Drinks

A Guide to Buying the Best Cocktail Spirits

April 19, 2016

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.

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.

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.

Gin

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."

Tequila

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.

Bourbon

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").

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Fords Gin from The 86 Co is always stocked on my bar cart, perfect for Gimlets or Martinis. I recently found some at Whole Foods. Also this article doesn't suggest a Mezcal so I'll recommend El Silencio for citrus-y or fruity cocktails, it has a strong smoke flavor that stands in harmony with stronger flavored. If you'd like to step it up a notch Del Maguey's "Vida Organic" is perfect for both stirred more aromatic cocktails as well as Margaritas!”
— Rachel
Comment

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).

Vodka

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.

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

10 Comments

Sophia H. May 10, 2016
I second the Costco recommendations, at least for vodka. They have both an American and French vodka. We bought the America as at the time we were buying to finish up a huge batch of limoncello. They the American and French vodkas are produced by large good producers that are giving Costco private labeling. The American vodka is fine enough to sip straight and is less than $15 for 1.75 liters.<br /><br />We will try some of the other varieties of the private labels.
 
kimikoftokyo May 10, 2016
For Gin which is a favorite, I either have Hendricks, Green Hat and or Beefeater. Vodka it's Belvedere or kettle one. For whisky it's Glenlivet or Johnny Walker. For cognacs Remy Martin. Tequila avion or Jose Cuevo
 
kimikoftokyo May 10, 2016
*Johnnie
 
Stephanie A. April 24, 2016
I'm glad I am not the only one who proudly asks for and stocks beefeater. It's a good clean gin. No frills It always delivers.
 
Adrienne H. April 20, 2016
Nice to see Alley 26 getting some love ( :<br />ABV and Proof aren't the same thing - the article is a bit confusing in that respect.
 
Jacob April 20, 2016
What a fun and informative article. Even more so since Alley 26 is one of my go to cocktail bars. I often focus to much on "would I drink this neat?" when buying spirits that are primarily for mixing. I'd save a lot of money if I dropped that mindset.
 
Joe April 19, 2016
I like Old Overholdt for my mixing Rye....great for a Manhattan
 
Rachel April 19, 2016
I fully agree with the Wlid Turkey 101! Fords Gin from The 86 Co is always stocked on my bar cart, perfect for Gimlets or Martinis. I recently found some at Whole Foods. Also this article doesn't suggest a Mezcal so I'll recommend El Silencio for citrus-y or fruity cocktails, it has a strong smoke flavor that stands in harmony with stronger flavored. If you'd like to step it up a notch Del Maguey's "Vida Organic" is perfect for both stirred more aromatic cocktails as well as Margaritas!
 
Author Comment
Caroline L. April 19, 2016
Thank you for the mezcal rec!
 
tia April 19, 2016
Costco's house brand tequila is shockingly good for mixing.