Mixologists are using more and more esoteric spirits in their drinks, but these five choices are still the backbone of a great cocktail list.

By Cocktails 2009
Updated March 31, 2015

© Tina Rupp


A dry, clear spirit, gin is distilled with many botanicals, such as juniper, coriander, cardamom and dried citrus peel. These ingredients often add piney, spicy or citrusy notes. Ubiquitous dry gin, also known as London dry, is bolder in flavor than the slightly sweet, less botanically intense Old Tom style.

© Tina Rupp


Produced all over the world, vodka is traditionally distilled from fermented grain or potatoes, but nearly any fruit or vegetable that contains starch or sugar can be used, from grapes to beets. The finest flavored vodkas are often made with fruit-infused grain alcohol that's run through a pot still.

© Tina Rupp


The best examples of this agave-based spirit are made with 100 percent blue agave. Blanco tequila is aged for up to two months.

Reposado ("rested") tequila sits for up to a year.
Añejo ("aged") tequila ages for up to three years.
Extra añejo tequila ages for a minimum of three years.
Mezcal, also agave-based, is smokier than tequila. Artisanally produced versions from Oaxaca are becoming more popular.

© Tina Rupp


This spirit is distilled from a fermented mash of grains and aged in wood barrels. (Whiskey is spelled without an "e" in Scotland and Canada.) Scotch whisky is made in two major styles: single-malt whisky, which is made from 100 percent malted barley and pot-distilled from one distillery; and blended whisky, a mixture of single-malt and grain whisky from more than one distillery. The smoky flavor in some Scotches comes from drying malted barley with peat smoke.

© Tina Rupp


Distilled from cane syrup, molasses or fresh pressed sugarcane, rums are primarily produced in tropical regions.

White rums typically age for a short time in wood.
Amber, or gold, rums usually age in oak barrels.
Dark rums, especially Jamaican ones, tend to be rich and flavorful.
Rhum agricole is made in the French West Indies from fresh pressed sugarcane juice (not syrup or molasses).