Double-Digit Drinks: What's Behind That $15 Martini?
But more relevant to the price is image. If you're going for a top-quality image, you're going to ask a price to match. "If the dress label says Calvin Klein and it's only $18, you think it can't really be a Calvin Klein. You won't buy it," says van de Velde. Same thing with designer liquor. In the customer's mind, a $10 bottle of vodka can't be as good as a $30 one.
There's also the law of location, location, location. If you're in a Ritz-Carlton hotel bar in Washington, you're not going to be surprised to find a $25 cucumber martini (made with a touch of the exotic Buddha's Hand lemon zest) on the menu. Or a $45 18K Gold Margarita made with Patron Silver tequila, 150-year-old Grand Marnier and a sprinkle of real gold leaf. The surroundings are luxe, the glassware in your hand is expensive and imported, and you feel pampered, says bartender Michael Brown of Degrees bar in the Georgetown Ritz.
Brown says customers at his bar don't blink at spending $13 for an apple martini made with Hangar One, a California vodka with a growing reputation. "They don't mind spending that for a martini. What they really complain about," he says, with a laugh, "is the cost of a beer. They don't want to spend six bucks on a beer."
At the Empress Lounge, the $15 price for the Apple Delight martini is perhaps more palatable because of the tall, etched Italian Salviati stemware. There's also a generous helping of complimentary snow pea crisps, marinated olives and Asian snack mix served on a shiny Ercuis silver tray. Also soothing is the view of the Asian gardens and music from the lounge's piano player.
"Image is everything," says Hewes. A bartender for more than 30 years, 18 of them at the venerable Round Robin, Hewes has seen just about everything and met just about everyone. "When Tony Curtis came in last year," he recalls, "he wanted a Diet Coke, but he wanted it served in a wine glass. We're all worried about how we look. That's why even for a gin and tonic, people are asking for a specific brand of gin. It conveys an image."
Classic cocktails at the Round Robin, like a martini or the bar's famous mint julep, have a base price just shy of that magic $10 barrier. But once customers start asking for the luxury brands, the prices edge up. For a martini with Grey Goose, it's $10. With Belvedere, it's $12. Whatever the brand, the bar makes a healthy profit. "The alcohol is not the most expensive part of the drink," Hewes says. "The most expensive item in a vodka martini straight up with a twist is the twist."
Hewes remembers when he was a young bartender in the '70s in Rochester, N.Y., and "people had no idea what a margarita was. They were drinking kamikaze shooters" (vodka, lime juice and Triple Sec in a shot glass). Now, he says, "we're doing herbal cocktails with wonderful recipes that look beautiful. And you know what? People don't drink them. It looks good on paper, but no one orders them."
Instead, he wonders if some of those '70s drinks might be making a comeback.
"Jessica Simpson and her husband were in the bar the other night. They ordered a kamikaze. I couldn't remember the last time someone ordered that."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company