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