Why that pricey, tasty drink costs so much

Kevin James Holland operates Fiume above the Ethiopian restaurant Abyssinia.
Kevin James Holland operates Fiume above the Ethiopian restaurant Abyssinia. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 19, 2012

THERE ARE many experiential wrinkles in play during a visit to a craft cocktail bar. Baroque discussion of obscure aperitifs. Citrus peels set alight tableside. Raconteur barkeeps eager to share the cultural profile of a scotch you've not heard of before artfully cascading it into a chilled highball glass.

All this whimsy, of course, is worthless if the drinks taste like death. If they're made right, by the right people with the right ingredients, it's never an issue.

Until the bill comes.

Customers griping over booze prices is as ancient as overdrinking, but there's a special brand of griping that aligns itself with cocktails. Much of it is because you can rarely see or comprehend exactly what goes into them.

Take the friend I once brought to Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. on South 18th Street, where any discussion of Philly cocktail culture typically begins. Upon the arrival of her strong drink, poured into a Champagne coupé, she glared at the tipple, quizzically silent. Then she pinched the side of the stemware as if it was her nonexistent granddaughter's Cabbage Patch cheek.

"Wait, how much was this? It's soooo small!"

Size isn't everything, and neither is money. But it's easy to understand why people get struck with spirit-soaked sticker shock. I spoke with two bartenders to discern how they arrive at the asking price for alcohol in a glass.

Al Sotack, head bartender at Center City's subterranean Franklin, is a surgeon when it comes to pricing. "The booze is simply a bottle price broken down by every single ounce in it," said Sotack, gesturing over a head-spinning spreadsheet dicing the state-dictated cost of every stocked bottle into meticulous increments, from an ounce down to a teaspoon.

"The rest of it? This is where things get more complicated."

By "the rest of it" he's referring to a multitude of non-Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board additions - fresh juices, from-scratch syrups, house-made tinctures - as well as the less codifiable elements you won't read in the box score. "Overhead in a bar like this is huge," said Sotack, citing rent, taxes, utilities, payroll and equipment as just a few vital budget items.

But Sotack is less a comptroller than a cocktail colonel. So much of his work comes during actual mixing, with its own set of human-mitigated fiscal factors (spillage, droppage, etc.). Here the key term is "pour cost," a percentage determined by dividing the base amount spent on the materials used to make a drink by its sales price. Sotack keeps the Franklin's at or under 25 percent (most everyday bars run at less than 20 percent).

Take the Dungeon Master, a "drink with teeth" on the Franklin's new 30-cocktail fall menu: 1.75 ounces Rittenhouse rye, quarter-ounce Indonesian Batavia arrack, half-ounce Smith Woodhouse port, half-ounce Zucca amaro, quarter-ounce Carpano Antica vermouth, half-teaspoon French herbal liqueur Benedictine, two shakes Peychaud's bitters. The liquor alone costs the Franklin $3.53 - roughly one quarter of the drink's $14 menu price. That figure factors in all the aforementioned (expensive) aspects, plus the level of expertise required to make it properly and quickly.

"If you have an interest in actually drinking cocktails," Sotack said, "then you know exactly what you're going to pay in Philadelphia."

Kevin James Holland also has spreadsheets, but he takes a different approach. For the last decade, he's operated West Philly's kitschy, cash-only Fiume in a tiny room above the Ethiopian restaurant Abyssinia.

Holland jokes that Fiume is "a disfigured creature fit for display at the Mutter Museum." He doesn't know of many establishments that possess this type of symbiotic, separate-but-associated relationship. That hasn't stopped the craft beer and brown-liquor fanatic from implementing both at Fiume over the past five years.

In late August, Fiume ran Cocktail Week, offering 28 drinks ranging from a classic martini with Old Raj gin to a Boulevardier des Reves, made with 107-proof Baker's bourbon, Carpano Antica, Campari and Smith & Cross "Navy Strength" Jamaica rum. Though he took a bath on some, Holland set prices at $10 across the board, with only a few exceptions.

"I really try hard to balance the business-minded approach with [a sense of] community," said Holland. "I thought, we want to do it, so we're just going to charge $10." In West Philly, far down-market from Center City, "I have that luxury."

Fiume doesn't have the space to offer a Franklin-size selection daily, but there are standards the staff can mix any night of the week. One is the Sazerac, the New Orleans classic that brings together 100-proof rye, a rinse of absinthe-like Herbsaint, Peychaud's bitters and a twist. On paper, this sets Holland back $3.67. Working in all the costs that aren't so apparent to sippers like us, he charges the requisite $10, which drops to $8 during Fiume's weekday happy hour. (Fiume's prices include Philly's 10 percent liquor tax, while the Franklin's do not.)

Holland believes that Fiume's staff, which boasts plenty of cocktail talent, is both the most important and most unquantifiable justification for his prices. "No matter what, nobody has any business charging $10 or more for a drink unless it's appropriately executed," he said. "You need someone passionate, experienced and knowledgeable, with a great palate and an eye for detail. It's something that doesn't come cheap."


Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene for more than six years. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at andrewlazor@gmail.com.

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