Top Shelf Liquor (What to know BEFORE You Order That Drink)

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One of the best lessons a fledgling dilettante can learn is how to order a drink. Anyone can pop the top on a bottle of beer at a backyard barbecue. But it takes a certain amount of class to sidle up to the bar and confidently order Top Shelf Liquor.

You don’t have to be an A-lister to drink like one and you certainly don’t have to order a Macallan or Stolinaya Elit to rub elbows with the boardroom crowd. But it is important to know the difference between top shelf liquor and well drinks. You’re out of college now and hanging with career trailblazers. This isn’t the time to order a Happy Hour beer or a glass of house red. Knowledge of spirits is a social currency.

The Light and Dark of it

Top shelf liquor can be put into two main categories: lights and darks. Vodka, Tequila and gin are lights, while brandy, scotch and whisky are darks. Rum can be either light or dark.

All spirits that are distilled can be one of four tiers: Luxury, Top shelf, Middle shelf and Value. The more aging, the better the flavor and the higher the price—and the further up the shelves the bottle will climb.

The Clear Spirits

The flavors of clear spirits are derived from the source they are distilled from. Because they have less congeners—compounds derived during fermentation—some experts say clear spirits are less likely to cause hangovers.

  • Gin comes in two basic styles and is distilled from grain or malt and flavored with juniper berries.
  • Rum is distilled from molasses or sugar cane. All rums start out clear, turning deeper shades of amber the longer it’s aged in barrels.
  • Sake is a clear spirit distilled from rice wine.
  • Tequila is distilled from the fruit of the blue agave plant. Like rum, all tequilas start out clear, but some turn golden or amber with aging.
  • Vodka is a true neutral spirit, crystal clear, with no discernible flavor or aroma. Modern vodka producers, however, may flavor their vodkas, changing the taste and sometimes the color to match the color of the fruit juice or synthetic flavoring.

The Dark Spirits

Dark spirits often start out clear before being aged in barrels where coloring agents such as burnt sugar are added. The liquor is distilled from grains like barley, corn, rye and wheat, with the exception of brandy, which is distilled from wine or fruit.

  • Brandy is a spirit distilled from wine or a fruit.
  • Whiskey is a spirit distilled from barley, corn, rye, or wheat. A blended whiskey contains several straight whiskeys and added neutral spirits.
  • Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey are distilled spirits made only in the United States and by law, must contain 51 percent corn.
  • Canadian Whisky is a distilled spirit made in Canada, generally from a mix of grains, primarily corn.
  • Irish Whiskey is a distilled spirit made in Ireland from a mix of grains dominated by barley.
  • Scotch Whisky is a distilled spirit made in Scotland from a mix of grains, primarily malted barley.

Luxury Vs. Value

Top shelf liquor often contains natural, higher quality ingredients and undergoes particular distilling and aging processes. Beside the ingredients, much of what defines the flavor of top shelf liquor comes from the care put into the distillation process, and the amount of congeners removed.

Millennials in particular are driving the growth of the top shelf liquor market, with spirits outselling beer every year since 2012, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States says. Beer still has most of the market share—47%—but it’s been shrinking as spirits (36%), and wine, (17%), steadily grow.

Millennials don’t ask for just any kind of booze when they’re out; they prefer top shelf liquor. Behind the Bottle: An Exploration of Trends in the Spirits Category found that 28% of millennials order premium brands to impress their peers, compared to 20% of generation Y and just 11% of baby boomers.

Emerging Trends in Top Shelf Liquor

Vodka generates 25% of the industry’s revenue, but whiskey remains the strongest player, with 32.5% of the spirits market. Industry studies show that consumers are willing to spend more on higher quality white spirits, however one in five millennials say dark liquors are overall more sophisticated.

Craft spirits are another emerging trend within the top shelf liquor category. Although the definition of “craft” is flimsy, it has grown almost 8% every year since 2010.

What’s in a Name?

Top shelf liquor brands vary greatly in how they are made. Which one is best is largely a matter of choice. How you drink it—neat, on the rocks or in a mixer—may factor in to which brand you choose.

Common perceptions:

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  • Cheap liquor causes headaches.
  • Cheap liquor causes hangovers.
  • Expensive liquor has no “burn” when swallowed.
  • Expensive liquor is smoother.
  • The more times distilled or longer its aged, the better the liquor.

Whether hangovers can be prevented with higher-end booze is up for debate. The only real way to prevent hangovers is to go by your own experience—and drink responsibly.

Know the jargon

Knowing the rules and the proper terminology can make you seem like an expert when ordering top shelf liquor. Before approaching the bar, always know exactly what you want and give your order to the bartender with confidence. Knowing the jargon will help you get exactly what you want, while also giving the impression you know what you’re doing.

  • Chilled: You’d like your shot to be cold.
  • Straight up: You’d like your drink chilled, no ice.
  • Shaken: You’d like your cocktail shaken with ice in a cocktail shaker.
  • Double: You’d like twice the amount of liquor in your cocktail.
  • Neat: You’d like your cocktail served without ice or mixer.
  • On the rocks: You’d like your cocktail served with ice.
  • Dirty: You’d like olive juice and olives in your martini.
  • Dry: You’d like a martini with less vermouth.
  • Wet: You’d like a martini with more vermouth

What to order

The after-work scene is a delicate ecosystem, especially if the boss tags along. But it’s a great opportunity to get to know people outside of office-mode and, more importantly, give them a chance to get to know another version of you.

You already know to ask for top shelf liquor, but what brand? What kind of drink should you order?

To look smart as well as hip, go with the trends without being too obvious. Most important, pay attention to the bar’s vibe. A Moscow mule works better in a sports bar while a martini is a safe bet in any cocktail lounge. If a bar has a drink menu, check it out for house creations. Bartenders take pride in concocting original recipes that complement top shelf liquor.

When in doubt, these classics always sound smart without being snobby. Be sure to mention a brand and how you want it served (on the rocks, neat, dirty etc.).

  • Moscow mule: Vodka, ginger beer and lime juice served in a classic copper mug. It says confidence—and makes for a great conversation starter.
  • Scotch: Neat or on the rocks, ordering a scotch announces a certain level of sophistication. The key is in the brand—stick with any of the top shelf liquors and you can’t go wrong.
  • Martini: There are many different ways to order a martini—gin, vodka, dirty, wet, dry—and they’re all always classy and impressive.
  • Old fashioned: Typically made with a sugar lump, water, bitters and whiskey, it’s an old-school classic dating to the late 1800s. Know your preferred brand of top shelf liquor before ordering.
  • Sazerac: Made with rye whiskey, bitters and splash of absinthe, this drink is not for lightweights. Ordering one announces that you know your way around a bar.
  • Negroni: This classic Italian cocktail is made of one part gin, one part vermouth rosso and one part Campari. The bartender will be impressed.

Staying in? Here’s how to enjoy top shelf liquor for a fraction of the cost

Bars and restaurants are known for charging an arm and a leg for their drinks and besides, some nights we just prefer staying in, entertaining guests, cuddling by the fire, or just enjoying our own company, the peace and quiet – and a great drink. You’ll find less expensive booze at the liquor store than you will at a bar, but still, you’re going to get what you pay for which means that if you want top-shelf flavor, you’ll have to shell out top-shelf prices.

That is unless you know the best-kept secret in the drinking world: that the only difference between cheap and premium alcohol is how long it was aged. How does that save you money? Well, if you have a small oak barrel for aging liquor in your home, you can transform bottles of the cheap stuff into bottles of the good stuff, and enjoy barrel aged cocktails in a matter of weeks – not years.

The reason that the liquor you buy in stores takes so long to age is that large volumes of liquor are aged in large barrels, often for years. However, when you age a smaller amount of liquor in a smaller barrel, the barrel comes into contact with more of the liquor, resulting in a much faster aging process. That means that you can spend $10 or less on a fifth of your favored alcohol, let it mellow in your oak barrel for a few weeks, and presto! – you suddenly have a much higher quality drink for the bottom shelf price.

Not only are barrel aged cocktails delicious and distinguished, but the barrel itself will look fantastic on your bar. Oak barrels are attractive and sophisticated, and they tell your guests that you are an adult with discerning tastes who knows a thing or two about how to make a good drink. Plus, there will never be a shortage of conversation topics at your house. Anyone who enjoys a smooth drink will be interested in your experience with your barrel, and you’ll enjoy sharing your favorite recipes and your latest barrel aged cocktails.

Oak barrels for home use range from one to 20 liters. These are much smaller than the barrels used in distilleries and age spirits much faster. The smaller the barrel, the faster its contents will age to perfection. A barrel is an excellent investment that will save you lots of time and money over the years. You can age your chosen type of liquor in your barrel for a couple of weeks or longer – your palate will tell you when it’s ready. You can also whip up classic barrel aged cocktails to serve, such as Sidecars or Manhattans.

Wooden barrels for aging liquor are made without nails or glue; the wood stays together thanks to metal hoops placed around the outside. When you cure the barrel, the wood will swell, tightening these hoops and keeping them in place. The insides of the barrels are usually charred, so the only thing you have to do before use is to cure the barrel, which means merely filling it with water and allowing it to swell and eliminate any leaks (you don’t want to waste liquor!). The curing process can take up to a week, so be patient.

When you’re ready to start using your barrel, you can age any liquor you choose, keeping in mind that neutral-flavored liquors such as vodka and gin won’t gain as much and are best flavored with an essence. Spirits with rich, spicy characteristics work very well, such as scotch, bourbon, and rum. Or, you can use American oak barrels to make countless recipes for delectable barrel aged cocktails, such as:

  • Vanilla whiskey: cut open two vanilla beans lengthwise and add whole to two liters of whiskey. Wait at least four weeks before drinking.
  • Vanilla tequila: same as vanilla whiskey, but use tequila instead.
  • Sidecar: three parts whiskey, 1.5 parts brandy, and one part blood orange liqueur – delicious.

These are just a few ideas for barrel aged cocktails to get you started. Your guests will be satisfyingly impressed when you serve one of these at your next get-together. Barrel aging is so much fun and so economical, don’t be surprised if you find that you have a new obsession.

Also, aging liquor in oak barrels is just one of the things you can do when you start this hobby at home. Your barrel aged cocktails will be fantastic, but you can also age wine and beer in oak barrels for an interesting take on these well-liked drinks. When it comes to drinking like an adult, wine is something you should be somewhat knowledgeable about, just like liquor, and you can make a great impression on your friends, guests, boss, or whomever you happen to be entertaining by serving them wine aged in an oak barrel. Its flavor will improve and become more interesting as it takes on the subtle seasoning of whatever you’ve aged in your barrel before. Aging beer at home is another fun pursuit that many homebrewers have started experimenting with. Keep in mind that beer ages faster, as it has less alcohol and lighter flavors than wine or liquor.

So, whether you’re ordering in a bar or serving barrel aged cocktails at home, you now know a little more about choosing good drinks and enjoying quality. Get started making your own barrel aged cocktails with our premium oak barrels and accessories today.

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