"You don't need to buy the premium stuff for mixing most drinks," says Dale DeGroff, master mixologist and author of The Craft of the Cocktail. Sample a range of each kind of liquor, and splurge on the ones where you can tell the difference.
1. BourbonPremium: Maker's Mark
Bargain: Old Forester
2. GinPremium: Beefeater
3. Rum (Light)Premium: Bacardi
4. Scotch (Blended)Premium:Dewar's
Bargain: White Horse
5. TequilaPremium: Porfidio
Bargain: Sauza Hornitos, Jose Cuervo
6. Dry VermouthChoose a French brand; Noilly Prat is high-quality but inexpensive.
7. Sweet VermouthGo for Martini & Rossi―premium in taste but not in price.
8. VodkaPremium: Belvedere
Eight Liquors Not to Buy
Ban these bottles, says William Grimes, author of Straight Up or on the Rocks (North Point Press, $16, amazon.com).
1. Captain Morgan Spiced Rum: "Avoid, if for no other reason than the label―it's obnoxious. You should do your own spices in your rum."
2. Vanilla Vodka: "In terms of transmitting flavors via vodka, vanilla is a bad idea. It hasn't advanced the cause of civilization."
3. Baileys Irish Cream: "Be wary of anything that looks like a milk shake. It's sick and viscous, but they sell tons of it on planes."
4. T.G.I. Friday's Mudslide: "It's a horrible college drink that surely gives you an epic hangover―the kind where you're begging for death the next morning."
5. Hot Sex (a gingery cocktail mix): "It's like buying a Chinese TV dinner. You're better off using actual ingredients that you can control."
6. Midori (melon-flavored liqueur): "People like the arresting color, but the flavor is why you should stay away. It's hard to take seriously."
7. Peach Schnapps: "When you're dealing with exotic flavors, you have to ask, How much integrity does the fruit flavor have? If it's too artificial, it's effectively chemical sludge."
8. Godiva Liqueur: "If you want dessert, eat dessert. Don't drink it."