Since when does a martini cost the better part of a $20 bill?

Since cocktails underwent what one liquor executive calls the Starbucks syndrome -- namely, a higher price for better ingredients, fancier surroundings, have-it-your-way mixtures and that intangible commodity called image.

Cocktails, which five or six years ago rarely broke the $10 barrier, now cost $10 and northward in many of the stylish bars and lounges in the Washington area, "and people don't seem to mind," says Erik Bergman, the bar manager at Poste in the Hotel Monaco. "They know the brands they want and they're willing to pay to get a really good drink."

At the elegant, art deco-style Le Bar in the Sofitel-Lafayette Square Hotel, a martini made with French Grey Goose vodka will set you back $12.50. At the busy Bistro Bis bar on Capitol Hill, a cosmopolitan with Absolut Citron is $10.50. At the Empress Lounge in the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Southwest Washington, an apple martini with a splash of Calvados brandy is $15 (although it does come on a silver tray holding three bowls of Asian snacks). At the popular restaurant DC Coast, customers requesting a martini made with top-shelf brands such as Belvedere or Ketel One will pay around $11. Add tax and a tip and "you better get ready to throw a twenty on the bar," says veteran bartender Jim Hewes of the Round Robin Bar in the Willard Intercontinental Hotel.

So what explains the hefty price tag? Customers have gotten more sophisticated, say spirits makers, and they're willing to pay more for luxury brands. When hard liquor consumption plummeted in the late '80s, hard spirits like Scotch and then vodka reinvented themselves by creating a market for super-premium brands that emphasized clean flavor and a smooth finish, much like fine wine.

This led to a resurgence in popularity for classic cocktails and a windfall for bars. Although measuring and making a cocktail takes more skill than just pouring a glass of wine, a bar also makes a lot more profit on its cocktails. That fancy $20 bottle of vodka is enough for 20 drinks at $10 per. That provides a nice profit, say bar managers.

"We're selling lifestyle, not vodka," says David van de Velde, president of Luctor International, importer of the highly regarded Van Gogh vodka from Holland. "Think of Starbucks. You're paying $3.29 for a cup of coffee that goes for $1 at Dunkin' Donuts. We've made a lifestyle product out of a cup of coffee. Now people want to order a martini like Starbucks coffee. They want a chocolate martini with a splash of vanilla vodka and Cointreau served straight up."

Cocktail expert Gary Regan is a bit more charitable. Regan, author of "The Joy of Mixology" (Clarkson Potter, 2003), conducts tastings and training seminars for bartenders and others in the liquor business. He says a lot of the higher prices "have to do with the realization that better ingredients make better cocktails. We're drinking less, but we're drinking better quality." That quality, he says, extends from the liquor itself to the fresh fruit juices and even the unusual garnishes that bartenders are using these days.

Regan does agree that people have become very brand-conscious. "They identify themselves by the brand of spirits they drink. Bartenders in my classes say they are hearing more and more high-end brand names requested. No one orders just a dry martini. They want a Tanqueray martini. They want a Herradura [tequila] margarita," he says.

Of course, the price of that martini often depends on where you're drinking. While posh downtown watering holes charge in the double-digits, drinkers in the 'burbs can sometimes get the same drink for less. A Tanqueray martini at the Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Restaurant near Dulles Town Center is about $5. In the small Hudson Valley town where Regan lives, about 55 miles north of New York City, locals get a top-shelf martini for $8. "In Manhattan, it'd be twice that much, but then, so would the rent," Regan notes.

Kevin Robinson, manager of downtown's Le Bar, says it seems to be the 25-to-40-year-old age group that's requesting the super premium liquors. "I think so much has been done by marketing campaigns to promote brand awareness that many of our guests would not even think of drinking the house brand, and we have a 'call well,' " (meaning customers can request certain brands, such as Tanqueray or Absolut, at no extra charge), he says.

And if less sophisticated customers do order just a plain ol' dry martini, the bartender will often get them to try a slightly more expensive brand, say veteran bartenders.

"You go through your choices and upsell your brands," says the Poste's Bergman. "Generally, the public knows a couple of brands from marketing and they'll latch on to one. Or you can suggest one for them to try."

Or they'll just take a look at the array of stunning bottles on display and pick one that looks cool, says Robert Evans, owner of Red Rocks Cafe & Tequila Bar in Centreville. Red Rocks specializes in tequilas, offering 50 brands at $4 to $49 a shot, as well as margaritas ranging from $5.25 to $15.99. But it also sells the pricey, top-shelf vodkas and rums that customers have come to expect in hip downtown bars. "No one just orders rum. They want to see the five bottles of rum you have and see what they want. That's a huge change in the last five years. How cool the Grey Goose and Belvedere bottles look catches their eye. People want to know what's inside of them," says Evans.

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."

The Apple Delight ($15) and DC Lime Drop ($14) martinis at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel's Empress Lounge, served with a swishy trio of snacks.