Once little more than an impractical showcase of luxury spirits typically dispatched neat, the top shelf, like its more hardworking sibling the well, has reinvented itself. Today, that collection of bottles gracing the higher reaches of a backbar is not just a venue’s opportunity to communicate its values and point of view, but also a utilitarian set of spirits used to elevate ordinary blueprints.
“To a proficient barkeep, there are no sacred cows,” says Toby Cecchini, the owner and bar manager of The Long Island Bar in Brooklyn. “The concept of something being ‘too good’ to be used in a great cocktail, to me that simply doesn’t exist. I don’t care how rare it is, how expensive it might be; if it’s great, it’s open game in a cocktail as well. A great spirit, properly coddled, can elevate a cocktail you thought you knew well into an entirely different, superlative beast.”
Naturally, as the top-shelf spirit finds more common use at the bar, what defines it and how it should be used, exactly, has become a matter of debate. But as evidenced by the top-shelf picks from the bartenders below, uniting bartenders across a variety of bars—from tiki bar to hotel bar to dressed-down cocktail bar—“top shelf” need not mean luxury, or even expensive; it’s most often defined as a spirit of high quality that expresses singularity.
With a topic so entwined with personal taste and an ever-growing market for super-premium spirits, the landscape continues to change since we last posed this question. Here, some of the top bartenders in the United States share their essential top-shelf picks across key categories along with ways to use them beyond a neat pour.
The premium picks were as varied as the booming gin category itself. Fords Gin, a top pick among Punch’s recent survey of bartender-approved well spirits, also climbed as a favorite top-shelf selection for several bartenders, including Jamie Boudreau, owner of Canon in Seattle, who praised it for being “insanely versatile.” Another London dry style, Hayman’s Gin, was also a popular pick. “There’s a lot of more delicate gins on the market now, but I’ve always loved how Hayman’s still stands up in most cocktails and you still know you’re drinking a London dry,” says Jeff Kinder, bar manager at The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee.
Since Beefeater recently fell off his list “by using the pandemic to covertly change their time-honored recipe by lowering the ABV,” Cecchini nods to Fords, Hayman’s and Plymouth Gin for his current gin rotation. “For a Martini, a Negroni or a Gin & Tonic, these all fit the bill: superb gins that are easily found, don’t put on any extraneous fascinators and, though not cheap, aren’t auspiciously costly either,” says Cecchini. “Plymouth is the outlier here; though its softness and relatively moderate ABV doesn’t perhaps stand up to a Gin & Tonic quite as crisply, its perfection in a Martini is nigh insuperable.”
Gary Crunkleton, owner and bartender at The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, turns to Cadenhead’s Old Raj Dry Gin (110 proof) for “making delicious drinks when price is not a concern.” He calls it the “Cadillac of gins,” noting that “the juniper and citrus notes hang in there like a great gin should, creating depth and complexity.”
Brian Evans, bar director for Sunday in Brooklyn and Rule of Thirds (both in Brooklyn), champions Gracias a Dios 32 Botanicals Agave Gin, a Mexican gin distilled from espadín agaves and flavored with coffee bean, passion fruit and green tea. “This is undoubtedly one of the most unique gins to surface from the category,” says Evans. “It has a rich, almost lactic roundness that truly shines in familiar spirit-forward creations, like a Martinez or a simple Negroni.” Lynnette Marrero, bar director for Llama Inn and Llama San in New York, favors Procera Gin, distilled in Nairobi, Kenya. “This super-small-batch gin from Africa uses a juniper that would normally go to waste,” she says. “It comes at a pretty steep price tag, but it’s just stunning.”
An American gin that stands out for Javelle Taft, head bartender at Death & Co. New York, is Bimini Overproof Gin, made by Round Turn Distilling in Biddeford, Maine. At Death & Co., it’s used in an herbaceous winter Gimlet called Toe to Toe. “Bimini Gin isn’t holding anything back with their recent release of their overproof gin option,” says Taft. “This expression is versatile enough for an elegant Gin & Tonic and shines through in a Negroni.”
When it comes to premium rum, Plantation was the name on everyone’s lips. “I’m not going to pick a bottle here, but rather a brand: Plantation,” says Boudreau. “One is never going to go wrong choosing any of their lineup, from their base Original Dark or 3 Stars to their vintage and special releases.” Evans reaches for Plantation Single Cask 2019 Guatemala XO. “Cinnamon, toffee, coconut, banana—this is a rum Old-Fashioned in bottle brought to you by the flavors imparted from six months of South American amburana wood,” says Evans, who likes to drop this into a Black Manhattan with a split of Zucca and Ramazzotti. Marrero counts the Plantation Single Cask 2019 Peru 2010 as her pick. “It’s finished in Pineau des Charentes casks and is rich and woody with notes of spicy cloves, ginger and tropical fruit.” Briana Volk, co-owner of Portland Hunt + Alpine Club in Maine, calls the Plantation Isle of Fiji her favorite rum: “It’s just so tropical and fun, and it holds up to cocktails as well as sipping on its own.”
Cecchini and Crunkleton (which sounds like a very spirited law firm) both call out El Dorado as a preferred brand in the category. “The entire El Dorado line is dead-on at every age statement, from their white 3-year through their candied pecan–inflected 12-year,” says Cecchini. “Despite my usual distrust of and antipathy toward very old spirits in wood, their 21-year Demerara is simply eye-openingly gorgeous. Only in rum can one access this kind of age statement for under $100 anymore.”
For unaged rum, Sam Miller, a bartender at Copper Common in Salt Lake City, turns to Uruapan Charanda Single Agricole Rum, his go-to for elevated Ti’ Punch and Daiquiri variations. “This Mexican agricole is softer than its cousins from Martinique, so it’s a great introduction to the category,” he says. “It’s green and herbaceous, with a peppery spice note and creamy vanilla.” For aged rums, it’s Worthy Park Single Estate Reserve Jamaica Rum for Miller. “This is my favorite aged Jamaican rum to use in elevated stirred cocktails,” he says. “It’s tropical, with hints of plum and tobacco, and has a soft and buttery mouthfeel—perfect for your spirit-forward dealer’s choice drinks.” Matt Chavez, bar manager at Ci Siamo in New York, has become an advocate for Privateer Queen’s Share Rum, from Ipswich, Massachusetts. “It plays all the right notes of an aged rum, with flavors of vanilla, toasted nut and dried apricot,” says Chavez. “It’s a wonderful rum for an Old-Fashioned and makes a really flavorful, layered Daiquiri.”
It’s no surprise that the tequila and mezcal favorites were as varied as the agave expressions themselves. “There are so many contenders in upper-tier agave these days, but the two categories work in very different ways,” says Cecchini. “While tequila has been huge and [is] just getting bigger, mezcal producers are the plumb opposite: Small to vanishingly small is where the magic lives.” For tequila, Cecchini prefers Tequila Ocho, started by Tomas Estes. “I feel like there’s Ocho, then there’s kind of everyone else. It’s that good.” Hunt + Alpine Club’s Volk also reaches for Tequila Ocho, for “the best Margaritas you can get.”
Taft turns to Siembra Valles Ancestral tequila, citing the brand’s traditional approach to tequila production. “The piñas are crushed by hand and macerated in earthen pits, similar to how mezcals are made today,” he says. “The still used to cook the piñas are a combination of wood and copper. The result yields a smoky flavor profile, with spiced pepper notes complemented by green tropical fruits.” Chavez is “in love with” Don Fulano Blanco. “Their tequila has everything I’m looking for; [it’s] floral with light tropical fruit notes and a vegetal pepper finish,” he says.
When it comes to mezcal, Miller aspires to the wild single-variety mezcales from El Jolgorio. “The Madrecuixe and Tepeztate are beautiful expressions that will give your cocktails so much depth,” he says, but notes their high price point. “These mezcals could be used in shaken or stirred cocktails, but I would recommend using a split base.” Marrero singles out Bozal Guías de Calabaza Sacrificio mezcal for being a rare vegetarian offering in the pechuga style. “In lieu of an animal carcass they use a pumpkin,” Marrero explains. “The nose provides bright scents of citrus peel and orange blossom, complemented by herbal notes of mint and eucalyptus.” Legendario Domingo Guerrero Cupreata Mezcal Joven is a preferred mezcal for Evans, who calls the expression “more dynamic than many mezcals I’ve experienced in the $100 range, with its notes of sweet green pepper, roasted pineapple and menthol,” adding, “I took this on a spin with a Bijou variation, swapping out red vermouth for blanc vermouth, and it was a stunner.”
In a category with many in-demand, allocated bottles, the availability of a favorite top-shelf whiskey is always a key factor for bartenders to consider.
On the bourbon front, it’s mostly classics, with heritage brands standing out in the crowded field. Evans is all about Old Forester Signature 100 Proof bourbon, for its “heavy nutty and maple taste and thin, clean finish.” For Boudreau, Noah’s Mill bourbon “packs a wallop to your palate, and has a great mouthfeel and heat without coming across hot”; he adds that one can’t go wrong using it in any whiskey cocktail. Miller, meanwhile, fell in love with Wild Turkey Rare Breed bourbon while making Old-Fashioneds with it on a backpacking trip and has never looked back, calling it “bold, with hints of caramel, citrus and tobacco.” Chavez gravitates to bourbon on the sweeter side, especially wheated bourbon, and W.L. Weller Special Reserve fits that bill. “The wheat substitute for rye grain makes a soft caramel and butterscotch combination that makes a terrific Old-Fashioned or Black Manhattan.”
Rye whiskey is the most-used spirit in Crunkleton’s deep arsenal, and Pikesville Straight Rye Whiskey 110 Proof from Bardstown, Kentucky’s Heaven Hill Distillery is his preferred brand when cost isn’t a concern. “It’s aged six years, giving it a long finish of pepper, vanilla, cocoa, charred oak and pecans,” he says, adding that he likes to use it in a drink called the Pillow Fight, made with two parts Pikesville and one part Amaro Nonino. “No ice. No bitters. Just whiskey and amaro,” says Crunkleton. Chavez prizes Michter’s 10-Year Kentucky Straight Rye. “It’s what top-shelf spirits are all about,” he says. “Masterfully aged, the typical earthy harshness of rye whiskey has been tempered and the taste transforms into flavors of toasted coconut and almonds.”
For Scotch whisky, Cecchini calls out Balvenie (“some steeped in multiple woods and with any number of fancy somersaults added to their pedigrees”), highlighting Balvenie Single Barrel 12-Year. “It’s the simplest, least doctored malt they make and is perhaps my favorite Speyside whisky in current existence,” he says. “It seems light and simple when you first pour it, but it quietly begins unpacking levels and levels of complexity, like a genie languidly stretching.” For Miller, it’s all about the sherry cask–aged Ardbeg Uigeadail. “It’s nutty, salty and smoky, with notes of banana and lemon zest,” he says. “A great addition to add depth and smoke to your cocktails.” Boudreau keeps things local with Seattle’s own Westland Peated American Single Malt. “It’s a world-class example of American single malt, and more people should be aware of it,” he says. “These guys have been doing it all right since Day One without cutting any corners or taking shortcuts, which unfortunately is a rare thing amongst small craft distilleries as a whole.”
For Japanese whisky, Nikka was the common pick for most of the polled bartenders. “My desert island bottle used to be the Suntory Hakushu 12-year,” says Cecchini, “and when I toured the Nikka distilleries a few years back, I was much more impressed by the lightly peated Nikka Yoichi Single Malt. But the subtlety of the unobtrusively fetching Nikka Miyagikyo Single Malt has since snuck up on me and taken the place of all my former loves, almost because of everything it doesn’t have.” Chavez is drawn to the Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky, made with 100 percent malted barley using its eponymous still. “It’s a rich and smooth spirit that tastes like bananas Foster, with just a bit of pecan,” says Chavez. “Just incredible in an Old-Fashioned, but also shines brightly in an Improved Whiskey Cocktail.”
Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac proved to be a consistent pick among the bartenders. The revival blend aims to create a historically accurate spirit to capture the essence of how Cognac made in the 19th century would’ve tasted. Developed by Ferrand master blender Alexandre Gabriel and historian David Wondrich, the 1840 was created especially for cocktails and is at home in a Vieux Carré or Mint Julep. “It has more body than most Cognacs, with a backbone that holds up to citrus and bitters,” says Volk. “For the sake of mixing, Pierre Ferrand comes through in cocktails with its proof being slightly higher than your other go-to Cognacs,” says Kinder.
Chavez stands by Port Chester, New York’s Neversink Apple Brandy, a hand-crafted clear apple spirit. “Everything this distillery does is wonderful,” says Chavez. “Utilizing local New York state apples, this eau de vie tastes freshly picked from the tree, with mild baking spices and strong flavors of orchard apples and pears. This will make the loveliest Jack Rose you have ever made.”
It’s no surprise this broad category revealed some idiosyncratic and deeply personal picks among bartenders, running the gamut from esoteric eaux de vie to vintage whiskey.
Bigallet China-China Amer is a longtime favorite of Cecchini and is featured in The Erin, a bittersweet rye-based lowball that remains a favorite on The Long Island Bar’s menu. He considers the quinine-based French amer an outlier in the world of Italian-dominated amari, but it’s the one he pours for guests looking for an after-dinner digestivo. “It’s produced by Bigallet, the distillery behind all of the smashing Giffard liqueurs,” Cecchini says. “Bartenders in the know routinely claim it’s a perfect stand-in for the abjectly unavailable Picon Amer. I can verify it’s actually far superior.”
Miller loves reaching for a bottle of Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur of the Alps, made by the Austrian Josef Hofer distillery, which dates to 1797. “The herbaceous and floral pine flavor profile is perfect for the wintertime,” he says. “Its piney, mentholated and bitter finish adds a rich complexity to stirred cocktails like a Martini or a Sazerac and gives you that feeling of hanging out in a ski lodge.”
Ritual Sister Smoked Pineapple spirit from the experimental Matchbook Distilling in Greenport, New York, is a favorite esoteric pick for Evans. “On paper, it reads like a smoked pineapple eau de vie created to the ritualistic tune of mezcal,” he says. “On the palate, it is otherworldly, packing a stony, blackened minerality with subtle juiciness that strangely attempts to bridge the gap between agave and cane spirits, and can be interchangeable in applications of both spirits’ respective cocktails.” Taft, too, turned to eau de vie, singling out Reisetbauer Ginger. “It’s a subtle way of adding high-tone citrus and spice to a cocktail in the most elegant way,” he says, recommending adding a teaspoon to your next Ti’ Punch.
Crunkleton, who helped pioneer the legalization of the sale of antique spirits in his home state of North Carolina, leans into vintage bourbon distilled and bottled between the 1950s and the 1970s, which he sources through estate sales, auction houses and personal referrals. “In my opinion, these bourbons are the finest America has made. The depths and breadth and complexities these whiskeys create make any cocktail better,” he says. “You cannot make a bad drink when using these old American treasures.”