The Modern Bartender’s Top Shelf

We asked dozens of bartenders to reveal their go-to high-end spirits for mixing. Here’s what they had to say.

We’ve long been conditioned to accept as a canon law that expensive liquor is best sipped neat or on the rocks. It’s a natural, but outmoded notion—one that might be keeping you from finding your next favorite drink.

But that doesn’t mean you should just throw fiscal prudence to the wind. To find out which high-end spirits are best-suited to mixing in cocktails, PUNCH polled bartenders from around the country to glean their top picks off the top shelf, and to see what had changed since we last checked in. Here, they share a selection of essential and esoteric bottles that are worth the splurge—plus how to use them.

Gin

The gin category experienced one of the decade’s most dramatic booms, with upticks in both producers and consumers, making it a more global spirit than ever. The top shelf reflects this burgeoning cosmopolitanism, with high-end gins exemplifying a range of distillation techniques and terroir-driven provenances.

Distilled from rice and water sourced from the sake-brewing district of Fushimi-ku, the Japanese KI NO BI Kyoto Dry Gin ($74) is championed by Fanny Chu, head bartender of Brooklyn’s Donna. “The style is so different from all the other gins,” says Chu, who loves playing with the citrusy, earthy and herbal notes derived from indigenous botanicals like yellow yuzu, Japanese cypress chips and sanshō berries. “I love it for highballs, Martinis and Negronis.” Jillian Vose, the beverage director at The Dead Rabbit in New York, recommends the robust Black Forest botanicals found in the German-made Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin ($69). “The citrus on the nose is absolutely incredible,” she says, “and the juice makes for one of the best martinis I’ve ever had.”

High-end Old Tom gins, meanwhile, offer their own functionality in cocktails. Lateefah Curtis, bartender at Philadelphia’s Vernick Food & Drink, likes Oregon’s barrel-aged Ransom Old Tom Gin ($38), which she uses in a simple 2-to-1 Manhattan variation. Its woody tones echo whiskey, while still delivering a well-rounded botanical punch. “It is approachable, [but] isn’t oversimplified,” she says. At The Bluebird in Baltimore, Tammy Bouma serves Caledonia Spirits’ Barr Hill Tom Cat Gin ($49) with the guest’s choice of house-made pine cone syrup, apple cider reduction or barrel-aged hickory syrup, for a thoroughly modern Old-Fashioned variation. “[The gin] brings a delicious woodiness,” says Bouma.

Rum

Attempting to navigate the world of high-end rums can often result in analysis paralysis—no spirit boasts a deeper bench. It’s a task best left to tropically versed specialists with years of experience maximizing the rums’ personalities in the cocktail glass.

Kevin Beary, of Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, is fond of the elegant baking spice notes and “insanely long finish” of the 10-year-aged Habitation Velier Worthy Park 2007 WPL ($105), best deployed with nothing more than a quarter-ounce of honey syrup and a big hunk of ice. The beverage director also singles out Foursquare Empery ($100), a recent release from the Barbados cult distillery, a synthesis of pot- and column-still fermented molasses distillates aged 14 years in both bourbon and sherry casks. Beary loves it as a treat-yourself choice for a traditional Barbadian Corn ’n’ Oil—2 ounces rum, a splash of falernum, ice and a slice of lime.

Elsewhere, Ivy Mix of Brooklyn’s Leyenda loves Hampden Estate Pure Single Jamaican Rum ($60); its signature high esters are “perfect for adding a bite to any rum cocktail,” she says. Chu, meanwhile, is an outspoken fan of Privateer Rum The Queen’s Share ($51), which comprises distiller Maggie Campbell’s hand-selected “seconds” across multiple distillation runs; these cuts are re-distilled together, before being aged for two to four years. “It makes for one of the most delicious Daiquiris,” says Chu.

Agave Spirits

Mix suggests grabbing a bottle of Rey Campero Tepextate ($108), “if you want to make the most delicious mezcal cocktail ever.” The ultraluxe spirit is distilled in the Oaxacan highlands from Tepextate agave plants that are between 15 and 18 years old at harvest. Wild fermentation prior to alembic distillation imbues the juice with vibrant notes of flowers and fruit, in addition to steady smoke, providing “tons to work off of when making a cocktail,” says Mix.

At the Manhattan mezcaleria Ghost Donkey, bartender Kip Moffitt’s Spanish-speaking spin on the Vesper features La Venenosa Tabernas Raicilla ($47), which joins forces with the kindred El Tesoro Blanco ($46) and an epazote-infused vermouth made from Baja California Chardonnay. This all-Mexican production comes together thanks to the interplay between the “cooked-but-dry notes” of the former and the “strong green vegetable and white pepper” of the latter, according to bar director Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez.

At Donna, Chu has indulged a few special-occasion calls for Margaritas made with La Venenosa Sierra del Tigre de Jalisco Raicilla ($125), a terroir-driven, if generally cost-prohibitive, flourish.

Whiskey

With well-heeled Japanese expressions consistently topping tastemakers’ lists, it’s no surprise that they remain popular go-tos for a number of bartenders. Kansas City’s Ryan Maybee, a partner in the recently resurrected J. Rieger & Co. distillery, has stirred up split-base Manhattans marrying Kaiyō Mizunara Oak Cask Strength Whisky ($95) with his own flagship blend. The Asian single malt, which spends years resting in mizunara (Japanese oak) barrels, is a graceful foil for any stateside counterpart; of course, it also “makes a mean highball,” according to Maybee. A tiki enthusiast, Chu has worked both Ichiro’s Malt & Grain Blended Whisky ($104) and Nikka Yoichi Single Malt ($88) into tropical experiments, capitalizing on their unexpected notes of ginger, dried tropical fruit and candied citrus. Bouma, in Baltimore, finds that Nikka Coffey Malt Whisky ($77) “really stands up to use in cocktails. You don’t lose the malt character in a Rob Roy, or even a Penicillin.”

Though purists might cringe at the mere suggestion, high-end Irish and Scottish single-malt can also shine in the hands of a thoughtful bartender. Triple-distilled, then aged primarily in oloroso sherry and bourbon casks ahead of finishing in port barrels, Bushmills 16 ($101) offers a complex array of chocolate and dried fruit flavors. “Put this in an Irish coffee or any classic cocktail and it’ll blow your mind,” says Vose.

A signature of the venerated Speyside distillery, The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 ($59) is another decadent whisky that spends months resting on sherry wood; Jesse Cornell, who tends bar at Suraya in Philadelphia, capitalizes on the natural symbiosis between nuts and citrus, stirring it with Grand Marnier and touches of Carpano Antica and Averna. “It’s a really nice Scotch that works on its own—and as a bonus, plays well with others,” he says.

At the newly opened Le Crocodile, in Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel, beverage director Jim Kearns dedicates the bulk of his brown-liquor budget to Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye ($61). Wild Turkey’s audacious 104-proof expression, with its classically spicy rye and malted barley mashbill, provides a sturdy backbone for the classically-leaning menu, which features whiskey stalwarts like the Manhattan, Sazerac and Vieux Carré.

Brandy

Based in Marthasville, about an hour outside St. Louis, Edelbrand Pure Distilling is a small, family-run operation producing brandy in the Old World Swiss style. “[They’re] absolutely gorgeous spirits that add a ton of complexity and layers of flavor to cocktails,” says Maybee, who leans on Edelbrand Vinars da Meila ($49.50/375ml) in a variety of applications at The Hey! Hey! Club, the cocktail bar inside J. Rieger & Co.

In Philadelphia, Vernick Food & Drink’s J.B. Bernstein uses Domaine de Papolle Blanche d’Armagnac ($55) in his Devil’s in the Details cocktail, accompanying unaged Armagnac, rye, berry liqueur and Pedro Ximénez sherry. He also stocks PM Spirits’ Cobrafire ($55), another unaged (Blanche) Armagnac. “It’s very drinkable on its own, [but] works extremely well in place of any whiskey or Cognac in a cocktail. I love it in a sour, as well,” he says.

Wild Card

Brian Evans, Director of Bars for Sunday Hospitality, works a number of lesser-appreciated premium spirits onto the menus across the group’s four New York venues. Distilled in Brooklyn, Svöl Swedish Aquavit ($43) “shows off the flavor of dill like no other spirit on the market,” says Evans, who incorporates it alongside the herbaceous flavors of Suze, gin and honeydew syrup in his Nautical By Nature cocktail. Using fruit, herbs and grains grown on their organic farms in both Italy and South Carolina, Vicario Spirits produces a wide line of expressive liqueurs, including Savage Cherry ($75); the entirety of their line is “amazing on its own, on the rocks, or as a cocktail modifier,” says Chu.

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