We’ve long been conditioned to accept as a canon law that expensive liquor is best sipped neat or on the rocks. It’s a natural, but outmoded notion—one that might be keeping you from finding your next favorite drink.
But that doesn’t mean you should just throw fiscal prudence to the wind. To find out which high-end spirits are best-suited to mixing in cocktails, PUNCH polled bartenders from around the country to glean their top picks off the top shelf, and to see what had changed since we last checked in. Here, they share a selection of essential and esoteric bottles that are worth the splurge—plus how to use them.
The gin category experienced one of the decade’s most dramatic booms, with upticks in both producers and consumers, making it a more global spirit than ever. The top shelf reflects this burgeoning cosmopolitanism, with high-end gins exemplifying a range of distillation techniques and terroir-driven provenances.
Distilled from rice and water sourced from the sake-brewing district of Fushimi-ku, the Japanese ($74) is championed by “The style is so different from all the other gins,” says Chu, who loves playing with the citrusy, earthy and herbal notes derived from indigenous botanicals like yellow yuzu, Japanese cypress chips and sanshō berries. “I love it for highballs, Martinis and Negronis.” ($69). “The citrus on the nose is absolutely incredible,” she says, “and the juice makes for one of the best martinis I’ve ever had.”
High-end Old Tom gins, meanwhile, offer their own functionality in cocktails. Lateefah Curtis, bartender at Philadelphia’s likes Oregon’s barrel-aged ($38), which she uses in a simple 2-to-1 Manhattan variation. Its woody tones echo whiskey, while still delivering a well-rounded botanical punch. “It is approachable, [but] isn’t oversimplified,” she says. At in Baltimore, Tammy Bouma serves Caledonia Spirits’ ($49) with the guest’s choice of house-made pine cone syrup, apple cider reduction or barrel-aged hickory syrup, for a thoroughly modern Old-Fashioned variation. “[The gin] brings a delicious woodiness,” says Bouma.
Attempting to navigate the world of high-end rums can often result in analysis paralysis—no spirit boasts a deeper bench. It’s a task best left to tropically versed specialists with years of experience maximizing the rums’ personalities in the cocktail glass.
Kevin Beary, of ($105), best deployed with nothing more than a quarter-ounce of honey syrup and a big hunk of ice. The beverage director also singles out ($100), a recent release from the Barbados cult distillery, a synthesis of pot- and column-still fermented molasses distillates aged 14 years in both bourbon and sherry casks. Beary loves it as a treat-yourself choice for a traditional Barbadian Corn ’n’ Oil—2 ounces rum, a splash of falernum, ice and a slice of lime.
Elsewhere, Ivy Mix of Brooklyn’s loves ($60); its signature high esters are “perfect for adding a bite to any rum cocktail,” she says. Chu, meanwhile, is an outspoken fan of ($51), which comprises distiller Maggie Campbell’s hand-selected “seconds” across multiple distillation runs; these cuts are re-distilled together, before being aged for two to four years. “It makes for one of the most delicious Daiquiris,” says Chu.
Mix suggests grabbing a bottle of ($108), “if you want to make the most delicious mezcal cocktail ever.” The ultraluxe spirit is distilled in the Oaxacan highlands from Tepextate agave plants that are between 15 and 18 years old at harvest. Wild fermentation prior to alembic distillation imbues the juice with vibrant notes of flowers and fruit, in addition to steady smoke, providing “tons to work off of when making a cocktail,” says Mix.
At the Manhattan mezcaleria bartender Kip Moffitt’s Spanish-speaking spin on the Vesper features ($47), which joins forces with the kindred ($46) and an epazote-infused vermouth made from Baja California Chardonnay. This all-Mexican production comes together thanks to the interplay between the “cooked-but-dry notes” of the former and the “strong green vegetable and white pepper” of the latter, according to bar director Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez.
At Donna, Chu has indulged a few special-occasion calls for Margaritas made with ($125), a terroir-driven, if generally cost-prohibitive, flourish.
With well-heeled Japanese expressions consistently topping tastemakers’ lists, it’s no surprise that they remain popular go-tos for a number of bartenders. Kansas City’s distillery, has stirred up split-base Manhattans marrying ($95) with his own The Asian single malt, which spends years resting in mizunara (Japanese oak) barrels, is a graceful foil for any stateside counterpart; of course, it also “makes a mean highball,” according to Maybee. A tiki enthusiast, Chu has worked both ($104) and ($88) into tropical experiments, capitalizing on their unexpected notes of ginger, dried tropical fruit and candied citrus. Bouma, in Baltimore, finds that ($77) “really stands up to use in cocktails. You don’t lose the malt character in a Rob Roy, or even a Penicillin.”
Though purists might cringe at the mere suggestion, high-end Irish and Scottish single-malt can also shine in the hands of a thoughtful bartender. Triple-distilled, then aged primarily in oloroso sherry and bourbon casks ahead of finishing in port barrels, ($101) offers a complex array of chocolate and dried fruit flavors. “Put this in an Irish coffee or any classic cocktail and it’ll blow your mind,” says Vose.
A signature of the venerated Speyside distillery, ($59) is another decadent whisky that spends months resting on sherry wood; Jesse Cornell, who tends bar at in Philadelphia, capitalizes on the natural symbiosis between nuts and citrus, stirring it with Grand Marnier and touches of Carpano Antica and Averna. “It’s a really nice Scotch that works on its own—and as a bonus, plays well with others,” he says.
At the newly opened in Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel, beverage director Jim Kearns dedicates the bulk of his brown-liquor budget to ($61). Wild Turkey’s audacious 104-proof expression, with its classically spicy rye and malted barley mashbill, provides a sturdy backbone for the classically-leaning menu, which features whiskey stalwarts like the Manhattan, Sazerac and Vieux Carré.
Based in Marthasville, about an hour outside St. Louis, Edelbrand Pure Distilling is a small, family-run operation producing brandy in the Old World Swiss style. “[They’re] absolutely gorgeous spirits that add a ton of complexity and layers of flavor to cocktails,” says Maybee, who leans on ($49.50/375ml) in a variety of applications at the cocktail bar inside J. Rieger & Co.
In Philadelphia, Vernick Food & Drink’s J.B. Bernstein uses ($55) in his Devil’s in the Details cocktail, accompanying unaged Armagnac, rye, berry liqueur and Pedro Ximénez sherry. He also stocks PM Spirits’ ($55), another unaged (Blanche) Armagnac. “It’s very drinkable on its own, [but] works extremely well in place of any whiskey or Cognac in a cocktail. I love it in a sour, as well,” he says.
Brian Evans, Director of Bars for works a number of lesser-appreciated premium spirits onto the menus across the group’s four New York venues. Distilled in Brooklyn, ($43) “shows off the flavor of dill like no other spirit on the market,” says Evans, who incorporates it alongside the herbaceous flavors of ($75); the entirety of their line is “amazing on its own, on the rocks, or as a cocktail modifier,” says Chu.