Cocktail cabinet looking a bit bare? Drinks expert Rich Woods talks us through the most innovative, exciting takes on classic spirits so you know which bottles to invest in next.
Find out more about our BBC Good Food reviews.
With home bartending and specialist knowledge of spirits on the rise, makers and distillers have been flexing to keep up. This more conscientious approach to drinking has brought with it a ‘quality over quantity’ approach. But with so many amazing products to choose from, what spirits stand out and why are they worth the investment? Here I talk through the classic spirits that make up a solid drinks cabinet, and give suggestions on how to buy the best.
Top 10 on-trend spirits for your cocktail cabinet
Memories of bad tequila episodes at college are giving way to a new era of premium quality agave spirit, and when it comes to tequila, premium quality doesn’t always mean a premium price tag. This firewater is essential for drinks such as the epic Margarita and Poloma and can be used to create simple twists on the Old Fashioned or Negroni.
Rich’s top product pick... Cabeza
Tequila Cabeza is made by the Vivanco family and was launched by the 86 Company, a collective that creates spirits with some of the world’s best distillers in close consulation with the bartending community.
Simply translated as ‘bitter’, Italian amaros are intensely rich in flavour and are great for adding depth to your drinks. They come in a variety of forms, including varieties made from artichoke or rhubarb, and sometimes as little as a teaspoon is all you need to transform a classic Manhattan or Old Fashioned.
Rich’s top product pick... Amaro Di Angostura
Angostura has now combined its iconic Bitters with a neutral spirit to create a long drink that has all the herby, spicy flavour of its signature bottle.
Liqueur adds a certain something to cocktails. Abundant in fruit, nut, sweet and bitter flavours there’s a huge variety to chose from. The right choice can do wondrous things to your liquid creations.
Rich’s top product pick... Mr. Black
Coffee culture is big news and riding the crest of the wave is this delightful cold drip coffee liqueur from Mr. Black. Placed in the fridge or served over ice it’s decadent and lush. Mixed 50/50 with whisky or tequila takes it to a whole new level.
If you’re a fan of whisky, a Japanese variety should claim a sacred space on your drinks shelf, though be warned, production can’t keep up with demand. The trend spiked in late 2014 when whisky expert and drinks writer Jim Murray proclaimed that a single malt from Japan to be “the best in the world”, making it a highly-coveted drink in the process.
Rich’s top product pick... Hibiki Harmony
To combat the declining availability of age statement whiskies (those with the year of maturation on the bottle) several distilleries have released either young or non age statement whisky. One such example is Hibiki’s Harmony, a blend of ten single malts and grain whiskies, using stocks from both their Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries.
Gin is one of the quickest growing spirit categories and the trend isn’t just a UK phenomena – export figures show that we now ship more than 130 million bottles abroad a year, and there’s no sign of the trend slowing down. Today’s gin is a far cry from the unpalatable and often harmful spirit of yesteryear. Craft distilleries and small batch bottles are all the rage and gin, once seen as the reserve of the mature drinker, is now the acceptable choice for many 20-30 somethings, having emerged from college or university at the tail-end of the vodka era. Drinks such as Negroni, Martini, gin fizz and the luscious Clover Club all exist thanks to gin.
Rich’s top product pick... Givinity
Created in Cambridge, this gorgeously presented and elegantly bottled spirit is packed with nine botanicals including almond, raspberry, rose petal and mandarin zest.
As more and more people become increasingly aware of what they’re drinking, lower ABV spirits like vermouth and fortified wines are gaining in popularity. Be warned though: once opened, these bottles should remain in your fridge, which is great news as that means more space on your home bar.
Rich’s top product pick... Martini Riserva Speciale Ambrato and Rubino
This premium vermouth is a true celebration of Italy. It contains lots of locally-sourced botanicals including three types of native Artemisia, Roman chamomile, yellow cinchona bark, Italian holy thistle and red sandalwood, all of which are blended with the finest Italian wines.
It’s the foundation for failsafe cocktails like Cosmopolitan and Moscow Mule, so it’s no wonder vodka is still the most-consumed spirit category in the world and a ‘go-to’ choice in many bars.
Rich’s top product pick... Our/London vodka
Our/Vodka is a pioneering and innovative global brand partnership between Pernod Ricard and local distilleries from around the world. Already set up in major cities such as Berlin, Detroit and Seattle, the London branch of this distilling family is run out of railway arches in Hackney. This wheat base vodka is perfect to share at a party with friend’s as it comes in a 350ml bottle. It uses a global recipe at its base with ingredients from each city sourced locally, giving each its own character.
Bitters are the Worcestershire sauce of the cocktail world – they serve as a condiment-like flavour enhancer that’s used sparingly to add depth to mixed drinks and cocktails. A few splashes lighten, liven and round off a mixed drink, and they’re a staple of any bar.
Rich’s top product pick... Bitter Truth Cucumber
This cucumber bitters from the German giant Bitter Truth is a great accompaniment for light or white spirit-based cocktails such as Gimlet or a Fizz. Try a few drops in a gin & tonic, a floral Martini or summer favourite, the Pimm’s Cup.
If you’re entertaining someone who’s abstaining from alcohol for what ever reason, serving a non-alcoholic spirit is a great idea. Try substituting the spirit in tropical cocktails, such a fruity Daiquiri or a non-alcoholic fruit punch and offer your guest more than the normal fruity, sweet, nondescript non-alcoholic drink.
Rich’s top product pick... Seedlip
Seedlip is a blend of natural distillates of wood, spice and citrus with no sugar or sweetener and is a world first, so its hard to compare. But in an age where more and more people are consciously abstaining from alcohol, it’s an ingenious product.
A decade ago, your local pub would probably offer a limited choice of a light Cuban-style rum like Bacardi, a navy-style rum such as Lamb’s and possibly a Caribbean-style rum such as Mount Gay. Fast forward to today and there are in excess of 300 varieties of rum available on the UK market, all clambering to be your top pick. Rum is a great staple for the home bar and the right choice can make the foundation for many a cocktail, simple daiquiris and mojitos to the more tropical mai tai.
Rich’s top product pick... Plantation Pineapple Stiggins’ Fancy
This fruity spin on rum is created by infusing ripe Queen Victoria pineapples in rich, aged Plantation Original Dark Rum for three months. The pineapple rind is where the pineapple’s essential oils chiefly reside, so this is macerated in rum and then distilled, creating a bright pineapple essence to blend with the lushness of the infused Plantation rum.
For all of the products mentioned in this review, various retailers have been suggested by our affiliate partner Monetizer 101 and are not suggested or chosen by BBC Good Food. For more information on how these retailers are selected and the nature of our partnership, please read the Monetizer101 FAQ page.
More on drinks...
This review was last updated in March 2018. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability please get in touch at email@example.com.
What's your favourite spirit brand and why? We'd like to hear your product suggestions in the comments below...