Bar Basics: Your Guide to Every Major Spirit on the Shelf

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Let us be your ‘spirit’ guide.

Understanding the ins and outs behind a fully stocked bar can seem overwhelming, though believe it or not, only six base liquors form the foundation of the spirits and cocktail world. The first step to becoming an excellent at-home mixologist is to make sure you have these base liquors—and know how to use them. With that in mind, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about these fundamental spirits, as well as the classic cocktails associated with each liquor. When stocking your bar, consult this Spirits 101 guide for a quick breakdown of each essential spirit

Related: The 10 Classic Cocktail Recipes Everyone Should Know


Whisky—or whiskey if it hails from Ireland or the U.S.—is probably the most complex spirit of the six, due to its variety of subcategories and array of flavor profiles. Whisk(e)y is produced from a variety of distilled malted grains and is aged in some form of oak. The type of oak (neutral or new) is dependent on the subcategory of the spirit in question (for example, bourbon requires the use of new barrels). 

Base Material

Grains (barley, corn, rye, and/or wheat)


Bourbon, Scotch whisky, rye, Irish whiskey, Canadian whisky, Japanese whisky, Tennessee whiskey, blended whiskey

Cocktails It’s Used In

Old-Fashioned, Manhattan, whiskey sour, sazerac


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Tequila is an earthy, semi-sweet spirit produced from distilled agave. Blanco tequilas are generally not aged, whereas other tequilas (like reposado or añejo) are aged in used whiskey barrels. Tequila tends to clock in between 40% and 50% ABV. 

Base Material



Blanco, reposado, añejo, extra añejo, gold
(Note: Mezcal is an agave-based spirit, though it is not a tequila.) 

Signature Base/Role In:

Margarita, paloma, tequila sunrise


Vodka is a neutrally flavored spirit produced from grains or potatoes. Vodka is produced worldwide and is typically not aged. Because of its neutral flavor profile, vodka is an extremely versatile base spirit for cocktail creations. The spirit tends to boast a 40% to 50% ABV. 

Base Material

Cereal grains (corn, rice, or rye) or potatoes


There are not necessarily different styles of vodka, though of course, the taste varies depending on the base and maker. 

Signature Base/Role In:

Cosmopolitan, martini, moscow mule, bloody mary, White Russian


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Gin is an herbal spirit produced from distilled neutral grains and a variety of botanicals. The botanicals vary by brand, though juniper is the primary flavor. Gin is dry, normally not aged, and produced worldwide. 

Base Material

Grain (barley, corn, or rye) and botanicals (juniper and more)


London Dry, Plymouth, Genever

Signature Base/Role In:

Martini, Negroni, gin fizz, gimlet, French 75

Related: The Whiskeys (and Whiskies) You Should Be Drinking Now


Rum is a sweeter distilled spirit produced from sugar. Light rums tend to be unaged, while dark rums see a period of aging time in oak. Warmer climates require less aging time, which makes this style of spirit production very popular in hot areas. 

Base Material

Molasses or sugarcane juice


Light, dark, gold, spiced, cachaca 

Signature Base/Role In:

Daiquiri, dark ‘n’ stormy, mojito, piña colada, hurricane, rum punch 


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Brandy is a fruit-driven spirit that clocks in around 40% ABV. It is produced worldwide from a variety of fruits, though grapes, apples, and cherries are the most common. 

Base Material

Fruit (most are made from distilled grape mash, though other brandies, such as Calvados, are made from apples)


Cognac, armagnac, pisco, grappa, eaux de vie 

Signature Base/Role In:

Sidecar, vieux carré, brandy Alexander  

The takeaway? Building an at-home bar is actually much simpler than it seems. As for the subcategories and palate differences among all of these delicious spirits, that’s a story for another day. Until then, focus on adding these six spirits to your bar, before integrating liqueurs based on your favorite cocktails. Then, break out your cocktail shaker and fix yourself a drink.