Top Shelf Cocktail Drink Recipes

By on June 20, 2013

Did you know that when you order a mixed drink or cocktail, and don’t specify the brand or quality of alcohol to be used, your bartender is almost always mixing with bottom shelf (known as “well”) liquor? Whether it’s a long island iced tea or a tequila sunrise, a vodka martini or a gin and tonic, a top shelf drink can only be made with top shelf alcohol. Here are some high end cocktails that will delight your senses. These are top shelf recipes that highlight the alcohol of choice instead of masking it with syrups and sugars. Once you discover an appreciation for the flavor profiles these liquors have to offer, you may be left wondering why you ever had your bartender disguise them.

Greyhound and Salty Dog

The Greyhound, sometimes modified as a Salty Dog, is a drink that originated in the ‘50s and ‘60s with the increased availability of fresh grapefruit juices made possible by the popularization of refrigeration. It’s a simple mix of one part vodka to two parts grapefruit juice that keeps the the taste of vodka up front. Frequently made with Grey Goose vodka and garnished with citrus, a salted rim and a quick stir turns it into a Salty Dog.

Old Fashioned

An Old Fashioned is one of the first ever drinks officially titled a “cocktail.” It came into vogue during the 19th century, originally showing up in New York City and Chicago. The modern incarnation, made with top shelf bourbon whiskey, originally appeared in a Kentucky country club. The local bourbon distiller was so impressed with this high end cocktail that he introduced it to the famous Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City where it became a signature drink. In the tradition of the Kentucky original, use top shelf American bourbon whiskey like Blanton’s or Old Forester.

Whiskey Sour

The Whiskey Sour, one of the most iconic top shelf drinks, derives from a very practical tincture. In the 18th century, when Scurvy was rampant, ship crews discovered the preventative benefits of drinking lemon or lime juice. To prevent spoilage, they added rum or sometimes whiskey to the concoction. Adding sugar made the drink not just palatable, but delicious. The Whiskey Sour was born. It’s celebrated as a one of the most popular top end cocktails today, with more variations than there are bartenders… all, however, made best with the use of high end whiskey. Use a small batch bourbon, such as Four Roses limited or Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve to find out what a high end cocktail can taste like.

Gin and Tonic

Gin has been a European passion ever since its invention by a Dutch physician in the 16th century. It flourished in England, from whence it spread to the British colonies in India. To prevent Malaria, Brits living in India consumed quinine, a substance found in tonic. And what better to take your medicine with than your favorite drink?… in this case the sweet, juniper flavored gin. Gin and tonics have been enjoyed around the world ever since. Made with top shelf gin, it’s a high end cocktail that will surprise you with its notes of floral juniper. The best flavor profiles are found in the top shelf gins. Try Magellan, Plymouth, or Bombay Sapphire gins for the true gin and tonic experience.


There’s a popular story regarding the origin of the Manhattan involving Winston Churchill’s mother, presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden, and the Manhattan hotel. The tale, fantastic as it is, has been revealed to be a fiction… but the drink is very real and very delicious. Whiskey is the main feature in this top shelf cocktail, complemented by sweet vermouth and bitters. It’s been popular since the 1870s, when it spread out from New York City. It’s almost always garnished with a bright red Maraschino cherry. Don’t let the color fool you though, this high end drink is all about the quality of the whiskey. Top shelf drinks need top shelf liquor, so this one’s best made with a quality rye whisky. Try Reservoir, Hudson, or Sazerac varieties for an introduction to the best Manhattan.

Rusty Screw

To a lot of people, Scotch seems the least accessible of all the drinks. It’s strong, smoky (“peaty”) may seem like too much of a palette challenge. The Rusty Screw is one of the top shelf cocktails that can be your introduction to the world of Scotch. Orange liqueur and lemon temper the harshness of the alcohol. Grenadine or a dash of orange juice can be used for the faint of heart. The rich, savory flavors of a single malt scotch can reach symphonic heights. Few delicacies are more savored than the best Scotch whiskeys (spelled whisky in Great Britain). For a cocktail to be passionate about, use single malt Scotch, like Laphroaig, Glenvilet, or a renowned blend like Johnnie Walker Black.

Lemon Drop Vodka Martini

The martini is an American classic and one of the most famous cocktails, known around the world. Though traditionally made with gin and vermouth, try this top shelf cocktail recipe with vodka instead. James Bond himself preferred the vodka variety, shaken of course! The Lemon Drop adds an extra element… the sweet and sour of citrus. Vodka gets a bad rap sometimes, despite its popularity. Known as a “neutral” spirit, many people aren’t aware of how flavorful top shelf vodka can be. In this high end cocktail, use something special like Armadale, Jewel of Russia, or Chopin.

Gin Gimlet

The history of the Gimlet is difficult to decipher. Some say it’s a Prohibition era drink, some say it came much later. Either way, it was popularized by Raymond Chandler’s hard boiled detective protagonist, Philip Marlowe… who even declared the definitive ingredients of this top shelf cocktail in a 1953 novel. However your bartender makes it, and there are varieties, the gin won’t be very disguised. So ask for a high quality gin. The gimlet is best made with a complex, herbal gin like Monkey No. 47, or Gin Mare.

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