Search & Distill: The Sensible Way to Stock Your Liquor Cabinet

And get your signature summer cocktails started.

People make bad choices in the liquor store all the time, usually from poorly predisposed early-adult memories or just plain lack of knowledge (the only explanation for a $40 vodka purchase). We upgrade because we think expensive means better, but in the dog days of the recession, it pays to keep some tried-and-trues on hand that won't have you rationing ounces next time you have people over. To cut the mustard, my favorite bottles have to lend flavor to a cocktail, survive as a highball, and manage to be palatable both neat and on the rocks.Summer evenings start with gin. (What, yours don't?) You want something with enough juniper and herb to register as gin, but on the cheap end these flavors become flavorings and taste overly medicinal. Monopolowa Vienna Dry Gin ($17.95 per 750 ml) is a honey of a brand. The delicate citrus and herbal notes may be too subtle for some, but it builds a stellar gin and tonic and goes well with citrus juice. When making cocktails, you can count on Monopolowa not to dominate the mix—unless that's what you're into—and to play nice with other liqueurs, especially Campari or a good white vermouth.You really don't want to spend less than $20 on tequila; cheap tequila is just that, and like cheap gin, it's a purchase not soon forgotten. Tequila is so fashionable, however, that even fair-to-middling brands command top prices compared to other spirits. Sauza's 100 Años Reposado ($21.95) has been available in the U.S. for less than five years, but the brand has been a top seller in Mexico for years. A squat, round bottle sporting a vintage-looking label and holding toffee-hued liquor makes this tequila look more expensive, and it has the classic notes of oak aging, a hint of peppery spice, and a little essence of vanilla. Straight up, it always reminds me of pink peppercorns chased with a little rough-and-tumble scotch flavor, but the 100 Años also rounds out your margarita and is perfect with a splash of fresh grapefruit or tamarind juice.Just writing the words "Bacardi white rum" triggers my gag reflex. So maligned is this spirit from the widespread abuse it inspires during our formative years and receives from the hordes who guzzle it with Diet Coke, I fear rum will never again gain wide-ranging respect. Taking an oath never to drink white rum again is a good start, but buying a bottle of Lemon Hart Demerara Rum ($18.60 per 750 ml) is a step in the right direction. Lemon Hart makes a rum-and-coke worth having; add a lime and christen it the classier Cuba Libre. I use it in all my daiquiris because it brings depth with a brown-sugar note; on the rocks the brown sugar stands out even more, followed by a mellowness that only rum can achieve.Old Overholt may gain ground with the hearts and livers of this town's hipster set as the affordable brown-liquor shooter of choice, and I do appreciate its newfound omnipresence. But for a faithful rye on the cheap, nothing beats Rittenhouse 80 proof ($13.55 per 750 ml). Rittenhouse makes a killer mint julep (an act of grand sacrilege by forgoing bourbon); the slight bitter flavor of rye just balances better with mint. If you find bourbon too rich and scotch too acerbic, chances are rye is just right for you. Put it on the rocks with just a splash of bitters and an orange.With a bottle of each of the above, you've got summer and its signature cocktails covered—all for the price of approximately seven drinks at the bar. Now that's frugality I can believe

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