Ask a Bartender: What's in Your Well?

Dave Porcaro at Bigalora Wood Fired Grill in Ann Arbor

The term "well," behind a bar, refers to a bartender's station: the area that's their home base, with a rack of often-used spirits sitting right in front of them, as opposed to the bottles arranged on the bar behind. So well spirits are, in a way, the bar's default: when you ask for a vodka-soda or rum and Coke, it's the well vodka or well rum that usually ends up in your drink.

While some dive bars might hide some pretty unappealing bottles down in their well, today's cocktail bars tend to feature higher-quality spirits, chosen for the well due to value, versatility, or the bar manager's personal preference. We asked bartenders across the country: What's in your well, and why do you like it? (Or not?) Here's what they had to say.

20140304-bartender-Jeff Faile_action shot.JPG
Jeff Faile of Iron Gate, Red Apron, and Birch & Barley in D.C.

"My rail usually consists of Sobieski Vodka, Beefeater Gin, Old Overholt Rye, and Tequila Cabeza. No matter what bar I work at, Overholt and Beefeater will always be on my rail." — Jeff Faile (Iron Gate, Red Apron, Birch & Barley)

"Our well bourbon is Penny Packer, which is a wonderful German-bottled bourbon (made in America and bottled in Germany) that is slightly sweet with a good bite. It's great for mixing cocktails." — Kiel Schecich (SideDoor)

"I have chosen a gin produced about twenty miles from the restaurant (Ugly Dog from Chelsea, MI), a 10-year bourbon from Buffalo Trace (Ancient Ancient Age), and a 100% pure agave tequila (El Charro). My favorite, though, is Ballentine's Finest; soft, sweet and smooth, and at only $20 per liter, people are always amazed at how good it tastes alone and in cocktails." — Dave Porcaro (Bigalora Wood Fired Grill)

"Vodka: Sobieski—When people have such strong opinions on the least flavorful spirits it cracks me up. All the time I hear, 'I only drink Ketel,' or 'I hate Goose.' Smirnoff consistently blind-tastes better then both though and it costs about $4 less per drink. Gin: Dorothy Parker from New York Distilling Co. & Green Hook Gin; both are awesome and really different. Whiskey: Wathen's Bourbon, Jameson or Bushmills depending on the day, and Dewar's or Walker Black; the Wathen's is a pretty great value bourbon." — Jason Lakow (Amali)

20140304-bartender-Dan Andruss.JPG
Dan Andruss from 312 Chicago.

"Our well is Smirnoff, Beefeater, Jim Beam, and El Jimador. I won't say that these are my absolute favorite spirits in the world. I will say that if I'm not looking to spend a ton of money, they are the spirits that I would be drinking on my own time. Quality for price." — Dan Andruss (312 Chicago)

"I like and would drink all the spirits in my well; if I wouldn't, they wouldn't be there. A lot of people have the common misconception that price equals quality, but that's not always the case. Beefeater, Four Roses and Rittenhouse, for example, are spirits that are quite affordable, yet the quality of each is wonderful." — Chris Burkett (Cusp Dining & Drinks)

"We roll local for gin and proudly pour North Shore Distillery's No. 6. Bulleit for bourbon, Ketel One for vodka, and Altos for tequila." — Bill Anderson (Vie)

"I'm really lucky, since our bar only carries 100% agave based natural organic spirits. Because of that, I've probably got the best well tequila in the world with Tapatio." — Jason Eisner (Gracias Madre)

"We change our menu every 2-3 weeks. The ingredients in my well change to accommodate each menu... I like the constant opportunity to play and be creative. My favorite spirit to play with is gin. Bombay Dry Gin is one of our well staples, and I love using it with the ever-changing array of fresh herbs from the garden." — Cricket Nelson (The Broken Shaker)

"Our Taproom has a fabulous well line-up. Ketel and Sobieski for vodka, Tanqueray and Beefeater for gins, Olmeca Altos and Espolon for tequila, Old Forester for bourbon, Powers and Jameson Black Barrel for Irish whiskey, Remy VS for Cognac, and we even have Green Chartreuse and King's Ginger for liqueurs." — Pamela Wiznitzer (The Dead Rabbit)

"I love Buffalo Trace for bourbon, it's so good and very affordable—although I think the world has realized this, because it's increasingly hard to keep in stock. We also use a lot of the 86 company's Tequila Cabeza. We make a spicy version of a Paloma that's really popular." — Meaghan Dorman (Raines Law Room)

Jon Harris at Firefly in DC.

"Love me some Overholt and Beefeater." — Jon Harris (Firefly)

"Wodka, Bombay Sapphire, and Bombay Sapphire East gin (which is an Asian-inspired version of the original, with two newly added botanicals, Thai lemongrass and Vietnamese black peppercorn), George Dickel Tennesee Whiskey, Rittenhouse Rye, El Jimador Blanco—those are some of my favorites." — Christian Sanders (Evelyn Drinkery)

"I particularly like Blue Coat Gin, which is an American Gin made in Philadelphia. I love using domestic products and local producers." — Tommy Shani (Upstairs at the Kimberly Hotel)

"Gruven (vodka), El Jimador (tequila), City of London (gin), Elijah Craig 12-year (bourbon). It would be a difficult night for me if I didn't have my Cointreau." — Christopher Longoria (1760)

"We use two gins, Beefeater for shaken drinks and Bombay Dry for stirred, our white rum is Flor de Caña 4 year, our blanco tequila is Espolon, our bourbons are Four Roses Yellow Label for shaking and Buffalo Trace for stirring, our rye is Rittenhouse, and our blended scotch is Famous Grouse. The well is essentially chosen for the most solid, cost-effective and basic expressions of a spirit. For example, I absolutely love St. George Terroir Gin, it makes an amazing martini, but it's too expressive and quirky for a well." — Rene Hidalgo (Lantern's Keep)

"Tito's, Beefeater, Bulleit (bourbon and rye), Espolon. What I choose for my well is the best quality I can get for the price point." — Jesse Cornell (Sbraga)

Ergys Dizdari at Filini Bar and Restaurant in CHicago.

"I love Templeton because it's one of the most well-balanced ryes out there. It is so smooth and it's not overpowering in cocktails." — Ergys Dizdari (Filini Bar and Restaurant)

"Currently on our well we have: Absolut vodka, Jimador tequila, Buffalo Trace bourbon, Fords gin, and Cana Brava rum. I am a huge fan of Buffalo Trace—I keep it stocked in my home bar to make Old Fashioned cocktails." — Ray Anguiano (Atwood Café)

"What I like most in our well is Old Forester bourbon. It packs a lot of bang for your buck and it's one of the longest continually produced bourbons in the country." — Tyler Voelker (Urban Farmer Steakhouse)

"Tanqueray is our gin and Evan Williams Single Barrel is our whiskey. We do have a couple of weird choices, though. Mainly the bottle of Seagram's 7 and the J&B Scotch. I can't recall ever using either of those bottles. I wish we carried the 86 Co. products; great liquor packaged in bottles designed for to be easy to use by bartenders." — Steve Yamada (Bar R'evolution)

"I love having El Dorado 8-year as the well 'aged rum.' It's very historic, from the Demerara valley in Guiana, and delicious. Makes a great Millionaire #4." — Michael Lazar (Hog and Rocks)