December 18, 2005
Hey, Bartender, Can You Break $1,000?
By DAVID BERNSTEIN
GEORGE SANTIAGO, a 23-year-old nightclub promoter, wanted to impress Danielle DiCantz, 22, whom he had met at a club, on their first date. So on a recent Thursday night he took her to Reserve, a lounge and dance club that is a favorite of the trend-setting crowd here.
To break the ice, Mr. Santiago ordered a $350 bottle of Dom Pérignon. After they had swilled the Champagne dry, Mr. Santiago returned to the bar. This time he ordered her an exotic concoction called the Reserve Ruby Red.
Served in a traditional martini glass, the cocktail is made with super-premium Grey Goose L'Orange vodka, Hypnotiq liqueur, orange and pomegranate juices and topped off with Dom Pérignon. The coup de grâce: a one-carat ruby affixed to the stirrer. And the bar tab for a Ruby Red? An eye-popping $950.
Was she impressed?
"It was the best 950 bucks I ever spent," Mr. Santiago said. "Let's put it that way."
It wasn't long ago that cocktails broke the $10 barrier at high-end restaurants and nightclubs in cities like Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York. Now a vodka martini or a basic margarita for $10 seems like a bargain, as prices have hit double, triple and, believe it or not, quadruple digits (even without glittery gems for garnishes).
Among bartenders, managers and club owners there is a spirited (pun intended) race to concoct the most exotic, most attention-getting and most expensive cocktails. Examples abound.
The Seablue restaurant in the MGM Grand Las Vegas has a martini made with super-premium vodka and Beluga caviar at $275. At Duvet, a restaurant-lounge in the Chelsea area of Manhattan, the price of a Duvet Passion - an off-the-menu drink made with aged cognacs, vintage Champagnes and garnished with a vanilla orchid petal - is meant to astound: $1,500. The club says it has sold five or six Duvet Passions since introducing the drink Valentine's Day.
Not to be outdone Teatro Euro Bar, a nightclub at the MGM Grand Las Vegas, has the High Limit Kir Royale, a $2,200 after-dinner drink. "So far nobody's one-upped us," said Catherine Bingue-Hawkins, the general manager. "And we have no gems in ours either. We just have good liquor," including Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne and 140-year-old Cognac.
Big spenders with stacks of hundreds to burn and business executives on expense accounts apparently don't blink at paying those top-dollar prices for cocktails with top-shelf spirits. Even some people in the cheap-beer and wine-in-box crowd occasionally indulge in them.
Despite the jittery economy, bartenders and managers say customers are still celebrating big deals and special occasions with big bar tabs. "Things have not gone down at all," said Jennifer Hansen, the director of operations at Le Passage, a hot spot in downtown Chicago. "There's been an increase, if anything. People want to go out and have a good time, and they're willing to pay for it."
But the hefty prices are also turning away some drinkers, said Willie Williams, the bar manager of Vine Street Lounge in Hollywood, where a Million Dollar Grandtini made with Patrón Silver tequila, Citronage liqueur and a 150-year-old Grand Marnier floater costs $35. "If you're going to go out drinking and spend $50, you don't want to spend it all on one drink," he said.
Still, Mr. Williams said even customers who don't have a lot of money will buy Million Dollar Grandtinis and other expensive cocktails for the image they convey. "How many people lease a BMW when they can't afford it and their car payments are more than their rent?" he said. "A lot of it has to do with status, especially out here."
Julie Clark, 28, an options trader from Chicago, celebrated one of her biggest trading windfalls with a $135 Champs-Élysées cocktail at Le Passage. The Champs-Élysées is made with Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac, Grand Marnier, orange juice and sour mix; it is served in a Bottega del Vino crystal cognac snifter, which the drinker can keep. "I wanted to celebrate," Ms. Clark said. "It was great. I really liked it."
Like Ms. Clark, Fran Weinberg, 42, a sales representative from Hackensack, N.J., had no qualms about treating a few customers to $95 Royal Apple Sidecar cocktails at Beacon, a restaurant on West 56th Street in Manhattan. "I wouldn't say I was showing off, but it's kind of impressive to customers who don't get to New York," Ms. Weinberg said. It also impressed (and shocked) friends and colleagues whom she told the next day. "Some people looked at me like I was crazy," she said. "And some people were like: 'When can we go? I want to try it.' "
Jason Smith, the bar manager at the Setai Hotel in Miami Beach, said drinkers have become more adventurous and sophisticated and are more frequently ordering higher end spirits. He said the Setai sells 8 to 12 Garden of Edens - a $100 cocktail that serves three or four and is made with vodka, gin, rum, cognac and sparkling red wine - on a typical night. "It's a status thing," Mr. Smith said. "There's a level of pretentiousness. Then you've got that one guy that just wants his Budweiser."
According to the Distilled Spirits Council, high-end and super-premium liquors are the fastest growing segments of the $15.1 billion spirits market. Annual sales of super-premium liquors grew by 14.2 percent in 2004; sales of high-end liquors grew by 7.4 percent in the same period. By contrast, sales of value spirits, the cheapest kind, grew by just 1.7 percent in that period.
"People are drinking less, but they're drinking better," said Mark Grossich, owner and operator of the World Bar in Trump World Tower in Manhattan. "You don't find a lot of generic drinkers anymore."
When the World Bar opened three years ago, it introduced the World Cocktail. The $50 mixture of Remy XO; Veuve Clicquot Champagne; Pineau des Charentes, a sweet aperitif; white grape juice; freshly squeezed lemon juice; Angostura bitters; and 23-carat edible liquid gold was billed as the world's most expensive cocktail.
"We started the trend of very expensive cocktails," Mr. Grossich said. "We thought: 'What the heck? Where better than in a Trump building to create something excessive?' "
But now, Mr. Grossich said, cocktail prices have "gotten out of hand." "People are coming up with all kinds of ridiculous combinations to push the prices of cocktails through the roof," he said. "It's hard to ratchet up the price up to $1,000 and have the cost justify the ingredients. They're priced to the point where they get to be novelty items."
Scott DeGraff, an owner of N9NE Steakhouses in Las Vegas and two other cities, said the $69 Ultimate Margarita he sells at his restaurant isn't a gimmick, at least the ingredients aren't. Made with two rare tequilas, Grand Marnier 150 Year and fresh juices, the cocktail, he said, caters to true tequila connoisseurs, not to "the people who only remember the tequilas they got sick on in high school."
Even though Mr. DeGraff said he serves 75 to 100 Ultimate Margaritas each month at his restaurant in Las Vegas (and 15 to 20 a month at the one in Chicago), the profit margins and sales volume are much lower than those for basic cocktails, shots and beer by the bottle. "Would I have a whole menu of $69 drinks?" he said. "No, but I think it's fun to have something that's so unique and special and that's out there if you want to try it." He added: "I wouldn't want to base my business on drinks like this. I might go hungry that way."
Not if there are a lot more people like George Santiago out there. If Mr. Santiago spent $950 for a cocktail on a first date, how much would he pay for a drink on a second or third date, or even for his engagement? "You can't put a price on love," Mr. Santiago said. "I'd spend countless."
The World Cocktail
Adapted from the World Bar at Trump World Tower, New York
1 ounce Courvoisier XO
1 ounce Pineau des Charentes
1 ounce white grape juice
Dash of Bitters
½ ounce lemon juice
Float of Veuve Clicquot
4 Drops of 23-carat edible liquid gold.