The Toppling of the “Top Shelf”

An exorbitant price tag—or a lofty position on a back bar—are no long an indication of a spirit's quality. Heather Sperling muses on the fall of the "top shelf" and how the criteria by which we judge luxury has changed.

There was a time, not long ago, when drinkers in search of the fanciest and finest spirits need only look to the bottles lining the upper row of an establishment’s back bar. There, displayed prominently on the top shelf, shone the gems of the collection, some super-aged, some quintuple-distilled and all ultra-expensive. The hierarchy was clear: those top shelf bottles were also the best bottles.

Oh, how things have changed. By today’s standards, older isn’t always better. Expensive isn’t always best. Hell, a bar’s top shelf might not even feature booze.

Tectonic shifts in the world of spiritsthe proliferation of craft spirits, for onehave altered the meaning and relevance of “top shelf.” We live (and drink) in an age in which the story, the method of production and the character of a spirit matter more than ever before. Among today’s savvy bartenders, “thoughtfulness” is one of the qualities that, along with taste, may confer excellence.

As the set of criteria by which we evaluate quality has evolved, the importance of age and price has diminished. What a decade-or-so ago implied the pinnacle of desirability now evokes phrases like “rip-off,” “over-aged” and “inauthentic.” The top shelf, as it were, has toppled. 

I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means

“‘Top shelf’ equals: You’re a sucker,” says Derek Brown, proprietor of Washington D.C.’s Columbia Room. “It’s pouring an expensive bottle just because it’s expensive, instead of thinking about quality and taste.”

Like many bartenders in his circle, Brown doesn’t even stock a top shelf. Instead, he has inverted the conventional pyramidwhich he describes as “having every shit liquor available, and then at the top a few special bottles”by filling his bars almost exclusively with what he deems high quality. That’s not to say they’re stocked with high-priced pours. But Brown and his ilk often look to the mid-range of spirits for the thoughtful production that today seems disassociated from many so-called luxury spirits brands.

Toby Cecchini of The Long Island Bar in Brooklyn is of a similar mind: “Many high-end spirits are over-aged, overly pricy. Savvy people look to 10-to-12-year-old spirits that are exceptionally made and well priced.” There’s no (literal) top shelf at The Long Island Bar; top-dollar bottles are unglamorously stashed in the backmost corner of a long, narrow closet built into the wall behind the bar.

It’s a matter of limited storage, to be sure. But a shift in preference is at play, too: “You can’t wait to try a 25-year Macallan,” says Cecchini. “And then you taste it and think: ‘Hmm, that’s not that great. I really just want that Hakushu 12.’” (NB: Macallan 25 retails for $820 a bottle and Hakashu 12 sells for $70.)

Cecchini also hints at the movement away from the category of extra-aged “ultra-premium” spirits and toward purer, even more rustic expressions of everything from rum to agave. Derek Brown echoes this with his disdain for the adjective “smooth,” which is routinely attached to longer-aged, high-end spirits.

“Do I want to live my life drinking smooth things? No. I want a range of tastes and flavors and experiences,” he says. “Some of ‘em should kick like a mule.” 

It’s the Quality, Stupid 

Now the question is: How does one evaluate the top tier if price is no longer a failsafe gauge, age ain’t nothin’ but a number and myths of top shelf excellence have been debunked?

“Top shelf, for me, would be spirits where at each stage, [the distillers] are making the best decisions,” says Thad Vogler of San Francisco’s Bar Agricole. At his bars, that means barrels purchased directly from the distillers so that he can witness each stage of production.

“Could you tell me where the molasses that goes into most rums comes from? No. Even with expensive spirits, you see people making mercenary decisions at the expense of quality,“ Vogler adds. This desire for transparency is hallmark of the post-top-shelf era, as is the dissolution of the direct relationship between price and quality.

Alex Bachman of Billy Sunday and Yusho in Chicago has a simple mantra: “Better doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive.” Display cabinets at Billy Sunday are stocked with a collection of hard-to-find Fernets and Yusho is known for its cache of Japanese whiskey. But Bachman gets especially excited about his under-the-radar-but-above-the-bar finds. City of London gin, for example, which he swaps in for pricier and better-known Tanqueray 10; or Eldorado rums from Guyana and Johnny Drum whiskey, a lower-priced bottling from the makers of Willett. “They’re top-shelf spirits,” he says, “exceptionally high quality, but a lot more affordable.”

There’s an explorer’s thrill of the find at play. In explaining what gets him excited, Derek Brown speaks of discovering something compelling, with a story to tell, that may be underrepresented. “I think of agave-based spirits that we haven’t seen widely yetlike a rough and ready mezcal, with less than 90 liters produced a year,” he says. “That’s part of my idea of top shelf.”

Out with Top Shelf And In with…?

The past decade’s shift in a discerning drinker’s concept of quality and luxury is one that mirrors similar movements seen throughout culture. Across food, beer, wine, fashion and media, there are abundant examples of big brands losing clout in the face of changing values. Consumers of everything from food to media want choices that are reflective of the way they want to see themselves: savvy, creative, discerning, special.

Chefs covet Michigan trout roe over Caspian caviar, and present dirt-aged parsnips with the fanfare of a steak. At Vogler’s new brandy bar, Trou Normand, the top shelf consists of Armagnac and Calvados made by producers who control every part of the process from growing the fruit to distilling it to aging the spirit and bottling it.

It’s an exciting time to be drinking in terms of both quality and value, but it’s also a confusing one. In this era of the democratization of booze, a scrupulous bartender who can sort through the new buzzwords—”small-batch, “local,” “organic”— and the old—”ultra-premium,” “triple-distilled,” “extra-aged”—is more important than ever.

“The best I can come up with is a curated list of liquors,” says Brown. “It seems so wrong to spend your money at a bar where someone isn’t thinking about the choices. That’s the opposite of luxury.”

Heather Sperling is a writer, editor, consultant and curator. She spent four+ years as an editor at Tasting Table (and also developed TT's newest event concept, Open Market, the first of which featured 60 local producers, chefs and pastry chefs in Chicago in December 2013). Before all that, she spent three years eating and drinking across the country as the features editor of StarChefs.com. She has written for various publications, including Saveur, FWx, Plate Magazine, The Atlantic and Who's Hungry.

FROM AROUND THE WEB