The bar well of today is absolutely nothing like its predecessors. Once relegated to low-cost, low-quality spirits, the well has moved firmly upscale. This premium push is coinciding with the demand for higherquality spirits in cocktails overall, and it’s supported by bartenders across the industry who delight in serving top-notch drinks even when their guests don’t call for specific brands.
“The bar well has changed dramatically over the years,” says Milos Zica, partner and beverage director at the restaurant and bar Fandi Mata in Brooklyn, New York. “Back in the day, bars had fake lime juice, gun soda with corn syrup, and juices filled with artificial flavor and sugar. But these days, we use fresh ingredients— fresh-squeezed lime and lemon juice, agave syrup or stevia, freshly squeezed grapefruit, orange, and pineapple. And, of course, more upscale and better-quality liquor.”
The bar well at Fandi Mata stocks such premium brands as El Tesoro Tequila, Campari, and Highclere Castle gin, which it uses in drinks like the Paloma Picante ($18), made with El Tesoro Blanco Tequila, homemade grapefruit cordial, fresh lime juice, and Topo Chico sparkling mineral water, served in a glass rimmed with chili and Tajin spices. “Over the years, people have understood that the well has improved,” Zica says, noting that the quality of a venue’s well depends on the type of bar it aims to be—a cocktail destination versus a dive bar, for example—and that the cost of stocking upscale spirits and fresh mixers can also be prohibitive.
Johnny Swet, master mixologist at rooftop venue The Skylark in New York City, agrees that most guests understand the quality of well spirits has moved upscale. The Skylark’s well includes Tito’s vodka, Union mezcal, and Don Julio Tequila. The lounge’s signature Dirty Martini is made with Tito’s vodka, as is its seasonal Pumpkin Spice Mule (specialty drinks at the venue are $20). However, Swet notes that a lot of customers at The Skylark call for specific spirits brands in their drinks as opposed to relying on the well.
“Guests’ palates have become more sophisticated as they’ve been exposed to brands of higher quality over the years when they go out for drinks,” Swet says. “During the pandemic, so many people took up home bartending and now have an active interest in what goes into their cocktails when they go out. They expect to see brands they recognize or have enjoyed at home.”
In Stowe, Vermont, Cork Restaurant & Natural Wine Shop has expanded its cocktail program in recent years and chooses to highlight local spirits for its curated cocktails. Because of that, the venue’s well includes craft labels by WhistlePig, Barr Hill, Green Mountain Distillers, Smuggler’s Notch, Mad River Distillers, and Appalachian Gap Distillers. Cork’s bar offers a Negroni made with Barr Hill Tom Cat gin, Campari, and Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, and an Old Fashioned comprising Smuggler’s Notch Bourbon, Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, and maple syrup (both drinks are $16). “Given our venue and its overall vibe, most people understand that we provide a premium, curated experience,” owner Katie Nichols says.
The premium experience is key at many bars these days. At Lagos Restaurant and Lounge in Manhattan, beverage director Mathew Scherl stocks the well with locally sourced ALB vodka, and with more well-known brands like Don Q rum, Cazadores Tequila, Larson Cognac, and New Amsterdam gin. These spirits sit in the bar’s well, but they’re also highlighted in specialty cocktails on the menu, like in the Lagostini ($20), which mixes ALB vodka with St-Germain liqueur, house-made watermelon syrup, and lime juice.
“Bar wells have changed tremendously over the years,” Scherl says. “The use of fresh ingredients, infusions, and house-made syrups is now an industry standard, and many bars are moving away from using ‘well’ liquor and moving toward higher-end spirits. Our bar well has increased the amount of liqueurs being used and the quality of the spirits in the well.”