What’s in Your Well?

In the last 15 years, well spirits have gone from low-quality cash cows to symbols of a bar's ethos and intentions. Roger Kamholz spoke to 25 bartenders around the country to find out just what the standard well looks like today.

Well Spirits

Economists have a nifty saying, widely attributed to none other than John F. Kennedy: “A rising tide lifts all boats,” the esteemed president said, “and so, too, does it elevate all the booze onboard.”

OK, he didn’t say that second part. But he certainly could have, as that same elegant idea—that improvements in markets can be contagious—seems to hold true in the world of bars and, specifically, their wells. Such came to light after we polled 25 bartenders to find out what’s in their wells these days and why.

But first, what are we talking about? Well spirits aren’t the bottles of liquor that bartenders keep on display along the back bar, but, rather, holstered in troughs or “rails” located below the bartop, somewhat hidden from the drinker but in easy reach for pouring drinks with alacrity. This is the home of the standard “house” liquor—in contrast to the more premium stuff one can see and “call” (i.e., request by name).

The brands stocked therein, historically, have been crap. “When I started bartending seven years ago in the ‘burbs of Chicago, my well was a mess of plastic bottles full of sugary flavored syrups and bottles of well liquor that were barely a step above plastic,” says Erik Inda, bar manager at Chicago’s RM Champagne Salon and Nellcôte restaurant. “I was pouring pitchers of Long Islands for $3.50 a piece.”

Franky Marshall, beverage director at Le Boudoir in Brooklyn, N.Y., had a similar bar industry upbringing. “I remember working in bars where the well was always the poorest quality, cheapest liquor the owners could find,” she says. “There was always the push to upsell guests to the call and premium spirit.” Essentially, the well was for customers who didn’t discriminate, and so a lackluster drink made with booze designed and packaged for volume sales is what they got.

However, 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.

“Nowadays, in many good bars there is less of a need to upsell because the well is quality,” Marshall says. “So it’s not really about getting guests to spend more, but giving them choices and the option to spend differently. The only spirits I want in the well are ones [that] are quality in cocktails, as well as on their own.”

As drink orders have gone beyond the basic long drink, so, too, has the well. At New York’s Holiday Cocktail Lounge, for example, the well serves as the engine of the cocktail menu. “Making quality cocktails at speed requires an architecture that is close to hand,” says bar director Michael Neff, “so when I change my [house cocktail] menu, I change the configuration of my entire well.”

Indeed, at many of the bars we spoke with, wells don’t just hold the usual base spirits of vodka, gin, rum, tequila and whiskey anymore; it’s increasingly become home to amari, orange liqueur, vermouths, mezcal and Japanese whisky. Mark Bystrom, beverage director at Forequarter, the Madison, Wisconsin, restaurant of the Underground Food Collective, even keeps both an armagnac and a pear eau de vie in his well. (“Wisconsin is the brandy state,” he explains.)

The change is nothing short of a total role reversal, in which the well has become the truer showcase of a bar’s curatorial chops. “I want to encourage people to have trust in our house selection and not feel the need to call brands as they would in some bars to avoid a glass full of something unpalatable,” say John DeRosa of Oldfield’s Liquor Room, in Los Angeles. “Curating a house selection is a really interesting part of the job…you’re looking for the best possible product for the best value, and many times you’ll find that the best product isn’t necessarily one that’s more expensive.”

For many bartenders, stocking a spirit in the well is as important as placing it on the top shelf. Mary-Ellen Jones, who runs the beverage program at the Greenhouse Tavern, in Cleveland, Ohio, sums it up perfectly: “It’s the best compliment we can give.”