Compared to the spirits stashed beneath the bar top in the well, bottles designated as “top-shelf” spirits—the ones visible on the backbar, sometimes elevated as high as the ceiling, in beautiful, eye-catching bottles—are a rarefied breed.
So what distinguishes a top-shelf from a well spirit?
“It might be that it’s really good, or really scarce. Or both,” explains Gina Chersevani, who runs Washington, D.C.–area bars that span classic cocktail programs (Buffalo & Bergen) to dive bar–inspired destinations (Last Call Bar).”
Beyond what’s in the bottle, however, bartenders also flagged that they want to be able to stand behind the ethos and practices of the brands they showcase. Particularly in the rum and agave categories, bartenders pulled for names they see as contributing to environmental sustainability and the well-being of communities that produce the spirits.
To get a better sense of what’s on top shelves across the country, we spoke to 18 bartenders to see which bottles they’re stocking. Here’s what they had to say.
For dirty Martinis, Vespers, call drinks and more, vodka shines bright on the backbar. And this year, unlike in our previous surveys, bartenders acknowledged that vodka does indeed merit top-shelf space.
Most Popular: Belvedere, Haku
Bartenders singled out Belvedere, a Polish rye-based vodka, for its particularly smooth character. Britt Fox, bar manager at Washington, D.C., distillery bar Cotton & Reed, noted the spirit’s texture, adding that it makes a “wonderful Martini.” Dominique Jackson, bar manager at KHLA in Phoenix, adds, “Belvedere makes a mean dirty Martini and meshes well with whatever gin [or] vermouth you use for a Vesper.”
Those surveyed also praised the delicate nature of Japan’s Haku, a rice-based vodka filtered through bamboo charcoal. “Haku vodka is my go-to in a Vesper,” says Arianna Hone, lead bartender at High West Saloon in Park City, Utah. “I love the softness and almost floral-like qualities.” Similarly, Alicia Perry, beverage director for San Diego’s Consortium Holdings, which includes Polite Provisions, describes Haku as “well-rounded and pleasant,” ideal for mixing into “refreshing and lighter cocktails” like a vodka Gimlet, as it plays well with bright citrus and herbs.
Martinis, Gin & Tonics, Negronis and a wide range of other classic cocktails call for a premium gin. Unlike in previous years, surveyed bartenders bypassed traditional London dry–style bottles and leaned into more varied botanical profiles as a way to add nuanced flavor and build creative cocktails.
Most Popular: Monkey 47
“Complexity” is the draw with Monkey 47, says Michael Trow, director of bar operations for RPM Restaurants. “It’s one of the few gins you could just sip neat (even warm) and just get lost in the flavor profile.” He favors it for a Gimlet or Last Word: “Anything with lime juice is a good plan.”
Honorable Mention: Nikka Coffey, Nolet’s
Japan’s Nikka Coffey gin also found fans. It “oozes luxury,” says Phil Collins, beverage director for West Coast group TableOne Hospitality, who praises its citrus notes and “velvety mouthfeel” for Martinis and bolder classics like a Negroni. Similarly, Fox favors the “citrus-forward” gin: “The higher proof and bright botanical profile shine in anything stirred, including my personal favorite Martini variation, a Martinez.”
Finally, two Phoenix-area bartenders both selected Nolet’s as their gin pick, noting its unique rose and raspberry tones. “Such a beautiful, floral and fruity gin,” says Kim Haasarud, of Garden Bar PHX in Arizona. “I’ll even use it as a modifier if I want to add a touch of floral fruitiness in a cocktail.” Meanwhile, Jackson says the flavor profile “makes for an amazing Corpse Reviver No. 2 or an elevated Bee’s Knees.”
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. Outside of these admittedly broad categories, there was little consensus, though La Favorite, Clemént Canne Bleue and Rhum J.M were mentioned as popular agricole-style rums to add earthiness to cocktails.
Most Popular Unaged or Lightly Aged: Clairin Sajous
When surveyed bartenders want to add a little funk to commonly called-for drinks, they turn to agricole-style rum. Haiti’s Clairin Sajous, made from fresh-pressed cane juice, received multiple mentions. “It has bold aromas of grass and floral elements on the nose, and a racy, sparkling acidity on the palate,” says New York–based spirits educator Shannon Mustipher, who favors it for Daiquiris, either on its own or as a split base with another white rum. In the clairin category, Nightmoves bar director Orlando Franklin McCray reaches for Clairin Communal when a guest asks for a recommendation: “It’s a blend of four of my favorite rums from Haiti,” he says
Most Popular Aged: El Dorado portfolio, Hampden Estate portfolio
Aged rums are often expected to work equally well neat or mixed in a cocktail. While El Dorado’s younger rums were popular choices for the well, the older expressions often land on the backbar.
“Aged El Dorado rums make some of my favorite Daiquiris due to the vanilla notes and touch of oak,” says Paige Walwyn, bartender at Chicago’s Queen Mary Tavern, of the 12- to 15-year-old range. She adds that the Demerara rums “play well in stirred rum cocktails” with their rich, silky texture.
Meanwhile, Jake Powell, head bartender at Death & Co. Denver, describes Hampden Estate 8-Year as his “desert-island rum.” Produced with wild fermentation and aged in ex-bourbon barrels for eight years without any added sweeteners or coloring, this Jamaican rum is “super funky with notes of overripe banana, pineapple and guava,” plus “flavors of cocoa, cinnamon and tobacco as well,” according to Powell. “[This rum] makes the best Kingston Negroni you’ll ever have.”
Overproof: Hampden Estate Overproof
Hampden also was the front-runner in the overproof category; these powerful rums are often used in small measures to add aromatics and extra strength to cocktails. Hampden Estate Overproof is “everything I love about the 8-year, but at 120 proof,” says Powell. Tropical cocktails “need a little extra punch, especially if they have a high volume of nonalcoholic ingredients,” he says. “This rum is really able to shine through, even in large builds, or provide funk and extra proof in a traditional three-rum blend.”
Five Essential Japanese Gins
From a yuzu-forward bottle made in Kyoto to a floral expression out of Osaka, Japanese gin is booming in the U.S. Here are the ones worth seeking out—and how to use them.
If any spirits category has been the beneficiary of “premiumization,” it’s tequila. With plenty of celebrity backers and an ever-expanding array of extra-aged expressions, there’s seemingly no limit to high-end bottlings to mix into Cadillac Margaritas and Tequila Old-Fashioneds.
Most Popular: Clase Azul Reposado, Fortaleza
There’s a “wow” factor in displaying Clase Azul’s “iconic” curved ceramic bottles on the backbar, notes Trow. “And while you can find a lot of blanco and reposado out there for a better value, the Gold (Joven) and especially the Ultra (Extra Añejo aged five years in Pedro Ximénez casks) are unlike anything else I’ve tasted in some time.” He uses them to riff on traditionally non-agave cocktails like the Negroni or Espresso Martini. “They’ll come with an enhanced price tag, but it’s absolutely worth it,” he adds. Similarly, Chersevani adds Clase Azul reposado to a 50/50 tequila Martini riff with a Spanish dry vermouth. “It’s delicious, caramelly, smooth and mixes really well.”
“Absolutely delicious both in cocktails and as a sipping tequila,” says Walwyn of Fortaleza Blanco, another popular brand with pronounced citrus notes and subtle spice. “It’s also been getting more and more difficult to find, so when I do find it, it is an absolute treat.” Danya Degen, director of operations for Washington, D.C.’s The Duck & The Peach, cites the tequila’s “rich, oily mouthfeel and complex flavor profile—fruity, minty, peppery.” She also highlights that this is a small-batch tequila made with “zero-tech, all old-school methods.”
Honorable Mention: Don Fulano, Patrón
Some bartenders selected longer-aged expressions from Don Fulano as worthy backbar bottles. “I’ve been having fun using the Don Fulano Añejo in classics like Old-Fashioneds, but specifically in Espresso Martinis,” Collins says. “The sweetness of the agave mixed with the classic vanilla and toffee notes from the wood really plays well with the espresso. And bonus, the bottle is beautiful and always makes guests ask [about it] when they see it on the backbar.” Similarly, Leanne Favre, head bartender at Brooklyn bars Leyenda and Clover Club, spotlights Don Fulano Imperial Extra Añejo, which is finished in oloroso sherry casks for five years. “I love it because of the sherry barrel influence, but it also offers bold, earthy notes of agave as well as vanilla, spice, toffee and cherry,” she explains.
Finally, one of the earliest tequila brands to define the luxury tequila space, Patrón is a common sight on the backbar. While Abigail Gullo, culinary creative director at Loa Bar in New Orleans, favors Patrón’s Sherry Cask expression, Michael Aredes, head bartender at Pretty Ricky’s in New York City, is enthusiastic about Patrón El Alto, a blend of añejo and reposado that was added to the brand’s ultra-premium lineup in late 2022. “Hot damn, this is delicious,” he says. “I look forward to seeing this around more.”
The rising popularity of agave spirits in general, and drinks like mezcal Martinis and Oaxaca Old-Fashioneds, have made high-end mezcal a must-have.
Most Popular: Mezcal Vago Elote
Infused with roasted corn and then redistilled, Mezcal Vago Elote was the clear favorite among bartenders. “I can’t get enough of this mezcal,” says Fox. “I love the creaminess that the second distillation with corn imparts, which works beautifully in an Old-Fashioned.” Jackson is also a fan: “Everything has a purpose when it comes to making a bottle of Mezcal Vago Elote, with even the label being made out of recycled agave fibers,” she says. “As far as cocktails go, this mezcal has notes of corn, stone and cooked agave, which is amazing in a mezcal Sazerac or Vieux Carré.” Some pros also praised Vago’s Espadín and Tobalá bottlings in addition to the Elote.
Honorable Mention: El Jolgorio
There was no clear consensus on a specific expression (Tobalá as well as the Tepeztate and Cuixe bottlings were mentioned), but this artisanal mezcal brand was the runner-up pick to Mezcal Vago. The tobalá “starts off with notes of tropical fruit and cheesecake, with some minerality to it, and finishes with smoke,” says Powell. “It’s got a very silky, almost oily, texture that works great in stirred cocktails, particularly something served up with a grapefruit twist expressed over it.”
With so many products on the market in this category, premium picks spanned many different 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: Many and varied
In the bourbon category, bartenders cited a wide range of preferences. Alec Bales, lead bartender of Atlanta’s Ticonderoga Club, gravitated toward Elmer T. Lee bourbon, which he says is “rich and deep, and it smells of old baseball glove and honeysuckle.” Other favorites included W.L. Weller, Elijah Craig 18 and E.H. Taylor.
Most Popular Rye: Willett 4-year-old
Willett 4-year-old rye was the clear favorite for the top shelf. “It’s a bit of a unicorn whiskey,” explains Gullo. “There’s something so full-bodied about it, something special about being able to taste the grain and the magic when it touches the barrel… but it is so easy-drinking.” Honorable mentions included Leopold Bros. Three Chambers 5-Year, which Chicago’s Jef Tate describes as “one of my top five blabbed about [bottles] for the last year and change,” citing its “floral and spicy fruit notes” and “cool production backstory,” while Hone dubbed it “a great small-batch whiskey with the perfect amount of spice.” WhistlePig rye, specifically the 10-year and 12-year bottlings, was also called out, with Degen noting that, compared to some ryes, it’s “indulgent” thanks to wine-cask finishing and “less earthy and fiery on the palate, more floral and fresh, with softer spices like allspice.” Trow also recommends WhistlePig, particularly for Manhattan variations and the Brooklyn cocktail.
Most Popular Scotch: Octomore
Peaty Octomore was the front-runner in this category. Parent company Bruichladdich tends to release limited editions for the Octomore line: “It’s allocated and hard to get, but every bottle is different,” Gullo notes. According to her, guests especially respond to the brand’s claim to being “the peatiest Scotch on earth.” Tate, meanwhile, sings the praises of Octomore 13.2 in particular: “It’s completely aged in ex-oloroso sherry casks with candied fruit, toffee, peat and leather on the nose,” he says. “It sings and soothes with strawberry, cocoa, vanilla, clove, pimento and a long, peaty finish.”
Other Whisk(e)y: Many and varied
While there was no consensus around a particular bottle, most surveyed bartenders pointed to various bottles of Japanese whisky as top-shelf must-haves, including Nikka Coffey Malt (a “tasty, fuller-bodied malt whisky option” that sings in “simple whiskey cocktails,” according to Degen) and Nikka Coffey Grain (“It plays well in cocktails that would typically use bourbon because it has that richness and depth but is incredibly approachable, delicate and floral,” Walwyn says) to Hakushu 12, Ohishi Kaito’s Cask and Kaiyo Mizunara Oak Cask Strength.
The New Vocabulary of Bourbon
“Honey Barrel,” “Drain Pour,” “Shelf Turd.” The words modern bourbon drinkers use often say more about collectability than what’s actually in the glass.
In general, Cognac was the most-cited premium brandy, followed by Armagnac, although the preferred brands were fragmented across a number of different producers.
Rémy Martin was the only one with multiple mentions by surveyed bartenders. Some, however, preferred smaller producers, including Dudognon and Navarre.
Among American brandies, Clear Creek Douglas Fir had several fans. “A little goes a long way, both in proof and taste,” says Hayley Wilson, head bartender at The Portland Hunt + Alpine Club. “I highly recommend mixing a teaspoon into your favorite Martini variation. I like to pair mine with an aquavit Martini.”
Almost every bartender mentioned Chartreuse in both its green and yellow expressions as must-have top-shelf bottles. A small amount of green Chartreuse “can make both shaken and stirred cocktails shine,” Wilson notes. “I find it adds an interesting depth to my cocktails.” Meanwhile, the honey and herbal notes of yellow Chartreuse add “an unexpected brightness” to drinks like the Naked & Famous, Jackson says, while Fox uses small amounts to add “a punch of rich texture” to drinks like the Bee’s Knees.
Fortified wines also made the cut, with some bartenders reaching for more obscure bottlings to elevate familiar drinks, such as Oka Kura Bermutto (a sake-based vermouth from Japan) or Capitoline white vermouth (a small-batch D.C. brand.)
Perhaps the wildest of the wild cards: “Anything from Empirical Spirits,” says Powell. “I like to use their Plum, I Suppose in place of maraschino, and their Ayuuk to add a roasted pepper, earthiness to bitter agave cocktails.”