How to Make the Perfect Sazerac Cocktail

So you’ve mastered mixing the manhattan, the old fashioned is old news, and you can recite the difference between a gin martini and a vodka martini in your sleep. And yet, that classic cocktail itch is still there. Well read on, because today we’re going to explore another simple, early cocktail, one that isn’t as well-known as the others. If you want to impress your whiskey cocktail-loving friends, try to mix up a Sazerac and see what they think.

The story of the Sazerac goes back to New Orleans in the 1830s, where apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychuad began providing Cognac toddies using a bitters of his own design. The toddies became such a local sensation that a bar called the Sazerac Coffee House began buying his bitters to use in their own cocktail, mixing Cognac with absinthe, bitters, and sugar to make the Sazerac, which is claimed to be the first-ever ‘branded’ cocktail (the old fashioned was around at the time, but was generally just referred to as a ‘cocktail’). Eventually, the Sazerac Coffee House simply bought the rights to Peychaud’s bitters entirely, and when an insect epidemic destroyed French vineyards used to make cognac, the heart of the drink was switched to rye whiskey. In a big blow for Sazerac lovers, absinthe was banned in the US in 1912, and for the next hundred years Sazeracs generally used an anise-flavored liquor called Herbsaint in its place, though in these enlightened days absinthe is freely available again. Now that you know the history, let’s gather our materials and see what we can do with NOLA’s historic (and official) drink.

The ingredients for a Sazerac might sound familiar if you make a lot of classic cocktails: a sugar cube or sugar syrup, 1.5 ounces of rye whiskey (bourbon if you’re a modernist; Cognac if you’re feeling really old school), a quarter ounce of Herbsaint or absinthe, three dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, and a lemon peel for garish. The Sazerac company, no longer a meager bar but now an enormous multinational corporation most well-known for owning Buffalo Trace, of course recommends its own Sazerac brand rye for the job, which is a solid, spicy, and fairly inexpensive choice. We here at Drinkhacker are always fans of Utah-based rye wizards High West, or for a rounder drink you can try Old Grand-Dad’s rye-heavy bourbon. For bitters, there’s only one choice: the Sazerac was built around Peychaud’s bitters, and without it, it’s hardly a Sazerac at all. Peychaud’s is lighter and more floral than the more commonly-used Angostura bitters, and will highlight different aspects of the rye in the glass. The choice of absinthe isn’t quite as vital as the choice of rye, since as you’ll see you really use a very small amount of it, but Lucid is a perennial favorite in our Sazeracs. Just like with an old fashioned, sugar syrup works just as well as a sugar cube and requires much less work, but if you’re serving for guests and want to go through the whole ritual, muddling a sugar cube will add to the mystique.

Now that you have your materials, let’s start making the drink! First, pack an old fashioned glass with ice, and in a second glass mix the sugar with the bitters. If you’re using a sugar cube, pour the bitters on top of it before muddling; if you’re using syrup, just make sure it’s well-mixed with the bitters. Add the 1.5 ounces of whiskey to the glass with the sugar and bitters and stir well — don’t shake. Now that your first glass is sufficiently chilled, dump the ice and add the absinthe. You’re really just using the absinthe to coat the glass, swirl it around good and get it on as much of the inside surface as you can, and then discard the remainder. Finally, add the contents of the second glass to the old fashioned glass with the absinthe rinse. Garnish with a thin slice of lemon peel, and enjoy!

The Sazerac might sound a lot like an old fashioned, but the change in bitters and the addition of the absinthe both show that little things can have a big impact on our cocktails, in this case giving the drink a more complex, herbal character. It’s a unique treat for fans of classic cocktails, and is sure to impress at your next gathering. Try it out and let us know what you think in the comments, and as always, if there are things you’ve always wondered about in the world of alcohol but have been afraid to ask, send us an e-mail to [email protected]

NaNoWriMo Special: Great Authors’ Great Cocktails

It’s that time again. November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, where authors of all ages and experience levels challenge themselves to write a 50,000-word novel in a mere 30 days. Whether you’re already hard at work on your next opus, or you’re getting things ready for an attempt next year, get those creative juices flowing with a look at four great Jazz-age authors and the cocktails they loved.

Ernest Hemingway

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.”

Notable works: The Old Man & The Sea, The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Hemingway is one of the literary titans of the so-called ‘Lost Generation’ writers who were prolific after World War I, a group of bitter young souls who crafted dark, nihilistic prose to strike out against a dark, nihilistic world. Hemingway was almost as famous for his drinking habits as he was for his literary work; this is a man who had a granddaughter named after the French Bordeaux wine Château Margaux. There is enough brainpower put behind Hemingway’s drink of choice that there are debates about which he truly loved the most: was it the mojito, invented in his home-away-from-home in Havana, Cuba? Or the daiquiri, supposedly sipped while he wrote The Old Man & The Sea? We’ll put both drinks down here and the reader can decide which one is more effective as a source of inspiration.

Mojito

1 1/2 oz white rum, 1 oz lime juice, 2 tsp sugar, 6 mint leaves, soda water.

Muddle mint, lime juice, and sugar in a glass of ice. Add rum and top off with soda. Garnish with a sprig of mint.

Daiquiri

1 1/2 oz white rum, 1/2 oz simple syrup, 1 oz lime juice.

Pour all ingredients into a shaker full of ice. Shake well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Truman Capote

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the music the words make.”

Notable works: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood

Truman Capote perfected the art of the literary celebrity, by using his fame from writing pioneering nonfiction works such as In Cold Blood and his larger-than-life force of personality to get adoration from the people around him. A gay man who refused to let himself be ignored by society, Capote took many lovers, hosted massive gala events, partied with Andy Warhol in the ’70s, and remained a dear friend to Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Capote’s drink of choice was the screwdriver, a simple drink with a taste as big and flashy as Capote himself.

Screwdriver

1 3/4 oz vodka, 3 1/2 oz orange juice.

Mix all ingredients in a highball glass filled with ice. Garnish with a thin orange slice.

Dorothy Parker

“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

Notable works: Enough Rope, A Star is Born

While Dorothy Parker doesn’t have a work that stands up to In Cold Blood or The Sun Also Rises, the New York-based poet and essayist had a fiery wit that endures to this day. Parker wrote for Vanity Fair, Vogue, The New Yorker, and countless other famous magazines, and eventually parlayed that success into a time screenwriting for Hollywood, where she was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for A Star is Born. Parker had a known love of the whiskey sour, and she wrote of the effects of too much drink in many acerbic poems.

Whiskey Sour

1 1/2 oz whiskey, 1 oz lemon juice, 1/2 oz simple syrup.

Pour all ingredients into a shaker full of ice. Shake gently and strain into an ice-filled old fashioned glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Raymond Chandler

“As honest as you can expect a man to be in a world where its going out of style.”

Notable works: The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye

Next to Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler is the most influential author on the world of mystery fiction, with every good mystery novel written since the 1939 publication of The Big Sleep at least partially influenced by Chandler’s novel, and his protagonist Philip Marlowe. Like Capote and Parker, Chandler also dabbled in screenwriting, best known for working on the script to Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Chandler, like Ian Fleming with James Bond, used his literary creation to popularize a drink of choice; Philip Marlowe was fond of gimlets in The Long Goodbye, and the detective’s preference for the drink led to the gimlet really catching on in America.

Gimlet

2 oz gin, 2/3 oz sweetened lime juice (Chandler specified Rose’s Lime Juice).

Mix all ingredients into a mixing glass full of ice, strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a slice of lime.

* * *

Are you braving NaNoWriMo this month? Do you have a favorite boozy author that didn’t make the list? Let us know in the comments!

Understanding the Different Styles of Tequila

Like rum, tequila is a versatile spirit: it can be consumed straight or mixed into a wide variety of cocktails, it can make sweet drinks or savory, it’s appropriate for a night on the town or curled up by the fire at home. But there are so many different styles of tequila, it can get overwhelming. Which style is best for making a sweet mixed drink? Which is best for slow sipping? And what do words like “Reposado” or “Extra Añejo” mean, anyway? Follow along while we break down the categories of tequila and see what you can learn about Mexico’s famed spirit.

To start: What, exactly, is tequila? It’s not a distillate of grains — like whisky — or molasses — like rum. Instead, tequila is made from the juice of the agave plant, a Mexican succulent closely related to the yucca. Liquor called mezcal made from distilled agave is produced in many areas of Mexico, but as Cognac is to brandy, to be called tequila, mezcal must be produced in and around the town of Tequila in Mexico’s Jalisco province. During production, tequila is aged for different amounts of time, and that is what will get us the most basic styles of the spirit.

First up is blanco, also sometimes called silver or plata. Blanco tequila is unaged, bottled soon after distillation to prevent changing, and is the most typical tequila used for drinking as a shot and for mixing. Without the barrel influence, blanco tequila represents the pure taste of the agave plant, and the imbiber will get notes of citrus, pepper, light vegetal sweetness, and some heat, which allows the spirit to hold its own in any cocktails you might use it with. Some tequila producers, notably Don Julio, will store their blanco in stainless steel tanks for a month or two, which will cut down on the burn while still keeping the spirit unaged; if a shot of typical blanco is too harsh, you might find a shot of Julio to be a bit more mellow, with a strong grapefruit taste.

Feeling a bit burned out on fiery blanco shots? The next step in the tequila aging process might be just what you’re looking for. With reposado, or “rested,” tequila, the spirit is aged oak barrels (almost always used bourbon barrels) for at least two months and at most a year. This specific aging timetable gives the reposado time to mellow out and pick up some aromas and flavors from the barrel, while still retaining just enough of blanco’s youthful kick. This means you’ll get caramel and honey notes from the barrel, and the citrus and pepper qualities of the tequila will round out and allow flavors of cinnamon and vanilla to mingle in the glass. Reposado tequila is still burly enough for cocktails, but can also be sipped over ice if that’s more what you’re looking for. As such, reposado often has something to offer everyone, and if you’re only used to fiery blanco, it’s a great new place to explore.

If a distiller keeps its tequila in the barrel for longer than a year and up to three years, it’s classified as añejo, or “aged.” These are the tequilas for the whisky drinker looking for something new, as all that time in the barrel makes for a sumptuous spirit, with almost none of the youthful exuberance found in a bottle of blanco. Instead, añejo tequila provides a deep complexity of aroma and flavor, often showing notes of coffee, dark chocolate, and honey. While one certainly can take a shot of añejo, or make a mixed drink with it, you’ll miss some of the nuances of taste, and considering that a bottle of añejo is typically far more expensive than a bottle of blanco, it would seem like a waste of money for something that you won’t fully appreciate. Instead, añejo tequila is best sipped slowly, usually neat, like a glass of fine whisky. In fact, you can get out all your nice whisky glassware to improve the taste even further.

What happens if a batch of tequila is kept in the barrel for more than three years? That’s when you start seeing phrases on the bottle like extra añejo, or occasionally “ultra-aged.” Extra añejo has only been a classification since 2006, so it’s not as widespread as the other styles, but a bottle of extra añejo can be a rare treat when you come across one. As you might guess, everything that makes a Tequila añejo is even more pronounced in extra añejo: the caramel, coffee, and honey notes are all still present, with an even stronger vanilla influence from the barrels. Extra añejo tequilas unsurprisingly fetch top-dollar prices, but if you’re looking for that perfect gift for someone who prefers a well-aged single malt Scotch, extra añejo can be a unique way to go.

The last major category of Tequila is mixto, though it is often classified as “gold,” “oro,” or “joven.” Unlike the previous four styles, mixto tequila does not have a specific requirement for aging, and it usually is not aged at all. Any color in a mixto is often artificial: Cuervo Gold being the most favous of the bunch. Mixto tequila is made with a base of at least 51% blanco tequila, to which other spirits, flavorings, sugar, and color can be added. Most drinkers consider mixto tequila to be little more than rotgut, and not worth drinking at all. That said, in a frozen margarita, those same drinkers often don’t notice what they’re downing.

So those are the five primary categories of tequila; what else is out there? Plenty! There are dozens of tequila liqueurs, like Patron’s XO Cafe blending of tequila and coffee, or Agavero’s blend of tequila with damiana, a flower indigenous to the Jalisco province. Don Julio and Herradura, among others, make clear añejo Tequilas, produced by filtering their añejo Tequila more than a half-dozen times to scrub out all the color added by barrel aging. These clear añejos are more of a talking point than anything else, tasting like (and priced as) a rich extra añejo while having the appearance of an unaged blanco. Flavors abound, too: La Pinta makes a pomegranate tequila, and Tanteo makes a jalapeño tequila, which both go great in cocktails.

How do you prefer your tequila? Let us know in the comments!

What Grains are Used to Make Whiskey (And Why?)

You might think that there’s not much to making whiskey: it’s just grain, right? Like beer, but distilled? But there’s actually more to it than that, and like gin, what goes into the whiskey can wildly change the taste of what you get in the bottle. It’s true that, at its simplest, whiskey is just distilled grain, but the word “grain” is an umbrella term and can mean several very different kinds of seeds, many of which are used in varying amounts to make whiskey of different quality and taste. So join us once again as we explore each of the major grains used to make whiskey, and we’ll see where each comes from, and what it does to what’s inside the bottle.

Barley

The most important of all grains used in the production of whiskey worldwide is barley, and most whiskies have at least some barley in them. Barley was one of the first grains to be domesticated, in the Fertile Crescent of what is now Iraq and the Levant, sometime around 8500 BCE. These days it is grown all over the world. Malted barley is most famously used to make Scotch whiskies; as the name says, a single malt Scotch like Singleton is 100% malted barley, and blended Scotch like Johnnie Walker typically has a high barley content in it as well. Barley imparts a warm, roasted toffee taste to a spirit, and these whiskies are surprisingly versatile and can be enjoyed on their own, finished in specialty casks, or blended with other grains to make endless varieties of flavor.

Corn

Also called “maize,” as corn is a catchall term that means different things in different parts of the world. In this instance, the corn we’re referring to was first domesticated around 5000 BCE in Southern Mexico. It spread throughout the Americas before Columbus arrived, and throughout Europe after the Spanish conquest. Corn is the primary grain used to make most American whiskeys, particularly bourbon, which by law has to be made up of at least 51% corn. Moonshine is unaged white whiskey typically made entirely of corn (or corn and sugar). Aged corn whiskeys — made of 80% corn — and many bourbons tend to carry a clear popcorn note amidst the sweet vanilla that tends to dominate. Unaged corn whiskey, like moonshine, wears its corn influence on its sleeve, and the primary taste an imbiber will get is sweet, buttered popcorn.

Wheat

Like barley, wheat was first thought to have been domesticated in the Fertile Crescent around 8000 BCE. As the primary grain used to bake bread, the importance of wheat in human civilization cannot  be overstated. Wheat is likewise sought after in whiskey: two of the most famous bourbons, Pappy Van Winkle and W.L. Weller, use a high percentage of wheat in their mashbill (though as bourbons, they do still have to conform to the 51% corn rule). Wheat whiskeys — made of 51% wheat at least — are uncommon but offer a different spin on the bourbon recipe. Taking a sip of a wheated bourbon or a wheat whiskey and you’ll often find a flavor not unlike fresh honey-baked bread, which is delicious on its own but makes a wonderful complement to the sweetness of corn. If you’re not a big fan of whiskey and are curious to see what all the fuss is about, a wheated bourbon is a great place to start.

Rye

Compared to the venerable grains we’ve already discussed, rye is a baby: the first evidence of rye cultivation comes to us from Asia Minor in what is now Turkey from around 1600 BCE. Rye is most notable in American whiskey called, not surprisingly, rye whiskey, which have to have a rye content of at least 51%. Another rye-forward style of whisky is found in many Canadian whiskys, which tend to have a high rye content. If you’re a fan of Canadian whiskies like Pendleton, you already know what to expect from rye: more spice, less sweetness, compared to corn. Rye whiskey has notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and other baking spices that make it a great ingredient to use in an otherwise-sweet Manhattan. If you like rye, High West and WhistlePig make some critically-acclaimed bottles.

Other Grains

The vast majority of whiskies are made with a combination of the four aforementioned grains. Of course, you can make whiskey out of just about any grain, so there are plenty of distillers out there who try to make something unique out of lesser-used grains. Japanese whisky Kikori is made with rice, Chicago’s Koval makes whiskey out of oats and millet, and even Jim Beam has tried its hand at some oddball grains. Corsair has a plethora of craft whiskeys made from almost every grain under the sun. These are great treats for the whiskey aficionado, the one that thinks they’ve tried everything that whiskey has to offer, and each different grain will bring wholly unique tastes and textures to your glass.

As you can see, whiskey can vary wildly in taste, tone, color, and everything else, simply by changing the combination of grains used in the mashbill. There’s a whiskey out there for every palate, and the possibilities for something new are endless. Do you have a preferred grain in your dram? Let us know in the comments!

What’s the Difference Between a Pot Still and a Column Still?

If you’re a shrewd imbiber, you may notice that some bottles of liquor — for instance, Irish whiskey like Redbreast — advertise a particular kind of still used to produce the spirit, in this case “single pot still.” Elsewhere, you may notice other bottles — like Japanese whisky Nikka — instead touting something called a Coffey still used to make their wares. If you delve deeper into these phrases, you might find that there appears to be a whole host of different kinds of stills: in addition to those above, you can find column stills, alembic stills, continuous stills, patent stills, and many others. What do all these terms mean, and how do they effect what you get in your bottle?

The pot still is what most of us think of when we think of a still: the stereotypical still design, made of copper, with a wide, bulbous bottom and a long, thin, tapered neck. There is evidence that pot stills made of terracotta were used as early as the 400s BCE, but the name you’ll see most attached to its invention is Arab alchemist Al-Jabir around 790 CE. At the time, Al-Jabir wasn’t looking to get tipsy; he was looking to bring out greater purity in his liquid materials to try and find the secret of eternal life. However, once it was discovered that water and alcohol have different boiling points, the pot still — also called an “alembic,” which is an alchemical term — starting being used to instead increase the purity of alcohol such as wine.

The way a pot still works is simple: the contents of the large lower chamber, called the pot, are heated until the alcohol vaporizes. The vapor travels up the long neck, where it is cooled down by cold water. Once cool enough, the vapors condense back into liquid, where it is collected in a separate chamber. Thus, you now have a product that has a much higher alcohol content, since most of the water in it got left behind in the pot. In the olden days, a pot was heated simply by lighting a fire under it; these days, vaporization is usually achieved with superheated steam, which is easier to control and fine-tune than fire, and which allows distillers to better guide their product. That said, the pot still is still fairly inefficient in terms of energy expended. Not all of the alcohol makes it into the collection chamber, and due to the fact that pot stills have to be batch operated — that is, that in-between batches, they have to be emptied, cleaned, and refilled — using a pot still is a laborious task.

Great men spent ages trying to increase the speed and efficiency of pot stills, and in 1831 Irishman Aenas Coffey patented his “Coffey still,” based on the use of two vertical columns instead of a single pot. Also known as a patent or continuous still, but best known these days as a column still, Coffey’s still behaves like a series of pot stills all linked together, stacked on top of each other. The liquid to be distilled falls through each chamber from the top of the column, while superheated steam comes up from the bottom. The steam vaporizes the alcohol, while the leftover “wash” with its alcohol removed falls down to the bottom chamber, where it is turned into steam and is used to vaporize the next batch. The vaporized alcohol floats up through each chamber of the column, and since each chamber has a lower temperature than the last, more and more impurities in the alcohol get left behind. The alcohol, with its low boiling point, gets vaporized and thus a purer concentration of alcohol is left behind in each chamber. The more chambers a column still has, the purer the concentration will end up.

Lest you start visualizing a column still the size of a skyscraper, know that a column still with an abundance of chambers will be made up of several interlinked columns; the alcohol will reach the top of one, and then get filtered into the bottom of the next, where the temperature is yet still a little cooler. This allows a column still to have an end product of 95% pure alcohol, as opposed to the 60% to 80% alcohol a pot still can end up with. (This doesn’t mean you’ll get a higher abv in the bottle of course, this is just the initial concentration. Alcohol from both pot and column stills are further watered down before bottling.)

So if column stills are so much more efficient and produce such a pure product, why would anyone make liquor in a pot still these days? The same reason why audiophiles might prefer a vinyl LP to a CD or MP3: those impurities in the distillate are what give the spirit its flavor, and a pot still allows its spirits a warmth and depth that the cold efficiency of a column still can’t match. A whisky or Cognac made in a pot still has the reputation of a private, personal, hand-made treat; sure it’s more labor-intensive, but that only means that you’re getting a superior product than something made in a detached, aloof column still, right? Many people certainly think this way. In general, the more rich and flavorful liquors — single-malt Scotch, Cognac, high-end rum, mezcal — are made in pot stills, while crisp clear spirits — vodka, white rum, gin — are made in column stills that can reach high abvs. The big exception to the rule is bourbon and rye whiskey, which are usually made in column stills, but often in a slower, more hands-on style like one might find with a pot still. Of course, exceptions to all of these rules of thumb abound.

Both pot and column stills have a permanent place in the history of spirits, and neither are going anywhere anytime soon. But at least now you know what each one is used for, and why.

How Is Brandy Made?

“Claret is liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.” – Samuel Johnson

So you understand what different kinds of whiskey are called and why, and you can name the aromatics used in gin without a second thought, but brandy is still a spirit that eludes you. You know that there are brandy-based cocktails, like a sidecar, but if asked you couldn’t tell someone what brandy exactly is, let alone what it’s made out of. If you’re a brandy novice, please follow along, as we drink deep of this lesser-understood spirit, and attempt to suss out just what makes brandy, brandy.

To start: What exactly is brandy? The term can be traced back to our old friends the Dutch, who started making brandewijn, or “burnt wine,” in the 12th century. Distillation, instead of fermentation, had just began to take off as an industry, and so the Dutch began making liquor distilled from wine. Like India Pale Ale, this wine liquor was originally created to better survive the Dutch merchant ship voyages to the many colonies under the country’s control, and it was only with time that liquor began to be appreciated on its own merits. So as we can see, wine or grape brandy was the first form that brandy took. The most famous brandies in the world, like Cognac and Armagnac, are distilled from wine, and there are many traditionalists that would scoff at the notion of brandy being made from anything else. Napoleon was a famous advocate for Cognac; the legend goes that in 1811, the then-Emperor Napoleon I visited the Courvoisier warehouses and was so taken with the product that he decreed French troops would receive a measure of Cognac in their field rations. Another grape brandy you might recognize is pisco, a South American product made in Peru and Chile that has carved out its own little niche of late in the world of cocktails. But most brandy cocktails are made with grape brandy: famous examples include the Sidecar and the Brandy Alexander, and adding a half ounce of Cognac to a glass of Champagne is a painless and delicious,= simple drink.

Another, much lesser-known, style of brandy is pomace brandy. Unlike grape brandy, which is made from wine, pomace brandy is perhaps best described as brandy made from every part of the grape except for the fruit itself. Pomace brandy is typically made with the grape’s skins and seeds, and sometimes they even include the stems. As you can imagine, pomace brandy is a very different beast than grape brandy is, having a more bitter, vegetal, and funky quality that is probably a more acquired taste. You won’t see any pomace brandies being advertised as such; the most famous brandy in this style is undoubtedly Italian grappa, and since there’s a chance you’ve never even heard of grappa, it shows how much smaller of a market there is for pomace brandy.

Outside of grape and pomace brandies, there is the general, broad term fruit brandy to denotate brandy made with pretty much anything else. Fruit brandies are wide-ranging and come in many different styles all over the world: some of the most famous are French apple brandy called Calvados, German cherry brandy called Kirschwasser, American apple brandy called Applejack, and Slivovitz, a plum brandy made in many Eastern European countries like Croatia and Slovakia. This is only a small sampling of the fruit brandies of the world, of course, and you can make brandy out of pretty much anything that ferments, including apricots, raspberries, pears, even unexpected items like walnuts or juniper berries.

As you can see, brandy has a long and storied history, and though these days it’s not as popular as, say, bourbon or rum, it’s an incredibly versatile liquor that can find a place in almost any situation. Let us know in the comments how you like your brandy! Grape or fruit? Are you a grappa aficionado? What brandy cocktails do you prefer?

What’s the Best Way to Cellar Wine?

So you’re a fan of good wine, and you’ve just acquired a nice bottle. It’s not something you’re going to drink right away, and perhaps you want to put it down for a while and let the passage of time potentially improve what’s inside. If this is your first time cellaring a bottle of wine, it might seem like a confusing task: Where’s the best place to keep your bottles? What about light or temperature? Should a bottle be stored on its side, or standing up? If you’re ready to start a wine cellar of your own, here are some basic instructions for how to get the most out of your bottles.

For temperature, it’s best to keep things cool, but not too cool. In general, people drink reds too warm and whites too cold, and this is extended over to how the bottles are stored, as well. If the temperature in your cellar is too high, the wine will age far too quickly, and the aromas and flavors could be dulled by the heat. Too cold, and the tastes and aromas contained in the bottle won’t evolve much at all. In general, a good cellar keeps a temperature of around 50° to 60° Fahrenheit, which is just right to keep a bottle of wine steadily aging for a long time. Just as important as the ideal temperature is that that temperature remains more or less steady. Obviously most of us can’t afford a perfectly regulated wine cellar, but kept somewhere with a consistent temperature will do bottles good.

Light, or lack thereof, is another important factor in a good wine cellar. Specifically, ultraviolet light can have a detrimental effect on wine, so if complete darkness isn’t a possibility, at least keep the bottles away from the sun. UV light can bleach not only the bottle’s label, but the wine itself, leaving it tasting thin and unpleasant. Light from bulbs carries much less UV than the sun does, and all the better if you’re using incandescent bulbs, which emit almost no UV light at all. But if it’s possible, it’s best to keep your cellar dark when you’re not around; if no light gets in, your bottles are better off.

If you go to a good wine shop, you may notice that the higher-end bottles are stored slanted, or on their side. This is how you should keep your bottles in your own personal cellar, as well. The idea here is that if a bottle is kept on its side, the wine will keep the bottom of the cork moist. A dry cork will get loose and let air in, which will cause the wine within to prematurely oxidize, which will lead to that often awful vinegar taste you get from a bottle past its prime — not to mention it can be a frustrating task trying to extract a dry, brittle cork from a bottle. Obviously, this only matters for bottles with corks, so if you have a nice screw top bottle on hand, it can stand up if you feel the need.

So, light, temperature, and bottle placement are probably the three most important factors in a good wine cellar (if you have some especially old bottles, or some well-aged vintage ports, you’ll also want to make sure your bottles aren’t jostled in any way, as this will disturb any sediment that may collect in the bottle). Of course, not all of us are blessed with spacious basements that fulfill all of the requirements for a perfect cellar. If a cool, dark basement isn’t possible, consider a little-used closet, or a quiet corner of a room that doesn’t get a lot of light. Keep your bottles cool, on their side, and in the dark, and you’ll be able to age your wines comfortably. Happy drinking!

-->