The deep, amber-colored drink is a looker, that much is true.
But there is no forest of mint perking up this Manhattan at Georgetown’s Rye Bar. It does not arrive in a pineapple.
It is an unfussy Manhattan. It just happens to cost $22.
If eyebrows rise and jaws drop over the price of the top drink on his menu, Angel Cervantes, the head bartender at this glossy art deco bar, isn’t showing it.
“The first-timers, they approach it, of course, with the mentality of, ‘It’s $22,’ ” he acknowledges. “Of course, they ask, ‘Is it really worth it?’ We always give people little tastings, and they decide.” Often, he says, they decide it is worth it; this mix of small-batch Dad’s Hat rye, vermouth and a splash of the port-like aperitif Byrrh has been on the menu since 2013.
Retail, not one of those bottles commands Pappy Van Winkle prices. This drink, however, is mixed six weeks before it ever sees a glass; it goes into a 55-gallon charred bourbon barrel to age, a process that mellows the Manhattan’s usual kick in the pants and results in an elixir that’s sippable, with notes of coffee, almonds, vanilla. But is it $22 mellow?
The craft cocktail movement that bore this Manhattan emphasizes fine spirits, fresh juices and even thoughtful ice selections. It casts bartenders as skilled craftsmen. And over the past decade, it has delivered vast improvement over the baby-pool-size apple martinis and mojitos that once fetched $7 or $8. But as we tip the $12 mark, the $14 mark and $20 mark, the questions increasingly on the lips of diners and bargoers are: When did what’s in our glass start making such a noticeable dent in our wallets? And why?
At Chicago’s luxe Aviary, where a kitchen of chefs turns out whimsical drinks, you can crack open spherical ice to release a $22 whiskey cocktail. At Barmini in the District, most cocktails, including the chili-honey-laced Some Like It Hot, hover at $16, but for the Big in Japan, built upon trendy Japanese whiskey, Drambuie and Japanese peach, you’ll pay $25. And for $45, the kindly bar staff at Fiola in Penn Quarter will conjure a Cocktail Bill, which, when you hear the ingredients, sounds suspiciously like a Sazerac, only with cocktail-geek favorite Thomas H. Handy rye.
These drinks with the look-at-me price tags are aimed, of course, at a particular sort of tippler. (One with an expense account.) But for the rest of us, $22 suddenly doesn’t seem quite so outrageous — okay, maybe it’s a little outrageous — when typical cocktail prices across the country have risen to somewhere between $12 and $16, says Lauren De Vine, a California-based beverage consultant to such restaurants as the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur.
At New York’s beloved Pouring Ribbons, the standard is $14. At San Francisco’s Bar Agricole, it’s $15. There are bars whose menus don’t list prices at all, making ordering a white-knuckle experience.
For some, cocktails at those prices prompt only the briefest flicker of a cost analysis before the credit cards are surrendered. For others, they trigger the sort of ire that can only be worked out through a good, cathartic Yelp rant.
“There’s a certain element of people for whom the idea of a $12 cocktail and $14 cocktail is highway banditry,” says Adam Bernbach, bar director of Washington’s 2 Birds 1 Stone, Proof, Estadio and Doi Moi.
But Bernbach and others argue that the drinks served by better bars are a good value, and not just because of fresh ingredients and house-made bitters. Frequently, there is more booze — and finer booze — in your glass.
“At the heart of what we do is a constant conversation on value. And value is very subjective. It’s the most subjective of things,” says Bernbach. “We make something, someone buys it and they consume it. And moreover, they have to think their money is well spent.”
A decade ago, “I’d be working at bars that would sell a vodka that was made in Elizabeth, New Jersey, probably in an industrial manner,” Bernbach recalls. “That would be barely more expensive than rubbing alcohol, and probably not as refined.”
Vodka-sodas, with an ounce and a half of New Jersey’s finest, he says, would sell for $5. “If you multiply that terrible product by three — which is more or less the amount of alcohol in a cocktail — that comes to $15.”
By that measure, he says, today’s cocktails are “actually significantly more valuable.”
If bartending has changed dramatically, when it comes to pricing a drink, little has changed about bartending math.
In the industry, the cost of the alcohol in a drink is something of a moving target: Rail vodka costs very little, and small-batch spirits take a bigger bite out of the profits. But generally, bar managers and consultants say, the cost of the pour should ring up at no more than 25 percent of the price of the cocktail. Another 50 to 60 percent of what you’re paying goes toward labor (Bernbach employs one person just to prep his array of mixers and juices, from green apple to pineapple to carrot-ginger); keeping the lights on and the rent paid; and spillage — a term that encompasses testing as well as, yes, actual sloppiness, inevitable on busy nights.
The rest, on cocktails at least, is profit.
With profit between 15 and 25 percent, it turns out cocktails are not highway robbery. But they’re certainly enough to move the needle, particularly when restaurants’ overall margins are markedly lower, between 4 and 6 percent, according to the National Restaurant Association’s most recent figures.
“There’s more opportunity to recoup the cost of running the restaurant in that drink,” De Vine says. Which explains the rush to improve bar programs, to train staffers to turn out negronis and to draw in customers who will order a cocktail or three.
Still, “to make a cocktail $15,” says Francesco Amodeo, a bar consultant who is also a small-batch distiller making liqueurs at Don Ciccio & Figli, “you need to give your guests something else in their glass besides booze. Ice, square cubes, come into play. Garnishes. The atmosphere around the restaurant.” Amodeo, who runs the bar program at 14th Street’s Lupo Verde, says he prefers to keep cocktails at $12, comparable to a glass of good wine.
De Vine similarly advises her clients to suss out the market. “You need to know what else is out there. What else is going on that area. What would your customers be paying for a similar experience.”
But she acknowledges that there can be dissonance between a drink’s price and what it delivers. Bars, she says, “will hear about pricing in a market outside of their own, and they’ll price something that way because they think they’re supposed to. But it doesn’t necessarily mean the quality is there.”
Amodeo has seen his share of restaurants try to stretch the boundaries of common decency. A couple of years ago, when he was brought in to manage the now-defunct Azur in Penn Quarter, the first thing he did was axe the restaurant’s $40 cocktail. It was garnished with gold leaf — or it would have been, had anyone had ever ordered it.
“The Inn at Little Washington, they don’t give you $40 cocktails,” he says, still sounding a little incredulous. “They have all the right to give you a $40 cocktail!” (For the record, the priciest cocktail at the Inn is $20.)
In fact, if drinking were like a poker game, $16 seems to be the point beyond which most bars and customers would fold. For Bernbach, it’s $14. “I think we’re trying to do the best product we can within that,” Bernbach says. At Virginia’s Gypsy Soul and Water & Wall, bartenders say the number that feels most comfortable is $12.
De Vine agrees that nationally, a ceiling may have been reached. “I don’t necessarily see [prices] growing much higher,” she says.
Prices are as much driven by customers as they are by bars themselves. As bars race to separate themselves from the cocktail slingers around the corner, bartenders are reaching for spirits that come from small-batch distillers in, say, Scotland, Italy or the District, says Amodeo. Those are inherently more expensive, but customers have become savvy and demand them, the bartenders say.
At Rogue, Tetorakis charges $14 for most cocktails but offers a better value in a price-fixed cocktail tasting with four cocktails and four small bites. It costs $44.
For the price conscious, 2 Birds also offers a handful of $10 and $12 drinks, and Bernbach says they sell well. But the $14 drinks on his ever-changing menu, such as last week’s rye whiskey cocktail with carrot and ginger juice, coconut milk and spiced soda, are what Bernbach calls “ooh cocktails.” They are advertisements, the drinks that lure cocktail fans in the door.
At Rye Bar, so does that pricey Manhattan. Between December and February, Cervantes emptied several of his 55-gallon barrels of booze, which are stowed behind the bar to stoke interest. Because it takes so long to age, he had to stop serving the drink while he re-upped. “It wasn’t a marketing ploy,” he says with a laugh. “People come in the bar and ask me, ‘Hey, where is it? When are you going to have it ready?’”
Dig deeper: Restaurant culture + Labor
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People didn’t tip in the United States until after the Civil War, and even then it wasn’t widely embraced. Now, some say it’s how restaurants justify paying staff low wages.
A restaurant’s overall profit margin is about 4 to 6 percent, according to the National Restaurant Association. But cocktail profit margins are 15 to 25 percent.
Over the past decade, waiters have gone from offering table-side decadence borrowed from European dining to being friendly menu guides.
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