When placing your order at the bar, there are two types of mixed drinks that you should know: call drinks and well drinks. While you can order either at any time, bars often advertise specials on these drinks during certain times. For instance, a happy hour special might be "$6 call drinks" or "$3 well drinks." Both are good deals that can save you money. However, there is a difference in quality, and it's important to know what you're ordering.
What Is a Well Drink?
Within easy reach of the bartender (and sometimes hard to see by patrons) is an assortment of liquor bottles in what is called the "well," "rail," or "speed rack." This is where you'll find the least expensive liquor that goes into the bar's cheapest drinks. When a bartender pours from one of these bottles, it is called a "well drink."
The well is stocked with the bottles that the bartender uses most often. It typically includes one bottle of the essential liquors—gin, rum, tequila, vodka, whiskey (and, often, bourbon), and triple sec. The bottles are topped with speed pourers, so they're ready for the next drink.
Think of the brands in the well as "house liquors." Like house wine, these are regularly stocked at the bar and the brands that are the best deal for both the bar and customer. These cheaper spirits are not always bad; some good-tasting and inexpensive liquors are out there, and you may not notice the difference in some mixed drinks.
- If you order a tequila sunrise, you might get one made with Sauza or Jose Cuervo, and it could be either a blanco or gold tequila.
- A "whiskey on the rocks" can get you a pour of the well Canadian or blended whiskey if you're not specific.
- The rum and Coke is another popular option; almost every bar will stock a different brand of rum in the well.
It is a good idea to glance at the well before you order a drink. Maybe they have your favorite tequila, or you don't like the vodka that's in the well. In this instance, you might want to call your drink.
What Is a Call Drink?
Call drinks are ordered with a specific brand of liquor: you are calling out the brand. For instance, you may order:
- Belvedere martini with a twist: The bartender knows to make a vodka martini with Belvedere Vodka and a lemon twist.
- Tanqueray and tonic with two wedges: This order should result in a gin and tonic made with Tanqueray Gin, served with an extra lime wedge.
- Maker's Manhattan: You will get a Manhattan cocktail made with Maker's Mark Bourbon.
There are also common call drinks. Two of the most popular are the seven and seven and Jack and Coke.
You will pay more for a call drink than a well drink. However, sometimes the upgrade is worth it, and happy hour specials may offset the extra cost. For example, the house scotch may be Lauder's, but you want a rusty nail with Johnnie Walker Black, which comes at an additional cost.
To avoid confusion when ordering drinks, name the liquor or specific brand first. For instance, say "Stoli and cranberry," not "cranberry and Stoli" or "double scotch and soda," not "double soda and scotch." Bartenders typically pour spirits first, so they're used to thinking in this particular order. In the "double" instance, you might actually get twice the soda rather than the double shot of scotch you really want.
What Are Premium and Super-Premium Call Drinks?
Call drink pricing is not standard, and the drink specials will not apply to every brand of liquor. Bars price drinks based on a tier system for what it costs to make that drink. If they sold drinks with the most expensive liquor at the same price as mid-range brands, the establishment would lose money.
Generally, normal call drinks include the most popular brands that are reasonably priced. Examples include Smirnoff Vodka, Bacardi Rum, and Jim Beam Bourbon. When you move into the premium liquors (e.g., Grey Goose Vodka, Bombay Sapphire Gin, or any single malt scotch), the cost of your drink will go up. These are premium and super-premium call drinks.
The catch is that each bar will have a slightly different definition of premium liquor. You can get a sense of how the establishment rates their bar stock by where the bottle is on the shelf: the cheapest liquor is in the well or on the bottom shelf, mid-range brands are on the middle shelves, and premium brands on the top shelf. (The same display and pricing structure is used in liquor stores.)
If you're in doubt about whether a certain brand qualifies for call drink specials or what the cost of your drink will be, ask the bartender. This will prevent any surprises when you get the ticket or pay your tab.