The Dollar-Wise Gourmet: The Cockeyed Cost of Cocktails

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When your bill looks like this . . .
 Martini: $11.50   Entrée: $10.95
. . . you start to think there’s been a mistake.

That was my recent experience at a popular local restaurant, prompting me to ponder: Since when did a cocktail cost more than a meal?

To find out, I rang up my buddy Daniel Funderburg, aka DJ, a veteran bartender who currently slings drinks at Clark’s Corner in East Sac. He says the price jacking is largely a reflection of our economic times. Distributors are adding surcharges and raising prices due to skyrocketing fuel and transportation costs, he says, so the climbing cost of alcohol “is no different than a gallon of milk. Look at grocery store prices.”

Location also plays a role, DJ adds. “It depends on where you’re going for that drink,” he says. “If it’s a hot spot or it’s in a nicer part of town, you’ll pay more.” So true: At trendy downtown places such as Ella and Lounge ON20, a fancy handcrafted cocktail will set you back $9 to $12. Piatti, less trendy but located in the plush Pavilions, charges $9.50 for a Capri Lemon Drop—nearly as much as you’ll pay for a pizza or small primi pasta, which run around $10 to $12.

Also a factor in rising costs: the exploding artisan and specialty cocktail scene. “It used to be just Cosmos, but now people are making all these exotic handcrafted liqueurs with citrus, maraschino cherries, you name it,” says Dominic Sirianni, general manager of Lucca Restaurant and Bar. “There’s a lot more going into cocktails now.”

So how do you satiate your need for a lovely libation without getting hosed? A few Dollar-Wise tips:

 Hit happy hour. Nearly every restaurant and bar in town offers one these days. But be on time: If happy hour ends at 6 p.m. (and many do), sliding into your barstool at 5:55 instead of 6:05 means the difference between deal or no deal.
 Go basic. Do you really need Grey Goose? Premium brands always drive up the tab.

 Don’t order off the “specialty cocktails” menu. That’s where the highest prices happen. At Clark’s Corner, a regular Cosmo costs $6 or $7 (depending on the vodka), according to my bartending buddy DJ. But the Creamy Cosmo, with Absolut vodka, Rock Cloud sake and pomegranate juice, is $9.

 Get the facts. While happy houring at Crush 29 in Roseville, I blithely ordered a Cosmo, assuming the bargains extended to all drinks. Wrong. I paid $7.95 (around $8.50 with tax) when I could have been sipping a Crushtini—a house specialty, with vodka, Chambord, pineapple juice, guava nectar and fresh red grapes—for just $5.