Essentially every bar keeps a bottle of whiskey, gin, vodka, rum, tequila, and usually a triple sec (for margs and LIT’s) somewhat hidden within easy reach of the bartender right behind the bar counter. These liquors-the cheapest stuff a bar carries-aren’t consistent in level of quality across bars, as, for example, some bars may use Bowman’s vodka while others may go with Tito’s (see this piece about bartenders who chose fancier). In Barred in DC’s coverage area, 3 out of 4 people (and even higher proportion of bars, in Barred’s experience) call such drinks rails. [Note: Although bars advertise these as rail drinks, if you ask any bartender, even in DC, refers to the area of the bar where the drinks are as “the well.”]
However, as evidenced from my Twitter mentions, the term “rail” is overwhelmingly supplanted by the term “well drink” in most of the U.S. I was curious where rails also prevailed, but unlike many regional differences in American English linguistics (popularly chronicled by this New York Times quiz in 2013), I found no articles noting where each was told, so I tried to fix that.
Based on my research, it appears, there are at least five states (plus DC) where rail is used primarily instead of well:
Land of the Rail
Virginia (Richmond at least)
North of the border, in Toronto, the phrase “bar rail drink” is most popular, and in Montreal (at least English-speaking) uses term “speed rail drink.”
Per Twitter feedback and research, there are other places in the U.S. where it seems “well” still dominates but rail isn’t unheard of: St. Louis, Indianapolis, Chicago (not surprising given WI and MN proximity), West Virginia, and New York City (transplant bars from other spots)