Tweaking classic cocktails, incorporating fresh produce, and creating zero-waste drinks have led bar trends over the last few years, but now leading bartenders are using more refined ingredients, like rare and vintage spirits, to push the envelope. Places such as Chicago’s Milk Room, Seattle’s Canon, New York’s Maison Premiere, and San Diego’s Raised by Wolves have successfully introduced reserve cocktail lists, proving that people will pay much higher prices—from $25 to well beyond $100—for drinks that offer a literal taste of history. But does shelling out hefty sums for hard-to-source bottles actually help drive sales?
“I can tell you a vintage sale can often save a slow night,” says Canon owner Jamie Boudreau, who adds that the availability of a reserve selection helps spark a conversation between bartenders and patrons. Those interactions lead customers to try the unique drinks and experiences for themselves.
Social media also plays a role—patrons who shell out for a high-end cocktail often document and share the moment. William Elliott, Maison Premiere’s bar director, has seen it happen with the restaurant’s Old King Cole, a $22 martini featuring Old Raj gin stirred tableside. “We’ve seen more people coming in to order it if they’ve seen it on social or in the media,” Elliott says. “They may not be a martini drinker, but they’ve associated it with our name and that’s what they want.”
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Erick Castro, a co-owner of Raised by Wolves, says guests have surprised him with their interest in the rare selections. “We had a couple of guys in recently who were hard-core whiskey nerds,” he says, describing them as beach bums. They inquired about Old Fashioneds with a 1960s bottling of Very Old Fitzgerald 8 Year Old Bourbon, asking if the bottle was authentic from the era. When Castro confirmed its authenticity, “they looked at the bottle, looked at each other, and asked for two [cocktails], which are almost $800 each.”
Developing a Reserve Collection
Getting into the vintage spirits game takes some skill, along with well-placed sources around the country. Many of these “dusties”—old bottles of spirits like amaro, fernet, and Chartreuse—are in limited supply. While you might not think a distributor would have old bottles, chances are there could be some surprises in storage. “Three-hundred-dollar bottles aren’t uncommon in the world,” Elliott adds. “It’s a matter of asking the distributors the questions. Some things don’t get listed, but you can ask your distributors what they’re holding on to that may fit the bill.”
Besides that, estate sales and auctions are great places to look. Boudreau says that outlets like the high-end auction house Christie’s can prove a “good bet to find bottles that have been vetted.” Castro says he has a team of trusted people who scour estate sales and auctions, where they are more likely to find quality offerings. Buying from a known source is important, because it generally ensures authenticity.
Persuading customers to spend top dollar on a drink requires more than just saying one is available. Sure, customers may be curious about something like Milk Room’s $100 Sazerac with Kentucky Owl Batch 1 11-year-old rye whiskey and 1930s Pernod 45 absinthe, or Canon’s $275 Negroni with Tanqueray and vermouth from around 1960, Campari from about 1970, and an orange twist. But if it doesn’t come with an explanation and some justification, they may feel like they’re getting scammed.
“People may ask why our vintage French 75 costs $175, and if the bartender just shrugs his shoulders, they’ll think you’re ripping them off,” Castro says. “But if you have a story to tell about it or the narrative behind it, people see more of a reason that it’s worth it. If the staff doesn’t believe in the products, why should the guests?”
Guests want to know about a spirit’s origins, where it’s procured, what makes it different from its modern-day counterpart, and more. They have an interest in tasting something super rare. “It’s a service you’re offering someone,” says Paul McGee at Chicago’s Milk Room. “It’s so important to have your staff know what they’re talking about. Otherwise it’s a disservice.”
Pricing Vintage Cocktails
Costing out higher-priced cocktails is the same, generally, as pricing regular cocktails—just with more expensive spirits. “If you have a market that can support it, the expensive drinks are costed the same as the normal drinks,” Boudreau says. However, drinks on a reserve list do sometimes come in at a lower markup than regular drinks, providing extra value for the customer.
Maison Premiere offers tableside Sazerac service, with three versions of the classic cocktail from three different periods for $22, $34, and $96. The last features Cognac from 1946, comes on a silver tray, and costs the bar $46 for the amount it pours, Elliott says. “We’re creating a perceived value,” he adds. “The markup isn’t nearly as high as [that of] a normal cocktail. Costs should be around 18 to 22 percent [of the cocktail’s price], and this is a conservatively priced option.”
Experiencing History in a Glass
Building a collection with bottles like 1910 Armagnac, 1950s-era Luxardo Maraschino, or Fernet Branca from the ‘70s also helps a bar or restaurant curate and narrate an interesting story. “It’s about experiencing history and tasting spirits that were made with completely different ingredients and techniques than are employed today,” Boudreau says. “It’s a truly unique experience when you are tasting something made, for example, when the Wright brothers flew their plane, or having a martini made with ingredients that may have been on the Titanic when it sank.”
Showing these aged bottles to patrons can create more excitement and interest than a run-of-the-mill Old Fashioned, even if it’s made with high-quality bourbon. Customers may geek out on being able to taste history, and they may spend more to try something most people never will. “It’s hard to stand out in the cocktail world, and it’s fun to do something that’s hard to replicate or copy,” Castro adds. With a limited supply of vintage spirits being depleted, “every night someone has one, there’s less of it to enjoy.”
Ari Bendersky is a lifestyle journalist who specializes in food, wine, spirits, and travel. The founding editor of Eater Chicago, Bendersky has been writing for 20-plus years; his work has appeared in the New York Times, WSJ Magazine, Associated Press, Men’s Journal, Wine Enthusiast, Departures, RollingStone.com, Crain’s Chicago Business, Liquor.com, and many other publications. A lover of discovering new food and cultures, Bendersky travels whenever possible; he recently visited Finland, Argentina, Portugal, and Mexico.