Conventional drink-making wisdom dictates that expensive liquor is best sipped straight: The second that adjuncts are added to the shaker tin, purists warn, the spirit will lose the very complexities that made it worth the splurge.
But there are exceptions to this school of thought—at least according to the professionals who stock the top shelf. Whether these pricier selections lead the conversation or complement carefully considered accompaniments, high-end spirits can elevate a drink—so long as you understand what you’re splurging on, and why.
To find out what’s worth the high price tag, PUNCH reached out to several dozen bartenders around the country to glean their go-to top-shelf bottles for use in cocktails—what they are and how they work, touching on both conventional spirits and more esoteric, off-the-wall liqueurs.
Here, a selection of bottles worth the splurge, broken down by category.
In this category, the bartenders we polled overwhelmingly recommended Del Maguey, whose Vida line is priced at the lower end for use in cocktails. However, it’s the distiller’s “Single Village” series, produced traditionally throughout Oaxaca, that carries among the most popular top-shelf mezcals for mixing. “[It’s] the brand that started the mezcal craze,” says Jim Kearns of New York’s Slowly Shirley, and it maintains its street cred by relying on “small, family producers who made it the same ways for generations.”
At Jupiter Disco, in Brooklyn, New York, Del Maguey’s Chichicapa ($74) is owner Al Sotack’s go-to, and he can often find subtle ways to exploit its “smoke bomb” profile in drinks while keeping prices down. “[It’s] a very potent dose,” says Sotack. Maks Pazuniak, Sotack’s partner in Jupiter, leans on the spirit in small quantities in drinks like the Salt + Ash, where it complements tequila, Chinese black tea, and maraschino without getting lost.
Meanwhile, Kansas City-based bartender Ryan Maybee, who oversees the programs at The Rieger and Manifesto is a fan of the deeply textured Minero ($90) and the high-toned Santo Domingo Albarradas ($78) in mezcal-centric drinks. Maybee uses the latter spirit in his La Esmerelda, where it lends smoke and tang to his own bittersweet J. Rieger & Co. Caffé Amaro and spicy Ancho Reyes.
ZZ’s Clam Bar head bartender Troy Sidle’s partial to the Santa Catarina Minas Pechuga ($90), a special-occasion product whose distillation includes wild mountain fruit and, per the local mezcaleros’ longstanding end-of-year tradition, a whole chicken breast (hence the name). “If you’re going to make the world’s best mezcal Old-Fashioned, this would just totally suit the bill,” he says.
Much like bourbon, high-quality gin doesn’t always come with a staggering price tag. But there are a handful of top-shelf standouts that bartenders cite for their unique characteristics.
Both Kearns and Ryan Fitzgerald, co-owner of the San Francisco bar ABV, praise the 110-proof Old Raj ($51) a gin infused with saffron. For Fitzgerald, who also makes cocktails with high-end spirits at Over Proof, a cocktail and food pairing concept upstairs from ABV, Old Raj “delivers extra juniper and [an] oily, orange peel punch that complements a Negroni.” Kearns also looks to high-end options like pot-stilled, barrel-aged Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve ($61), a limited-edition release rested in oak. “The aging adds a level of depth, mellowness and complexity,” says Kearns, who uses it as the base of his F.A.F. Martini.
When it comes to The Gin Joint‘s title spirit, owner James Bolt loves the spendy Monkey 47 ($68/500mL), distilled in Germany’s Black Forest with locally foraged botanicals. “The palate is a rollercoaster of flavor… flora, citrus, pine, herbal, spice,” he says. “You can’t beat a well-made dry Martini with Monkey 47.” Sidle, meanwhile, sings the praises of Round Turn Distilling’s Bimini Gin ($31), made on the southern coast of Maine. The flagship product of distiller Darren Case, it’s made with unorthodox inclusions like hops, which play incredibly well with fresh citrus. “When you add it to grapefruit juice, it just explodes,” says Sidle. “Take a classic Paloma and substitute this instead of tequila.”
Yet another category with a staggering output, the particulars of rum vary wildly from producer to producer and region to region. The top-shelf options cited here express unusual elegance, complexity and balance in the glass, particularly when combined with other spirits.
At The Gin Joint, Bolt prefers Angostura Cask Collection No. 1 ($106) when executing rum-based Old-Fashioneds and other stirred-and-strong drinks. “[It’s] a smooth, well-rounded rum… full-bodied, with notes of rich caramel, marzipan and subtle wood,” he says.
Jackson Cannon of The Hawthorne, in Boston, prefers the Jamaican Plantation Réunion Island 15-Year-Old Single Cask ($103) for similar purposes. “[It’s] loaded with umami—salted caramel, funky banana, really rich, deep notes of molasses,” he says. “It makes terrific Daiquiris.”
Lynnette Marrero, beverage director of Llama Inn in Brooklyn, New York, looks westward to Guatemala to Ron Zacapa 23 ($47), which is aged in solera. “I have subbed other rums into my recipes crafted for Zacapa, but they don’t exactly fit the bill,” she says. “It easily works in split-base cocktails because it has so many flavor pairing notes.”
Whether you’re talking cheap everyday bottles or VSOP and XO entries, brandy is one alcoholic category that’s struggled to escape a geriatric reputation. “It’s hard to talk to consumers about it without them being like, ‘That’s what old people drink in snifters,’” says Alex Negranza of Better Luck Tomorrow in Houston. In response, Negranza is fond of pitching guests classics made with brandy, especially higher-end examples, as a persuasive entry point: The fresh pear, baking spice and mint notes of Domaine d’Esperance 2000 ($155), he says, make for a next-level Sazerac or Vieux Carré.
“The extra age gives them notes of spice, ripe fruits, a touch of wood and more richness than younger expressions,” agrees Franky Marshall of Le Boudoir, who prizes Cognacs like Camus’ Borderies XO ($191) and Le Reviseur Single Estate ($161). Leveling up to XO examples of the style, which are aged six or more years, she says, “can be transformative for stirred cocktails.”
Scotch is a product that embodies the concept of truly getting what you pay for—and there aren’t many recommended options if you don’t want to pay much. This distinguishes it from whiskies like bourbon, where there is more pricing parity.
Islay producer Laphroaig is among the most commonly praised houses when it comes to peated Scotch, and Anu Apte-Elford, owner of Rob Roy, Navy Strength and No Anchor in Seattle, always stocks a bottle of the 10-Year ($51) on her back bar. “I love it for cocktails, because adding just a quarter-ounce can give your drink a nice smoky kick,” she says, a light-touch sentiment echoed by Sotack: “A little bit can bring a lot to the table. You don’t need two ounces of it.”
Maybee, in Kansas City, is a fan of the slightly pricier Quarter Cask ($73). “This one can be used as the base,” he says. “It’s tough to find an Islay Scotch that’s cost-effective for cocktails, but sometimes you really want that peaty, smoky quality.” Bolt goes even further with the distillery’s limited-edition Cairdeas bottling ($83), which Laphroaig produces annually as a nod to their loved ones (Cairdeas is Scottish Gaelic for “friendship”). “Great notes of honey, some spice, orange, malt and smoke,” says Bolt of the profile. “It finishes with a smooth balance of smoke with a nice, subtle minerality. This makes for an awesome Rob Roy.”
Though she hasn’t yet figured out how to massage it into her menu at her Brooklyn bar Leyenda, Ivy Mix finds herself fixated on Hans Reisetbauer Carrot Eau de Vie ($144/750mL), a one-of-a-kind spirit that the Austrian brandy distiller Hans Reisetbauer makes with carrots he cultivates on his own land. “It’s really in a category all its own,” concurs Sidle, who has enjoyed the eau de vie swapped in for gin in a traditional Negroni build. Kearns also shouts out eau de vie—specifically Clear Creek Distillery’s Douglas Fir Brandy ($99/750mL), which is infused with fresh buds hand-picked off Oregon’s state tree.
Entry-level Green and Yellow Chartreuse is typically priced around the $50 mark, but bottles of Chartreuse VEP ($150/L), which are aged for 15-plus years, come with a steep cost of entry (they do, however, continue to age well post-purchase, building in a bit of value). But according to Sidle, who curated a vintage Chartreuse program during his time at New York’s Pouring Ribbons, the VEP-level bottlings can lend immense personality to classic drinks. “Every once in awhile, someone would want to use vintage Chartreuse in a Last Word,” he says. The resulting drink, he adds, was “deeper, richer and more flavorful,” without losing any swagger.