The Bar Code: How Craft Cocktails Are Robbing You

When I was living in New York in 2005, Jimmy McMillan ran for mayor on the campaign slogan “Rent Is Too Damn High!” A decade later, I’m not quite ready to announce my own candidacy here in Seattle, but if I were, I might borrow from him and declare “Drinks Are Too Damn Expensive!” On a number of recent forays to the bars and restaurants of this great city, I’ve been astonished to learn just how much some are charging for drinks that by all rights should be the provenance of almost every citizen.

Where once most craft cocktails hovered in the $10 range, they’ve been creeping up to $15 over the past few years. Inflation is of course a sad yet unavoidable fact, and if that were the only culprit, I’d merely sigh and fork over the extra dollar or two. Unfortunately, a few different trends are combining to push cocktail prices into a range that I for one am unwilling to sample very often.

The boom in the craft-cocktail trend is the biggest reason: We’re simply more accustomed to paying $12–$15 for a drink than we were five or 10 years ago. Now I’m not going to rip craft-cocktail culture again (OK, maybe a little), but for every bar doing something truly interesting and unique, 10 others have used the trend as an excuse to bump up the prices of your basic Manhattan and martini well north of $10. That’s fine if a guest specifically wants a premium base spirit, but almost every bar should be able to offer a perfectly good house version of those drinks for right around $10.

As for premium spirits, they’re also being used to drive up the cost of your drink. Sure, ordering a “well” drink now seems about as cool as ordering a Sex on the Beach, but many bars are forcing fancy spirits into places they don’t belong. Take the $14 Last Word I saw recently: Why does a drink with so many bold flavors need an expensive gin in it? And sure, it might look impressive to have a fancy rye whiskey in your version of a Boulevardier, but since no one would be able to tell if you swapped it out for your well rye (and you just might from time to time, to keep those costs down), why add $2 to my drink?

I love great whiskey/gin/tequila/rum/brandy/whatever, but in most cases those spirits are best enjoyed on their own, where the complexities and depth of flavor aren’t hidden behind myriad liqueurs, amaros, purées, bitters, syrups, tinctures, infusions, shrubs, or the dozen other terms sprouting up like weeds on cocktail lists citywide. You know what goes great with those? Inexpensive base spirits that are designed to be blended into drinks!

Bars are businesses, and they’ll charge what they think the market can bear. Costs throughout the industry are obviously rising (*cough* minimum wage *cough*), and that will obviously be reflected in drink prices, but as the novelty of the craft-cocktail craze wears off, I find myself more and more enamored with bars that can offer a good, well-made drink at a fair price. Yes, from time to time I crave burnt orange peels and a properly created egg-white drink, but I also want those to be occasional indulgences, not the only thing I can find on a drink list . . . especially for $14.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow