Food & Drink

4 Ways to Get the Most Bang for Your Buck at Cocktail Bars

We’ve all been there: a couple of Gin and Tonics into the night, you realize that you’ve misjudged the venue. This isn’t a neighborhood bar. And it’s certainly not a dive. Nope, it’s a cocktail bar. And that means your pedestrian, two-ingredient tipple is going to ding you $16 a pop and for the same price you could have had a Ramos Gin Fizz or a Zombie or some other artisanal amusement. And while you were never going to get out of there without dropping a few bucks, you could have made your money work harder for you. The good news is you can absolutely get your money’s worth every time you go to a cocktail bar if you know what to look for. We enlisted a few bartenders to give us a crash course in getting the best bang for your buck on your cocktail travels.

Go for Rum, Rum, Rum

Erika Ordoñez, bartender at New York cocktail Slowly Shirley says one of the best values behind the bar that people may not realize is rum. “Rum is just cheaper than whiskey and you can sip on a great aged rum for way less money than an aged whiskey,” says Ordoñez. For those wanting a cocktail rather than a straight spirit, you can also swap the base spirits in classic whiskey-based cocktails like the Old Fashioned, Manhattan and Whiskey Sour for a quality rum. The drink will taste and look just as good as it does with whiskey, but it will help you save a few bucks when you’re strapped for cash.

Look for drinks with esoteric ingredients

If you are in the mood for one of those $16 cocktails on the drink menu, you can still make sure you’re getting the best value for your money. Instead of ordering a cocktail with a less expensive spirit, look to spend a little more on a drink with less common ingredients. You’ll be paying the same, but with the knowledge you’re absolutely getting your money’s worth.

“A lot of people don't know how to spot it on a menu but usually they are there,” says Ordoñez. “Most beverage menus are set up to have something that is best value to the house—a low cost drink that appeals to most and sells—as well as something that has more esoteric ingredients that are often more expensive for more discerning drinkers.”

Which is to say, the best value for the house is often the least value for the customer, and vice versa. Ordoñez says this is an artifact of cocktail bars trying to keep the prices of the two as close as possible. “The ingredients in the esoteric drinks may be more expensive, but they’re usually priced the same.” So go ahead: Order the cocktail that’s garnished with uni—it’s really worth it.

Choose ingredients you wouldn’t make at home

Remember, your time is a nonrenewable resource. Another good way to pick out a great value on a cocktail menu is by looking for drinks that include ingredients that are annoying and/or time consuming to make at home. Though you might be able to whip up a pine nut orgeat in your own kitchen, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to spend the time and effort to do so. Many ingredients take hours―if not days―to make, and the cost for ingredients adds up quickly. If you only want to make one cocktail with Donn’s Gardenia Mix, the time and effort you put in might not be worth the outcome. An easy solution: Order a drink with that ingredient at a cocktail bar. There’s no trial and error to make sure it comes out right and, odds are, it will taste a hell of a lot better.

While this rule naturally applies to ingredients like orgeat, fat-washed spirits and infusions, also be on the lookout for involved syrups and juices in your drinks. While making an infused syrup or fresh juice at home might seem more doable, it can sometimes take an unexpected amount of time. Consider juicing a fresh pineapple—first you have to clean it, core it, cut it up, run it through the juicer and clean the juicer. All for a few ounces of pineapple juice. Instead, take advantage of the time bartenders at cocktail bars put into preparing fresh ingredients.

Order high-proof cocktails

Some cocktails are easy to put down quickly, while others are designed to be sipped and savored. Spirit-heavy recipes fall into the latter camp, which according to Johnny Swet, cocktail consultant for NYC bars The Jimmy at The James Hotel and Rogue & Canon, makes them a great deal.
Swet says cocktails like the Manhattan are great value, particularly when made with a lesser thought of—and less expensive—spirit like Laird's Bonded Apple Brandy. “Laird's is 100 proof, yet incredibly smooth, but in a Manhattan you’re also getting at least three ounces of liquor, and it's something you’re going to sip and savor and enjoy, not just chug.”

When you up the ante on the proof of the cocktail, its high potency could last you as long as it takes someone else to put down two lower ABV drinks, ultimately saving you money. Head Bartender at Nantucket bar Greydon House John McCarthy agrees with this approach, his favorite value drink being a Rittenhouse Rye-spiked Old Fashioned. Also a 100-proof spirit, McCarthy says the drink is “inexpensive and delicious.”

Another way to approach this tip is to order cocktails that are potent for other reasons. The Negroni and its ilk, for instance, is made with three ingredients, all of which contain alcohol, and one of which is quite bitter. It’s a slow sipper and will last just as long as a Manhattan made with 100-proof brandy, whiskey or rum would.