Basic Bar: Spirits

Introduction

Building up a personal bar can be a delicious voyage of self-discovery. It can also be pretty flipping expensive, particularly if you develop a taste for vintage spirits or specialized cocktails (Tiki, for example). The good news is that there's been a lot of thought put into various schemes for stocking a nascent bar or for dealing with limited space for your cocktail ephemera.

I'm going to tip my hat to the various discussions of 9–12 bottle bars that were in vogue a half-dozen years ago or so. Like building a starting lineup and bench in baseball, it's good to have a few stars supported by several quality players who have positional flexibility. I'm going to divide the basic bar into three categories — spirits, liqueurs, & augmentors — with dedicated posts. That's where this conversation starts; where it ends is basically determined by a combination of your desire to explore, your palate, and your wallet.

One thing to remember: the marketing arms of every distiller & distributor on the plant expend a great amount of money & effort trying to convince you that you need to stock their bottles, which has both credible (the company has lasted forever) and dubious (the equipment/formula/technique to produce the spirit or liqueur has changed over time) claims to longevity. Beyond that, you'll be assailed by every claim of exclusivity & intangibles you can think of, and probably many you couldn't. Follow your tongue — the best bottle for you is one that tastes good and that you can afford to keep on hand.

Spirits

Unless you know from past experience you don't like one of the distillates below, you should probably plan on having a bottle of each of the following in your bar:

  • gin
  • rum
  • tequila
  • vodka
  • whisk(e)y

With these, you'll have the base ingredient for most classic cocktails & quite a range of modern ones. My personal bar varies here because I don't drink whiskey often, but I love brandy, which I think most folks outside of the state where I reside view as a luxury spirit, if they think of it much at all. More on brandy, which actually figures significantly in both the classic and pre-classic cocktail eras, in a future installment.

Let's take each spirit in order, looking at the styles within, and good options for stocking a bar. I'll provide some selections at the Rail (~$20/bottle) and Call ($25+/bottle) level.

Gin

Rail: Aviation, Beefeater, Citadelle, Knickerbocker, Tanqueray
Call: Ford's, Junipero, Hendrick's, Plymouth, St. George Terroir

Gin can be pretty divisive. Some people like feeling as if they're drinking a glass of conifer juice, and some people really don't. The good news is, there are balanced and even juniper-neutral gins available. You probably already know whether you like a strong juniper taste in your gin, but if you don't, purchasing a couple single-serving bottles of options below and mixing up a Gin & Tonic will orient your preferences.

Classic, Juniper-Forward Gin

A London Dry or any of the modern, New World Gin descendants of that style will suit this preference. The classics here are Beefeater and Tanqueray; Beefeater is almost always considered a good value buy. The more modern takes — Junipero or St. George Terroir, for example — will set you back about half again the price of the bottle of Beefeater, but if you like this style, they're available as a treat.

Plymouth, both a brand and a wholly distinct style of its own, has juniper notes that are bit softer (and to me, more nuanced) than London Dry. It has fruit & spice components; I generally prefer it if I'm making a cocktail with a "classic" gin. Plymouth is a bit spendy, so I chose my drinks carefully and alternate it with Knickerbocker (see below) as my rail gin. There's nothing quite like it.

Contemporary, Juniper-Balanced Gin

Given the relative recency of most gins that foreground botanicals other than juniper, there aren't many archetypal spirits that are going to be available in all markets. The most ubiquitous is probably Hendrick's; Aviation has been around for a while and seems to have some distribution legs behind it at this point. I happen to really like New Holland's Knickerbocker, which balances citrus & spices, and Suntory's Roku, which adds six (thus the name) Japanese botanicals to the traditional mix. Ford's gets a lot of love for a gin that mixes well in a variety of cocktails. Citadelle — which is one of the older "contemporary" options, dating back to 1989 — is a bit more budget-friendly and was one of the pilots of the move toward contemporary gins that heavily emphasize botanicals other than juniper.

Rum

Rum is a spirit you could spend decades exploring, and people develop strong affinities to countries of origin, particular houses, or production methods. It definitely is not an archetype — forget what you know about rum if most of what you've tasted comes from one producer in Puerto Rico.

Strictly speaking, you could make any cocktail calling for light or silver rum with an aged rum and have a delicious drink on your hands. So you don't strictly need two bottles here, particularly to start. I'm skipping the Overproof/Navy Strength, "dark," and spiced types here.

A note: below I recommend rums produced under the Plantation label. Plantation is produced in Barbados by Maison Ferrand, a Cognac house. Due to the colonialist, slave-holding implications of that name, Maison Ferrand committed to renaming the rum following Derek Chauvin's murder of George Floyd. The new name has not yet been announced.

Light/Silver
Rail: Appleton White, El Dorado 3-Year, Flor de Caña Extra Seco 4-Year, Plantation 3 Stars
Call: Caña Brava Rum Blanca, Rhum J.M. Agricole Blanc, Ron Diplomatico Planas, The Real McCoy 3-Year

Plantation 3 Stars is such a good rum at such a nice price that I can't see a real reason to get anything else here unless you have a very strong preference for a particular country of origin, mode of distillation, or flavor profile. There are plenty of variations within those three areas to explore, so you should cycle through until you find one you particularly like. I'll admit this is a category where I've pretty much found what feels like the sweet spot to me.

Aged (5+ years)
Rail: El Dorado 5-Year, Flor de Caña Gran Reserva 7-Year
Call: El Dorado 8-Year, Plantation Barbados 5-Year, Ron Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva, The Real McCoy 5-Year

A bottle in this category should serve you for both mixing cocktails and sipping on its own, straight or on the rocks. I'll admit to keeping multiple bottles of aged rum in my bar — right now I have Plantation Barbados 5-Year, Ron Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva, & El Dorado 15-Year (sipping only), plus I recently finished a bottle of Real McCoy 5-Year. Rum, like whiskey, is a spirit that invites a lot of exploration between countries of origin, distillers, production methods, spirit ages, and more.

Tequila

As with rum, if you’re starting out, you really only need either a blanco/plata or a reposado. With a budget in mind, I’d go with the blanco unless you’re sure you’re a tequila drinker.

One thing to note with tequila is that there's an additional environmental consideration that doesn't factor into most other spirits (mezcal excepted). Agave takes significantly longer to grow than grain crops — seven years until it's ready for production, and twelve years to reach maturity. Buying one bottle isn't going to destroy the planet, but if you develop a taste for tequila, supporting makers that produce the spirit with ethical, sustainable practices is a very good idea.

Blanco/Plata
Rail: Cazadores Blanco, El Jimador Blanco, Espolón Blanco, Milagro Silver, Olmeca Altos Plata, 1800 Reserva Silver
Call: Don Julio Blanco, El Tesoro Blanco

Do yourself a favor — don't buy any tequila you heard of in college (unless you went to college in Mexico). Those spirits are mixtos — 51% tequila, 49% other stuff. A perfectly decent 100% agave blanco tequila will run you a few bucks more and will taste much better. Espolón was, until recently, an exceptional value — I regularly could get a 750ml bottle for under $20. I still stock it as my rail tequila, but any of these above would serve just as well. You don't want to go too pricey here, at least if you're primarily drinking tequila in cocktails. If you're interested in mixing in a bit of sipping, wait until a call bottle goes on sale.

Reposado
Rail: El Jimador Reposado, Espolón Reposado, Olmeca Altos Reposado
Call: Casamigos Reposado, El Tesoro Reposado, Herradura Reposado (or Double Barrel Reposado)

No need to go crazy here, either, although this is where you can verge into a bottle that does double-duty or is primarily a sipper with an occasional cocktail that calls for a reposado. I stick with Espolón and save my aged agave funds for mezcal or the occasional really nice añjeo tequila.

Vodka

Rail: Chopin Potato, Ketel One, Prairie Organic, Reyka, Russian Standard, Russian Standard Gold, Wheatley
Call: Belvedere, Beluga Noble, Chopin Wheat, Chopin Rye

You have a ton of choices when it comes to vodka. However, that doesn't mean that all vodkas are the same. Despite being a neutral, unaged spirit, vodkas can have distinctive characteristics, particularly when it comes to earthiness, minerality, oiliness, & spiciness. I've avoided a few of the big names — the regular versions of Abolut & Stolichnaya are perfectly decent, but I don't feel like rewarding their marketing departments. A well-stocked supermarket liquor department should have at least two of the options listed above.

Prairie Organic is based in Minnesota, made from 100% Midwestern corn, and uses zero-waste distilling practices. Several years ago I brought a bottle to as a host give a Ukrainian friend who put me up in Brighton Beach during an extended layover (involving La Guardia & JFK) on my way to Moscow — he gave it his seal of approval. If you're looking for a Russian vodka, you can't go wrong with Russian Standard, which is made from winter wheat and water from Lake Ladoga. (I also recommend Russian Standard Gold, if you’d like a little Siberian ginseng in your vodka). These are the two all-purpose vodkas I keep in my bar. I do enjoy drinking vodka neat, so I rotate others through as well.

As for the other rail options: Reyka is Icelandic, made from Scottish barley, Ketel One (Dutch) & Wheatley (Kentucky) are made from wheat, and Chopin Potato is Polish and made from what you would suspect given that information.

Whisk(e)y

Rail: Evan Williams Bourbon, Old Grand-dad Bonded, Rittenhouse Rye 100, Wild Turkey 101
Call: Dad's Hat Pennsylvania Rye, Elijah Craig 12 Year Bourbon, Sazerac Straight Rye, Wild Turkey Rare Breed (Bourbon or Rye)

Truth be told — I'm not the best person to ask about whisk(e)y. I enjoy a couple whisk(e)y-based cocktails occasionally, but I much prefer rum & tequila (or mezcal), whether for cocktails or sipping. I’ll admit that I only keep a couple bottles of whisk(e)y in my bar — a bottle of Elijah Craig 12 year old bourbon, and bottle of 116-proof bourbon made by a distillery near our friends' place in far-west Chicagoland do the heavy lifting. I would probably get a bottle of rye, were I likely to be mixing drinks for anyone favoring that type.

We'll skip Canadian, Japanese, Irish, & Scotch whisk(e)ys for the basic bar — these are worthy libations, and you could make many whisk(e)y-forward cocktails with them, but most of the time you'd be well-served with a bottle of bourbon or rye. Based on my visits to well-stocked supermarkets & liquor stores, there is a near IPA-level of hype & demand for American whiskey — bourbon having been ascendant for several years now, and rye following close behind. Follow your palate, ask people whose opinions you value, and don't get soaked on the purchase price.

36 thoughts on “Basic Bar: Spirits”

      1. Ha ha!

        I drink so rarely that having any kind of stock would be silly (aside from a bottle of Bailey's, of course), but I'm always open to sampling drinks (mostly on the fruitier side). I sure enjoyed the Rhubarb bubblegum martini when we were at The Shard, and I'll have to try a few things next winter when we're at our Costa Rica (I picked up Sh!t on the Grass when we were at Tulum).

    1. fwiw, the Costco Baileys knock-off is, IMO, very good, and considerably cheaper. I've not done a side-by-side comparison to try to determine if they are actually the same product.

            1. I bought a bottle of the Kirkland bourbon a couple years back. I am not much of a bourbon drinker, but it seems pretty good, if a bit on the sweet side.

  1. I don't know if its still as prevalent, but I have been generally avoiding rye whiskey because there are too many made at a mega distillery in Indiana (*especially* looking at you, Templeton). But I also have no problem using bourbon in its place.

    One thing I'd like to add is that you should really have a bottle of bitters as well. I find the Fee Brothers old fashioned bitters work really well and is much cheaper than your Angosturas. (and less violent if you forget to put it in your Manhattan).

    1. I think you’re referring to MGP of Indiana, right? I’ve heard many similar complaints about mass production & deceptive labeling from friends who drink a fair bit of whiskey. I think everything I included is made elsewhere, but I’m not certain — whiskey really isn’t my strong suit.

      Bitters are essential. I’ll be covering them further in the third post — there are so many great options these days!

      1. That's the one. Templeton was the most egregious perpetrator of deceptive labeling. They used to claim it was an old family recipe. But anyway, it is pretty easy to verify. If the label says it was made in Lawrenceburg, IN, put it back on the shelf.

        As for bitters, carry on, good sir!

      2. I will throw my two cents in right now for including advice on mixers.

        the Mrs and I drink a lot of Mules. We are not all that discerning about vodkas--your palate is waaaay more sophisticated than mine in its ability to distinguish trace elements in a product that is about as close to everclear as liquor gets. (I do recognize that there are BAD vodkas out there; I just haven't mustered the focus to really distinguish among the not-bad to good ones, particularly when we are talking about triple-distilled and charcoal filtered products).

        But we ARE picky about our ginger beer. It's got to be Bundaberg. Just the right balance of spice and sweet.

        1. I usually get Goslings just because its fine and a good price compared to Bundaberg. Of course, if I want a mule I have to get diet ginger beer, which is.... less good. I'm hoping diet tonic goes better for G&T's, but I am not getting my hopes too high.

          1. you have to get diet because of health complications from the sugar per se? That would be a serious bummer.

            Because there's plenty calories in the booze. I personally can't stand the flavor of fake sodas, and much prefer the cane sugar-sweetened ones (including Bundaberg, in this instance).

            However, beware the validity of the "real cane sugar" sodas....

            As shown in Table 2, there were differences in the types of sugar listed on the label/nutrition facts as compared to the results from the laboratory assays. For example, for the Mexican Coca-Cola sample, the label lists only “sugar,” but no sucrose was detected by HPLC. Instead, the laboratory analysis detected a 52:48 ratio of free fructose-to-glucose.

            Now, to be clear, sucrose consists of one molecule each of fructose and glucose joined together. I don't know enough about the chemistry or the testing methods here to know how to interpret these lab results definitively. (is there an organic chemist in the house???)

            1. I figure its best to just cut out sugar as much as possible because of the diabeetus. Carlories are only a problem with regards to my weight, which is why I'm drinking less in general these days. On the bright side, spending less on booze means I can buy a nicer bottle of scotch here and there. (mmmm, Laphroiag Select).

              I'll probably keep a couple Bundabergs around going forward as a once-in-awhile treat, though.

        2. Bundaberg all the way —our Costco carries it, so I snag a case every now & then.

          I tend to prefer something a bit hotter, so I mix up a concoction of my own design:

          Snake Serum
          3 oz tequila
          1 oz orange liqueur (dry curaçao or triple sec are both fine)
          2 dashes orange bitters
          4 dashes habanero bitters
          ginger beer

          Pour the tequila & orange liqueur into a tall glass filled with ice & stir. Top with ginger beer, and float the bitters on top. Stir to incorporate them as you desire.

  2. I've been enjoying whiskey (bourbon) more than any of the others over the past few months. I've found Makers Mark to be my favorite so far, but I also don't have a wide variety of exposures to compare against (nor more than a single bottle of the stuff around at a time to compare directly). So take that for whatever it's worth.

    1. If it is available in your area, New Riff is excellent, especially the single barrel. Maker's Mark is solid, though. I once found a bottle on sale for $22 and that was one hell of a deal. I'm also very partial to Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace, Driftless Glenn (made in Baraboo, WI), and Woodford's Reserve, off the top of my head.

      1. Buffalo Trace has a huge foothold here in NOLA, and thus I can regularly find bottles for 18$. Seeing some of the madness in the secondary whisky market makes me want to pull a Newman and buy out costco and drive to markets where the reseal value is at least double....... That also meant I was able to find Eagle Rare for $22 on sale at the grocery store, though those days are fewer and farther. I'm a big fan of Noah's Mill when I want to splurge.

        I went down an Irish path during the pandemic. I still would like to have the trio of Red Breast products in the house at some point but I'd need a pay raise to justify that.

          1. Looking over the New Riff site makes me want to take a road trip....

            I did buy a bottle of Far North's BØDALEN bourbon when I was home. It was good, if a little hot alcohol upfront, and worth the I'll support the homegrown upstarts cash.

    2. Our go-to lately has been Trader Joe's Kentucky Bourbon, we really like it and it's only $15. Friends we've given them to have also given it a thumbs-up, but it would be rude to say the free booze someone gave you was bad I suppose. They have added a couple other whiskey/bourbons recently, but we haven't tried them.

      We also really like Makers and grab it if we find it for a good price.

    3. Bourbon has always been my preferred whiskey and I usually go for Makers Mark, Wild Turkey, or Four Roses, whichever is the best value at the time.

  3. Rum is my go-to liqour.

    My favorites are Sailor Jerry for spiced and Kraken for dark, since those types were skipped above.

    So reading the list of recommendations. made me realise how undiscerningy palate is. I should maybe try to up my game.

    1. Spiced rum is perfectly cromulent for certain drinks, so it’s not a matter of refinement at all. It’s a bit limited in terms of utility, just like black strap rum (which I love). If you want to try something with a broader range of cocktail applications, you can’t go wrong with the Plantation 3 Stars or El Dorado 5 Year. Both would set you back about $1–2/ bottle more than Kraken where I live, and they can make you a ton of different cocktails if you feel like exploring.

      1. I meant in terms of the recommendations. My thought process for most liquor purchases are

        1) What's cheap without being rotgut?
        2) What has a rebate?
        3) How much is it per oz in a 750 and a 1.5? I'll probably end up with the 1.5 because that's just good finance.

        Very rarely do I buy on name or reputation. IT's almost always a value proposition.

    2. I'll second Sailor Jerry. Usually found at a good price, and I find it smoother and tastier than Captain Morgan.

      Mix with some Coke and a fresh squeeze of lime for a spice Cuba Libre

      1. Quite fond of all these things. I might try this mojito variation, though, given the absolute glut of basil our balcony basil plants are producing. It sounds tremendously good, and honestly we can only eat the Tik Tok baked feta pasta so many times (it's a lot of times, but not enough to finish the basil). And I might try to find yuzu juice at one of the many Winnipeg Asian grocery stores.

        1. I do something like this, but I pound the crap out of the cucumber, basil, sometimes ginger, and sugar, then add lime, ice and gin or vodka, shake well and strain over fresh ice. Really refreshing.

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