You can spend a lot of money on bar basics, especially if you’re trying to re-create the precious craft cocktails designed by people whose job is to come up with specialty drinks at trendy bars and restaurants. Just this morning I read a recipe for a drink that required two different kinds of Guyanese rum (plus one from Trinidad). To me, that’s ludicrous. Drinking is supposed to be a readily available human indulgence, not an Amazing Race scavenger hunt to the far corners of the world.

For those of us who just want to have enough spirits on hand to make the basic cocktails that we like and our guests might ask for, here is a list of what I call the foundational spirits:

  • Vodka
  • Gin (London Dry will do for most of your gin cocktails)
  • Rum (light or dark depending on your preference)
  • Whiskey (if you drink it regularly you probably have a favorite)
  • Bourbon
  • Tequila

None of these should be in any way “flavored”! If you like a flavored vodka and use it regularly, buy that in addition to a plain version – trust me, “birthday cake” vodka will not mix well with tonic (or much of anything else).

Your neighborhood liquor store will generally carry two or three “tiers” of these spirits – the higher the shelf placement, the more expensive they will be. For regular usage, stick to those in the middle range, at about eye level. They will taste a lot better than the stuff in the plastic jugs on the bottom shelf, and give you a less hellacious hangover should you happen to over-indulge. The taste of the top-shelf items won’t be exceptional enough in your pre-dinner drink to justify the additional expense. Save those for special occasions, or if you really want to impress your fiancee’s father.

There are cocktail recipes that call for a specific version of these spirits – Canadian whiskey or aged rum, for example. In my experience, the bottle you have in your bar will taste just fine in most mixed drinks. If you want to be sure that making authentic Irish Coffee is worth purchasing the Irish whiskey, buy a pint of it and make both versions at the same time, so you can taste-test between the Irish and the whiskey you keep in your bar. If you like the Irish version better and are going to make a lot of Irish Coffee this winter, you’ll know the cost of the 750ml bottle will be worth it.

Next: Other essential bottles