4) Vodka. I’m listing vodka here since all it is is unflavored gin (gin is unflavored spirit that has been distilled with juniper and other botanicals; vodka is unflavored spirit that hasn’t). I like Eastern European vodkas for their flinty minerality (look for Russian Standard or the excellent Shpilka if you can find it), but Absolut, in a more neutral style, is fine, too. Whatever I buy, I keep it in the freezer, so I have the option of pouring it out in little shots with nibbles on the side. Not an everyday procedure, drinking straight vodka, but tough to beat when you do indulge. Beyond that, it’s good to keep a bottle of the stuff around to mix drinks with for friends who absolutely insist. Otherwise, use gin or white rum. Your drink will taste better.
I’ve left out Irish whiskey here because most of the time the bottle is empty before I even get to mixing drinks. Funny how that works. You should definitely keep a bottle around—John Powers is cheap and fine, and Bushmills 10-Year-Old Malt is utterly delicious—if only to have something to sip on while you’re deciding which drinks to mix for your guests.
5) Rye or bourbon. For my Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and Whiskey Sours—bedrock drinking if ever there was—I prefer a 100-proof (more or less) rye, such as the new Knob Creek Rye or the old standby, Rittenhouse Rye. But I’ll take a 100-proof bourbon (such as Old Forester Bonded) over an 80-proof rye. Proof counts in these cocktails: They were invented to tame strong whiskey. That 100 proof means there’s more alcohol, to be sure, but also more flavor; that matters when you’re mixing drinks.
6) There are a few Scotch cocktails worth making, chief among them the Rob Roy (basically, a Scotch Manhattan). For these, Famous Grouse or Johnnie Walker Black will always yield good results: They’ve got enough Scotch flavor to contribute something unique to the drink without overpowering it (or your wallet) like a serious single-malt would.
7) Bols Barrel Aged Genever. Okay, Genever—Dutch gin—is not technically whiskey. But it’s awfully close, seeing as it’s basically a flavorful grain spirit distilled with a little juniper and a few spices. And it makes a kickass substitute for whiskey in a cocktail (see suggestions for the Classic Manhattan, below), bringing a little zing to it without changing it beyond recognition.
Rum is so broad a category, it’s almost meaningless. With the spectrum it covers, from white and flavorless to dark and mellow like an old Cognac, it basically reproduces the whole ecosystem of booze in the key of sugarcane. For everyday mixing, however, I go through just 2 of the 859 styles of rum: white rum and what was formerly known as “Navy Rum,” depending on if I’m making Daiquiris or a bowl of punch.
8) The key to good white rum is that it actually tastes of sugarcane. Banks 5 Island does just that, which means that a Daiquiri made with it tastes like something more than alcoholic limeade.
9) A bowl of real rum punch is just about the best reason to have friends. To make it work, though, you need a rich, strong, and very funky rum, just like the British Navy used to issue to its men (no coincidence: British sailors invented punch in the first place). For that, there’s nothing better than Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica Rum.
Cognac and Armagnac
I have a hard time keeping what I consider mixing-grade French brandies in the house. You get into the Sidecars or the Brandy Juleps and those bottles are doomed to extinction. Of course, what I consider mixing grade in this category is very good stuff indeed—but if you can’t be a snob when it comes to French brandy, when can you?
10) The Sidecar (that’s two parts Cognac to one part each lemon juice and Cointreau, shaken and strained) is one of the most delightful of all cocktails, but if you use a younger VS-grade Cognac you won’t get much brandy flavor in it. With a VSOP—I like Martell and Courvoisier, among many others—it’s rich and tart, smooth and refreshing.