Anatomy of a $12 Drink

We'll blame liquor laws and crazy proprietors.

In Seattle, we've watched housing prices steadily trend toward the laughable. I don't own because I refuse to pay $400,000 for a $200,000 house, regardless of what the market says. I gauge inflation and my quality of life on menu prices: As long as I can afford the average pork dinner and a cocktail, I consider myself golden.

It wasn't so long ago that Seattle crossed the $8 cocktail barrier. For drinks from an award-winning chef that included bitters or cleverly infused spirits, such a price seemed fair and balanced, even if it stung. But some establishments didn't stop at $8—their cocktails went to $10. Now, a $12 cocktail is hardly an unusual sighting.

Twelve-dollar cocktails won't make our city fancy, they'll just make us poor. How can two people go out for a few rounds of drinks when the damage is more than 50 bucks? That's a rock show plus many beers. That's a cable bill or an all-day lift ticket.

The advent of the $12 cocktail can be blamed on a few root causes: weird liquor laws and crazy owners. Washington state liquor laws force bars to serve food. Far too many bars thus split precious resources between bar and kitchen, entertaining delusions of edible grandeur instead of providing basic grub and focusing on the drinks. (Bravo to Hazlewood, a bar with its priorities straight and a rotating Lean Cuisine selection.) That chef, that kitchen, those food costs all drag down the profit a bar can make off its liquor.

Cocktails aren't magically exempt from cost-benefit analysis because they contain alcohol; price minus costs still equals net profit. Every budding bar owner needs to take this hard fact into account before signing a ridiculous lease agreeing to give his or her firstborn away in "percent rent" (the rent you pay on top of rent, based on a percentage of sales). These suckers are wide-eyed and have big plans, and sometimes pedigrees to match, but no business sense. Making cocktails fancier can eat away at precious margins. For example, let's break down the ingredients in one of downtown's lackluster $12 set, a cosmopolitan featuring a splash of Grand Marnier 150 year. The average cosmo made with premium vodka, Cointreau, and fresh lime juice costs around $3 in materials. I won't name the place, but I'll just say that the upscaled cosmo contained 3-plus ounces of half-fruit-juice mixer, maybe 2 ounces of booze, and 100 percent mediocrity. The splash of 150-year Grand Marnier—which I could not taste—added approximately $1.52 to the drink's cost: a 50 percent bump that leaves an even narrower margin to cover rent, labor, and electricity. I'd rather see bars make better drinks, not ones with higher-end ingredients. Besides, if you're going to stick me for $12 to justify blingin' ingredients, I'd better be able to taste every dollar.

If you think I'm flirting with hyperbole, stroll about the town on a Wednesday or Thursday. Many of the most touted bars downtown are dead by the 11th hour. I blame the empty seats, in part, on prohibitively priced nightcaps keeping people closer to home. Perhaps Seattle can support a few places serving high-end cocktails at high prices, but as a sustainable price point when many drinkers have a new mortgage to pay? I wouldn't bet the house on it.

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