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The unsung heroes of spirits

In the fast-paced spirits market, new and trendy bottles grab all the headlines. But what about the old, reliable benchmark brands that always deliver? Or the underrated drinks that lurk beneath the radar? All hail the unsung spirits heroes, says Neil Ridley. 

Behind every back bar and drinks cabinet lies a truly neglected gem. A fallen angel. You’ll know the ones I mean. Those bottles of spirits which are seldom called for with enthusiasm. The ones that seem to gravitate towards the outer rim of a gleaming bar, stocked full of the latest trend-setting goodies; or are pushed back into the dark abyss of a drinks cabinet, unceremoniously left there to gather dust and to ponder just why they have fallen out of favour.

As the year started, I had something of an epiphany about these unsung heroes. Despite my love for quirky, unusual flavours – and my drinks cabinet stuffed full of newer craft brands – I began to miss the consistency and sheer joy of what classic brands can often bring to a drink.

So I began sifting backwards to the ubiquitous dusties I had left behind. For some drinkers, ubiquity is often a reason to pass a brand by. However I say, it’s high time to revisit those classics.

Spoiled for choice

I also raised the question with some of the sharpest minds in the drinks business. Which brands do they think demand a reappraisal?

‘We are so overwhelmed with choice for fantastic spirits these days,’ says award-winning drinks writer, Millie Milliken. ‘The urge to have the best, shiny, new thing can often mean that brands which have been propping up in this industry for years get easily forgotten. I’d argue that without them, we wouldn’t have a benchmark on which to set our standards for the newbies vying for our attention. And that deserves some bloody respect,’ she adds.

Dennis Broci, manager of bars at London’s Claridge’s hotel, shares a similar view. ‘As operators, we’re always looking for a brand that customers might not have tasted before – one that has wow  factor. But we have to understand how to balance this principle with the classics, which offer stability and value for money. Use them and people are always surprised and impressed.’

Rediscovered drams

Take the whisk(e)y category. With so many new craft bottles available, it’s easy to see why the classics out there are sometimes overlooked. I’ve recently rediscovered an undeniably brilliant blended Scotch, Cutty Sark, which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Meanwhile Irish whiskey Bushmills Black Bush is an incredibly rich blend, full of oily viscosity and spice. Bobby Hiddleston, co-owner of the multi-award winning bar Swift in London is also a fan. ‘I love Black Bush. It’s excellent and I reckon that if we left our comfy cocktail bar bubble and went to the pubs, we’d find a higher percentage of Black Bush drinkers.’

Both Milliken and Broci opted for a couple of American classics, which perhaps don’t get the praise they deserve these days. ‘Jack Daniels is so often derided – not just by whisky snobs but also by people who think they sound clever by saying it’s poor,’ explains Milliken.

‘They forget that, actually, when it comes to Tennessee whiskey, JD is the perfect embodiment of what this style of whiskey should be. And it has been the gateway for many people: not only to American whiskies but to whisky full stop.’

For Broci, Maker’s Mark has been a speed-rail staple since he started bartending. ‘People look for something more complex, but you’ll be paying three times the price, so it’s incredible value for money. If I’m making an Old Fashioned at home, it’s what I’ll always use,’ he says.

Botanical beauties

The explosion of radical, innovative flavours in gin has meant that classic brands are often  sidelined by those thirsty for new experiences. However when it comes to seriously good all-rounders, with a true heart of juniper, the likes of Gordon’s, Beefeater and Plymouth really have stood the test of time for a very good reason.

Emma Stokes, gin expert and drinks writer, agrees. ‘Plymouth is a gin that sadly sometimes gets forgotten about. It has the historical credentials, an interesting story and a beautifully balanced recipe.’

She recommends: ‘Come in for the standard gin, stay for the Navy Strength! It’s arguably one of the best gins in the navy strength category, not least because, for almost two centuries, no ship left port without a bottle on board.’

Renowned gin author and spirits competition judge David T Smith also concurs. ‘Beefeater is an absolute solid all-rounder that not only makes a great G&T, but also a Martini or Negroni. Get it at the slightly higher strength versions of 44% – or the 50% Crown Jewel edition – and it can truly hold its own against the best of them.’

Hidden gems

There are other drinks cabinet gems worth re-exploring too. Spirits writer and presenter Joel Harrison picked the Greek spirit Metaxa as his ‘renaissance tipple’. ‘Metaxa 7 Stars is a galaxy of flavour that brings together a rounded note of grape with a sweet-yet-bitter orange note. This makes it a versatile addition to cocktails, fulfilling a role that no other product can.’

And whilst we’re delving deep into the drinks cabinet, spare a thought for good old Angostura Bitters.  Surely THE choice for making cocktails, Angostura never quite gets the praise it truly deserves, as a perfectly balanced, versatile brand – especially now that a whole host of new craft bitters have lined up to tantalise your tastebuds.

‘Ever tried an Old Fashioned without Angostura? Yes? Then you weren’t drinking an Old Fashioned… Fact!’ points out Josh Linfitt, bar manager for Ugly Butterfly, the Cornish restaurant established by Michelin-starred chef, Adam Handling.

So let the spirited renaissance begin here! There’s wisdom, complexity, great value for money and a few welcome surprises waiting for you at the back of the drinks cabinet…

Unsung spirits heroes: bottles to try

Absolut Vodka

Once seen as THE cutting edge vodka, other more craft-led brands may have since risen above Absolut in the cool stakes. But overlook how well made a spirit Absolut is at your peril. Still a superb choice for a Vodka Martini. Alcohol 40%

Angostura Bitters

It seems crazy to put this on the list of underrated brands, but Angostura can get overlooked given the explosion of niche flavours in cocktail bitters – everything from chipotle to truffle and beyond… Angostura will always bring a unique spicy balance and complexity to your cocktails. A true benchmark, by which all others should be judged. Alc 44.7%

Ben Nevis 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch

A superbly aged, complex single malt, which has been criminally overlooked in recent years. Roasted coffee, dark chocolate and a fragrant peaty note to rival the best, make this a superb choice in the colder months. Alc 46%

Bushmills Black Bush Irish Whiskey

Bushmills Black Bush contains an impressively high percentage (around 80%) of malt. An incredibly rich, spicy, Sherried, viscous and oily blended Irish whiskey. Alc 40%

Cutty Sark Blended Scotch Whisky

Conceived back in 1923 as a lighter style blended Scotch, Cutty Sark still delivers wonderful vanilla and citrus notes and is absolutely perfect for highball-style serves. Alc 40%

Domaine Tariquet XO Bas-Armagnac

Pretty much the entire category of Armagnac is an unsung hero in the world of French brandy – and this readily available XO shows why. Bold spicy oak and deliciously complex dried fruits aplenty. Alc 40%

Havana Club 3 Year Old Rum

Despite the recent explosion of more specialist rums on the market, to this day, Havana Club remains the go-to choice for a peerless Daiquiri. A fruity, viscous and incredibly versatile rum. Alc 40%

Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon

The famous red wax top has adorned this wonderfully fruity-yet-malty, sweet-yet-complex bourbon since the late 1950s. An absolute go-to American whiskey for Old Fashioneds or a well-balanced Manhattan. Alc 45%

Metaxa 7 Stars

Often seen as a holiday romance in a glass, this titanic Greek spirit is essentially like a brandy, but laden with complex flavours from aged Muscat wines and a secret tincture of aromatic herbs and spices. It deserves a place on every back bar and drinks cabinet. Makes a superb Old Fashioned or long spritz. Alc 40% 

Plymouth Gin Original

If you think you know your gin but don’t own a bottle of Plymouth, then think again. An undisputed classic, with a heavy juniper content and perfectly balanced herbaceous/citrus notes. Arguably no drinks cabinet should be without a bottle. Alc 41.2%

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