Stashed beneath the bar top in the “well,” the bartender’s station with the most reached-for bottles, so-called well spirits are the workhorses of the cocktail world. Many are familiar household names (Ketel One, Beefeater); others are under-the-radar industry picks that help keep the price of cocktails in check (hello, Brandy Saint Louise).
What makes for a great well spirit? “I think of something affordable that mixes well,” says Abigail Gullo, culinary creative director at Loa Bar in New Orleans.
The well also offers an “opportunity to play a little bit,” she adds. That might mean working with spirits from a local distillery—vodka seems particularly ripe for that—or a newcomer, provided it’s not too expensive. As long as it’s versatile enough to mix, any bottle has the potential to get a shot in the rail—and some value-priced diamonds in the rough get their start there.
“None of us are too committed to our wells,” Gullo notes. “If it’s the right cost, undercuts the others and fits in the well, sure, I might switch the well. We can take more chances there.”
To get a better sense of what’s in the well across the country, we spoke to 18 bartenders to see which bottles they’re stocking. Here’s what they had to say.
As the No. 1 selling spirit, the vodka in the well matters to a bar’s bottom line. Poured for popular drinks from vodka-sodas to Espresso Martinis, bartenders say they are looking for a vodka that’s neutral in flavor and inexpensive. That said, don’t count out the well vodka: After all, that’s where the juggernaut that is Tito’s began its reign. While Ketel One was the clear front-runner among surveyed bartenders, there was zero consensus beyond that.
Most Popular: Ketel One
“Dependable, without breaking the bank,” summarizes Britt Fox, bar manager at Washington, D.C., distillery bar Cotton & Reed. “It mixes well in everything from a dirty Martini to a Cosmo.” Meanwhile, Jake Powell, head bartender at Death & Co. Denver, praises Ketel One’s “super silky texture” and assertive (but not too assertive) character. “I find it pleases all vodka drinkers, whether they’re looking for something premium or affordable, and it makes a great vodka Martini.”
Honorable Mentions: Many and varied
Unlike any other spirits category, beyond the front-runner, no one mentioned the same vodka twice. For many, it was about the lowest price tag (“vodka pays the bills,” said one bartender) while others sought to give hometown heroes a spot in the well. “ONE vodka has replaced my well at Last Call bar,” said Gina Chersevani of the selection at her Washington, D.C., dive bar. “I don’t know one bar that doesn’t have it… It’s really good and offered at a great price. But just like Tito’s or any other brand, it will become expensive sooner or later,” at which point she anticipates replacing it with another up-and-comer.
At Loa, Gullo uses TLC Vodka—an acronym for “Tastes Like Chicken”—from a small Texas distillery. “It’s a great price, and it’s relatively local to me.” Even more important: “I’m looking for something that looks good or has a funny story, and TLC is kind of hilarious,” she says. “It’s what everyone wants in a vodka.”
Gin’s role in some of the most popular call drinks—Negronis, Martinis, Gin & Tonics—makes selecting the right bottle especially important. When we last asked bartenders for their go-to well spirits, in 2022, Beefeater took the crown. This year, Fords Gin, a bartender-founded brand, was most cited, thanks to its versatility and approachability.
Most Popular: Fords Gin
“This is such a great all-around gin,” says Kim Haasarud, who uses it in sours like Gimlets and sparkling cocktails like the French 75 at her Garden Bar PHX in Arizona. It also works well in a classic Martini, or simply with tonic. “It’s a great workhorse gin,” she notes. And, as a bonus, the bottles have milliliter markings embossed on the side, so they can be reused for batching drinks directly in the bottle. “This is an approachable gin that you can immediately tell was made with cocktails and bartenders in mind,” says Paige Walwyn, bartender at Chicago’s Queen Mary Tavern, “from the bottle design to the fact that it plays well in classic gin cocktails across the board.”
It’s “unassuming,” says Michael Trow, director of bar operations for RPM Restaurants. “Not too much juniper to scare away the gin-hater, and enough citrus to be refreshing on its own.” Similarly, Chersevani describes Fords as “even-keeled,” and “happy to play in all the realms.”
Honorable Mentions: Beefeater Gin, Sipsmith London Dry, Tanqueray 10
Beefeater is “the quintessential London dry gin,” says Death & Co.’s Powell. “It shines in shaken cocktails; it’s what I always recommend for an Eastside or Last Word.” It’s also an affordable pick, according to Dominique Jackson, bar manager at KHLA in Phoenix. “It gives guests what they’re looking for when it comes to a quality-made London dry gin,” she says. And, Jackson adds, it works well for infusions. “One of my personal favorites is a lemongrass-infused Beefeater gin [used] to make an elevated version of a Tom Collins.”
Others favored Sipsmith (which is “super bold and juniper-forward,” according to Phil Collins, beverage director for West Coast group TableOne Hospitality) or Tanqueray 10 (which is “bright, citrusy and crisp,” according to Arianna Hone, lead bartender at High West Saloon in Park City, Utah).
As agave spirits and classics like Margaritas and Palomas continue to gain popularity, having an affordable well tequila has never been more essential. Pros mostly homed in on blanco expressions here, although a couple gave the nod to barrel-aged reposados. Save the longer-aged añejos for the top shelf.
Most Popular: Cazadores
“Cazadores is an amazing introductory tequila for people looking to dip their toe into the agave realm,” says Jackson, who uses it in the classics. Collins favors the reposado expression, also for either a Paloma or Margarita: “In terms of value and flavor, you’re hard pressed to find another tequila with as much flavor, while remaining well priced.”
Honorable Mentions: Arette Blanco, Olmeca Altos Plata
Arette is “not only affordable, but is great for mixing,” says Leanne Favre, head bartender at Brooklyn bars Leyenda and Clover Club, who arrived at the brand after testing many tequilas for her house Margarita. “I always come back to Arette. The profile is clean with hints of pepper, limestone and plenty of cooked agave,” she says. Olmeca also found fans: Fox called it “dependable and well-positioned in price,” while Powell described it as “everything I want from a blanco tequila, and it clocks in under $30 a bottle.”
As a tribute to the burgeoning popularity of agave spirits and drinks like the mezcal Margarita and even the mezcal Martini, a growing number of bartenders are selecting mezcal—once a backbar-only spirit—specifically for the well. Bartenders’ picks here kept the new mezcal drinker in mind, looking toward bottles that had an accessible price and exemplary flavor profile.
Most Popular: Siete Misterios
“Siete Misterios has become a shining light in my bar programs,” says Collins, who mixes its briny, smoky tones into a dirty Martini variation. “It’s super traditional in its production, with a team that truly cares about what you’re tasting while remaining budget-friendly and universal for those guests just jumping on to the mezcal train.” Elsewhere, this is Fox’s pick for a mezcal Margarita: “[It] shows the true spirit of mezcal with an approachable price.” Outside of Siete Misterios, there wasn’t consensus around any other brands, perhaps because the category has only recently been added to the well.
From Old-Fashioneds to juleps, America’s homegrown spirit is a popular call at bars across the country. Since it is the primary ingredient in many classic cocktails, and because it’s often ordered straight, bartenders emphasized the importance of a bottle that’s consistent, so guests know what they’re getting.
Most Popular: Four Roses
“Smooth and mellow,” says Perry, citing the brand’s tagline. “It is just that… It plays along with most cocktails,” such as a Gold Rush or Bourbon Smash. Meanwhile, Danya Degen, director of operations for Washington, D.C.’s The Duck & The Peach, values the “consistency” in flavor and strength. “While many bourbons are bottled at increasingly higher proofs,” Four Roses’ standard-issue 80-proof bottling “allows it to blend well with other flavors,” rather than overwhelming them, Degen notes. The bottle is also a budget-conscious pick with enough complexity to be served neat.
Honorable Mention: Wild Turkey 101
Fox says that Wild Turkey 101 is “the best and most dependable mixing bourbon.” Trow, who uses it in Whiskey Sours and other shaken drinks, agrees. “You get a little more bang for your buck with the 101 line,” he says. “It can stand up [in cocktails] and still be the star.”
The ideal well rye, bartenders said, balances the whiskey’s signature oak and spice notes, while providing enough oomph to make a wide range of classic and contemporary cocktails shine.
Most Popular: Michter’s, Wild Turkey 101
“Michter’s has the perfect balance of spice and body for boozy, stirred drinks,” says Hayley Wilson, head bartender at The Portland Hunt + Alpine Club. “The bottle price is a little hefty in comparison to some of its counterparts, but I think Michter’s is worth it and creates a luxurious cocktail.” Perry says the versatility of Michter’s gives it a slight edge over Wild Turkey, her “long-time go-to” in the well, preferring it for “shaken and refreshing rye-based cocktails, although its subtle butterscotch and oak notes play nicely in an American Trilogy or Old Pal.”
That said, Perry turns to Wild Turkey 101 for stirred drinks, as the higher proof allows it to “stand up nicely in a Manhattan [or] Vieux Carré.” Chersevani favors the overproof rye for highballs: “It stands up to carbonation and [citrus] juices,” she says. “It’s for when you need something more to make the highball sing.”
Honorable Mentions: Rittenhouse, High West Double Rye, Old Overholt
All received multiple mentions. Michael Aredes, head bartender at Pretty Ricky’s in New York City, favors Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond for “spiced caramel realness” that’s “incredibly delicious, both neat and in cocktails.” Alec Bales, lead bartender of Atlanta’s Ticonderoga Club, adds that the “spicy, woody and affordable” rye is “excellent” in Sazeracs and Manhattans. Meanwhile, Walwyn praised Old Overholt’s “slightly lighter style” as accessible and versatile, and Chersevani calls it a “crowd-pleaser” that’s “rye-forward, floral and easy to mix.” And Utah native Fox recommends High West: “The spirit gives all the rye bite I want,” and adds a “rounded” grain note that mixes well in Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds.
Blended Scotch is the clear play for the well: It’s affordable and consistent, making it the one to mix into Penicillins and Rob Roys. In general, bartenders said they reserve pricy single malt Scotch for the top shelf.
Most Popular: Monkey Shoulder
The clear well front-runner, which was specifically designed for cocktail usage, from highballs to Penicillins and Blood and Sand variations, was Monkey Shoulder. The appeal, once again, is “versatility,” explains Trow. “Not too much malt or peat to put anyone off, and the price point is right, so you can use it for a variety of classics,” he says.
Honorable Mentions: Many and varied
Other blended Scotches mentioned included Johnnie Walker Black, Great King Street Glasgow Blend and Street Pumas Blended Scotch, all praised for their easy-drinking flavor profiles and mixability.
Most Popular: Suntory Toki
Favored for highballs, this blended Japanese whisky has plenty of fans and is often called for by name. “A Toki Highball may just be one of my favorite drinks ever,” says Hone, who works at a Japanese whisky bar that changes highballs seasonally. “I’m always surprised [by] just how much Toki stands out in any drink,” she says. Adds Walwyn: “Toki is a gorgeous spirit that really makes for delicate highballs and long shaken cocktails.”
Honorable Mention: Mellow Corn
“A little bit of an industry darling,” according to Gullo, it’s no wonder that this Kentucky corn whiskey received a mention. “It’s classic Americana. The design hasn’t changed in years—it looks like a well whiskey!” she says. “I’ve seen it pop up on cocktail lists recently; people are using it in cocktails.”
The New Vocabulary of Bourbon
“Honey Barrel,” “Drain Pour,” “Shelf Turd.” The words modern bourbon drinkers use often say more about collectability than what’s actually in the glass.
Since rum encompasses a broad range of styles, we asked the pros to select well picks for three main categories: unaged (or lightly aged), aged and overproof. In general, bartenders looked for unaged rums that performed well in a Daiquiri (blends tended to perform best at this task) and other commonly called-for drinks, while aged rums were expected to work well for both mixing and drinking neat. Overproof rums, typically used in small measures in tropical cocktails, were valued for their power and aromatics, as well as how successfully they melded with other ingredients.
Most Popular Unaged (or Lightly Aged) Rum: Foursquare Probitas, Plantation 3 Stars
“I don’t know if there’s a better Daiquiri rum in the world,” says Death & Co.’s Powell of Probitas. The collaboration between Barbados’ Foursquare and Jamaica’s Hampden Estate represents two of Powell’s favorite rum producers. “One of the Foursquare rums that goes into it is aged for two years, giving it a little bit of vanilla, and the Jamaican portion gives it just the right amount of funk,” he says.
Meanwhile, Wilson describes Plantation 3 Stars as “my go-to mixing white rum,” blending “seamlessly” into drinks such as Daiquiris, Mojitos and the bar’s rum-based version of the Espresso Martini. And Walwyn praises 3 Stars for being an “easy, clean blended rum [that] works really well in a classic Daiquiri and other shaken rum cocktails at an affordable price point.”
Most Popular Aged: Appleton Signature, El Dorado
According to Alicia Perry, beverage director for San Diego’s Consortium Holdings, which includes Polite Provisions, Appleton is an “easy-drinking” bottling and “a solid introductory rum for those unfamiliar with Jamaican rum.”
Elsewhere, El Dorado found fans, particularly for the 5- to 8-year-old expressions. (Longer-aged El Dorado expressions were more likely to be showcased as top-shelf spirits.) “Aged Demerara rums are great for cocktails where you don’t want the funk of a Jamaican rum,” explains Powell, who favors the 8-year-old bottling. “This one is aged for eight years in Guyana and is still super affordable. It has a great balance of coffee, dried fruits, oak and spice.” He says that El Dorado works particularly well for a rum Old-Fashioned, “or for a bourbon drinker trying to get into rum.”
Most Popular Overproof: Wray & Nephew
Wray & Nephew is Hone’s pick for Daiquiris. “I love the funk; I love all the banana on the nose,” she says. And even when the spirit isn’t the base of a cocktail, Powell says this overproof pick is often the missing ingredient for a recipe that’s almost perfect, but needs a little something. “A lot of times that thing is a teaspoon of Wray & Nephew,” he says. “Even a little bit adds a tropical layer of banana and grassiness to cocktails. Throw a tiny bit in a shaken tequila cocktail and see what it does to the drink.”
Honorable Mentions: Smith & Cross, Plantation OFTD
Funky Smith & Cross is “bartender’s ketchup,” says Gullo. “A little goes a long way to boost the earthiness and funkiness of a cocktail.” Meanwhile, Wilson reaches for Plantation OFTD: “It’s intense, packs a punch, and yet still [has] all the classic baking spice notes associated with a dark rum, [which] shine through.”
To add nuance and backbone to drinks, bartenders are using a wide range of brandies, from Bolivia’s singani to domestic apple versions, with flavors from spiced pear to coffee. On the whole, however, Cognac and Armagnac are reserved for the top shelf.
Most Popular: Brandy Saint Louise
“This has become quite the darling,” says Gullo of the affordable Brandy Saint Louise. “Tastewise, you can put it up against some Cognacs, and it beats them. It’s a combo of great price, great-looking package and great flavor.” Jef Tate of Chicago’s Billy Sunday further praises the brand: “A must-have for any spirit evangelist behind a bar who is forced to make Wisconsin Old-Fashioneds for their congregation.”
Honorable Mention: Pierre Ferrand Cognac 1840
“It’s bold, weighty, silky and a little sweet—all the things that make a Cognac cocktail-friendly,” explains Degen. “I love this one because different cocktails bring out different elements of the spirit.” The ultimate way to drink it, according to Degen, is to mix the spirit into a Sidecar with dry Curaçao, another Ferrand product.
Beyond the bottles mentioned above, bartenders stash a wide range of other spirits and fortified wines within easy reach.
Amari are among the must-haves in the well, led by Cynar (“always my go-to shot,” says Aredes), Amaro Nonino, Fernet-Branca and Branca Menta. There is also an unusual new addition to the typical mix this year, perhaps inspired by all those strawberry and fernet drinks: Matchbook Distilling’s Day Trip Strawberry Amaro Bitter Liqueur.
Fortified wines, including vermouth, Pineau des Charentes and sherry—particularly those made by Lustau—were frequently cited. Aredes points to Lustau’s amontillado and palo cortado expressions as go-tos.
Liqueurs in the well reflect some of the most in-demand drinks on cocktail menus right now, from the ubiquitous Espresso Martini (Galliano Espresso and other coffee liqueurs) and the White Negroni (Suze), to Banana Daiquiris (banana liqueurs, including Giffard and Tempus Fugit) and the neon-green glow of Midori Sour riffs (Midori).