Food & Drinks

The Best Well Liquors, According to Bartenders | PUNCH

While the well-lit bottles standing at attention on the backbar get all the attention when a guest pulls up a stool and scans the scene, it’s the unseen rack of “well liquor,” stationed out of view under the bartop, that acts as the load-bearing backbone of the bar, carrying the weight of service—and sales—throughout the night. This stash of bottles was once deployed solely for the purpose of quickly banging out popular “rail” or “call” drinks like rum and Cokes, vodka-sodas and Gin & Tonics. It’s true that the well is still the foundation of the spirit-plus-mixer set, but many bars now stock their wells with a diverse lineup of high-quality spirits and liqueurs that can deliver excellent cocktails, without disrupting the bottom line.

As a result, the well has never been more dynamic and varied than it is today. In an effort to see just how much it has changed since we last took a deep dive behind the bar, we reached out to bartenders who have shared their favorite well bottles with us in the past, as well as recent alumni from Punch’s Bartenders in Residence program. Have there been any drastic changes to what they’re stocking over the past two years? And what perennial favorites are still in the pole position? Here’s what they had to say.

While bartenders can at least agree that vodka pays the bills, the often-dismissive attitude toward the utilitarian spirit, sparked by the modern cocktail revival, still lingers. But with countless calls for vodka-sodas and Espresso Martinis, many of the polled bartenders compromise by spotlighting vodka from a local distillery or underrepresented community, or one that is committed to sustainable practices. “We use PlayPen Vodka in our well,” says Kristina Magro, beverage director for Chicago’s Orbit Group. “This is a Black-owned business started by two brothers from the West Side of Chicago. We like to intentionally use our buying power to support folks who are doing great things in the city.”


Most Popular: Tito’s Handmade and Luksusowa

It’s no surprise that the ubiquitous Tito’s Handmade Vodka, from Austin, Texas, is once again the most popular call in town for well vodka. “Sorry, I know this is lame, but it’s the actual truth,” says Demi Natoli, a bartender at Nashville’s Attaboy. “You can’t beat the price point and versatility,” says Resa Mueller, a bartender at R&D in Philadelphia. “The name recognition also works heavily in our favor.”

The Polish vodka Luksusowa was another top pick among bartenders. “Luksusowa is a solid potato vodka and has been my past choice for a well vodka,” says Brooklyn bartender Fanny Chu. Sam Miller, a bartender at Copper Common in Salt Lake City, praises Luksusowa as “clean and easy, the only vodka I reach for.”

Honorable Mention: Ketel One and Cathead

“Ketel One is not our well vodka, but it does live in our well because we move through it quite quickly,” says Alex Jump, bar manager of Death & Co. Denver, of the popular wheat vodka from the Netherlands. “It’s high quality, with a name people recognize and respect.” Parker Luthman, head bartender at The Eddy in Providence, Rhode Island, also moves through a lot of Ketel One. “We honestly just sell a ton of vodka Martinis, and Ketel One has always been the brand that guests call out first, so we stock an extra bottle or two for those orders,” he says.

The most popular small-batch pick was Cathead Vodka, from the oldest distillery in Mississippi. Neal Bodenheimer, owner of Cure and Cane & Table in New Orleans, switched from Luksusowa to the corn-heavy Cathead in his wells for its “crisp and clean” taste and to support a regional company. “Being in Music City, this is a must on your backbar,” says Nashville’s Natoli. “Cathead Vodka is a regional favorite that also gives back to music education.” Orestes Cruz, a bartender at Watchman’s in Atlanta, is also drawn to Cathead’s support of the music industry, not to mention its price point. “It’s similar in style to Tito’s… [and is] perfect for cocktails,” says Cruz.

Whether paired with a bitter tonic or dispatched in a Negroni, Martini or Gimlet, the polled bartenders still have a thing for Beefeater. While Paul MacDonald, head bartender at Philadelphia’s Friday Saturday Sunday, considers Beefeater “one of the most underrated bottles on the market,” he admits, “You simply can’t beat the classics.” Bartender favorite Fords Gin performed well, with London dry stalwarts Tanqueray and Bombay Dry, along with Citadelle French gin, nipping at its heels.

Most Popular: Beefeater

Once again, Beefeater takes the crown in the gin category. James Bolt, owner of The Gin Joint in Charleston, South Carolina, praises Beefeater for its “perfect body” and “balanced juniper and citrus notes,” noting it plays well in a classic Gin & Tonic as well as a complex craft cocktail. “We have blind-tasted many gins in the past to pick the perfect well selection, and we continue to pick Beefeater out of the lineup,” he says. Hayley Wilson, bartender at Portland Hunt + Alpine Club in Maine, takes a decidedly “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” approach, praising the way the gin’s citrusy notes shine in stirred and shaken cocktails. “Beefeater has been my staple for years,” she says. “There’s always a bottle in my well and on my at-home bar.” Mueller considers Beefeater “juniper-forward but balanced” and the “standard-bearer for the London dry style of gin.”


Honorable Mention:
Fords

“This gin is made for cocktails and it elevates any Martini or Gin & Tonic,” says Christine Wiseman, beverage director at Miami’s Bar Lab, who also calls out the design and bartender-friendly ergonomics of Fords’ unique bottle. Watchman’s Cruz calls Fords a “superb gin for cocktails, made for bartenders by bartenders. It’s balanced, fresh and soft, with the right amount of floral and spice notes.” Natoli is confident that enough guests are “incredibly familiar” with the Fords brand by now after seeing it in so many bars. “Fords is my go-to and I will pick it over any other gin,” she says.

Given the range and diversity within the category of rum, we asked for selections across the three primary styles: white, aged and overproof. Whether rum is used as the backbone of a classic Daiquiri or layered and blended in tropical and tiki drinks, the spectrum of expressions captured within the category is endless.

Most Popular White: Plantation 3 Stars

For Luthman, “There is simply no other option.” He notes that the Daiquiri-friendly blend of white rums from Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad offers a “light body and the perfect amount of vanilla flavor profile” at a great price point. The Gin Joint’s Bolt likes Plantation 3 Stars’ “light body but rounded notes of vanilla and malt and grassy character” that shine through in a number of cocktail applications. It’s also the go-to rum for Wilson, who puts it to work in Portland Hunt + Alpine Club’s classic Daiquiri and their house Espresso Martini. “The blend has great body and finesse,” she says.

Most Popular Aged: El Dorado 5 Year Old

Rested in oak barrels for at least five years, this blended Demerara rum from Guyana earned consistent praise in the “bang for your buck” category. Magro hails it as “absolutely delicious for the price point.” Mueller is also on board with the rum’s affordability, “especially when you’re looking for something that has deeper, richer, aged-rum notes.” Chu considers the El Dorado 5 Year one of her “solid aged rums for cocktail-making fun.”

Most Popular Overproof: Smith & Cross and Wray & Nephew

“Smith & Cross is what we use to keep things strong while also introducing guests to hogo,” says Luthman, referencing the term for the funky profile that is characteristic of most Jamaican rums. “It’s always fun to float it on top of a tropical cocktail as a surprise for those looking for a bit more adventure,” he adds. Death & Co. Denver’s Jump keeps Smith & Cross in the well but admits it’s not a spirit she’d add to a classic application without running it by the guest. “This guy is an amazingly funky bottle that has always been in our well,” says Bolt. “While it has great notes of burnt sugar and spice, its unique earthiness is what keeps it in pouring distance at all times.”

“Wray & Nephew forever,” says Wiseman, with a metaphorical mic drop. Pagan Idol’s Miller calls the 104-proof Jamaican rum the perfect overproof. “It’s hot and tropical,” he says. “Great for infusions or just as a cheeky after-a-hard-shift drink.” Bolt also turns to Wray & Nephew for punches and hardy cocktails. “It has great notes of pineapple, light brown sugar and that funkiness our bar team tends to favor.”

Like rum, tequila is a spirit with a distinctive terroir and stylistic differences that lend themselves to hours of exploration, on its own and as a muse in cocktails. The primary classification of styles of tequila, which should be distilled from 100 percent blue agave, fall under silver/blanco (unaged), reposado (aged in European or American oak for at least a year) and añejo (aged for at least three years). Even with new voices weighing in, the top two tequila picks remained the same from our 2020 survey, but traded places in ranking.

Most Popular: Cimarrón Blanco

In 2020, New Orleans bar owner Bodenheimer hailed Cimarrón Blanco as the “holy grail of house tequila,” and his opinion hasn’t changed. Cruz concurs, calling it an “excellent tequila and a great value,” noting that it’s “very well-balanced, perfect for cocktails.” Produced by fourth-generation agave grower–turned-distiller Enrique Fonseca, the tequila was created with cocktails in mind. Once Cimarrón Blanco was available in South Carolina, Bolt added it to the well at The Gin Joint. “It has subtle notes of citrus, deep agave flavors and a little pepper,” he says. “It has a great dry palate, making it the perfect bottle for everything from shots to cocktails.”

Honorable Mention: Olmeca Altos Plata (Silver)

This bartender favorite is made from 100 percent agave, grown in the rich volcanic soil of the highlands of Los Altos, Jalisco, Mexico. “It’s all the things you look for in an agave spirit. Clean, expressive of agave flavors, and responsibly produced. And of course, delicious,” says Mueller. “It’s such a great value and quality,” says Miller. “It’s perfect for shots and my go-to for a Tommy’s Margarita.”

“I feel like if you choose something for your well based on price and it is inexpensive, then you are not doing justice to this category or the people that make it,” says Bar Lab’s Wiseman. Indeed, for bars that make room for mezcal in their speed racks, the price is justifiable when the brand promotes sustainable farming practices and economic justice in their production.

Most Popular: Del Maguey Vida

“While the market for high-end sipping mezcal has exploded, the selection of high-quality mezcal that’s still affordable enough to put in a cocktail has stayed firmly centered around Del Maguey Vida,” says Friday Saturday Sunday’s MacDonald. Vida serves as an entry-level bottling, pricewise, of the Del Maguey line of expressions, but is still on the high end for a well spirit. Atlanta’s Cruz is drawn to Vida’s “fruit-forward tropical aromas and baking spice notes” and its dynamic nature for sipping or in cocktails. “Vida is 100 percent espadín agave, the most sustainable agave used in mezcal and the best fit for high-volume cocktail use,” says Wilson. “As for flavor, the roasted agave and tropical fruit notes sell themselves here.”

Honorable Mention: Pelotón de la Muerte

“Pelotón has been the most successful mezcal in our well because guests really enjoy its intense smoky character and strong notes of cooked agave,” says The Eddy’s Luthman, who also praises the mezcal’s affordability compared to other brands in the category. At Charleston’s The Gin Joint, Bolt praises Pelotón de la Muerte’s smooth character and range of fruit and smoke. “It has a full body with great umami, but is rounded out by a light grassiness,” he says. “It’s been a long-running go-to for guests just starting to get into mezcal cocktails.”

One of the ultimate American spirits, a good bourbon wears its high-low pedigree without affectation, whether it’s in an austere Old-Fashioned at a tony cocktail bar or a bourbon and ginger in a plastic cup at the corner dive.

Most Popular: Old Grand-Dad Bonded

With its high-rye mash bill, notes of caramel and vanilla, and higher proof, Old Grand-Dad stands out in a host of applications, from Old-Fashioneds to Whiskey Sours to Manhattans. “This has been the bourbon we use for our Old-Fashioneds since I started working at The Eddy nearly six years ago for two reasons: Its high-proof and character really shines in stirred cocktails that require higher amounts of dilution,” says Luthman. “Our guests love it because it has a slightly higher rye content, which leads to really nice tobacco notes, while remaining both spicy and sweet as well.” At The Gin Joint in Charleston, it’s now a permanent fixture in the well. “Its higher proof makes it a great option for shots, highballs or practically any cocktail,” says Bolt. “It’s hot and smooth at the same time, and often checks all the boxes for a wide range of bourbon drinkers.”

Honorable Mention: Four Roses Yellow Label

“I have always been a fan of Four Roses and their product continues to deliver,” says Wilson. “Soft yet well-rounded, this bourbon stands up in cocktails shaken or stirred, as well as drinks beautifully on its own.” Luthman finds it hard to substitute Four Roses with another bourbon because it “hits the perfect balance between fruit, spice and oak while also shining bright in many styles of cocktails,” adding, “I don’t think I’ve ever had a guest complain about it, to be honest.”

Like bourbon, but oh-so-different, rye’s distinctive spicy personality is best appreciated by bartenders in a “workhorse” bottling that can bridge the landscape of boilermaker add-ons to the base of a classic Manhattan.

Most Popular: Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond

When it comes to rye, Rittenhouse remains the beloved well workhorse. “It’s the king of well whiskey. Rittenhouse gives you everything you need,” says Miller. “It’s spicy with a gentle finish—perfect for making classics.” Mueller, of Philadelphia’s R&D, sums it up as “everything you could need from a rye whiskey.” At The Eddy in Providence, Luthman says, “No other rye has really been able to replace this one for years. It’s great on its own and stands out beautifully in cocktails, with its dried fruit notes and spicy finish.”

Honorable Mention: Old Overholt

Riding shotgun to Rittenhouse as a well favorite is the classic Old Overholt. “Old Overholt Bonded is typically what I reach for when it comes to rye,” says Wilson of the Portland Hunt + Alpine Club. “It has the high proof and spiciness you expect from a rye, while not being overpowering and still delivering roasted grain and subtle vanilla notes.” Mueller finds it isn’t as nuanced as Rittenhouse but remains “a solid option when you’re looking for something that’ll stand out no matter what you do to it.”

Amaro
Amaro, on its own or in a cocktail, continues to gain new evangelists beyond the bar industry crowd, and it seems that Cynar, whose low ABV and dynamic profile stand out in cocktails and composed 50/50s, is stepping into the big shoes of Fernet-Branca as the preferred bartender handshake. “Cynar is the new Fernet shot,” states Natoli. Miller says, “Cynar is my favorite [amaro] to introduce people to the category. It blends well in cocktails and is fantastic neat. I always keep a bottle close by.” But Braulio, the classic alpine-style amaro, continues to gain traction among devotees. “Braulio seems to be the new Cynar, which seemed to be the new Fernet-Branca,” says Luthman. “It hits all the marks in terms of that herbaceousness and medicinal spice that we love from amari in general.”

Brandy
Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy 100-Proof continues to be an oft-reached-for American spirit among bartenders. “Laird’s Bonded has withstood the test of time for over 200 years. People love the baked apple and spice notes Laird’s offers, and the proof makes it perfect for spirit blends,” says Miller. “My secret weapon for cocktail R&D is, if the drink’s missing something, try putting a little Laird’s in it. It usually makes it better.” 

Fortified Wine
While this is too vast a category to simply cherry-pick favorites, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino was among the most popular vermouths, especially for Negronis and Manhattans. Bolt calls it “a workhorse of vermouth that is both affordable and stands up to being poured on the rocks or going into a great cocktail. A perfect balance of bitter, citrus, sweet and herbaceous.” As a brand overall, Lustau’s portfolio of sherries came up again and again, especially Amontillado Los Arcos, Manzanilla Papirusa, Oloroso Don Nuño, Fino Jarana and Pedro Ximénez San Emilio.

Liqueurs
Giffard was the brand to beat when it came to fruit liqueurs, with standouts including Banane du Brésil, Cassis Noir de Bourgogne, Wild Elderflower and Rhubarb. Miller calls the Giffard Banane du Brésil “a staple for all my bars. It’s soft and balanced while giving you those tropical notes you know you need in your life. Who doesn’t want a banana Daiquiri?” And Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao had its serious fans. “Curaçao can muddy and overly sweeten a cocktail quickly, but Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao has a crisper, cleaner taste,” says Wilson. “It lets you control the sweetness of your cocktails better and delivers clean citrus flavors. Use it in your Cosmos; I promise it’s a good idea.”

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