Remember when you were a child and people would ask “how are you doing”, and you would reply “good”, and then your mother would correct you and say “you’re not doing good, you’re doing well”?
Well, the same applies for mixed drinks and cocktails at a bar. There’s no such thing as “good drinks”, only “well drinks”. That’s right isn’t it…?
No, Seriously—What Is a Well Drink?
Despite its name conjuring images of a little boy in some non-specific alpine European country sipping crystal clear liquid from a wooden bucket raised from a stone well, a well drink is actually the most common type of mixed drink or cocktail served at a bar.
The name “well drink” refers to the area of a bar known as “the well,” where the bartender keeps an assortment of “house liquors” or "well liquor," typically some combination of vodka, gin, rum, tequila, scotch, bourbon, and whiskey. This area is also called the "speed rail," "speed well," or "speed rack," because it is designed by bartenders to create and serve drinks as fast as they can.
These “house liquors” are usually the cheapest brands carried by the bar, and when they are used as a component in the creation of an alcoholic beverage, this beverage is known as a “well drink,” as it has been made with liquor from “the well.” These drinks are also called "rail drinks."
So Every Time I Order at a Bar, I Get a Well Drink?
Not necessarily. This depends entirely on how stingy of a person you are. Just kidding! While it’s true that many mixed drinks and cocktails one might order at a bar are made using “house liquor,” this is not always the case. Here are some examples of drinks that fall outside the realm of well drinks:
When a person specifies what specific brand of alcohol they would like in their drink, this is what’s known as a “call drink”. A person might do this to give off the appearance of refinement and impress their company by, for example, ordering a "Jack Daniels and Coke," a “Grey Goose Moscow Mule,” or an "Absolut vodka cranberry." This “call drink” will of course be made with the specific liquor, like Grey Goose vodka or Absolut vodka, as opposed to the standard “well drink” martini, which will use the house vodka.
A person may also choose to order a “call drink” if they have a particular brand of liquor that they enjoy drinking more than others. Some examples of orders like this might include, a “Tanqueray and Tonic”, which will produce a gin and tonic with Tanqueray gin, or a “Maker’s Manhattan”, which will use Maker’s Mark bourbon as its base liquor.
Sometimes when a bar will delve into what some loathsome individuals might call “mixology,” they will serve premium drinks and cocktails that will use more expensive and top-shelf liquor.
These premium drinks typically fall outside your standard bar fare of gin and tonics, Bloody Mary drinks, and whiskey and cokes, and into cocktails with elaborate, nonsensical names, and excessively long ingredients lists. These drinks, while not necessarily tasting any better than “well drinks”, incorporate more expensive premium liquors and liqueurs and thus earn the “premium drink” designation on the bar menu.
Why Is It Called a Well Drink, Anyway?
As previously discussed, the lower front region of a bar, where the bartender does the majority of their work, is known colloquially as “the well”. This name likely is a reference to the height of the area, as the cheaper house liquors reside down below in “the well”, while middle-grade liquor sits on a middle shelf, and premium liquor is reserved for the “top shelf”. If your drink is made using the house liquor located in “the well”, you are lucky enough to be sipping on a “well drink”.
What Are the Yummiest Well Drinks?
An attempt to provide a definitive answer to this question would be an effort to pass off an entirely subjective opinion on what does or does not qualify as “yummy”, as the result of some sort of fact-based investigation, and as we here at Bev are in the business of honesty and integrity, we will attempt no such thing here. Instead, allow us to provide this well drinks list that in our opinion, passes the yummy test:
Rum and Coke
Perhaps the most basic and simple of all well drinks, this classic includes all of its ingredients in its name. Yes, it really is just a mix of rum and coke. To be slightly more specific, light rum is most typically used, and the coke in question is most often Coca-Cola. A proper ratio of these two ingredients is the secret to a good Rum and Coke.
Dark and Stormy
It was a dark and stormy night when some thirsty bartender decided to put this concoction together. That may or may not be true, but what we do know, is that this bartender mixed dark rum, typically Gosling’s Black Seal, with ginger beer or ginger ale, and a squirt of lime, to create this classic well drink. Pour in a copper mug, perfect for atmospheric weather.
Don’t call me Shirley! This well drink takes the kid’s classic Shirley Temple, a mixture of grenadine and Sprite, and transforms it into a super sweet mixed drink for adults by adding vodka to the party.
Gin and Tonic
Another well drink so simple that its ingredients are in the name. Simply mix gin and tonic in the proper ratio, and enjoy this refreshing, timeless classic, that can be enhanced with a bit of lime, lemon juice, or cucumber.
Long Island Iced Tea
Despite its seemingly benign-sounding name, this well drink packs a serious punch. Boasting an alcohol volume of 22%, this drink is typically made with vodka, tequila, gin, rum, triple sec, a splash of citrus sour, and a dash of cola.
The description in the 1953 Raymond Chandler novel The Long Goodbye stated that "a real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's lime juice cordial and nothing else.” So if you want to Bogart the conversation with your drinking companions, this is a good place to start.
Rum, lime juice, and sugar. So simple, yet so delicious. Trying using other citrus to explore new flavors and colors of Daiquiri. Garnish with a lime wedge for a finishing touch.
Nearly an identical recipe to the Daiquiri, except Tequila is substituted in for Rum. Can be enhanced and made frothy with the addition of an egg white, or made using standard sour mix.
The Cuban highball classic features Rum, mint, lime juice, sugar, and soda water. A light, herbaceous well drink made for a day on a Caribbean beach.
The finale in our trilogy of names that include all ingredients, the Vodka Soda really is just vodka and soda water, and once again requires the perfect ratio to achieve deliciousness. Add cranberry juice, and you've got yourself a fizzy vodka cranberry, too.
Fresh squeezed orange juice and Vodka, what could be better? Like a grapefruit juice Paloma, this well drink has a breakfasty feel that can be enjoyed around the clock.
The beautiful colors of a sunrise all in your glass. The secret ingredient is grenadine, which when mixed with tequila and orange juice, gives you those magical color combinations. Garnish with an orange slice, or top it off with a cherry or two.