When the bill arrived, I nearly dropped my drink: My $25 martini cost more than the $20 burger. And silly me, I’d ordered two drinks—a $50 sticker shock. What happened to the cocktail as “affordable luxury?” Before the pandemic, I considered a $14 drink expensive, but still within splurging range. The jump to $25 and beyond (!) has been quite the ride.
Of course, inflation is on the rise everywhere. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) has risen 12.4% over the last three years (year-end 2019 through yearend 2022). But the CPI also breaks down prices for alcoholic beverages, even to the level of distilled spirits. In that same period, prices for distilled spirits at home rose just 5.24%. Meanwhile, a specific CPI for all urban consumers shows that distilled spirits consumed away from home rose a whopping 12.96%.
“Martini prices have gone up a lot,” acknowledges Kelly Verardo, bar programs director for the Altamarea Group, including Ai Fiori—a high-end restaurant in a Midtown hotel, and the site of my $25 martini (a three-ounce, 50-50 pour of The Botanist gin and Dolin dry vermouth, lemon twist). The same drink would have cost $19 in 2019, she estimates. What made my drink so pricey?
Labor costs probably account for one-third of the price, she says, as wages for servers and bartenders have risen steadily. Add to that the cost of real estate, “fancy glassware” and…ice.
“People don’t think about ice,” she notes. “A martini isn’t served on ice, but it’s stirred or shaken with nice Kold-Draft ice. It’s expensive.” The venue had just replaced its ice machine at an $8,000 price tag: “It’s doubled since the pandemic.”
Farther downtown, at Mister Paradise, a high-volume cocktail bar, the signature Prime Martini costs $19; it would have run $15–$16 in 2019, estimates owner Will Wyatt. It’s an elaborate drink, with Boatyard gin, Grey Goose vodka, Martini & Rossi Ambrato vermouth and a housemade pickling brine. It’s also three ounces, with half presented in a delicate glass (provided by Grey Goose, no charge) and the rest in a small carafe packed in ice.
While Wyatt hesitates to tally all the inputs that make up a drink price, “The cost of running a business only goes up,” he says, citing rent, salary and cost of goods (COGs). “It just goes up and up,” he says. “I think in the next two years, a $25 martini will be fairly standard.”
Meanwhile, Brooklyn’s raucous Jupiter Disco has been one of the few places to keep their martini price steady, from $14 in 2019 to $15 now (for a basic two ounces Beefeater, one ounce Dolin Dry, two dashes of house blend orange bitters). Co-owner Al Sotack says he aims to keep the COGs well below 25%, and “the martini is by no means the most expensive classic; it usually is easy to keep this one well within a bar’s COGs.”
According to my very unofficial Martini Inflation Index, the three bars I polled raised their martini prices an average of 25% between 2019 and today—and that’s a fair proxy for NYC cocktail prices, which have clearly outpaced prices of neat pours at bars, neat pours at home and inflation overall.
That doesn’t mean I’ll be avoiding bars. Just as the price of a martini represents more than what’s in the glass—you get more than just the liquid. Camaraderie, the atmosphere of a room, expertly made drinks and the welcome of good hospitality will keep me coming back. But I’ll think twice before ordering a second round.
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