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The Myth of the Top Shelf: Thinking outside the bottle

June 22, 2011

As a bartender working each night and for many years behind he bar, I hear thousands of people’s opinions, beliefs, understands, arguments, ideas, judgements, prejudices, thesis theories, and suspicions.  As a GOOD bartender, none of these ever leave my memory banks.  they are immediately logged, filed, and sealed tighter than a Victorian woman’s corset.  But I do hear what the world is saying.  I think this is why more bartenders should be in politics, actually: because bartenders hear the daily grind without censorship.  Mark Twain even wrote this in Roughing  It:

” (The Saloon Keeper’s) opinion had weight. It was his privilege to say how the elections should go. No great movement could succeed without the countenance and direction of the saloon-keepers. It was a high favor when the chief saloon-keeper consented to serve in the legislature or the board of aldermen.”

A few times in the past I have written about myths of alcohol and drinks as well as poked holes in some theories that have been held from drinking generation to drinking generation.  And today I want to grab anothermyth and pour it out for you.  And that is the Myth of the Top Shelf.

In every gin joint in every town I have ever worked, I have always heard someone say something to the effect of, “Oooo, Brand X is so special.  It should never be mixed, and only served neat or maybe with one ice-cube.”  And whether you’re a bartender or not, I would bet my last  button that you have heard something like this while sitting at a bar, read it in some magazine, or from Grandad who had a special bottle stashed high in the cabinet.


Brand X is good, Damn good in fact.  It can stand on its own.  A well made distillate.  The finest of its class.  A true example of the master distiller’s craftmanship.  The best of the best.  And, yes, can be appreciated, celebrated and elevated.  Doesn’t mean we can’t make a cocktail out of it…….

What?  Have I lost me mind?  Use Brand X in a cocktail??  That’s an abomination of such a fine liquor.  It should NEVER be mixed!! These things are said in utter shock and disdain as if God may come down and strike me dead for using Brand X in a cocktail.  Well, I am here to tell you, I have not been struck by lightning:  not even hit in the back of the head with a beer bottle.  My rocker is fine, and the lights are on.

Yes, I say, use Brand X in a drink.  Why not?  If it is that good of a liquor (or even wine), wouldnt that kind of quality evalate the flavor, appreciation and enjoyment of a drink just that much more BECAUSE it is such a fine distillate?  Of course.  Such elitist thinking comes from so many parts of our past: social class conflicts, financial struggles, Prohibition (once again), basic human desire and the all too present “sins” of lust, greed, and pride all contribute to this mindset.  Let it go and let me pour! 

So drinking Brand X neat or with one ice-cube is ONE way of enjoying Brand X’s finest qualities.  But it is not the ONLY ways to enjoy it.  A fine distillate deserves and fine cocktail.  So which one should be dare mix Brand X into?  That again is up to you.  I would suggest a classic or classically designed formula in that there is a reason such drinks have stood the test of time, and are still known today.  In fact one of the best Manhattans I ever had was made with now defunct Pappy Van Winkle 23-year-old bourbon.  AMAZING!

So I say to you, hold Brand X in the regard it deserves, and toast the folks that envisioned its creation and inception, but do not limit yourself to the potential that such a lovely brand X can bring into a cocktail.  Think outside the bottle, as the creators of the appreciated Brand X did.   Do it, do it right, and do it with a great liquor and great friends.

Cheers, Y’all!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2011 8:51 am

    I’d like to correct a little mistake here, and I want to apologize to the folks at Van Winkle. They are not defunct, and release their 23 year old bourbon twice a year. I had another bourbon in mind, which I had originally tasted side by side with Van Winkle and for some reason those wires have stayed crossed ever since.

    Thanks Preston for setting me straight here.


  2. Diego permalink
    August 23, 2011 12:20 am

    I have often been one of those people who would put Brand X on that pedestal but I think many of us might just need to be clearer. A premium, top shelf spirit would indeed make a cocktail better if paired with similar quality ingredients. However, I always have to laugh when people come to my bar and order a vodka-cranberry but specify that they want Grey Goose vodka.

  3. August 23, 2011 6:26 am

    There is always an exception to the rule and vodka is just that. I tell my guests (when asked) that as long as vodka is a quality distillatethen you don’t have to spend a ton of money for a good drink. Look at the Smirnoff challenge last year in Vegas

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