If you're out on the town and you've got a drink in your hand, chances are that it's been made with a spirit you didn't ask for by name. Instead, the booze likely was selected by the bar manager as the place's go-to spirit for its class -- part of a collection known as "the well" because it usually stands in a convenient well just beneath the lip of the bar. Go ahead and peer over the edge: Just a quick glance at the set can tell you a lot about the place.
Traditionally, the well has been used to make cocktails that don't require a lot of effort or discernment: your rum and Cokes, your vodka and sodas, the low-hanging highballs that are the thruster engine of inebriation in your average watering hole. The well is also a repository of profit, with booze cheap enough to maximize the margin of a given drink.
But like everything else in the realm of serious drinking, the well is changing. These days, the well concept is more like three subconcepts: We'll call them the Stand-In, the Standby and a higher-end, more bespoke echelon reflecting the ambitions (and prices) of the new cocktail movement -- something we'll label the Call Well.
Spirits in the Stand-In category are basic and cheap, not something you'd know or ask for by name, unless you have a penchant for tawdry, upwardly mobile-sounding memes. The vodkas all sound Russian, like Sputnik, Kamarov or, yes, Boris Jelzin; the rums could pass for Caribbean time-share subdivisions, like Coral Bay, Moraga Cay and Castaway Cove; the tequilas sound Mexican and vaguely historical (Zapata, Montezuma) or crassly cross-cultural (Margaritaville, Tortilla Gold). The gins are British and aspirational (Llords, Regal); the scotches, Scottish (100 Pipers, House of Stuart); the bourbons, old (Old Crow, Old Granddad).
These last two brands actually fall within the second category, the Standby. They are well staples but also held in relatively high esteem by bartenders looking for quality they can pass on to patrons without excessive cost. "I'm a fan of cheap and decent," says Danny Cymbal at Cole's downtown, and his drinks -- and his customers -- are better off for it.
Common Standbys: Smirnoff for vodka, Bacardi for rum, Gordon's for gin, Grant's for scotch, Old Overholt for rye. Naomi Schimek, beverage director of the Spare Room in Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel, is a huge fan of Gordon's, even though there are posher brands out there for the pouring. "There's something to be said for a spirit that is equally good on its own and adapts well for cocktails," Schimek notes. "I need to have spirits on hand that are versatile and well-made, regardless of their stigma or their shelf value."
By the time you've hit the Call Well, the price for your drink has hit double digits, and you're paying for something distinctive. These are usually prestige spirits, but they're employed not so much for their prestige as for their versatility when it comes to making a drink. The brandy in the well at The Varnish, for example, is Pierre Ferrand 1840. Yes, it's a high-end cognac, but bar manager Max Seaman uses it because it's high enough in proof to stand up to adornment.
Still, the booze in this category needn't be too refined or suave, attributes that tend to disappear in a well-made drink. "Expensive spirits aren't always the best thing for a cocktail," says Max Seaman of The Varnish. "They're great for sipping, but if you put them in a drink, chances are the nuances will get lost."
That's the animating spirit behind liquor purveyors like the 86 Company, a New York spirits firm founded by and for bartenders. Its new line of tequila, vodka, gin and rum wasn't made for sipping, but it's a suite of honest spirits expressly designed with the body, alcoholic strength and purity to make a great cocktail at a great price.
"They're kind of like the little black dress of the bar," says Gabriella Mlynarczyk of ink. in West Hollywood. "They're tasty enough to stand alone but mix and match beautifully with other things in the closet."
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What's In Your Well?
Wells have personalities like the barkeeps who man them (or "woman" them, as the case may be). Naomi Schimek at the Spare Room, for example, employs different bourbons, depending upon the drink. "They shake out differently," she says, "and you need something with a little bite in a highball, something with a little extra alcohol." So her Manhattan and old-fashioned may call for Elijah Craig, but for her juleps and highballs employ Fighting Cock -- which, at 103 proof, gets the job done.
In most cases, of course, people come for the drink and not the spirit it's made with -- and those components can elevate a less expressive spirit. "People say our margaritas are the best they've ever had," says Mary Ginter at The York, "but it's not the tequila, it's the mix that goes into them that matters -- all made in-house."
For his well cocktails, Josh Curtis at Mixology 101 also likes to work with something with a little bite. "You want something that's a little raw," he says, "so it can stand up to what you put into it."
Not too raw, however. "If it comes in a plastic bottle," he adds, "you probably shouldn't be using it."
Be sure to pick up our new Happy Hour guide, which hits the streets April 18 in our weekly Thursday paper.
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