The Rise of the Four-Figure Cocktail

Bartenders are charging hundreds and even thousands of dollars per drink. It’s as indefensible as it sounds.

Photo by Sam Ryley/Thinkstock
If you thought $20 for a drink was ridiculous, you’ve got another thing coming.

Photo by Sam Ryley/Thinkstock

Not long ago, I met a notoriously penny-pinching friend for a drink at the Algonquin Hotel’s Blue Bar. This used to be a New York grande dame of a bar, but it’s lost some luster over the years. Nowadays, guests perch on bar stools with their faces bathed in nightclublike neon blue light, sipping $17 Grey Goose vodka martinis.

“Seventeen bucks for a drink?” my friend howled when he saw the menu. “That’s highway robbery!” With an evil little grin, I gleefully informed him about the Algonquin’s off-menu Martini on the Rock: a gin martini garnished with a diamond. Price tag: $10,000. He nearly spat out his gin rickey.

If you think $14 cocktails at high-end speakeasies and $20 drinks at hotel bars are already too rich, hold on to your bar stool: Lately, bars and nightclubs have battled to see who can make the world’s most expensive cocktail. That diamond-studded Algonquin martini is in the stratosphere, but even it doesn’t get to take the top title.

While I’m completely unthrilled by cocktail price inflation—having seen typical prices ascend from $7 to around the $14 mark over the past several years—I can stomach it. The economist in me realizes there are good reasons why a cocktail costs what it does, from real estate to labor to raw materials. That fancy lemon-peel spiral didn’t cut itself, and after a rough day, I’m sometimes willing to pay for that attractive flourish along with my cup of cheer. But the $25-and-over cocktail, no matter how well-crafted, seems unjustifiable. And above $100, these drinks are a sucker’s game unless there’s something truly extraordinary about them—and even then, I’m not convinced.

At Boston’s Wink & Nod, $100 buys you the Billionaire’s Bijou, a cocktail containing three rare spirits spiked with saffron. Meanwhile, at the opulent Cavalli Miami Restaurant & Lounge, the $450 High Roller is “inspired by the designer [Roberto Cavalli]’s lavish lifestyle” and made with “the most expensive alcohols available,” including Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Champagne and Louis XIII de Rémy Martin cognac. If $680 (plus airfare) is burning a hole in your pocket, head to Ciragan Palace Kempinski in Istanbul for the Luxury Sahlep (premium cognac mixed with ground orchid, Tahitian vanilla, and Turkish honey, garnished with gold leaf).

Meanwhile, the world’s most expensive margarita is almost certainly the $1,200 version that was available last July at Manhattan’s 230 Fifth Rooftop Bar & Penthouse Lounge. The drink’s ingredients included limited-release extra-anejo tequila and ice made of frozen Champagne. (To be fair, half of the price was donated to the purchaser’s charity of choice). And according to Guinness World Records, the single “most expensive cocktail in the world” sold for $12,916. It was made in 2013 in Melbourne, Australia, using cognac from 1858 and rare bottlings of chartreuse and Cointreau; it was garnished with chocolate nutmeg dust (but no jewelry). As of yet, no 2014 record-breaker has been named, although this London bar is clamoring to take the title.  

When it comes to hyper-expensive cocktails, it’s mostly irrelevant whether anyone even buys them—the point is exposure. “Ironically, it’s a cheap way of selling buzz,” says Gary Hayward, a marketing representative for Bombay Sapphire gin. Hayward has traveled around the world and has seen his share of crazy-expensive cocktails. He sees the trend as a way for bars to get a lot of free publicity: Stories about wildly expensive cocktails tend to generate outrage and disbelief, which in turn generates social media sharing. “For the most part, I find them tacky,” says Hayward. “Especially if there’s a diamond ring in there, you’re paying for the ring, not the drink. It’s a gimmick.” By protesting these obscenely expensive cocktails, it’s likely that I’m perpetuating the hype right now; by commenting or sharing this link on social media, you may be too. (Such is the risk one takes when writing about outrageous trends.)

Nonetheless, when I called the abovementioned bars last month, representatives confirmed that some people had taken the bait. Five $450 High Rollers, a dozen $1,200 margaritas, 35 $680 Sahleps, and 62 $100 Billionaire’s Bijous had been sold. Taking the Guinness record-holder into account, that’s 115 cocktails with an average price tag of $517.97. Clearly, some people do have several Benjamins burning a hole in their pockets.

This isn’t the first time in recent years that drink prices have hit the heights (cf. 2007). Like all overly expensive items, high-priced cocktails are plentiful in boom times and bull markets. Then the floor drops out of the stock market, and they abruptly evaporate. The 2009 recession is officially over, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the irrational-exuberance cocktail has returned. But things are a bit different this time around. The economic rebound may be on, but a great many people still are smarting from the recession—including the bumper crop of millennials who are now of drinking age. Many of these newly minted drinkers can’t even find jobs, let alone afford $500 cocktails. These over-the-top cocktails are symptomatic of the system at large: The rich are getting richer, and celebrating with $100 bills practically blended into their margaritas, while everyone else’s financial situations remain stagnant at best.

There’s a long history of drinks beyond the means of the everyman drinker. As far back as the first century A.D., Romans flavored their wine with pricey, hard-to-get spices, which added prestige as much as flavor. Indeed, the first recipe in what’s widely considered the first written cookbook, Marcus Apicius’ De re Coquinaria is for “Fine Spiced Wine,” a “Honey Refresher for Travelers” spiked with saffron and crushed pepper (some translators suggest the intended spice was allspice rather than peppercorns). Consider also America’s own mint julep. In the 1800s, well before the modern era of refrigeration, ice was a luxury item that had to be harvested and expensively transported to warmer Southern climes. That crushed ice was a status symbol; so was the silver julep cup in which it was served. After the Civil War, those silver julep cups emerged as symbols of aristocracy.

Now, ice, julep cups, and even saffron are affordable for most folks living in the Western world. So the only thing that can make a cocktail inaccessible to a middle-class person is the price tag itself. Cocktails are no longer expensive because they contain rare ingredients; they’re expensive because their very expense makes them rare.

But treating a $1,400 cocktail as a status symbol goes counter to the spirit of cocktails. “Cocktails are meant to be accessible moments of fun,” says Bobby Heugel, the owner of Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston (which charges $20 for its most expensive cocktail, a Ramos Gin Fizz that requires several minutes of intense shaking). “If you think about a cocktail, everything about it expires quickly: It doesn’t maintain its temperature, it separates, the ice melts. It exists in a moment of brevity where we enjoy concentrated flavors we don’t find in wine, beer, or straight-up spirits.”

Personally, I’d like to see the money spent on three-, four-, and five-figure drinks put toward any number of causes worthier than well-funded inebriation. But in the end, how you feel about exorbitantly priced drinks boils down to what you consider “accessible” (and for that matter, what you consider “fun”). Is a $10,000 cocktail harmless, frothy exuberance or a disgusting display of excess? The answer is more likely to be found at the bottom of your wallet than the bottom of your glass.