Sinatra's songs are "standards", but he wasn't. What you choose to drink shouldn't be "standard" either.
Investing in your own "drink cart" can be a bit overwhelming. My friend recently asked for some advice on what bottles are truly essential. I was going to answer only him but then realized it would be something I would think a great deal about, write something really long with an absurd amount of detail and then send it to him. I also figured it would be fun to write a post about and I would do the same thing again. So rather than write something long twice (one, answering him specifically, the other for a wider audience) I'm going to try and write this one thing.
This is quite an endeavor and I may be in over my head for one posting...
I should start by saying that I had no intention of having a cart full of booze in my apartment. I admit that someday, if I ever have house, I would like to have a full bar at my disposal. It's a ridiculous dream but I imagine myself bartending to friends and family at my own bar, saving ourselves both money and exposure to the assholes of the world who frequent bars. Some people dream of greater things for their future but spending quality time with the people whom you choose to spend your time with (and anyone important to them) is a noble idea in my mind. That being said, building this drink cart is either a way for me to live this dream now or research for what to stock at my bar in the future.
Unfortunately for everyone else who lives or drinks at my place, the most numerous item on my drink cart is what I enjoy - whisk(e)y. I added that "e" because Stateside and Irish distillers add the "e" whereas Scottish, Canadian, Welsh, and Japanese distillers do not. I currently have about 15 bottles at my disposal. To be fair, seven or eight of them are bottles of scotch my grandfather gave to me. When blended scotch became "the thing" to have in the 1970's, party guests would bring a bottle over to my grandparent's house to share - but no one drank it. They sat unopened behind my grandfather's bar (even after two out-of-state moves) until a few years ago when he told me to take them because he (obviously) didn't drink scotch. So there they sit on my drink cart now because, although it would be fine to drink (once bottled, whisk(e)y stops aging), it's a lot of scotch and kind of overwhelming. Plus, it's not all great scotch. I'm sure I'll fold someday and drink it, but where to start? This the heart of the question that Jay posed to me - what is truly essential to have on hand?
Although I would highly suggest to do what I did and slowly build up a collection, trying a lot of different things, you can benefit from my experience thus far. As I suggest in the previous paragraph, it's best to consider what you will drink most often first. If you want variety and a lot of different characteristics to choose from, then whisk(e)y is best. There are a lot of whiskies out there: Scotch (blended, pure-malt, single-malt), Irish (blended, single-malt), Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, Rye, Canadian, American Single-Malt, American Whiskey, Corn (just to name a few). However, such variety can be lacking for other alcohol "families." So if you like vodka best, you won't have much luck. But whatever your favorite drink is, have at least two bottles on hand (two different bottle too).
I am not implying that vodka has no character. Vodkas are distinguished from one another by the variety of things they are distilled from, how many times they are distilled and filtered, their country of origin - all of these factors contribute to how the vodka tastes. However, most Americans don't drink their vodka straight so they miss out on all these subtle notes and defining characteristics (which is disappointing). So unless you are one of these straight-drinkers, you are most likely buying vodka to mix with something else. I only say this because mixing generally just covers up these notes; you'll probably be buying vodka hoping only not to get a wicked hangover. Therefore, you have tons of vodkas to choose from, all at different levels of quality but these character-defining qualities won't be as important to you, negating the need for variety.
My girlfriend doesn't drink as often as I do. Consequently, there isn't much on the cart for her. So if you are investing in a cart for a house of more than one regular imbiber, it's probably better to have a shared bottle in addition to one bottle for each of you (if you each like a different item). If you like whisk(e)y and the other person likes gin, try to compromise on a shared bottle - brandy has similar floral aromas of gin and similar tastes to certain whiskies. It's true benefit is that it will be there longer than either of your individual choices. This is because it is something you will both enjoy but it isn't the "go-to" drink for either one. Plus, it can be enjoyed by both for special occasions.
My motto may be "Life is too short to drink cheap" but it doesn't have to be yours. Although I will always say spending a little more pays dividends you don't have to go broke. I don't mean to imply that "money is no object" when it comes to my own liquor purchases. If I could drop hundreds of dollars each time I bought a bottle of something that would be nice, but I don't live in that world. So while I will occasionally spend an extra $10-15, price is still always a factor in my choice; here is where my liquor store experience comes in handy.
I try to stay away from the big names - you'll end up paying more for name. This is not to say that they will be poor quality drinks BUT there is a standard these names have to live up to. Therefore, they live up to, but never try to exceed that standard. You should treat yourself a bit better than that.
Here I will give you my picks under each category I would consider essential starters. Keep in mind these are my opinions; however, I like to think I have an informed opinion so I hope you will at least consider what I recommend. Sometimes I'll give a brand name or I'll just give a "family" member that often gets over-looked (i.e. armagnac). This a quick list made for those eager to get started. I plan on doing very extensive posts on each alcohol"family" in the future. However, here is a short list:
Whiskey - due to my love of this family, this is mostly a "hidden gem" list, leaving a lot out. I will go into the most detail here than any other family. Scotch is left out because I will probably have to have an entire series of posts about that delicious whisky.
Rye - real rye (made mostly from rye grain), not Canadian Rye. Referring to Canadian whisky as "Rye" is a term left over from Prohibition. Prior to Prohibition, real rye whiskey was the most popular whiskey in the U.S. With Prohibition, Canadian whisky (made mostly with corn) was smuggled and called rye. Jim Beam makes a great rye for $20-25 for a liter. Best deal in rye that I've found. If you can find Van Winkle Rye - it is worth every dollar.
Old Charter Bourbon - a blend of all the best Buffalo Trace whiskies. Relatively cheap ($18-22) and very delicious. Nearly everything from Buffalo Trace is delicious so treat yourself to something in their line sometime (Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare, W.L. Weller, Pappy Van Winkle, Blanton's)
Powers - An Irish whiskey. Was once the most popular whiskey in Ireland until Jameson's massive marketing campaign vaulted itself to #1. They are distilled by the same company so they just stole their own sales. Still a lot cheaper than Jameson.
Wasmund's - this is an American Single-Malt. Similar to scotch but rather than smoking the malt over peat, it's smoked over Applewood, Cherrywood, and Oak. It has a great smoky flavor and nowhere near as expensive as scotch.
Old Ezra - price of rotgut bourbon but not a rotgut bourbon. Not fantastic by any means but you get more than what you pay for. Buy the 101 proof if you can find it.
Gin - I normally just drink gin with tonic water so my opinions here are based mostly on this pairing
Broker's - one of the best gins I've had. Not paying nearly as much as you would for Bombay or Tanqueray but your getting the same quality stuff for a good $5-7 less per liter.
Plymouth - similar to Broker's (can be a bit pricier).
Seagram's - surprisingly, not horrible.
Moskovskaya - "green label" Stoli. A big step down from Stoli in price but only a small step down in quality.
Shustoff Luxury - best vodka I have ever had. So smooth, it's like drinking velvet bunnies. A lot cheaper than most other "top shelf" vodkas.
Seagram's - again, not horrible.
Applejack - American "calvados" (Apple Brandy)...
I have to stop here or else this list is going to be way too long. I'm beginning to realize how much I have to say about this stuff. Let me remind you to think about what you'll drink most often - this is what is essential. This should be your guide to starting your drink cart.
Jay, I know the things you like to drink so I hope there is something on here for you. If not, e-mail me if you have any more questions or if you want to scold me because you think my "answer" gets far from what you were asking. The rest of you, leave comments to ask for more detail and I'll either respond directly or answer via another blog posting.