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A $50 Manhattan? Welcome to the era of the ‘unguilty pleasure.’

The $50 peach Manhattan cocktail at Kingbird in the Watergate Hotel in Washington. (Scott Suchman for The Washington Post)

I dropped by Kingbird in the Watergate Hotel not long ago to see if it was a restaurant to recommend near the Kennedy Center in Washington. A pit stop at the bar left me scratching my head and posting on Twitter.

“As much as I enjoy Manhattans, I cannot order the barrel-aged specimen at the restaurant I find myself in tonight,” I wrote to my world. “Is *any* drink worth (gulp) $50?”

Dining Q&A: “Can we be compensated for a $120 special whose price was unannounced?”

The reactions, unlike the fancy cocktail, were mixed.

“A really high end bourbon is the only thing that could justify it but then why would [you] ruin it with bitters and vermouth?” Stephen Carter wrote, summing up a lot of thoughts. “You’d want that neat.”

James Edwards played investigative reporter when he wrote: “Well I don’t know. Is it any good? Spirits make the drink. (Vodka and soda specifically excluded.)”

“Sure,” replied Lukas B. Smith. “It’s not at all hard to find ingredients that demand that price or much more. When using such ingredients, one needs a clear intention and subtlety of approach. It can’t just be cocktail 101 plug and play.”

“Umm, no,” tweeted Mark Fleming, who also posted thinking and crying-with-laughter emoji. “But if it’s being expensed?”

First, a hat tip to the creator of the exclusive Manhattan at Kingbird, Kalkidan “Kal” Lemma. The master mixologist invited this anonymous patron to taste the libation — based on small-batch Woodinville whiskey infused with peaches, combined with cactus-pear-aged sweet vermouth and removed to an American oak barrel for seven months — before committing to it. A sample on the house? I didn’t understand the offer until I returned for a second dinner, inquired about the drink again and a server repeated the opportunity to preview a splash.

Can’t decide on a cocktail? Give our drink generator a shake.

Armed with curiosity and the knowledge that the price of even regular drinks has soared, I took the plunge and ordered the novelty. Moments later, an attendant was at my table with a slender glass cloche, filled with smoke. The fog — fragrant from singed cardamom, cinnamon and hickory — cleared once the cover was removed, bringing the four-ounce amber drink, chilled with a pristine chunk of ice, into focus.

Record scratch. Put off by the price? You’re preaching to the choir. But if you haven’t noticed, even fast-food chains are charging more (sometimes for less), and neighborhood restaurants are listing the kind of prices diners used to see at special-occasion destinations.

My initial taste was a slip of a sip; $50 drinks aren’t meant to be guzzled. Drama aside, I appreciated the complexity, balance and warmth of the cocktail. The peach was a grace note, fresh but subtle, in the company of the potent but oh-so-smooth spirit. In short, the delivery and the execution matched my anticipation, and yes, I’d be inclined to share the drink again with a fellow imbiber, even if my employer weren’t paying for it.

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A later phone conversation with Lemma shed light on the time and effort lavished on the drink. Concerned about imitators, he’s reluctant to go public with his recipe, which he tinkered with for five years and designed with the restaurant’s French American theme in mind. Hence the cognac and minute amounts of foie gras and truffles that also go into the drink. Truffles for balance and foie gras for a little surface sheen, Lemma said. Not that I could see the shimmer at my dimly lit table.

Fifty bucks “isn’t the price for the drink,” meaning the ingredients, “but the talent,” he says.

The restaurant sells two or three of the designer drinks a week. “People do it to show off,” the Ethiopian native says of the liquid gold, promoted between a selection of $25 cocktails and $17 spirit-free drinks on Kingbird’s menu.

Z. John Zhang, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, says the practice is an example of “decoy pricing.” Not many people are going to buy the unusually expensive item on a menu, but seeing it alongside something less costly makes them feel like they’re getting a deal with the latter item. Patrons looking at the $25 drinks at Kingbird might think, “I could get two!” for the price of the premium cocktail, says Zhang.

Trend tracker Melanie Zanoza Bartelme says Kingbird’s $50 Manhattan represents a “treat-yourself mentality” initiated by the pandemic. People want something they can’t get at home, even if it’s expensive, and are willing to trade down in other parts of their life to balance that, says the associate director and global food analyst at the market research group Mintel.

Check, please. Please! This diner got so tired of waiting, she left.

No need to hide a chocolate splurge, for instance. “Life is hard,” says Bartelme. Consumers are thinking, “I’m going to do what I want — and own it.”

The food analyst calls such behaviors “unguilty pleasures” and notes that younger consumers in particular are subscribers to the trend. Lemma is leaning in. He says he likes to merge “the kitchen with the bar” when creating drinks (stay tuned for his avocado martini), which are aimed at “the new generation” of cocktail enthusiasts.

It didn’t take a private eye to find a 20-something who fit the profile. Meet Allison Toupin, an associate director with NielsenIQ. Her choice watering hole in Washington is the posh Silver Lyan in the Riggs hotel, which she says she frequents monthly, “more if I need to,” and where she gravitates to the $19 Manhattan. “I prioritize food and beverage spending. Outside [regular] bills, it’s my No. 1 expense.”

The most she’s ever paid for a cocktail is $50 for a dirty martini at the sensuous Chapel Bar in New York, where details such as the server’s explanation of the vodka, the specific olives and a crystal glass turned the splurge into a memory. Toupin, 27, says she appreciates the creativity that goes into the best drinks and routinely asks herself, “How can I do this at home?”

People are motivated to pay a premium for things like drinks for the sheer experience — “the big picture” — Zhang says, or because they’re using the company’s money or trying to impress a friend or client. On a recent trip to Las Vegas for the CES technology show, where he dined at interactive hot-pot restaurant X Pot, he knew he was paying for a chef’s noodle-making demonstration as well as the location.

Would Zhang shell out $50 for a drink?

The marketing professor, a cognac fan, prefers it “neat — except for now,” he says. “You know, Dryanuary.”

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