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.

3 bottles of vodka

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.
2 bottles of gin

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.

2 bottles of rum

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.

two bottles of tequila

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.

jack daniels whiskey

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?

AC Burke

AC currently lives in New Jersey.