- A “well” drink is a mixed drink typically made with lower-cost liquors.
- Cocktail bars might use higher-end alcohol in their well drinks than neighbourhood bars.
- The alcohol in a well also depends on whether a bar menu leans to domestic or international types of liquor.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
When you order a mixed drink at a bar or restaurant, you’re going to get a “well” drink unless you specify the brand of alcohol you’d prefer.
To find out more about which brands bars stock in their well, INSIDER talked to Todd Carnam, beverage director at The Interval in San Francisco, California; Michael Shea, owner and bartender at Portland, Oregon’s Rum Club; Jody Sweitzer, co-owner and bartender at Dirty Frank’s in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Josh Nadel, a master sommelier and the beverage director of NoHo Hospitality Group.
Here’s what you need to know about well alcohol.
A well drink, or rail drink, is a mixed drink made with lower-cost liquors
A well drink (alternately known as a rail drink) refers to a mixed drink made from liquors that a bartender keeps in a rack called a well. These are typically lower-cost spirits that you can think of as the booze equivalent of house wine.
“Well drinks are often going to be your standard boozes,” Carnam told INSIDER, listing gin, vodka, rye, bourbon, and tequila as examples.
The opposite of a well drink is a call drink, a mixed libation that features a specific liquor brand. Jack and Coke, a whiskey and Coke made with Jack Daniel’s, is a common example.
Well alcohols vary from bar to bar
Although the alcohol brands stocked in a well vary depending on the bar, well boozes are often the most cost-effective options.
“Oftentimes, it will change from region to region, rep to rep,” Carnam said. “There may be a dive bar that carries Early Times [whiskey], and there may be a dive bar across the street that chooses something else for their whiskey because they know one of their friends is a rep for the regional sales and they get a case discount.”
He noted that, as a rule of thumb, the earlier a bar opens in the day, the cheaper the well booze is going to be.
Cocktail bars might have higher-end liquor in their wells
“I think a lot of craft cocktail bars probably use Beefeater, a lot of the great London dry gin. A lot of people use Sobieski [a Polish rye vodka] for their well. It’s sort of what you can get the best margin of quality for, trying to keep the prices down as well,” Shea told INSIDER. “You don’t want to have $US10 well drinks. $US10 menu drinks, $US14 menu drinks, that’s an entirely different thing.”
At Rum Club, Beefeater and Sobieski are in the well. The well bourbon is JTS Brown 100 proof, while the well tequila is Olmeca Altos Plata, an all-agave variety.
The well selections at The Interval are similarly high-end, according to Carnam.
“We have more recondite, more higher-scale boozes [at The Interval],” Carnam said. “When people see our well gin is Beefeater and our well bourbon is Four Roses, they’re a little like, ‘OK, this is a class establishment.'” Other well liquors at the bar range from Rittenhouse rye to Tapatio tequila.
Dive or neighbourhood bars might use cheaper liquor
“I own Rum Club and have been bartending for 25 years. Typically what you’ll see in most neighbourhood bars and clubs, in Portland especially, is the sort of lowest common denominator liquor possible will go in the well, the theory being they make the best percentage on that through repetition,” Shea said.
People who go to a nightclub, dive bar, or neighbourhood bar don’t often ask for a call drink. For instance, Shea says that he’s worked at places in the Pacific Northwest where the well vodka was a cheap local brand such as Monarch or Baron Rothschild. A well drink typically costs about $US4, while a low-cost vodka might come out to $US6.50 a bottle, he explained.
At Dirty Frank’s, a legendary dive bar in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that dates back to the Prohibition era, the inexpensive well liquor is part of the appeal.
“We have a long tradition of pouring the cheapest liquor so we can keep the prices low,” said Sweitzer, who started working at Dirty Frank’s in 1992 before becoming a co-owner in 2011. The well vodka, for instance, is Vladimir, and the well tequila is Montezuma. And the gin, rum, and whiskey are all Bankers Club.
The types of alcohol in a well also depend on the bar menu
“There’s a lot of creative ways you can put really high quality products in your rail,” Nadel told INSIDER, adding that the types of alcohol depend on the message of your program (bartender speak for the drinks menu). An Italian program would feature different brands than an American program, and an American program would diverge from a French program, and so on.
More broadly, Nadel said that NoHo Hospitality Group opts for “very, very high quality versions of versatile, kind of archetypal examples of each spirit.” When it comes to gin, a spirit that varies depending on the number of botanicals a distiller accents or omits, NHG selects classic, London dry styles. At The Dutch, an American restaurant that the group operates in New York City, the well would feature a domestic take on London dry gin, like a version offered by the Brooklyn-based New York Distilling Company.
Since the quality of well liquor fluctuates from bar to bar, Nadel advises guests not to have reservations about requesting their preferred alcohol.
“Don’t feel bad about calling your favourite and asking if people have it,” he said.
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