Basics: Bartender Basics: What Are Top Shelf Liquors, And Does It Matter? | Wine Enthusiast
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Bartender Basics: What Are Top Shelf Liquors, And Does It Matter?

The liquor world is full of a dizzying number of terms meant to denote quality. Most are unregulated buzzwords created by marketing teams, some vague but with well-intended origins (small batch, reserve, hand crafted, limited edition) and others completely meaningless (premium, super-premium, ultra-premium, premium-premium).

But despite advertisers’ best efforts to create terms to subcategorize bottles, one of the most prevalent is perpetuated by consumers: top shelf vs bottom shelf liquor.

What is top-shelf liquor?

Let’s start by breaking down the terminology.

Top Shelf: Bottles on the highest shelves behind a bar. Though there’s no hard rule as to cost, these tend to be bottles that would retail for $50 or more in a store.

Mid Shelf: Bottles on the lower half of the shelf behind a bartender. With liquor, this would usually be bottles that fall in the $25–50 range.

Bottom Shelf: A slight misnomer, most spirits considered “bottle shelf” aren’t actually displayed on the shelves at all, but are usually kept in the well or rail, a small shelf under the bar and out of sight but positioned closest to the bartenders’ fingertips for easy of frequent use.

The theory behind the top shelf/bottom shelf divide is simple: In a bar, more expensive spirits sit on the harder-to-reach higher shelves since they’re ordered less frequently, while workhorse bottles at a lower price point are kept within easy reach. It can also act as a display a bar’s most prestigious spirits prominently above all others, as a statement of how much the bar has invested in its liquor offerings.

Why top shelf vs bottom shelf doesn’t matter

If you’ve noticed something missing from the above breakdown, it’s any discussion of the actual quality of the spirit. This is because, as it can’t be stressed enough, quality does not correlate with cost when it comes to alcohol. While many amazing spirits do come in at a higher price, bottles of equal quality can still sit happily in the $30 range or lower. Many bottles are overpriced to create an impression of exclusivity, when you’re really just paying for a mass-produced spirit with an excessively high marketing budget.

Some bars don’t bother to arrange their shelves by price anymore, as it’s impractical for service. Shelves tend to be arranged by grouping together similar spirits, both to make it easier for a customer to easily browse for the tequila they want in a single spot, and to lay bottles and ingredients out in a way that allows for bartenders to make drinks as quickly as possible.

If a bar learns that its customers tend to order Patrón margaritas or Grey Goose martinis more than other drinks, those bottles will inevitably end up on a lower shelf where they can be grabbed the quickest, regardless of which “shelf” brand managers prefer they live on.

Indicator of quality, or marketing technique?

Despite countless reasons why top shelf/bottom shelf differentiation is outdated and meaningless, the categorization continues to affect spirits production and packaging. For a time, there was a veritable arms race as liquor brands redesigned their packaging to include ever taller bottles, seen by many bartenders and managers as coercion to force placement on the top shelf, as they literally couldn’t fit anywhere else.

Thankfully, this trend has abated somewhat, as brands possibly realized it could just as easily mean their spirit is left off any shelf and kept out of sight in a restock cupboard instead—a phenomenon we’re dubbing “the Galliano effect.”

In modern cocktail bars, you’re more likely to find all whiskeys, vodka, tequilas and other spirits grouped together by style, regardless of price. Despite the phrase living on in common usage, the actual top shelf of many bars isn’t dominated by the most prestigious spirits, but can be a mix of oddball liqueurs, rarely ordered single-malt Scotch, backup bottles of vermouth or other esoteric ingredients that are used least frequently.

So, where can you actually find the best liquor in a bar?

Cutting through arbitrary shelf-designation, the greatest value can often be found in middle-of-the-pack bottles, where bar managers and beverage directors sneak in personal favorites and gems they secured for an affordable price. When in doubt, it never hurts to ask for a recommendation. Chances are, it won’t be something top shelf.

For the most part, bars and restaurants have little incentive to try and upsell you on their most expensive pour. This is because, broadly, establishments make less money on prestigious, high-priced liquor, wine and beer. The base cost to stock these bottles is so high and the room for markup so low that it’s hard for bars and restaurants to recoup as much money as they could with value-minded offerings that yield higher profit by percentage, and higher volume of purchases.

What does this mean for the average person enjoying a night out? Primarily, that the bar’s interests and yours are more aligned than you may think. Bar managers and beverage directors primarily seek to stock the bottles that offer the best quality to please customers at the lowest cost to the bar. Customers largely also seek the best tasting spirit at the lowest cost to themselves. Trust in each other, have a conversation, and you’ll hopefully be steered towards the drink that suits you, regardless of what shelf the bottle is on.

Conversely, just order what you like. It’s your money.

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