Long gone are the days of “well liquor” being synonymous with rotgut. As a result of ever-growing knowledge and increased selection born out of the cocktail renaissance, bar owners and bartenders in all manner of venues are filling their rails with accessible, affordable spirits that bear personality. PUNCH reached out to more than two dozen bartenders around the country to determine how the well has changed since we last checked in, and to find out what they’re keeping within arm’s reach in 2020.
Many of the polled bartenders opt for locally-produced vodkas in their wells—Abigail Gullo of Seattle’s Ben Paris likes OOLA vodka, for example, while Paul MacDonald of Friday Saturday Sunday in Philadelphia goes for Pennsylvania-made Boardroom. But big name or not, simple concerns inform this category. “I don’t ask much of my well vodka,” says MacDonald. “Two requirements: quality, which essentially just means neutrality, and affordability.” Put another way: “Something that mixes nicely but won’t strip paint is ideal,” says Jonathan Peterson, of New Orleans’ Black Penny.
Most Popular: Tito’s Handmade Vodka and Luksusowa
Tito’s is the go-to for bartenders like Kristina Magro, of Chicago’s Lone Wolf Tavern, and Justin Campbell, bar director of the Los Angeles–based h.wood group. Both cite the Texas brand’s one-two combo of brand recognition, which puts guests at ease, and the down-the-middle reliability of the liquid, distilled from yellow corn. Phoebe Esmon, bar director of The Imperial Life in Asheville, North Carolina, prefers another nonwheat vodka that tied in top voting: Luksusowa, the Polish potato vodka that’s also stocked by Neal Bodenheimer, owner of New Orleans’ Cure. They note its consistency as a major selling point, on top of its low price. “It is texturally pleasant, with a bit of the unctuousness one looks for in a spirit made from potatoes,” says Esmon. “It works equally well in a Martini and a sour.”
Honorable Mentions: Absolut
Paul Taylor, at Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Room, and Christine Wiseman, of Broken Shaker Los Angeles, are among those who sing the praises of Absolut. It’s “clean and versatile, without polarizing flavors,” says Taylor, while Wiseman compliments the brand’s sustainability efforts.
As the owner of The Gin Joint in Charleston, South Carolina, James Bolt knows exactly what he’s looking for when it comes to this all-important well slot. “We value a gin that has a great taste profile—but not too overpowering on the juniper, so that it will complement many different drinks,” he says.
Most Popular: Beefeater
The quintessential London dry, Beefeater was the runaway winner in this category, ticking all the boxes for the majority of the panel. “We choose Beefeater for its notable juniper and citrus notes,” says Taylor. MacDonald calls it “one of the most underrated spirits on the market—versatile, dependable and affordable.” When people want a G&T, “this is the style of gin that they are looking for,” concurs Wiseman.
Honorable Mention: Tanqueray
Both Jackson Cannon, of The Hawthorne in Boston among others, and The Imperial Life’s Esmon prefer Tanqueray; in fact, Esmon recently switched over from Beefeater, enticed by Tanqueray’s more complex botanical profile—and recent competitive price drop in North Carolina. “[Tanqueray] makes a great Rickey, a smooth and silky Negroni, and an eminently quaffable 50/50,” she says.
“Rum is chaos—but if it makes a good Daiquiri, everything will be just fine,” says Taylor. Given the endless diversity in the category, it’s difficult to select just a few characteristics that make a solid well rum; most bartenders we asked nominated multiple labels across the white, aged and overproof categories.
Most Popular White: Plantation 3 Stars
Slightly over 80 proof, Plantation 3 Stars, a blend of white rums from Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad, showcases versatility in the well. “A value pick,” says Taylor. “It’s a workhorse and does well across the board in cocktails that call for white rum.” (This includes Daiquiris, in particular.) Bolt and Esmon, meanwhile, enjoy its combination of light body and round, vanilla- and malt-forward flavor.
Most Popular Aged: Flor de Caña 7 and El Dorado
Flor de Caña 7-year earned multiple votes, as its toasted notes serve to elevate stirred rum drinks; Bolt relies on it for rum Manhattans, plus original cocktails like the Havana Affair (Flor De Caña, Cardamaro, Montenegro, sweet vermouth, lime bitters). El Dorado was another popular choice, nominated by rum expert Lynnette Marrero of Llama Inn and Llama San (among others), as well as Kristina Magro, who highlights the Guyanese distillery’s 3-year and 5-year expressions in particular: “[Both] have character—a little funk, while still being priced economically,” she says.
Most Popular Overproof: Smith & Cross and Wray & Nephew
“Smith & Cross is a personal favorite to introduce hogo, but keep a high proof,” says Resa Mueller, of Philadelphia’s R&D, adding: “Wray & Nephew [is] the overproof white rum that we light on fire.”
Since tequila, like rum, boasts enormous stylistic and geographic variety, it’s tricky to articulate the traits that a good well selection ought to have. But there are some nondebatable standards—it should be distilled from 100 percent blue agave; it shouldn’t skew too heavily toward the fruit or vegetal notes that generally characterize the highland and lowland styles, respectively; and it can’t cost much more than $20 a bottle.
Most Popular: Olmeca Altos Tequila Plata
This highland expression, distilled from Los Altos–grown agave, put up the best numbers in our poll. Co-created by influential London bartender Dre Masso and the late Henry Besant in partnership with master distiller Jesús Hernandez, it’s a blanco specifically engineered for use in cocktail bars. With just the right amounts of citrus and sweetness, “it exhibits a really versatile flavor profile that captures the spirit of the agave plant—and it’s relatively cost-effective,” says Mueller, a sentiment echoed by Bolt, Esmon, Taylor and others. “It’s a tequila created by bartenders and drunk by a lot of bartenders, so it’s perfect for our guests,” adds Wiseman.
Honorable Mention: Tequila Cimarrón Blanco
Bodenheimer considers Tequila Cimarrón Blanco “the holy grail of house tequila … rich, with a nice acidity.” Gullo also goes for this “industry workhorse,” as it “stands up perfectly in a Margarita, and has just enough earthiness and fruit and clean green flavor.”
Since mezcal is pricier than tequila, nailing down a realistic bottle for the well can be a challenge. Generally speaking, the bartenders who make room for this spirit in their wells are willing to sacrifice some profitability with a mind toward turning on unfamiliar drinkers to this deep and rewarding category.
Most Popular: Banhez Mezcal Artesanal
“My favorite of all my well spirits,” says Campbell of Banhez Mezcal, produced by a 36-family co-op in San Miguel Ejutla, Oaxaca. “Tons of tropical notes of banana and pineapple,” he says. It’s also in Mueller’s well at R&D in Philly: “It’s super cost-effective, and expresses a nice balance between smoke and agave.”
Honorable Mention: Pelotón de la Muerte
Bolt, among others, champions Pelotón, which is priced comparably to Banhez. “We love this as a well mezcal, since it is smooth and has great fruit notes with a nice smoke level,” he says. “It’s a great brand to introduce people to the spirit.”
High-end cocktail bars and neighborhood dives alike are expected to dole out shots, highballs and Old-Fashioneds with this all-American spirit—versatility is key. Bartenders tend to gravitate toward those bottled at a higher proof, to better stand up to all sorts of applications and manipulations.
Most Popular: Four Roses Yellow Label
Though it clocks in at the standard 80 proof, Four Roses Yellow Label was far and away the most-praised well bourbon across the panel. “Neat, rocks, or in an Old-Fashioned, this is my go-to,” says Campbell. “Strong, oaky vanilla notes and cherry dominate the palate.” Bolt, meanwhile, admires its smoothness, “rounded out by nice spice and fruit qualities.” The combination of two individual mash bills, each of which features a significant percentage of rye, makes it a personal favorite of Gullo’s as well.
Honorable Mention: Wild Turkey 101
“It’s our go-to here,” says Taylor. “Big and robust, it has some super-prominent notes of pecan pie and buttered toast that shine in cocktails.” It’s also Wiseman’s pick. “Jimmy Russell has been making it for 60 years—talk about consistency,” she says.
There was less parity when it came to rye than the discussion around bourbon, but the requirements were similar—juice with a high enough ABV to preserve its spicy, assertive personality, no matter what you do to it.
Most Popular: Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond
No paradigm-altering revelations here—the top vote-getter, by quite a margin, was Rittenhouse Rye, specifically its Bottled-in-Bond variation. “It’s always a crowd-pleaser and makes a great Manhattan,” says Magro. It’s the go-to well rye for Bolt, too, for more than just the proof: “It has great tasting notes—a very rich dried fruit and baking spice–forward whiskey.”
Honorable Mentions: Old Overholt and Lot 40
Esmon switched allegiances from Rittenhouse to Old Overholt Bonded a few years ago, after she surmised a change in the former’s flavor. MacDonald oscillates between these two, as well. “Overholt is a bit rounder, but that’s not necessarily what you always want in a rye,” he says. “I would say both are indispensable behind my bar.” Though more expensive than the aforementioned competition, Wiseman opts for the Canadian single-pot still Lot 40. “It is 100 percent rye and spicy and delicious,” says Wiseman. “Why not give people 100 percent of what they ask for?”
New-School Well Staples
The two most pressing questions when it comes to well amaro are first, is it affordable? And second, can you shoot it? “My go-to is Cynar. … It has an underlying sweetness that is approachable for the amaro newcomer,” says Magro. Cure’s Bodenheimer, meanwhile, selects Meletti: “Cheap and tasty. Great for shots.”
Bodenheimer stumps for Brandy Sainte Louise, another spirit calibrated by and for bartenders. “High-quality juice that could be mistaken for a much fancier bottling. … 86 proof really shines in the brandy-heavy New Orleans classics,” he says. Esmon, however, feels that Laird’s Apple Brandy is “pound for pound your best bet for cocktails.”
Tio Pepe, from González Byass, and La Gitana, the flagship product of Bodegas Hidalgo, are Paul Taylor’s trusted sherries in the fino and manzanilla styles, respectively. For vermouth, he goes for Cocchi di Torino as his well sweet option (“It has the right amount of cola, citrus and spice notes to make an excellent Manhattan”), and Dolin Dry on the other side. That French vermouth is also the dry choice for Paul MacDonald (“No one has managed to walk the line between quality and affordability quite as steadily”), while he opts for the rich and complex Lacuesta Rojo, a Spanish import, for sweet.