We say that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Well, if that’s true, then a cocktail is only as good as its worst ingredient. You can mix a sidecar with the finest cognac and the best curacao money can buy, but if you use a bottle of supermarket sulfite-loaded lemon juice to finish off the drink, it can only be so good. (I’ve confessed to this sin before; it’s convenient, yes, but you need to realize you’re missing out on some quality.)
Far better to stick with decent (not great) hooch and use quality mixers. In the case of our hypothetical sidecar, a good organic sulfite-free lemon juice (or, better yet, juice squeezed from an actual lemon) will help your cocktail along.
This is far from an isolated example, and plenty of people know it. Slate.com’s “Gentleman Scholar” columnist Troy Patterson suggested in a recent chat that a reader looking to improve her gin and tonic recipe should stick with a middling gin and buy fancy tonic water. James Bond preferred Perrier in his mixed drinks, thinking it picked up otherwise boring recipes. What does this mean for you? Even if you’re just serving simple highballs (and calling them “drinks”, so you don’t seem too fancy) at a barbecue, make sure you buy a bottle of classic Coca-Cola instead of a cut-rate store brand to pair with the giant bottle of rum you’ll be leaving on the buffet table. Spend the extra money on a good Bloody Mary mix, or buy a premium tomato juice and doctor up your own (stay away from Mrs. T’s.)
And if you’re a martini (or especially a manhattan) fan, consider buying a premium vermouth to mix with your garden-variety liquor. Cinzano and Noilly Pratt are both great examples of sweet and dry vermouth, respectively, and will make even the most middling of gins or whiskeys shine.