If you're old school and you've opened a cocktail book lately then you'll notice that any given modern drink calls for a wide conquering horde of ingredients and only a few of these actually contain alcohol-many ingredients will defy pronunciation and availability. If you're part of the digerati and you Google "cocktail recipes" you'll run into websites like Drinks Mixer that promises 12,234 drink recipes (as of June, 2011) and the very first drink recipe-a drink called '61 Imperial Recipe-demands white rum, vodka, overproof rum, creme de bananes, blue curacao, and pineapple juice. Yikes! Even the bar of committed liquor geeks like the partnership of Proof66 is hard-pressed to come up with this drink on short notice.
So why do we make this point? Because a brand name is good for exactly those occasions when you're on short notice. There are times when 10,000 plus recipes and 6+ ingredients is too much to think about. Those occasions occur in the real world just about every day for just about every person getting home from their job. No wonder they reach for pre-mixes or some other short cut.
So in a world of buckets of margarita mix (a bad college practice gone global) and colored corn syrups (probably leftovers from the snow cone booth at the carnival), there's a place for people who want to drink something of high quality while still taking a short cut. You don't want to research the country of origin for the best mint, the seasonality of the best lime, and the proportion of the best cane sugars... you just want a decent mojito. So you look for a brand. Something you can trust.
Enter Stirrings, LLC. Stirrings is a brand name that is attempting to build itself on the back of high-quality cocktail products that you can count on for high quality. And after producing several non-alcoholic mixes, they've very recently entered the liqueur world. Adding that alcohol brought them to our warm, inviting arms. We received four bottles of Stirrings liqueurs to try and we put them through the gauntlet. In short, if you're in a pinch, can you trust this brand? Surprisingly, happily, yeah... you really can!
Stirrings is a brand of scores of different items for use in cocktails. They make everything that goes in your drink that isn't made of alcohol: sugars to rim your martini glasses, cherry garnishes, bitters, grenadine, sodas, and a host of mixes ranging from Mojito to Bloody Mary to Lemon Drop and a bunch of other fruits and flavors in between. The company was founded in 1997 by Gil Maclean and Bill Creelman at Fall River, Massachusetts. The business plan was formed on the basis of providing the "freshest, highest quality ingredients" for their cocktail experience. In 2007, in what they characterized as an "arms length" transaction, Diageo acquired a 20% minority stake in the business. Later, Diageo acquired Stirrings outright on June 16, 2009 for, according to their annual report, "£6 million and provided £7 million as deferred consideration payable."
Uh oh. You could probably hear the looming tramp of the conspiracy theorists and anti-capitalists prepared to render judgment on a small, privately owned company and what happens to their product when they get bought up by the Fat Cats of Big Business.
We decided to put this theory to the test. Stirrings now offers a line of 6 liqueurs and we had four of them. We put those liqueurs-which retail for a very reasonable $13-up against some of the most recognized and decorated labels in the business at two or three times the price of Stirrings, to see if this upstart Brand Gone Big could compete. In short: can you buy the brand name with any confidence?
From Stirrings, we received their Espresso Liqueur, which debuted with a silver medal at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. We paired this against the only coffee liqueur that matters in the industry: Kahlua. There are other coffee liqueurs on the market-notably, Starbucks-which have a higher score in our rating system but Kahlua is easily the most famous and recognizable and popular coffee flavored spirit in the world. Competing in coffee means starting with Kahlua. Competing in coffee means competing against Kahlua.
From Stirrings we also received their Pomegranate liqueur. There really is only one comparison here and it's an old favorite of ours: Pama. It was the first pomegranate flavored liqueur and remains the popular standard to this day.
Then we got really unfair. Stirrings sent us their Ginger liqueur and we matched it up against no less than Domaine de Canton, which won Best In Show at the 2008 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and retails for up to $40 and $50 on the market. We got Stirrings Triple Sec and we had the temerity to match it up against the French icon Cointreau, which is one of the most decorated orange liqueurs on the planet and won back-to-back Best Fruit Liqueur in both the 2007 and 2008 San Francisco World Spirits competition.
So we have a little bit of everything in this tasting, from the popular to the expensive to the French. If the Massachusetts stuff can stand up to these, it can stand up proudly anywhere. As with all our tastings, we put it in front of a large group of people, take careful notes, and are strict about tasting absolutely blind and in mixed order.
Well, fair or not, here's what happened.
We tried both the Kahlua and the Stirrings Espresso neat and then in a specialty cocktail invented by our Mixologist Sweet Jane (reproduced here because it was good):
- 1 ounce tequila
- 1/2 ounce coffee liqueur
- Simple syrup (if necessary)
- Pour all ingredients in an old-fashioned glass filled with ice and stir well. What else besides coffee does Mexico produce better than the rest of the world? That's right...
Kahlua, despite being commercially popular, has fared poorly in our tastings before and it failed to impress in blind tasting again. The most favorable things that were said about it were "I don't hate it... it gets better after the first taste" and "Once you're over the shock of it, I can drink it again." But the vast majority found Kahlua overly sweet ("It just tastes like syrup," scoffed one person) or just plain bad ("Makes my head jerk backward; it's like lighter fluid"). Meanwhile, the Stirrings showed quite well. "It's like an actual cup of coffee," commented several people. Responses of "balanced," "complex," and most importantly "I liked it way better" summed up the general response. Where Kahlua was considered some kind of candied syrup, Stirrings felt more like a drink for adults.
Stirrings easily handles the Kahlua. It's not even close. Of all our participants, 91% of them opted for the Stirrings as the liqueur they would buy with the no one preferring Kahlua and the rest opting for "neither." (Some people just don't like coffee.)
For the Pama and the pomegranate liqueur we had our neat round and Sweet Jane put together another specialty:
- 2 ounces freshly squeezed orange or tangerine juice
- 1 ounce sauvignon blanc wine
- 1 ounce pomegranate liqueur
- Simple syrup to taste
- Shake all ingredients on ice and pour into a martini glass. Garnish with a pretty citrus mix on a stick. This cocktail is all summery play: bags in the backyard. Picnics. Beach volleyball. Keep the sunscreen handy.
Pama put up more of a fight. Tasted neat, people correctly noted the tequila taste (there's actually a bit of tequila blended in Pama) and that the overall experience was an "all over" taste sensation. In the neat round, people generally preferred the Pama. In the cocktail, while some thought it tasted "just like a little sex on the beach" (awesome!) others thought that it was a little too much of a college drink; a little too "bubblegum." Meanwhile, the Stirrings liqueur was considered a little too sweet and one-dimensional when tried neat ("I need something cleverer on my tongue") or even syrupy ("I should give this to my kids when they have ear infections") one individual got it exactly right when they said, "This has the better aroma and it absolutely demands to be in a cocktail." Once it got into the Shake Your Pom Poms, it shone. "It's better, lighter, summery-er," announced one person. "It makes me want to play volleyball... and I don't even play volleyball!" chimed in another. In fact, in a great coup for Stirrings marketers, someone declared "This tastes more honest!" If the Stirrings brand is meant to do anything it is to make great cocktails and the fact that this liqueur came through in a cocktail is noteworthy and would become a theme on the night. 72% of our gathering preferred the Stirrings Pomegranate if forced to choose between the two.
So now come the big guns. Defeating mainstream, $20 brands is one thing but how would Stirrings fare against a true champion like Domaine de Canton? We had another neat round and another custom-made cocktail from Sweet Jane:The Ginger Bubble
- Ginger liqueur
- Blend with sparkling wine (Spanish Cava)
- Fill champagne flute about a third full with ginger liqueur. Fill remainder of glass with cold sparkling wine. You don't need a garnish, but if you insist, toss in a single segment of a lime wedge.
The neat round was a collision of different sensibilities. Some people loved Domaine de Canton ("It has a long linger finish... it echoes all the way down") and many remarked about how they loved the aroma ("I want to put some of this stuff behind my ears before I drink it!") Many regarded the Canton as the more subtle of the two spirits, especially clear when one unfortunate soul dared suggest that it was "trying too hard" and was drowned by a chorus of boos. But the Stirrings showed very well, too. "It tastes like Christmas" announced one person (bafflingly). "This is the first time I ever wanted to drink anything ginger straight" said another. While many preferred the Canton in a straight setting, getting the Stirrings version in a cocktail swung many votes the other way. "This is just nicer in a cocktail... it finishes!" and "I can keep sipping this drink for hours" and "The ginger announces itself in this cocktail, it's brilliant!" While the French spirit declares itself tasted neat, Stirrings once again takes the final prize due to a sterling performance in a cocktail setting. 27% of the people didn't like ginger and wouldn't buy either but for the remainder, 18% said it was a tie with the final 54% opting for Stirrings. An amazing performance given the price difference.
OrangeNow comes the big gun: a liqueur that has stood the test of time, that is called for by name in bars around the world, and has the critical acclaim to back it up. And it, too, is French! Another neat round and another cocktail from Sweet Jane.
- 2 ounces London dry gin
- 1 ounce orange liqueur
- 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
- Shake all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, then pour into chilled martini glass, rimmed with a pretty sanding sugar. Garnish with lemon twist, if you like. I will generously allow vodka drinkers to substitute their lesser clear liquid, if they must.
No competition in the neat round... Cointreau sweeps it. Stirrings was considered sweeter ("It tastes like an orange starburst") while Cointreau was generally considered to have more depth, an extra dimension and most importantly, "It's what I want to drink when I've had a bad day." The cocktail round was much closer. While some enjoyed the cocktail with Cointreau due to its depth and complexity, more found a floral and sweet character in the triple sec that they liked. It even inspired one teetotaler who wandered into the evening attached to the arm of a cocktail enthusiast to say, "I usually don't drink... but I can drink this Stirrings stuff." The final results were very interesting. A hard core cocktail crowd vociferously defended the Cointreau (and remember we were tasting blind) while another group preferred the Stirrings. The final vote was very close. 36% for Cointreau, 54% for Stirrings, and 18% in a dead tie.
No matter how you slice this, it's an incredible showing for Stirrings. In every way, they stood up in this tasting and stood blow-to-blow with some of the best names out there across several different palates in several different styles. If you have to ask yourself, next time you're in the store, can you trust this brand name? The answer has to be yes, you can. You absolutely can. It will not astound every palate. It will not blow away every specialty liqueur out there. But it will serve every cocktail need with aplomb and confidence if you lack the time or wherewithal to do serious research before buying.
And what else is a brand name good for?