Photo by Chris Casella

Twelve Dollar Scholar

How much would you pay for a drink?

It’s a fair question we should be asking ourselves now that craft cocktails have fully invaded the city’s drink menus.

A craft beer, or a shot of a decent spirit will usually cost about $5, but a cocktail usually costs somewhere in the $10-$13 range. At first glance, this is steep: there are plenty of cozy bars in Columbus where $12 will buy several rounds of drinks. But when you understand what you are really getting, $12 is a bargain for a good cocktail.

You pay not only for the booze and ingredients served to you, but also for the experience of the cocktail; the carefully curated environment in which you are enveloped, where the décor and music are often laboriously chosen in the weeks, months, and years prior. You pay for the thrill of perusing a cocktail menu, inquiring about the exotic ingredients, and the blind excitement of choosing a drink. You pay to watch as the bartender intently measures, volatizes, and strains your drink, often while offering his or her sagacious thoughts on the booze you’re about to imbibe. You pay for the sensation as you press your fingers to a frosted glass that has been painstakingly selected for your specific drink.

You pay for the olfactory symphony, the smells that surround your nose as you raise your glass. The garnish, possibly a citrus rind or fresh herb, combines with the smell of the drink to deliver a ghostly pleasure, and you feel your palate open wide before you have even tasted the drink. Then of course, the heavenly first sip, where both familiar and novel flavors work together to create something that is often nostaglic, yet enigmatically different.

A good drink is difficult to put down, but it also rewards patience. Often it’s designed to dilute as you drink it, and take on new character as it does so, or warm slightly and reveal new subtleties as the drink rises to the temperature of the room. Sometimes a PBR with a shot of bourbon is in order, but sometimes, the craft cocktail experience is the one we need and crave. But before that drink even has a chance to cross the threshold of your lips, and before the bartender has introduced herself, your drink is being labored over.

Behind the scenes, the amount of work and care that goes into your drink is overwhelming. Fresh citrus is volatile, and must be juiced with regularity throughout the week. Hours before putting a cocktail napkin down in front of you, your bartender is likely hand-squeezing lemons, limes, grapefruits, and oranges. In some places, it is not out of the ordinary to see fresh cucumber, watermelon beet, pepper, or pineapple juice as well. You are not only paying for the cost of the citrus, but also the painstaking labor that goes into extracting the juice.

And there really is no substitute for fresh juice. Drinks like the daiquiri, which are lifeless and uninviting when made with premade mix, reveal wonders when made with fresh ingredients.

Ice, which is one of the most overlooked ingredients of a good drink, is also something you must factor into its cost. Ice from a machine is fine for a many applications, but with a lot of cocktails, handmade ice is a game-changer. When you see shaped ice, often big cubes or spheres, it is most often handmade. There is a good chance that the person serving your drink also poured water into a tray, froze the tray, and extracted the ice, sometimes even chiseling or cutting the ice. It is perhaps the most thankless and daunting of tasks in the cocktail world, but nonetheless, absolutely essential to ensure the visual presentation, flavor, and experience is of the utmost quality.

As your craft bartender performs his or her opening duties, there are innumerable other details which must be given attention to ensure your $12 drink meets these standards. The glassware must be carefully chosen, polished, and chilled. Vermouth and other aperitifs, often wonderful cocktail ingredients, must be looked after and kept chilled whenever possible. This often means frequent trips to the refrigerator, and a special attention to which ingredients may be left on the shelf and which may not be. Syrups, of which cocktail bars now use many different varieties, must be made, cooled, strained and bottled. When you see words like honey, demerara, agave, or maple in the menu, most often these are syrups that are prepared for you by your bartender. Like the ice, the cost in labor and in contents is significant.

Then there is the bartender himself. Craft bartenders in Columbus, without exception, practice their trade because of their love of cocktails. You can make a great deal more money by pouring shots and beers than you can mixing good drinks. Your bartender must memorize new drink lists every season, know a good 40-50 drinks that can be made offhand at any time, understand all the ingredients in order to be able to answer inquiries, and perform all tasks with eyes on them at all times.

It is what makes the $12 drink a true bargain: to have the attention, care, forethought, and expertise of a craftsman for a good deal of an evening should not be taken for granted.

Then there is the drink itself – many ingredients are expensive. A drink as simple as a Maker’s Mark Manhattan, even if one disregards everything but the ingredients, is reasonable at $12.

Think about it: a typical 1.5-ounce shot at most bars is going to cost $5-7. Most manhattans are made with a two-ounce pour of whiskey, and Maker’s is often a go-to choice for a house Manhattan. Before even taking into account the pour of good vermouth and the dash of bitters that goes into said drink, the same amount of whiskey would cost $8 at most bars. In this case, you are only paying $4 more for the vermouth, and the attention and care that go into the preparation, making, and presentation of your drink.

You might get more value out of shooting the Maker’s Mark if your only criteria is getting drunk, but the joy you get for that extra $4 is a no-brainer.

For most of us, our need for variety, as well as our bank accounts, stand in the way of drinking $12 drinks all the time – or maybe even a lot of the time. However, at the right time, in the right place, the $12 drink is an essential part of living the good life. It is also, when you think about it, an extremely reasonable price.