowl of Fruit Loops cereal and you’re on the right track. Juniper shines mid-palate, both late on the nose and majority of flavour. The back end is where the playful botanicals come out: anise, coriander and more citrus. It is a versatile gin without an over-the-top juniper hit. There’s rarely a time I don’t have some variation of Beefeater on the home bar, be it London Dry, Market, Garden, Beefeater 24, Burroughs, Crown Jewel or any of the other variations.”
Cocktail: “The Freezer Martini has dominated the past few months for home-drinking and Zoom calls. I like mine wet with a bit less dilution than you’d typically receive at a bar,” Kallies says. To make it, he fills a swing-top bottle with three parts gin, one part dry vermouth, a bit of water for dilution and a small splash of orange bitters, tucks it in the freezer, then enjoys as needed.
55% ABV, $40.99 (375 mL)
“I’ve chosen our household staple: Green Chartreuse. This seriously famous spirit likely needs little introduction, but is endlessly fun to discuss,” says Savage, head bartender at Botanist Bar at the Fairmont Pacific Rim. “In the glass, the spirit reveals itself in its namesake colour, shimmering with a hint of opalescence. What I most love about Chartreuse is that both on the nose and on the palate, I always find something different each time I return to it. At first, it’s wild mint, rosemary and alpine wormwood, but then those flavours give way to honey, mountain flowers, baking spice and vanilla. For me, Chartreuse stands on the razor’s edge between elegance and nuance on one side, and untamed wildness on the other.”
Cocktail: “Apart from drinking it after dinner,” Savage says, “I absolutely love it in a rich hot chocolate to warm up in the wintertime, or a play on a Tom Collins using your favourite gin, Green Chartreuse, lime juice, a little sugar and either soda or tonic.”
Don Julio Blanco Tequila
40% ABV, $79.99 (750 mL)
“Tequila is most definitely essential to my home bar, being that it is my favourite spirit,” says Stewart, consultant, educator and 2017 Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year. “I think tequila automatically gets a bad rap because either you yourself have had a bad experience or have heard horror stories about other people’s experiences. Well, I’ll happily vouch for tequila any day of the week. A well-crafted blanco tequila like Don Julio typically has such nice bright green, refreshing notes to it. Bright, green, green pepper, slightly grassy, small back note of white pepper, always fresh.”
Cocktail: Batanga (tequila, lime, cola—a Cuba Libre with tequila instead of rum) or Margarita. “When used properly, tequila can lend such a nice balance to a refreshing style cocktail,” Stewart says. “Don’t be afraid of this delicious spirit!”