A well drink is a mixed drink made with inexpensive, generic liquor, rather than a specific brand. As one might imagine, such drinks tend to be cheaper, and some bars even offer specials on them to encourage customers to settle in for a few. Depending on the bar, the quality of liquors used may vary widely, with some upscale bars using very good liquors for their well drinks, while dives tend to scrape the bottom of the barrel, sometimes literally.
The term is a reference to the “well,” the rack of liquor kept directly below the bar. These alcohols are easy for the bartender to reach, and they carry less cachet than those in the “call,” the rack above the bar that is visible to customers. The high-value alcohol is often kept in the call to appeal to customers, encouraging them to order more expensive brands and creating an overall feel of quality in the bar.
As a general rule, when clients order a drink, the bartender will reach for the well, unless the customer specifies otherwise or the bartender has a soft spot for the customer. In some bars, bartenders are trained to upsell more expensive liquors, so a customer may be asked if he wants a specific brand of spirit in the drink.
For people who don't have a lot of money, or who don't want to spend a lot on alcohol, well drinks are a good way to socialize at bars without breaking the bank. Prices for mixed drinks can get extremely expensive, especially if a number are consumed over the course of the evening; drinking from the well can keep the costs down. Customers should be aware, however, that a complex drink made with a generic alcohol will still be expensive, because the bartender will still need to do more work to mix the drink correctly.
Some people actually acquire a taste for the well drink, preferring the generic brands of alcohol for various reasons. This might not necessarily be a bad thing, according to a study in 2008 in which subjects were asked to drink various wines in an MRI, allowing scientists to study their reactions. When subjects drank an expensive wine and knew it was expensive, they often had the same reaction as they did when they drank a cheap wine and were told it was expensive. On the flip side, when subjects drank cheap wines and were told they were cheap, they registered less delight in the taste, and the same held true when they were given samples of expensive wines and told they were cheap. This suggests that the perceived cost of a beverage may have more of an influence on the taste than people think, so if they can ignore the “bargain basement” connotation of the generic drink, they might find themselves enjoying them.