What bartenders keep in the well has changed dramatically over the past 15-plus years or so, not only in terms of the brands and quality of the more traditional staple spirits, but in the range of products that make up what’s kept in the well. So, what does the modern “rail” look like today? We asked 25 bar professionals to reveal (and defend) their go-to well spirits. Here are their top picks.
A clean taste (for the broadest mixability) and a creamy texture (for straight pours) were top criteria for bartenders when it came to selecting a versatile well vodka.
Most Popular: Wódka (4 nods)
Praised for its value, Wódka works great in everything from a Bloody Mary to a Dry Martini to a vodka-soda, our respondents say. “This Polish-based grain vodka is smooth as silk,” notes Christian Daly, head bartender at NYC’s The Third Man.
Honorable Mention: Tito’s (3 nods)
Tito’s is a cocktail workhorse, able to enhance the flavors of mixers. Evan Charest, corporate mixologist at the Stark Bar at the L.A. County Museum of Art, says Tito’s is “beloved by customers, handmade using old fashioned pot stills and a great neutral grain spirit.”
“Well spirits have to be solid, classic examples of their type: the Platonic form of their category,” says Morgan Schick of San Francisco’s Trick Dog. For gin, that means quintessential London Dry, of course—though several bartenders say a good well gin’s juniper profile should be slightly restrained, so as not to overpower the many cocktails it goes into.
Most Popular: Beefeater (6 nods)
Juniper- and citrus-forward, Beefeater is gin you use when you want to taste gin. “I’ve blind-tasted gins with Beefeater in the fray over 20 times,” says Chad Michael George, owner of The Way Back in Denver. “It’s always in my top three in this price range. It’s not as offensive to the entry-level gin drinker as some other London Dry styles. Tons of citrus notes makes it a killer gin for simple gin classics like the French 75 and the Tom Collins.”
Honorable Mention: Ford’s (3 nods)
Simon Ford’s namesake gin was designed for bartending and those who use it say Ford succeeded, crafting something super balanced and versatile. “A great balance of juniper, coriander and layers of citrus blend together to make an amazingly well-balanced gin,” Christian Daly says.
The rule here: If it makes a good Daiquiri, it’s worth having in your well. A touch of funk—what rum nuts lovingly call “hogo”—couldn’t hurt, either.
Most Popular: Plantation 3 Stars (6 nods)
This three-island blended rum is beloved for its complexity and versatility. The other word that comes up a lot when bartenders talk about Plantation 3 Stars: “delicious.”
Honorable Mention: Bacardi (4 nods)
Sometimes the most well-known is that way for a reason. Bacardi, Erik Inda says, is “light and crisp with just a hint of vanilla. Perfect for all of those daiquiris and tiki drinks during spring and summer.”
In terms of brands, this category elicited the least agreement among the bartenders we heard from—mostly because inexpensive, consistently good tequila is actually hard to find amid huge market growth and increasing demand. But they do agree that 100-percent agave is table stakes. That, and an affirmative answer to the question, “Does it Margarita?”
Most Popular: Pueblo Viejo (4 nods)
“Pueblo Viejo tequila is estate-grown, 100-percent blue agave, has a rich history, tremendous flavor and a surprising price tag,” says Brian Smith, beverage director at NYC’s Colonie and Gran Electrica. “Most importantly, it makes a perfect Margarita. I don’t think that there is a better well tequila option on the market.”
Honorable Mention: Cabeza (3 nods)
Another shout-out to Simon Ford’s liquor label, The 86 Co. Mary Lou Mountain, bartender at GreenRiver in Chicago, says Cabeza possesses “a nice blend of vibrancy and citrus.”
Depth and value—and perhaps some old-school cred—count for a lot when bartenders fill this spot in the well; hardly any new-wave bourbons made the cut.
Most Popular: Evan Williams (7 nods)
Matt Grippo, general manager of San Francisco’s Blackbird Bar, calls Evan Williams “a killer bourbon for the price. We use it in some of our house cocktails, including our Old-Fashioned.”
Honorable Mention: Buffalo Trace (4 nods)
“An expertly crafted bourbon,” Brian Smith says of Buffalo Trace. “It makes a truly exquisite Old-Fashioned.”
In stark contrast to tequila, bartenders we tapped were in widest agreement (and had some of their most passionate pronouncements) about their go-to rye whiskey.
Most Popular: Rittenhouse (11 nods)
“Cheap” and “excellent” were two notable Rittenhouse bona fides. Its bold flavor and high proof (100º) lend themselves to knockout cocktails. “Many others have tried to take this precious spot in the well, but in eight years of doing this blind, nothing comes close to Rittenhouse,” says Chad Michael George. “It’s unique, delicious and absolute money in cocktails.”
Honorable Mention: Old Overholt (5 nods)
Though a distant second to Rittenhouse, Old Overholt still garnered a lot of nods relative to other spirits. Why? “Overholt is a good baseline whiskey, so it is useful both in cocktails that call for rye and when people ask for a ‘whiskey-soda’ or something that they don’t designate,” Michael Neff says. “It’s both quality and light on the palate.”
NEW-SCHOOL WELL STAPLES
The agave-based Mexican spirit has pushed its way into the wells at many a cocktail bar. Jim Kearns, co-owner and beverage director of New York bars The Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley, says mezcal works well in a host of cocktail applications and often reaches for Del Maguey Vida, the entry-level mark of the celebrated importer of single-village expressions. La Niña Del Mezcal Primario and Pelotón de la Muerte also got nods from the bartenders we polled.
From orange to ginger to maraschino, liqueurs are carving out spots in the well since they play a role in so many (now frequently called-for) classic cocktails. Evan Charest keeps a bottle of Clément Créole Shrubb, an orange liqueur, in his well, while Morgan Schick opts for Mandarine Napoléon, which he says pairs well with gin and rum—a rare feat. And Chad Michael George calls Barrow’s Intense Ginger Liqueur, a fixture of the well at The Way Back, “the new bartender’s ketchup.”
Bitter Aperitivi and Digestivi
“I always keep an assortment of Italian aperitifs and amaros behind the bar,” Christian Daly says, “which come in handy when adding a little something extra to a cocktail.” His go-tos range from Fernet to génépi to Montenegro amaro. Jim Kearns says his “indispensables” include Campari, Aperol, Cynar and Averna amaro.