Does a blank cheque guarantee a better cocktail?
When the Hôtel Ritz Paris’s legendary barman Colin Field introduced the $1,700 Ritz Sidecar in 2001, it was considered the most expensive cocktail in the world. Since then, a multitude of bartenders have created their own lavishly priced drinks made with everything from truffles, gold dust and precious gems, to vintage spirits recovered from famous shipwrecks.
But are these ultra-premium cocktails worth their ultra-premium prices? Well, it depends — and not just on how much credit you have left on your flexible friend.
You’re buying something rare. You’re going to have one, and that’s going to be your story.
“It’s not so much that you’re buying something expensive,” says Cooper Tardivel, head bartender at Vancouver’s Hawksworth Restaurant, where the priciest cocktail he has served was a $2,800 Sazerac made with Louis XIII Rare Cask Cognac. “You’re buying something rare. You’re going to have one, and that’s going to be your story.”
Luxuriously priced cocktails come in two categories. The first is made with precious spirits, like the Winston, a $12,000 molecular masterpiece from Club 23 in Melbourne, Australia, which features the ultra-rare 1858 Croizet Cognac and takes two days to prepare. The other is adorned with fancy doodads, like the Tokyo Ritz-Carlton’s $22,000 Diamonds Are Forever — basically a Grey Goose Martini garnished with a diamond.
It’s easy to guess which style of top-dollar drink serious cocktail aficionados think is worth the money.
At the Fairmont Pacific Rim, head bartender Grant Sceney has a handful of regulars who happily hand over $450 for his variation on the Louis XIII Sazerac. “On average, we’ll make one to two of them a week,” he says. Meanwhile, Tardivel has customers who regularly order his $92 Manhattan made with 25-year-old Willett Rye Family Reserve whiskey, even if they have to share it between friends.
Who those big spenders are varies. “There are the guys who just want to order the most expensive thing because it’s the most expensive,” Tardivel says. More often, though, the people who order luxe drinks are well-travelled romantics passionate about fine craftsmanship and entranced by the idea of sipping history in a glass. Once they order that rare drink, he says, “for the most part they sit and cherish it.”
Sceney concurs: “Some people spend money because they can. and others do it because they enjoy it and know what they’re talking about.”
But what of the purists, who argue that adulterating a vintage spirit simply ruins it?
“It’s more about the experience with these vintage cocktails,” Shaun Layton, bar manager at Vancouver’s Juniper Restaurant & Bar, says. “You’re not having it because it’s the best drink you’ll ever taste. It’s about drinking the experience.
“For under $100, I can create a great experience. Anything over 100 bucks, it better be something incredible, like a pre-Prohibition whisky. With really vintage stuff, if you look at it the right way, it might be worth it.”
The skill is in combining a premium spirit in a way that enhances its prized characteristics. It would be tragic to combine, say, a rich, fruity, gloriously complex extra-añejo tequila with a mouth-puckeringly tart sweet-and-sour mix. It’s crucial to order these drinks only from people who know what they’re doing.
“If you have the opportunity to enjoy something of this calibre, and if it’s made properly,” Sceney says, “then it’s worth it.”
WAR STORIES: Club 23’s Winston cocktail refers to former British Prime Minister Churchill, who, it is said, sipped on 1858 Croizet Cognac with U.S. President Eisenhower as the pair planned D-Day.
—by Joanne Sasvari