A Guide to Middle-Shelf Liquor

If you’re like us, you’re in an awkward in-between when it comes to ordering drinks at a bar: you make enough money that you don’t want to order a “rail drink” but you’re too frugal to order something off of the top shelf. Allow us to reintroduce an often overlooked category of spirits: the middle shelf.

So you graduated from college, landed a respectable nine-to-five, and now you’re moving on up – or at least you’re trying, right? You haven’t quite yet reached Don Draper status, but now that you’re a young professional, there is a certain image you’re trying to maintain.

But the necessity to keep up your appearance isn’t something that stops when you’re off the clock. How you present yourself outside the office is just as important as it is at work. Even on a night out for drinks, every guy should know how to carry himself. Whether you’re out on a date or at a bar with friends, what you order can say a lot about you. So put down the can of Natty Light, guys. You’re not on frat row anymore. You might be missing Thirsty Thursdays, but it’s definitely time to move on.

Just because you’re not considered a kid anymore, doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. Adulthood opens up a whole new world of drinking possibilities. What should change is your take on alcohol now that you’re out of college. No, it’s not the enemy, but it’s no longer the solution to your boredom three nights of the week. And even though the fun doesn’t have to stop, it is time to retire the red cup and learn a few things about drinking (more) like an adult.

Let’s begin by taking a look at the many sorts of alcohol available. In case you’re unfamiliar with the different classifications of liquor, let’s have a quick run through. In this article we’re just going to stick to the hard stuff. First of all, there are two main categories of liquor: the lights (vodka, gin) and the darks (tequila, whiskey, brandy). These are pretty straightforward to distinguish. (Note: rum can be of either sort.) Next, distilled spirits are often divided into one of four tiers: value, middle shelf, top shelf, and luxury. For most types of liquor, it’s pretty easy to distinguish between the two extremes of the spectrum. To get a better idea of what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at an example.

Of all the hard liquors, vodka is arguably the most widely consumed. And with so many brands it might seem hard to choose. On one end of the spectrum, there’s Popov – an absolute crime against the act of drinking. It’s sold in plastic bottles which is a thousand times worse than wine in a box. You might as well take a swig of your cologne. If you’ve got any Popov lying around, do yourself a favor and save it for disinfecting the bathroom. On the other end of the list, you have Grey Goose – often regarded as a top-of-the-line brand. It tastes better, runs smooth, and can be served just about any way you like it.

As you move up the ladder of classifications, prices tend to increase drastically, and cost is a major concern for most young drinkers. But a higher price tag on the bottle doesn’t necessarily mean the contents of the bottle taste any better than their cheaper counterparts. For the best value, you probably want to stick to the bottles placed somewhere in the center of Popov and Grey Goose. This largely depends on what type of drink you’re ordering too. If you’re taking shots, you might want to fork over the extra cash. Your head will thank you in the morning. But for mixed drinks, the middle shelf works just fine. This includes brands like Absolut, Jose Cuervo, Bacardi, and Seagram’s.

Now that you’re better acquainted with your selection of alcohols, it’s time to pick a drink. Fellas, remember to be conscientious of what’s in your glass. You won’t impress anybody drinking a cosmopolitan. That would be an example of what Zane Lamprey likes to call a “Foo Foo Drink” – the kind that requires you to hold your pinky out while consuming. Basically, stay away from anything that induces pinky popping.

To help keep all ten of your digits relaxed, here are a few simple rules to follow:

No fruit, other than garnish. You might be able to pull off something like a cranberry vodka, but stay away from the apple martinis and strawberry daiquiris.

No bright colors. This one is pretty self explanatory. If it matches your date’s outfit, you shouldn’t be drinking it.

No more than 4 ingredients. You don’t have to count the ice or lime wedges, but the idea here is to keep it simple. No need to add pretense with orange peels or maraschinos.

If you’re still not sure what to order next time you’re out, here are a few ideas.

Type of Alcohol: Vodka
Brands of Choice: Smirnoff, Absolut, Stolichnaya
Drink: Vodka Tonic

Smooth and easy, there’s no chance this simple drink is going to cramp your style. If that doesn’t sound exciting enough for you, substitute Red Bull for the tonic. That’ll get your heart racing.

Type of Alcohol: Gin
Brand of Choice: Tanqueray, Seagram’s
Drink: Dirty Martini

Whether shaken or stirred, it’s synonymous with cool. If you’re not a fan of gin, ask for a vodka martini instead. Either way, you’ll look and feel like 007.

Type of Alcohol: Rum
Brands of Choice: Bacardi, Captain Morgan
Drink: Rum & Coke

It tastes like you’re on vacation without the little pink umbrellas. Still too bland for your taste? Add a little Amaretto. No one will know.

Type of Alcohol: Tequila
Brands of Choice: Jose Cuervo, Sauza
Drink of Choice: Shot

Besides margaritas, tequila drinks are pretty scarce. And even then, they’re not so flattering for the guys. If you’re intent on having tequila, I suggest taking it straight. Remember the order: salt, tequila, lime.

Type of Alcohol: Whiskey
Brand of Choice: Jack Daniel’s
Drink of Choice: The Manhattan

Chances are you probably haven’t ordered one of these before, but this old school concoction is making its way back on the scene. Made with a dash of bitters, it’ll help you feel like a real gentleman.

As is usually the case, there are exceptions to the 3 rules that I mentioned. To get the most bang for your buck, I suggest ordering a Long Island Iced Tea or an AMF. (If you don’t know what that stands for, you probably shouldn’t order it.) These drinks are the more sophisticated cousins of the frat party jungle juice – although not by much. Even though they break all 3 rules, they’re still acceptable for adult male consumption. Each one boasts a deadly combination of gin, tequila, rum, and vodka. It might be toxic, but it gets the job done.

Remember, guys. Don’t limit yourself to these suggestions. Instead, use this as a guide to finding your personal drink of choice. You shouldn’t have to cringe every time you take a sip. Enjoy your alcohol. It’s OK!

This is just a sampling, what’s your favorite middle-shelf liquor?

Daniel Demirchyan is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. He speaks four languages, is a self-proclaimed music fiend, and has an irrational obsession with all things Spanish. Never in one place for very long, he currently travels between California and the West Indies where he studies medicine.

  • Colt

    3 Olives Vodka on ice with a splash of lime. Also, a High Ball made with Jim Beam and a good ginger-ale.

  • Colby

    Tom Collins:

    Gordon’s Gin
    Lemon juice
    Simple Syrup
    Seltzer

    Served on ice.
    Cherry garnish.

    • Henry H. Ford

      A fine beverage.

  • Chris

    This reads like “middle-shelf liquor for the frat boy.”

    • Henry H. Ford

      THHHANK YOU.

  • Robin

    Manhattans are made with Canadian Rye Whiskey, not Jack Daniels.

    • Henry H. Ford

      Agreed, Manhattans are a whiskey drink, not bourbon.

  • http://www.primermagazine.com/2010/learn/2010-fall-beer-review Andrew

    Chris, I don’t think brands are specific to frat boys. What would you have included?

    • Henry H. Ford

      Something better than New Amsterdam, cheaper than Beef but with classic gin flavor. Not too much too ask.

  • http://www.primermagazine.com/2010/learn/2010-fall-beer-review Andrew

    Robin, It’s true that traditionally Rye is used, but you’ll see bourbon Manhattans all over the web.

    • Henry H. Ford

      What about Manhatten makes you think Tennesee bourbon? It’s unchristian.

  • http://www.primermagazine.com/2010/learn/2010-fall-beer-review Andrew

    Colt, good call on the high ball!

    Colby, I’m going to have to give the Tom Collins a try, can honestly say I haven’t ordered one, but sounds good.

    • Henry H. Ford

      A fine departure from the usual Gin & Tonic.

  • Tuanh

    Guys, stick to the simple drinks. I have to admit the type of drink my date orders definitely can increase his chances of getting a little somethin’ somethin’ at the end of the night.. Well I may be exaggerating, but there’s something super sexy about a man sipping on a Jack & Coke as opposed to a cranberry-vodka. Stick to dark or clear, its sexier. Also, lose the friggin’ straw. Let the chicks do the sucking on long things, there’s a reason for it.

    • Henry H. Ford

      I always thought chicks dug dudes who drank cosmos cuz it shows they have a sensitive side and can “hang” with the ladies.

  • APM

    Up your style, go for an old fashioned or a sazerac!

  • GBM

    Andrew, it’s true that you’ll see bourbon Manhattans all over (and I prefer them to rye) but Jack Daniel’s is not a bourbon.

  • Daniel

    GBM, you’re absolutely correct. Jack Daniel’s is a Tennessee Whiskey which is similar but technically distinct from the Bourbon. To go into those distinctions would probably have exceeded the breadth of the article.

    Jack Daniel’s was chosen instead of the traditional Rye because it’s the go-to whiskey for the average twenty-something-year-old. It’s accessible, affordable, and actually tastes really good in a Manhattan! I hope you all try it!

    • Henry H. Ford

      Bourbon enough, regardless it doesn’t belong in a Manhatten.

      • Henry H. Ford

        I love Jack Daniel’s it’s one of the tried and true liquors of our day, but it just doesn’t belong in a Manhatten.

  • Anotherjames

    Leave Grey Goose for Pauly D and other frat boy rejects. It’s an overrated vodka for guys who wear flat front shiny black shoes. Pick something like Kettle One instead.

    Best reasonably priced gin: Hendricks. Have it straight up martini style. This gin has so much spiced flavor it is all you will need, no garnish and no mixer. Just serve very cold.

    If it ain’t from Bourbon County Kentucky, it ain’t a Bourbon.

    Slowly build a collection of liquor and mixers so you can learn to make these drinks mentioned yourself. You’ll appreciate and understand so much more.

    Good post.

  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

    Shot myself with the bourbon, good call!

  • Jason

    I guess this is a good ‘primer’ lol….anyways u contradicted urself again when u said ‘no bright colored drinks’ and then recommended ‘vodka redbulls’…theyre freakin neon yellow. I dont really care.and I drink them all the time…but it goes to show u the rules are so subjective.

    And I dont feel the same about cranberry vodkas…i seen some high rollers hang out with cran vods in their hands.

    And Ive NEVER seen anyone order a Tom Collins…regardless of social status lol. I think thats an old timer sittin in ur lawn chair drink.

    • Henry H. Ford

      aint nothing wrong with a cranberry and Vodka…SLASH drinks them, that’s all I need to know.

  • cisco

    though typically a bourbon and rocks man, i do occasionaly enjoy a sailor jerry or tequila and rocks or an tequila anejo neat.

    • Henry H. Ford

      Nothin beats Tijuana street Tequila that a random drunk on the corner has urged you to swig! Honestly, some unknown mexico brand and a shit-ton better than patron. Of course chivas regal goes for like 8 bucks a bottle down there.

  • reub

    Sorry, but this reads more like a primer on spirits marketing than taste. First, spending money on more expensive vodkas has nothing to do with better drinks. The pricier brands claim to have less flavor than others. Not a plus in my book, but the bottles sure look awful purdy. If you really want to scrub the remaining flavor from your hooch, just run Popov through a water filter a few times. Tests have shown them indistinguishable.

    Cuervo Tequila? Captain Morgan? Red Bull? Shaken Martinis? Stick with the red cup… There are better guides to enjoy better drinks focusing on flavor rather than image and “shelf.” We’re in the middle of a craft-cocktail revival and this article advises trying a Rum and Coke. If this were a guide to automobiles it’d recommend getting an entry-level fancy sedan regardless of requirements because of some plastic societal dictate.

    If you’re just looking to be an older frat-boy though, by all means, have at that long island iced tea… #fail

    • Guest

      come back in 5 years. Eventually we all turn James Bond…

  • PC

    I think you meant to write “well drink”, NOT “rail drink”. LOL
    I’ve never heard of “rail” liquor. LOL

  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

    PC, I assure you rail drinks are real:
    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/297505

    They’re the same thing, just different lingo.

  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

    Reub,

    Thanks for the comment. I think you’re taking your knowledge of spirits and cocktails for granted; this article is for guys who want to learn more about what’s out there at a beginner’s level. There was a time, surely, even you ordered your first Rum & Coke.

    • Henry H. Ford

      Agreed, if I had listened to this when I was younger I totally woulda got all the chicks with my impressive drinks.

  • Jim

    The key to this article are these basics:
    No fruit, other than garnish.
    No bright colors.
    No more than 4 ingredients.

    To modify your drink selection:
    Vodka: Vodka Tonic. Vodka Cranberry. Or, chilled with a little black pepper.
    Gin: Martini, but only if you like gin and olives. Otherwise go with a Tom Collins of a Gin Ricky, definitely in the summer
    Rum: Rum & Coke is the only rum drink I can think of that doesn’t have a bunch of ingredients in it. But lets add lime, make it classy, and call it a Cuba Libre.
    Tequila: Shot, yes. But let’s include a margarita on the rocks as well.
    Whiskey: Manhattan and Old Fashioned.

    I accept the addition of the Long Island Iced Tea, but never made with something like this:http://www.bevmo.com/Shop/ProductDetail.aspx?ProductID=10157

    • Henry H. Ford

      Rum just makes me want to fly to some place tropical and go native/pirate.

  • http://www.primermagazine.com andrew

    Jim, Great ideas and drink choices!

  • Joel

    Agree with Reub and Chris on this one. Rum & Coke and Vodka Tonic? What 21 year old (guy or girl) hasn’t already tried those? Article would’ve been much more helpful if it recommended something other than two of the most common well drinks out there. It’d be like recommending Miller Lite in a primer on great beers to try out.

    Dark and Stormy is a great rum based drink that’s easy to make and will probably score you points for ordering something a little different. Or try a Moscow Mule if you want something made with vodka.

    • Henry H. Ford

      This is a 101 guide. You get a primer, your basics and also something you can always fall back on like your basic Gin drinks. Sometimes they got it right years ago.

  • Brandon

    There are 2 parts of this article that REALLY irk me:

    1. Maraschino cherries are not always a sissy addition to a drink. ESPECIALLY for your praised Manhattan. Having a crushed Maraschino cherry at the bottom tops off the drink.

    2. AMF is NOT a man’s drink. Unless you’re okay looking like a smurf with a blue tongue after, do NOT order this drink. The blue mix stains your tongue… in fact, a blue tongue is like black lace underwear, when you see her with it, she is DTF.

  • Ricardo

    Great article. I’d like to add a bit about tequila (my fathers family runs an agave plantation in mexico that services a few major brands)

    Tequila, much like Whiskey is best enjoyed ON THE ROCKS with NOTHING ELSE (except for the standard twist of lime, and light rimming of salt…add a splash of plain water if the flavor is too intense for you). order ONE and sip it slowly throughout the night. This may sound totally odd to an American reader, but ask ANY Mexican gentleman over the age of 50 and he will verify. The drink is as classic as Mariachis.

    A good tequila (or mezcal, depending on region, not quality) SHOULD have a warm kick to it (Patron, though popular, is disliked among tequila afficionados in Mexico becuase it doesn’t taste enough like tequila). If it’s too smooth, IT IS NOT GOOD TEQUILA. A really good one also kicks in the CHEST (not throat or stomach). Don’t ask me how the delay and timing works, it just does.

    My personal reccomendation for a middle-shelf tequila is definetly Sauza Hacienda. It is a white tequila that will run about $25 for a decent sized bottle, and its quality is Near-top-shelf. Sauza as a brand, in general, actually is a great middle-end teq.

    KEEP IN KIND: Every type of alchohol hits you differently, and tequila is INFAMOUS to the unititiated. Limit yourself to JUST ONE of these for the night (gentlemen sip, folks) until you’re certain you can handle it’s unique effects.

  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

    Ricardo,

    Thank you so much for the fascinating comment! I look forward to trying a tequila on rocks and I’m surprised to hear that aficionados don’t like Patron. Very cool.

  • Ricardo

    Well there certainly ARE tequila lovers who do like Patron, but it’s much the same as the Grey Goose complex. It’s popular, but to many, its just too smooth, and lacks the subtle notes that other top-shelf brands have.

    Among top-shelf, Don Julio is definitly my personal favorite.

  • AJ

    ANOTHERJAMES has a good comment about Hendricks, though it is more of a top shelf gin at most establishments.
    Frankly I dissagree with Tanqueray and Seagrams as selections for gins. Seagrams is a bottom shelf gin at most places I go to, and its not particularly enjoyable. It’s useful for multi liquor drinks, or for drinks that the gin is not supposed to be the dominant flavor (obviously not the case with a martini).
    No one I know who drinks gin prefers Tanqueray, often its the fallback when presented with undesireable options. Tanqueray is a tolerable gin, but almost costs as much as some top shelf gins. Often the people who don’t like gin don’t like it because of their intial experience withTanqueray. i recommend a more ballanced gin to start off.
    New Amsterdam is probably the best choice for middle shelf gin you can get, as a bonus its made here in the US (New York). It’s flavorful enough to enjoy in a gin focused drink but cheap enough to be part of a more complex drink. Gordon’s is also a good choice.

  • JWS

    Maraschino cherries can also be a part of that manly drink called the Rob Roy. The only problem is that there’s really no middle-shelf scotches. Then again, that’s not such a bad thing either. As someone who’s sampled low-end to top-shelf blended scotches, I don’t know if it WOULD be a good thing to have.

  • Otto

    If you like plain old (Irish) whiskey I have found that Jameson’s is relatively smooth and easy to take. It’s been 25 years since I had Cuervo but I remember it being peppery and bitter but drinkable (most things were back then, even when me and my buddy mixed bits of everything from his parents cabinet into one bottle).

  • Henry H. Ford

    Honestly in my college years I drank jug wine, cheap beer and the cheapest rum I could find. If that was like level one, I would call this tier level 2. Is what it is, your introduction to the world beyond cheap beer and well liquors.