The Economics of Drinking

What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.
– Kin Hubbard

There are plenty of good five-cent cigars in the country. The trouble is that they cost a quarter.
– Thomas Marshall

This past Thursday night, I met my good friend Cary for dinner at Susan Feniger’s Street Restaurant.  I’ve been to Street several times, and I’ve always enjoyed it.  They’ve been especially accommodating to my toddler son.  On this occasion, however, I was struck by the extreme cost of all of their adult beverages.  A micro-brew such as Racer 5 IPA was $11.  Eleven bucks for a beer?  Really?  A 22 oz bottle of Racer 5 retails for about $5, so if they were serving a full bottle, I guess it wasn’t so bad.  Typically, restaurant mark-up on alcohol is about 2-to-3 times cost.  Next, I glanced at their classic cocktails, which ran $14.  I passed and asked myself if I had reached the cost-for-a-drink threshold — was a drink really worth that much?

Years ago and long before the current cocktail revival, the wife and I sidled up to the bar at the Four Seasons in Manhattan.  A simple Gin and Tonic cost, if memory serves, about $17 but it came with three distinct perks: 1) you were at the Four Seasons; 2) each drink was accompanied by an endless supply of premium nibbles; and 3) you could have any gin in the place.  At the time, my brain agreed to the terms of the deal, and I enjoyed the evening.  Today and in this economy, $14 for Street’s Sazerac Manhattan didn’t sit right with me — especially as it didn’t fit with the heavily Asian-influenced food on the menu.

So how much is a drink really worth?  Let’s do some detective work.

Lock, stock, and barrel, how much will the 12 Bottle Bar cost you, exclusive of any additional mixers?  That’s eight bottles of premium spirits, two bottles of vermouth, and two bottles of bitters?  Got your answer?  All in, the full 12 Bottle Bar will set you back about $340 before tax.  Not too bad.  How many drinks will it make?  Rough math, figuring just the main six bottles of spirits (we use the Orange Liqueur and Absinthe sparingly) at 2 oz of alcohol per drink gives us a minimum of 76 drinks.  Again with a little math and we have a cost of $4.47 per drink.  Factor in the cost of mixers, liqueurs, syrups, juices, etc. and $5.00 to $5.50 per drink would probably be a safe high side.

There are several reasons why I think this is a good number to know.  First, if money is a concern but you still need to get your drink on — drink at home.  If you’re throwing a party, it’ll allow you to budget (figuring two drinks per person is a good average).  And, if you’re out on the town, it’ll allow you to make a semi-educated decision about the cost of drinks on the menu.  Of course, rare and premium liquors will affect prices accordingly (the average cost of our main six bottles is $35).

So, if the retail cost of the ingredients in a drink is about $5, is paying $10-to-$15 really that far out of line?  If you accept restaurant math, not at all.  Liquor isn’t cheap, and unlike a glass of wine, there’s some labor involved for the restaurant.

The problem that hit me at Street, however, has that the Wild Columbia River Salmon entree was only $13.  As stated, the cocktails were $14.  There’s a disconnect there somewhere.  I opted for a $3 non-alcoholic tamarind “elixir” and later joined Lars at El Cholo for a beer.  Now, I am the last person to complain about the cost of dining and drinking out; I’ve spent more on particular meals than I care to admit.  I’m also a changed man (with a toddler) in a changed economy, and the flash of the big ticket prix fixe meal, wine flight, or ultra-mega-premium cocktail just isn’t as exciting to me anymore.

Today, we’re living in a simpler, more humbling world than we were five or ten years ago.  However, most of us could use a drink now more than ever.  My solution:  drink well — very well — and for less at home.  Of course, there’s no reason to rush out and buy all the 12 Bottles at once.  I liken spirits to music CDs.  I buy them one at a time — two at the most — and spend some time getting to know them.  Pick a bottle that you like, grab the mixers you need, and experiment.  Not only will you begin to uncover what you really like to drink, you’ll be much better equipped to make a sound investment when staring down at the $14 cocktails on the menu.

PS: A ray of sunshine can be found here.


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