Wine Importing and Marketing Services

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

Animations by Eric DeFreitas

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.