How Do Bartenders Select Their Spirits?

Amidst today's ever-expanding spirits landscape, how do bartenders go about selecting that one perfect brand for each drink?

At Whitechapel, a gin-focused cocktail bar that opened in San Francisco in 2015, you can order every gin cocktail you’ve ever heard of, as well as quite a few you surely have not. As you do, chances are high that you will indulge in several drinks without ever having the same brand of gin touch your lips twice.

The bar’s version of the old English staple, Pink Gin, is made with Plymouth, a venerable old brand from its namesake English port. Meanwhile, the Martinez, the gin and sweet vermouth drink that some postulate is the antecedent of the Martini, is prepared with Ransom Old Tom Gin, a modern facsimile of the sweeter “Old Tom” gins that were prevalent in the U.S. and England in the 19th century. Then there’s the Ginger Rogers, a locally famous cocktail that was invented by bartender Marcovaldo Dionysos in 1998. It calls for Botanist Gin, a botanical-heavy potion made on the far-off Scottish isle of Islay. All told, Whitechapel uses 25 of the 400 gins they carry to make their various cocktails, and each choice of which brand pairs best with a certain drink is being made by the bartender—not the patron.

This is actually a relatively new phenomenon. In the years between the end of World War II and the turn of the millennium, if a specific brand of spirit was called for in a cocktail, it was the drinker who did the calling: “Beefeater Martini, very dry”; “Maker’s Mark Manhattan, up”; “Grey Goose and soda”; etc. If a customer didn’t specify, their drink was made with “well” liquor, the anonymous, bottom-shelf spirits most bars use as economical building blocks for making classic cocktails. (The fate of the well has improved lately, as ambitious bartenders are no longer content to use no-name swill as their benchmark booze.)

This state of affairs came about not just because today’s bartenders have higher standards than the time-marking barmen who preceded them during the last decades of the 20th century—though that is part of it. They also have more, and better, bottles at their disposal. Where there were once very few American gins, now there are hundreds; where Kentucky bourbon distilleries previously produced a handful of known labels, now every brand has numerous iterations, from “single barrel” to “small batch” and more.

For the conscientious bartender, this wealth of choices brings with it a self-imposed duty to know the contents of each product intimately, and to understand the spirit’s potential applications when using it to make a classic drink or invent a new one. Question is, how do you keep track of it all?

Some time in the years just before and after 2000, when Milk & Honey opened on New York’s Lower East Side, things changed. Craft cocktail bars thought long and hard to determine which bourbon or rye resulted in an Old-Fashioned delicious enough to be put on the menu as their house version. Which rum anchored their Daiquiri was a matter of lengthy mediation and numerous trials, in which every potential candidate was auditioned for the job. For the consumer, the rule of thumb became Bartender Knows Best.

Audrey Saunders, the owner of Pegu Club, in particular, was notorious for sending each classic cocktail through a rigorous testing process before an acceptable specimen was settled upon. Working toward, say, a house Ramos Gin Fizz, she would taste through 25 or more examples of the drink, each using a different gin or different proportions of the same gin.

“We did extensive research on the Last Word at Pegu Club, and we found that Junipero gin worked best,” says Phil Ward, a former head bartender at Pegu Club, remembering the long road that lead to the bar’s version of the cult classic. “You need a beast in that cocktail. Plymouth and Beefeater, and even Tanqueray, just don’t stand up in that drink. When you get right down to it, the Last Word is a Chartreuse cocktail.” Meaning: A liqueur that strongly flavored needs a gin that can match it.

At the time it opened, in summer 2005, Pegu Club’s approach to drink creation was original. Today, it’s commonplace. Each bartender now has his or her own method for narrowing the ever-expanding spirits landscape to select that one perfect brand for a drink.

“I have heard that many people spend so much time and so many trials and errors trying to dial in a cocktail,” says Smith, who created the cocktail list at Whitechapel. “It would have taken years to do a menu for a place this size. I categorize gins in my head as to what their general characteristics are, what their botanical makeup is. Are they bracing? Are they piney?”

Take the C.F. Pachuca, an original Whitechapel cocktail that contains Noilly Prat Ambre vermouth, mezcal and Ancho Reyes, a spicy chili liqueur from Mexico. Smith knew that Rusty Blade, a barrel-aged gin from California, had a strong cinnamon component to it. “In the Pachuca, I want that flavor to complement the Noilly Prat Ambre vermouth, which also has a lot of those warm winter spice flavors,” he explains.

In the Norman Conquest, another original cocktail, Smith reached for Citadelle gin to make friends with orange marmalade, absinthe, sparkling wine and lemon juice. In this case, Citadelle didn’t get the nod because of a distinct flavor note it possessed, but rather, its versatility. “There’s no single botanical that really dominates,” says Smith. “I wouldn’t want to use the word generic; I really respect it a lot. But it can plug into just about any cocktail.”

More so than gin, rum has long been a spirit that bartenders have had to choose with care when creating a drink, mainly because there are so many styles from so many nations. That aged rum from Guyana won’t do anything like the taste tricks that that white rum from Haiti will, and neither is a good substitute for a vegetal rhum agricole from Martinque. The builders of tiki drinks, which often call for more than one kind of rum, have known this for years. When it comes to tiki, stocking at least one or two go-to dry styles is the one constant.

“It’s important to have a dry style because of the sweet juices and liquors that go into a tiki drink,” says Paul McGee, the owner of Chicago’s Lost Lake, who frequently relies on Appleton’s Signature Blend. “You can always add sweetness, but it’s hard to take it out.” 

Like Smith and McGee, with so much mixing experience under his belt, Phil Ward can easily call to mind the flavor profiles of hundreds of brands. But, like a book critic who admires many authors but only really reads a few for pleasure, the years have taught him how to pare his list of go-to spirits down to a select circle of all-arounders. Among them: Beefeater gin, Rittenhouse rye, Old Overholt rye, Del Maguey Vida mezcal and Pueblo Viejo and El Tesoro tequilas.

Ward’s approach is perhaps the most adaptable for the layman bartender, who doesn’t need a stock with the breadth of a commercial back bar. Quirky expressions of gin, whiskey, tequila, rum and vodka have little utility in a house where most of the calls are going to be for classic cocktails. So, just as a person in need of an Oxford shirt will turn to Brooks Brothers with an expectation that their needs will be filled, established brands of liquor with a good track record are a good place to start. And if you try, say, Beefeater in a Martini and it doesn’t suit your palate, use today’s overwhelming number of selections in your favor.

“It’s almost like a relationship,” says Ward of matching a brand to a drink. “If you start fighting, and you’re fighting four or five times, it’s probably not going to work.”