It wasn’t long ago that $15 to $20 was the going rate for an entree at a mid-range restaurant, and an above-average cocktail cost a fraction of that. Today, however, patrons don’t bat an eye at shelling out $16 for a single drink.
What’s happening? About a decade ago, the average price of a craft cocktail was about $10 at many speakeasy-style dens, according to interviews with bartenders in New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. (That’s just under $12 in inflation-adjusted dollars.) “When we first opened, seven years ago, our base cocktail price was $9,” says Jamie Boudreau, proprietor at Canon, a James Beard–nominated bar in Seattle. “Now our base cocktail price is $14 and, quite frankly, should be higher, but I fear that our location may not bear it.”
Drinks at the Aviary, an acclaimed Chicago bar, start at $18, while a single classic Sidecar—a staple typically comprising cognac, triple sec, and lemon juice—will cost you $23 at the famed Bemelmans Bar in Manhattan. Thad Vogler, owner of Bar Agricole and Trou Normand in San Francisco, says he has seen prices rise by about 40% in the past 10 years. Oft-cited reasons include rising rents, the importance of drinks to many restaurants’ bottom lines, and a tight labor market. But “the main factor is how much the drink costs us to make,” Vogler says. “Many cocktails today are being crafted by master mixologists using super-premium spirits, fresh ingredients, and infusions,” explains Frank Coleman of the Distilled Spirits Council, a trade association. “It’s not your grandfather’s Old Fashioned.”
The true enabler of the price hikes? Great expectations. The blossoming of cocktail culture has trained diners to want better drinks. And if they’re willing to pay more, bartenders figure, why not let them?