Simply put, in any bar, tavern, restaurant, or pub; well drinks are shots or cocktails made with the house liquor – sometimes called well liquor or rail liquor. Typically, well drinks are made from the cheapest bottles the bar carries. This doesn’t always mean cheap in quality, but rather the cheapest of what that bar stocks.
Why are they called well drinks?
Behind every bar there is an area called the well. The well is where the bartender keeps all the supplies needed to make drinks. This can include things like fruit, seltzers, sodas, bitters, juices, ice, etc. Also part of the well are the basic alcohols needed to mix cocktails. When you order a drink, if you don’t specify an alcohol brand, most of the time your drink will be made with bottles from the well.
Why is that the case?
From a bartender’s perspective, on a busy Friday night when they’re slammed, every second counts. That big display of bottles on the back wall of the bar looks pretty, but it’s not very convenient. For speed and efficiency, the bottles right at hand in the well are a prime choice.
Are well drinks inferior?
Not necessarily. It depends on what that particular bar or bartender stocks in their well. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that not all cheap booze means low quality. There are a lot of high quality options priced for a budget.
So what does this all have to do with whiskey?
When you order a whiskey based cocktail, you want the best quality for your money, right? Do you take a chance on a well drink, or pay more and ask for a name brand whiskey in your cocktail? The solution is quite simple.
Ask the bartender what whiskey is in the well. If you like their answer then awesome, you get to enjoy a quality cocktail at a well drink price. If you don’t like their well whiskey, then ask for one you know on the back bar.
How do you know if their well whiskey is good quality?
It’s mostly being observant and trial and error. One way to shorten the learning curve is to familiarize yourself with our 20 Best Whiskeys Under $20 list. If your bartender mentions one of these whiskeys in their well, you’ll be just fine. If you’re still unsure, ask your bartender. A quality establishment will have knowledgeable staff who are happy to answer your questions.
What are your favorite tips and tricks to ordering whiskey out?
Let us know in the comments below.
— Zac Smith