In the past, a “top-shelf” spirit might have conferred status or scarcity—or at least it was an eye-catching bottle that bartenders wanted customers to see.
At its most literal, it is a high-priced bottle that “you know your guests won’t be asking for as often, therefore you can leave it on the ‘top shelf’ as both a subtle flex and because you won’t often need to break out the ladder and grab it,” says Nick Amano-Dolan, general manager at San Francisco’s Trick Dog.
Of course, since the backbar is often considered a glimpse into a bar’s soul, the quality of what’s in the bottle also defines a top-shelf spirit.
Caer Maiko, co-creator of the Austin, Texas, drink pop-up Daijoubu, describes it as a spirit that “would make the most exceptional version of a cocktail,” though, she adds, “you would hesitate putting it in a cocktail because it is something you need to taste on its own first.”
Bartenders say they also want to be able to stand behind the practices of the brands they spotlight on the backbar.
“Top shelf, to me, is less about price and a flashy bottle, and more about the integrity of the brand and the spirit itself,” says Izzy Tulloch, head bartender at Milady’s in New York City. That’s certainly a sentiment reflected by the tequila picks: Instead of celeb-focused bottles, surveyed bartenders almost universally gravitated toward artisan bottlings.
A final note: Some bartenders observed the beginning of a rejection of so-called “premium” spirits. “Guests and the industry have seemed to move away from ‘top-shelf’ and more towards ‘funky’ or ‘unique’ styles of spirits,” says Amano-Dolan. Whether this reflects temporary price sensitivity or permanently changing tastes remains to be seen.
We asked 16 bartenders, many of them veterans in the industry, for their top-shelf selections. Here’s what they had to say.
From Espresso Martinis to Pornstar Martinis, vodka is a key player in some of the most called-for cocktails. In addition to well-known names, one bartender, Sean Umstead, co-owner of Kingfisher in Durham, North Carolina, suggested reserving top-shelf vodka to “make a statement about your bar and its values, like Supergay or Good Liquorworks vodka,” he says, citing brands that support social and environmental causes.
Most Popular: Haku
Bartenders singled out Japan’s Haku, a rice-based vodka filtered through charcoal, for its delicate flavor and versatility. (It also took the top spot in our survey last year.) LyAnna Sanabria, founder and beverage director of Portland, Maine’s Papi, praises the “soft florals and citrus notes,” while Trick Dog’s Amano-Dolan says the “marshmallow-y vodka with a hint of citrus is a fantastic option if you’re looking to treat yourself.”
Honorable Mention: Belvedere
Of note, Belvedere, a Polish rye-based vodka and one of last year’s top vodka picks, remained a contender. Travis Tober, owner of Austin bars Nickel City and Murray’s, says its “super clean” flavor profile makes it his favorite for a vodka Martini.
Traditional London dry gin no longer dominates the top shelf by default. Increasingly, gin is seen as a way to reflect a bar’s regional leanings, from the hyperlocal (California’s St. George) to gins hailing from Kenya, Japan, Vietnam, Spain and more.
Most Popular: Monkey 47
German-made Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin was the clear favorite, thanks to its robust Black Forest botanicals. Umstead notes the gin’s combination of “freshness and woodsiness” as particularly appealing. For tropical drinks, Ray Sakover, beverage director and partner of New York’s Paradise Lost, says the gin shines thanks to its “jammy flavors of lingonberries and orchard fruit” that meld well with spices like cinnamon, and the molasses base of the distillate means it also pairs well with rum in a split-base drink.
“You just can’t beat it,” Amano-Dolan sums up. “A Gin & Tonic or a Martini with Monkey 47 just takes your cocktail to another level.”
Honorable Mentions: St. George Terroir, Roku
St. George got a nod from Sanabria for its bright, round profile that suggests Christmas trees “baked in Cali sunshine and citrus,” while Tober favors Roku as a “utility player” that works like a London dry in stirred drinks and American-style gin in citrusy cocktails: “If you can only have one gin to meet both those needs, Roku hits right in the middle.”
Since rum encompasses a wide range of styles, we asked bartenders to make selections for three main categories: unaged (or lightly aged), aged and overproof. Beyond these admittedly broad categories, there was little consensus—although multiple bartenders name-checked Novo Fogo cachaça, a Brazilian sugar cane spirit, while in the overproof category, it’s no surprise that Smith & Cross was cited; it’s an industry stalwart.
Most Popular Portfolio: El Dorado
El Dorado was singled out for both its lightly aged expression and longer-aged statements. For example, Amano-Dolan flags both the 3-year-old expression—“For a 3-year rum, this juice has a ton of complexity and can make a Daiquiri that will leave your head spinning”—and older bottlings, particularly its “mind-boggling” cask-finished expressions. “Any bottle you can find out in the wild is sure to be a winner, but I can’t stop thinking about the zinfandel cask finish I had a few years ago,” he says.
As the spirit poised to unseat vodka as the top seller by volume, tequila continues to take on increased importance on the backbar, whether for mixing into perennial favorites, like the Margarita and Paloma, or sipping on its own at the growing number of agave spirit–focused bars.
Most Popular: Tequila Ocho
Noted as the brand that put tequila terroir on the map, the first “single-estate” tequila has proponents across all of its age ranges.
“I absolutely love their philosophy of treating agave like wine,” says Amano-Dolan, who recommends the añejo expressions. “Rotating producers, agave fields and vintages make for such a special experience every time you crack a bottle.” Meanwhile, Kapri Robinson, bartender at Allegory in Washington, D.C., praises the reposado and its light hand on the oak. “No big vanilla bomb in this tequila,” she says, just “tasty notes of roasted agave and earth.” And Sakover describes the plata (aka silver) as a cocktail go-to: “Cooked agave, tropical fruit and mint make Ocho Plata a no-brainer when I want a stellar classic like an El Diablo or Tommy’s Margarita.”
Honorable Mentions: Fortaleza, ArteNom Selección de 1414
Fortaleza, another brand that emphasizes terroir, received multiple mentions, as did ArteNom, a boutique brand that bottles single-distillery tequilas from various producers. “As a wine guy, I love artisan spirits with a connection to a sense of place, or terroir,” says Joe Campanale, owner of Brooklyn restaurants Fausto, LaLou and Bar Vinazo.
The ascent of agave spirits means the mezcal category is growing fast and fragmented. Bartenders offer a multitude of names. Del Maguey was the clear leader, with Rey Campero in a distant second place.
Most Popular: Del Maguey portfolio
By a landslide, this pioneering mezcal is the high-end choice for mezcal Old-Fashioneds and more. “I tried Del Maguey Chichicapa at Anvil when I first moved to Texas,” Tober recalls. “That’s what [Bobby Heugel] had in The Brave, Anvil’s most famous cocktail,” and it’s still a favorite today. For some, it’s a matter of availability. For example, in North Carolina, a control state, the most widely available single-variety expressions are from Del Maguey, Umstead observes. Luckily, “I’m a sucker for every single-village expression Del Maguey puts out.”
In this vast category, premium picks spanned a wide range of producers with very little consensus. It’s worth noting, too, that many premium whiskeys are allocated, resulting in limited availability, but the bottles below are a selection of bartender favorites.
Most Popular Bourbon: W.L. Weller Antique
In the bourbon category, W.L. Weller’s Antique bottling had a slight edge. “Its associations with Pappy make it extremely popular among the bourbon aficionados,” says Amano-Dolan. According to Sanabria, “The 107-proof edition is so soft,” making it “an impressive base for classic cocktails, adding body without too much sweetness and spice.” Bartenders also cited E.H. Taylor, George T. Stagg and the Old Forester portfolio.
Most Popular Rye: High West, Willett
Willett 4-year-old remained a favorite for the second year in a row. “It’s amazing on its own and is a tasty choice in cocktails for its abundance of flavor, given its high proof of 55 percent ABV,” says Sakover. “A Willett rye 4-year Manhattan with Cocchi Barolo Chinato is as close to perfection as it gets.” Elsewhere, Tulloch of Milady’s opts for the high-rye High West Rendezvous. “The current release is killer,” she says. “Big notes of dried fruit, vanilla and cinnamon, like a spicy panettone.”
Most Popular Scotch: Bruichladdich portfolio
Specifically, the unpeated Bruichladdich Black Art was called out, alongside peatier expressions like Port Charlotte and Octomore. This is the second year in a row that Bruichladdich’s offerings are the Scotch category front-runner.
Interestingly, Balvenie’s Caribbean Cask also was a contender. The rum finish “makes a Penicillin a layup,” Tober says, while Sakover notes that its mango, passion fruit and spice notes make it an ideal Scotch for a tropical-themed bar like Paradise Lost. It “shines mixed with coconut water.”
Most Popular Japanese Whisky: Chichibu
Japanese whisky remains a top-shelf must-have, bartenders say. While brands ranging from Yamazaki and Hakushu to Akkeshi were mentioned, cult favorite Ichiro from Chichibu is a particularly sought-after standout. “Ichiro Akuto is an absolute legend in the whiskey world,” says Amano-Dolan of the brand’s founder. “His bottles are hard to find, but if you see one at your local liquor store, grab it immediately.” Adds Campanale: “The quality always blows me away.”
Unsurprisingly, Cognac was the most-cited premium brandy. Quite a few bartenders also listed pisco and American brandy as must-haves in the top-shelf category.
Most Popular Cognac: Pierre Ferrand portfolio
Ektoras Binikos, proprietor of New York’s Sugar Monk, favors Pierre Ferrand Réserve Double Cask Cognac for its “notes of white moscato raisins and cinnamon with some licorice hints, allspice and cloves and dried figs on the palate.” Elsewhere, Sanabria likes the “sweet, floral and easygoing” Ambre bottling, which “you can take in a bright, citrusy or vegetal direction.”
Most popular American brandy: Germain-Robin
The robust body and fruity tones of this California brandy make it a standout, according to bartenders. “If you want to turn someone into a brandy lover,” says Tober, “start with a Sidecar made with Germain-Robin XO.”
Most popular pisco: Capurro
Bartenders said they value pisco for adding funk and fruity tones to drinks. Sanabria observes that Capurro is bottled at the proof it comes off the still, yielding “an incredibly oily and aromatic product.” It’s a go-to for all pisco classics, she says, “but I also like to use it as a split-basing spirit for gin and agave cocktails, to add body and tertiary flavors without using a syrup or fortified wine.”
Compared with last year, when Chartreuse topped go-to lists, it was barely mentioned this year, save for one reference to the premium VEP bottling, likely due to known shortages. Meanwhile, a wide range of bittersweet amaros (but not one specific brand) topped the must-have list, followed by nutty nocinos (Nux Alpina, Stone Barn Brandyworks Nocino) and fruit-forward aperitif spirits (Mommenpop Kumquat-Pop, Matchbook Distilling Co. Elsewhere Blood Orange Aperitivo), possibly reflecting increased demand for lower-ABV drinks.