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A Guide to Buying the Best Cocktail Spirits

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If you're buying booze to sip neat or with ice, you're probably looking for the best you can afford—you're willing to spend a bit more money on it. What you're paying for, in that circumstance, is nuance, says Shannon Healy, the owner of the Durham, North Carolina bar Alley Twenty Six. But, says Shannon, if you're mostly mixing drinks, the nuance is lost. It doesn't make sense to buy the fanciest bottle you can find—and in fact, he advises against it.

Here's what he does advise: When picking poisons, find a bottle that really tastes true to itself—very much a bourbon or a gin or a tequila, respectively—without costing much. You want the flavor of the spirit you choose to come through on the other side of the cocktail, and you want to actually like the flavor that comes through.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Shannon takes the following into consideration when buying for his bar, and the same rules apply for any home bar cart:

  • Steer clear of fancy, heavy bottles. Glass is expensive, too. And what you really want is to drink the stuff, not look at it. "Try not to fall too much in love with the packaging," says Shannon, "Don't pay for the things that aren't important to you. For me, the taste is much more important than anything else."
  • Look for the alcohol by volume (ABV). "The difference between a 100-proof whiskey and an 80-proof whiskey is how long they left the tap running," Shannon says. And while ABV isn't by any means the sole indicator of quality, it's a better value to buy higher ABV since you can add water or extra ice at home, doing the same work as distillers do in turning a 100-proof spirit into an 80-proof one: dilution.
  • Keep availability in mind. You're probably not restocking your home bar as often as Shannon is restocking the bar at Alley Twenty Six, but range of availability is something to consider once you've found a booze you want to stick with.
Stainless Steel Cocktail Shaker & Jigger

Stainless Steel Cocktail Shaker & Jigger

Cocktail & Champagne Coupe (Set of 2)

Cocktail & Champagne Coupe (Set of 2)


Shannon's picks for mixed-use (i.e. not sipping) spirits:

White/Light Rum

What to look for: "What you're looking for in white rum is something that will go well with lime juice and tiki drinks," Shannon says. "It should be that refreshing, zippy spirit." If you can find an inexpensive light or white rum that's been barrel-aged, that's what you should buy (most white or light rums are now aged in steel tanks): The barrel provides buttery vanilla notes.
What he stocks: El Dorado 3-year or Cruzan, both of which are barrel-aged.


Daiquiri by Let's Drink About It


Mojito by Jeffrey Morgenthaler

Dark/Black Rum

What to look for: A dark, assertive, and slightly funky spirit—the opposite of what you'd use in a clean, bright daiquiri. (Stick to the white rum for that. Side note: When I was in Durham, Shannon made me—although I traditionally avoid rum—an excellent daiquiri with Cruzan.)
What he stocks: El Dorado. If you prefer a very dark rum, seek out Hamilton black rum.

Dark 'n Stormy

Dark 'n Stormy by Amanda Hesser

Zombie Cocktail

Zombie Cocktail by Samantha Weiss Hills


What to look for: If you're only going to have one bottle of gin, choose something that is very classically gin-like—as opposed to a softer, more floral or cucumber-scented modern gin.
What he stocks: Beefeater is "a 94.7 ABV, a by-the-numbers example of a London dry gin," Shannon says, explaining that it's the perfect gin for a martini: It's "the style of gin we most think of when we think of classic gin profile: a good amount of juniper, very slatey." It's also not as assertive as Tanqueray (my personal favorite, due, I'm sure, to it being my parents' gin of choice), and while it may not necessarily be exactly the right gin for every drink, "it's almost never the wrong one."

Voilà l'Été: The French 75

Voilà l'Été: The French 75 by pierino

Luis Buñuel Dry Martini

Luis Buñuel Dry Martini by Let's Drink About It


What to look for: Something vegetal and peppery.
What he stocks: El Jimador. "This isn't one to sip and ponder," says Shannon, but it has all the crisp, refreshing pepperiness he's looking for, and it's just right in a margarita.


Paloma by Erik Lombardo

Hothouse Cooler

Hothouse Cooler by Kendra Vaculin


What to look for: Something spicy and peppery and lean-tasting.
What he stocks: Shannon likes a few bourbons, depending on what he's doing with them. Wild Turkey 101 is his all-purpose bourbon: "I like it because it's a high-rye bourbon", he says, which gives it the spiciness he's looking for. (He also likes the high ABV—it's 101 proof; "I can add more water by stirring the ice around some more").

Larceny is his go-to for stirred drinks, while he likes Fighting Cock for anything shaken or sweet, since the spiciness can stand up to the sugar.

More of a rye whiskey drinker? Shannon says that "Rittenhouse Bonded Rye is hands-down the go-to" for its flavor and its high alcohol content (it's 100 proof).

Old Fashioned

Old Fashioned by Let's Drink About It

Boo Radley

Boo Radley by Marian Bull


What to look for: "There's no other category more fraught with fancy bottles and marketing campaigns than vodka," says Shannon, so it's a good idea when shopping for vodkas to be especially mindful of advertising.
What he stocks: If you prefer a wheat vodka, go for the rye-based, slatey-tasting Russian Standard; for potato vodkas, Shannon likes Luksusowa. Both, he says, represent great value in the vodka category.

Vodka Rosé Spritzer

Vodka Rosé Spritzer by Food52

Moscow Mule

Moscow Mule by Amanda Hesser

What are your bar cart go-tos? Share your recommendations in the comments.

Tags: alley twenty-six, bars, best spirits