Torpedo Juice

  • 1 1/2 oz. Gin (A London Dry works well)
  • 3/4 oz. Applejack (Laird's Bonded Straight Apple Brandy is one of my favorites)
  • 1/2 oz. Fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 to 1/2 oz. Grenadine (to taste)

Shake with ice and strain into a stemmed cocktail glass..

~ from "How's Your Drink?" by Eric Felten

It's a fairly safe bet that if you're reading this, you've been in a liquor store sometime in the past few weeks. Whether you're stocking up for a party, giving a bottle as a gift, or just enriching your own stash for the holidays, this is the time of year when you'll likely be visiting your local sprits purveyor at least once (probably more).

If you're lucky, you'll know ahead of time what you'll be picking up. Even if the store is crowded, you can still get in and out swiftly if you have a list of what specific items you're after. But what if you find yourself shuffling amongst the rows of bottles, stymied by the sheer volume of choices? The military folks call it a "target-rich environment" and it's sometimes hard to know where to put your crosshairs.

So regardless of whether you find yourself in a tiny mom & pop store, a mile-wide megamart, or anything in between, here's a handful of tips that may guide you to a purchase you won't regret.

  • If you are going to give someone the gift of liquor, first try to recall if you've ever seen a broken bottle of it on the floor of a fraternity house or in the parking lot at Ozzfest. If so, reconsider your choice.

  • Just because something is placed on the bottom shelf doesn't automatically mean it's awful. It's likely not something meant to be savored slowly by the fireside either, but can be perfectly serviceable when mixed.

  • Likewise, anything that is sold in the 1.75 liter jug size is not necessarily taboo. Plenty of respectable brands have offerings in this size (particularly during holidays) and they're an economical choice for things you know you (or your host) will be using a lot of.

  • However, anything packaged in a jug that is a color found on a traffic light (or appears to be some sort of chocolate) should be viewed with suspicion. Blue booze is scary too.

  • Most spiced rums have a happy-looking pirate on the label. Some are fine, others are terrible. Stick with one you've heard of or at least have seen somewhere else (For what it's worth, my favorite spiced rums have no pirates on their labels).

  • Non-spiced rum is a nice choice as well, but if it's just gonna get dumped in Coke, don't buy the fancy stuff.

  • Contrary to popular belief, not all vodkas are flavorless (Generally speaking, the more times it's distilled, the less flavor it will retain). If you like your vodka in the flavor-free range, there's no reason to spend big.

  • That being said, a vodka that retains the flavor of what it was made from is not the same as a flavored vodka. You cannot distill vodka from whipped cream or butterscotch.

  • A plastic bottle isn't always an indicator of poor quality. But there's a lot of crap sold in plastic too. Use the "traffic light/chocolate" rule mentioned above.

  • Consider a chain restaurant's name and logo the equivalent of a skull & crossbones- a few sips probably won't kill you, but why take chances?

  • All whisk(e)y is not the same thing. Scotch and rye are not interchangeable just because they are both a shade of brown and may have an old-timey drawing of a barrel on the label. Unless you are reasonably certain of the preferences of the person you are buying for, stick with something like vodka. Or better yet, a bottle of wine.

  • On a similar note, unless you are 100% confident that someone likes gin, do not buy it for them. Gin is a wonderfully diverse, criminally underused spirit, but many people hate it. Those who do will look upon the gift of a bottle of gin as no different than being presented with a container of medical waste.

  • Don't automatically dismiss something placed on a cardboard end-cap or piled by the door. There are a variety of reason retailers use the "Hey look over here!" method, and not all are geared toward pushing lousy products on the unwitting. There are often legitimately good deals nestled amid the razzle-dazzle.

  • Brandy is a thoughtful, holiday-appropriate choice that shows you are capable of thinking outside the box (or bottle). But a lot of brandy given as gifts ends up displayed on mantelpieces or bookshelves as objets d'art. Give it to someone you're reasonably sure will actually drink it.

  • If a liquor store has bars on the windows and/or the clerk is ensconced behind bulletproof glass, you are not likely to find that bottle of artisanally made, small-batch 23-year-old whiskey your brother-in-law has been lusting after.

  • if a product has a life-size cardboard cutout of a sexy woman in a Santa hat placed next to it, feel free to buy it. Just be aware this woman will not be at any parties you're attending.

  • If a brand of Tequila comes packaged in a cactus-shaped bottle or has a cap in the shape of a sombrero, proceed with caution.

  • Don't assume that a product kept in a locked cabinet behind the counter is of superior quality. Marketing is a powerful tool.

  • If you're considering buying a brand who's ads you've seen on TV, in glossy magazines or on the side of a bus, some of that advertising budget will be reflected in the price. An above-average price tag doesn't always translate to an above-average product.

  • Mini bottles of liquor are acceptable to give as gifts if only you've set up and decorated the recipient's Christmas tree with them. Otherwise you just look cheap and weird.

  • Online liquor vendors are a great resource, and many offer very good deals on quality products. If you are willing to spend a couple extra bucks on shipping, you can find tons of things that may be unavailable in your area. Not all places ship everywhere, but it's still worth it to browse.

  • There's always beer.

I wish you the best for 2011...thanks for drinking!

~ Dr. Bamboo