Substituting Alcohols

Brand loyalty is just as big in the adult beverage industry as it is in any other retail industry. And just like having a Lexus, a Saturn, or a Kia all means the same thing – you have a car – some auto buffs would argue there’s no substituting one from the others.

Substituting alcohols is pretty much like substituting cars. It’s certainly doable but getting the best results requires knowing a little of the background data.

All vodkas are made from neutral spirits formulated to have little if any flavor. The neutral flavor makes vodka one of the best mixing liquors around. All gins are neutral grain spirits but they’re flavored with juniper berries, from which they get their name, plus dozens of other herbs and spices.

Rum is distilled fermented sugar cane molasses and brandy is distilled wine. A large succulent plant, the blue agave, which grows in the area around Tequila, Mexico, is distilled to make all tequilas.

Rum and tequila come in colors, from clear to dark brown. The darker the liquid, the longer it has aged in a wooden cask. The longer it ages, the more of the wood’s color and flavor is leached into the alcohol, mellowing it while giving it a more complex flavor and aroma. The clear stuff is excellent for mixing cocktails but the darker stuff is better for sipping straight or on the rocks. The longer a liquor ages, the more expensive it is, the more pronounced its flavor.

Whiskeys are a little trickier but they’re all basically the same. They’re all made from a combination of corn, barley, and rye. Bourbon was first made in Bourbon County, Kentucky, but most whiskey made in Kentucky these days is called bourbon. Tennessee whiskeys go through a charcoal filtering process that doesn’t happen in Kentucky but it’s basically the same as all the other whiskeys made in Canada and the US.

Some whiskeys are sour mashes, meaning the grains were allowed to ferment before distillation and they have a bolder flavor than the others. Blended whiskeys have the smoothest flavors; one Canadian blended whiskey, Crown Royal, has a die-hard fan base but so does Jack Daniels, a Tennessee sour mash, and Jim Beam, a Kentucky bourbon.

All US and Canadian whiskeys can be substituted with no earth-shattering consequences. The flavors of Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey, however, are quite distinct and any substitutions should remain true to national origin. For example, it’s OK to substitute Glenfiddich Scotch for Dewar’s Scotch or Old Bushmill Irish whiskey for Jameson but don’t substitute Scotch for Irish or vice versa. And don’t substitute US/Canadian whiskeys for Scotch or Irish.

Just as US/Canadian whiskeys can be substituted safely, so can all vodkas, gins, rums, tequilas, and brandies. Before doing so indiscriminately, though, it’s good to know something of grades.

Booze comes in three grades – well, premium, and top shelf. Well grades are the least expensive, premiums more so, and top-shelf liquors cost the most. This grading system applies to the liquor store just as it does to a bar.

Well drinks are the brands the bartender has right under his mixing station, where his bar gun is. These liquors are used most often so he keeps them handiest. They’re also the least expensive of any given type of liquor sold at the bar. Premium drinks require a brand name and are more expensive than well drinks. Top-shelf drinks require the customer to name the brand, too, but they are the very top of the line of the particular type of booze and are the most expensive. They’re on the top shelf because it’s hardest to reach, an OK situation since they’re the least-often sold.

For example, ordering a rum and Coke will get you a well drink, made from the least expensive clear rum the bar stocks. Order a Bacardi and Coke, a premium drink, and you’ll pay more but you’ll get a better grade of rum, one that has aged in a wooden barrel for several years. Ordering a Bacardi Black and Coke will get you a drink made from rum aged so long it’s almost black, ultra-smooth tasting, and very expensive. It’s a top-shelf drink.

Liquor stores are arranged along the same system. Well drinks are on the bottom shelves, closest to the floor, perhaps representing their lower status. From waist to eyebrow, you’ll find the premium liquors, more expensive but with loyal brand-name followings. They’re easy to spot and easy to reach. On the uppermost shelves are the most expensive choices, the longest aged and most specially made options of each kind of liquor. The top-shelf liquors.

When substituting alcohols, the best results come when buying close to the same grade. It’s financially foolish to substitute a top-shelf liquor when a well grade is acceptable but serving a well grade to someone who is a loyal fan of a top-shelf brand is likely to bring poor reviews. The most leeway comes in the premium, middle, grade but it’s quite acceptable to buy less-expensive premium liquors, especially when serving a crowd. Save the more expensive stuff for smaller, more intimate gatherings.

Actually, when serving a big crowd, only a snob would speak poorly of serving well drinks but who wants to party with a snob anyway?