Read on for the list, the best brands to buy (even on a budget!), and cocktails you can make with your sweet new stash.
Lots of people think they don't like gin. Once upon a time, I was one of them. Here is how you get to like gin; you start off with something not too gin-heavy, maybe with a little berry flavor, like a bramble, and you drink a few of those and let the gin slowly pull you into its delicious, juniper-y orbit. It's a good place to be.
2. Rum (Light)
Essential for mojitos and daiquiris, or just mixing with pineapple juice when you're feeling lazy.
3. Rum (Dark)
Rich and molasses-y. Tastes like a forgotten night on Bourbon Street. Especially delicious when served hot and buttered.
4 & 5. Tequila (Silver & Gold)
The good folks at 12 Bottle Bar have based an entire cocktail blog on the idea that a good bar can be complete with only 12 bottles. Tequila, however, was left off the list. Their justification? The only classic cocktail you can make with tequila is a margarita. Right - but where would we be without margaritas? (Look for bottles labeled "100 percent de agave" - anything else contains 'fillers' made from tequila-flavored grain alcohol. Gross.)
Ahh, bourbon, my old friend. I've always considered bourbon to be the sweetest and most approachable of the whiskies, and it's certainly the most quintessentially American. Bonus: if you buy a bottle and decide you don't like it, you can always bake it into a pie.
7. Rye Whiskey
Tennessee whiskey's lesser-known cousin has a long, rich history. Its taste is similar to the American whiskies (like Jack Daniel's) you're probably familiar with, but with a bit of a spicy kick. Rye whiskey (sometimes referred to just as 'rye') is all over the place in classic cocktails. I also happen to think it's fantastic with Dr. Pepper.
8 & 9. Vermouth (Sweet & Dry)
Vermouth isn't exactly a superstar of the cocktail world. It's more of a supporting player, but this fortified wine, flavored with a combination of herbs, certainly does a lot of supporting. Read through any old-fashioned cocktail book and it crops up positively everywhere. Get both the sweet (Italian) and dry (French) varieties.
Brands to Try: Dry: Noilly Pratt ($7 for 375 mL), Sweet: Martini Rossi ($5 for 375 mL.)
Cocktails to Make:
From the Classics: A gin martini, naturally. (I couldn't find a recipe I liked, so here is one: 4 parts gin to 1 part dry vermouth, stir in a an ice-filled glass for 30 seconds, let sit another 30 seconds, strain into a cocktail glass and drink. You're welcome.)
From the Kitchn: Income Tax Cocktail
Famous mostly for making people hallucinate (although versions available in the States contain no hallucinogenic ingredients), absinthe continues to be popular for its intriguing taste. For the uninitiated, it's very similar to black licorice. You wouldn't imagine that would mix well with a host of liquors, but somehow it does.
Vodka isn't my favorite. I like my drinks to have the flavor of the base spirit, and vodka essentially has no flavor at all. Of course, this same quality makes it a tremendously versatile mixer - you can put it in pretty much anything. And as soon as you stop stocking vodka, that's when one of your friends will come over and loudly demand a screwdriver or vodka martini.
I'll admit: I'm a cheapskate. For years I mixed drinks with the cheapo orange liqueur, certain that no bottle of liquid could possibly be worth more than 30 dollars. Finally, tired of hearing people talk about how great it was, I sprung for my first bottle of Cointreau as a sort of treat to myself. I haven't gone back.
Nancy Mitchell knows about booze, and isn't afraid to ask. You can find more of her recipes and charming witticisms on her blog, The Backyard Bartender.