Georgetown’s new Capella Hotel, which officially opened last Wednesday, is loaded with amenities, from a private rooftop bar to a 24-hour “personal assistant” for guests. The black-and-gold Rye Bar offers luxe leather chairs and a cozy side patio on the banks of the C&O Canal, with pretty views of the water. But what got people talking about 31st Street’s newest arrival was its $22 Manhattan.
That’s right: $22 for one cocktail, not including tax and tip. (Two others on the menu, an Old-Fashioned and a vodka martini, each will set customers back $18.)
Sticker shock is nothing new in Washington. But coming on the heels of Jose Andres’s Barmini, which opened in February with drinks that range from $14 to $20, it seems like we’re reaching a new level of uber-expensive cocktails.
It’s hard not to notice the slow creep upward. When the Gibson opened in 2009, for example, most of the cocktails cost $10 to $12, with some as low as $8. Now, most drinks at the Gibson cost $12 to $14.
At Washington’s upscale restaurants, the $14 to $16 zone has become the sweet spot. That’s what you’ll pay for the much-lauded cocktails at Fiola, the Source and Bourbon Steak, though the latter charges $18 or $24 for certain drinks made with sparkling wine. Hotel bars, including the Ritz Carlton, the W and the Willard’s Round Robin, have set the price for their house drinks at $15.
Rye Bar’s $22 Manhattan isn’t something you can just throw together with the bottles left over from last week’s house party. It’s made with Dad’s Hat, a new small-batch rye whiskey from Pennsylvania, Dolin sweet vermouth and Byrrh quinquina, a sweet French aperitif, and then aged for six weeks in an empty Dad’s Hat whiskey barrel. The aging makes it noticeably smoother, rounding any edges in the mixing, and provides a lingering, oaky finish. It’s sublime. I’d definitely have another.
But it costs $22.
Who’d pay that much for a cocktail? Plenty of people, apparently: The entire 15-gallon barrel of pre-mixed Manhattans sold out in five days.
The $18 Old(er) Fashioned on the other hand uses (ri)1 rye whiskey (a high-end Jim Beam product), rye-steeped cherries and Hidalgo Pedro Ximenez sherry. The use of sherry is interesting, providing a rich flavor and texture that plays well with the peppery rye. It’s a more robust cocktail, to be sure, but it doesn’t involve the care or patience you see with the Manhattan. It’s just expensive.
Granted, a Georgetown location is a factor in Rye Bar’s prices, as is the fact that the cheapest accommodations upstairs have an “average daily rate” of $595. This is not a hotel for those who order double gin and tonics at happy hour at Stan’s Lounge.
Derek Brown, who helped create the Gibson’s cocktail list and now runs the acclaimed Columbia Room cocktail lounge, where a la carte drinks cost $17 (including tax and tip), says there are many factors going into the increasing cost of drinks: Rising gas and shipping costs are passed on in the price of bottles of spirits; customers are demanding better ingredients in their cocktails, looking to small, craft producers instead of bottom-shelf liquor; and bartenders are more skilled than ever, with more education into the history of what they’re doing, which makes their labor more expensive.
Factor in taxes and, in Washington, eye-wateringly expensive real estate, and it’s hard to see how things will get cheaper, unless there’s an out-and-out backlash against quality spirits.
“I think $12 is expensive for a cocktail,” Brown says. “Whether $12 is worth it for one cocktail is up to each person. But if you’re charging $12 or more for it, it better be good.”
$22 is a lot to pay for one drink. Here are some other things you could buy for the same amount of money:
●44 oysters at P.J. Clarke’s late-night raw bar happy hour (offered midnight to 1 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday).
●22 Jell-O shots (your choice of color) at the Lil’ Pub.
●Eight Georgetown Cupcake offerings.
●Seven cans of Stroh’s ($3 each) and a basket of cheese balls (free!) at the Pug.
●A seven-mile D.C. taxi ride (or a four-mile Uber ride).
●Two “Metal Surrenders When Oak Trees Meet Fenders” bourbon cocktails at Todd Thrasher’s TNT Bar ($11 each).
●Two upper outfield gallery seats in left field to watch the Nationals play the Cardinals on Monday night ($10 each).
Capella Hotel, 1050 31st St. NW.