Lately, I’ve been getting the feeling that cocktail bars are trying to limit me.
Recently, I visited the gorgeous new Lobby Bar inside the refurbished Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. I was excited to see that they were serving a Dukes’ Martini, the very cold, very strong Martini variation that has its origins in London. I was less excited to learn that I was only allowed to order two of them.
A few weeks later, I sat down at Pacific Standard, the brand new hotel bar and restaurant run by lauded Portland, Ore., bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler. In a box at the bottom left corner of the menu, I saw that Morgenthaler was offering his own personal spin on the Espresso Martini. Below it read the line, “please limit two per guest.”
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This exercise in denial continued at Little Ned, the new bar that has taken over the space formerly occupied by the much-missed Nomad Bar in New York. The menu, created by Chris Moore, formerly of Coupette in London and Dante in New York, is chockablock with delectable selections, including the original 1934 formulation of the tiki classic, the Zombie. Only one problem. Yeah, you guessed it — only two Zombies per customer.
What goes on here? Are cocktail bars suddenly not interested in making money?
No. They’re just honoring a long-standing cocktail tradition that is part sober practicality, part Barnum-style hokum. And you can blame that Zombie for it all. For that potent creation, invented in the 1930s at Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles, is the first cocktail that ever put the brakes on a barfly’s purchasing power. Owner Donn Beach’s reasoning behind the prohibition is unclear, but Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the world’s leading authority on tiki culture, has his ideas.
“I can only offer unsupported conjecture,” says Berry, “but my feeling is that Donn used the minimum-order gambit as a marketing gimmick to challenge the 1930s two-fisted, red-blooded American male. ‘Hey, you think you’re man enough to finish two of these?’ And then the customer would presumably order another cocktail to prove he could drink more.”
Beach’s trade trick was quickly picked up by any bar that happened to serve the Zombie, including rival Trader Vic’s.
Martin Cate, an owner of Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, one of the most famous tiki bars in the world, carries on Beach’s tradition to this day. It doesn’t say anywhere on the Smuggler’s Cove menu that only two Zombies are permitted per person, but that is the house policy. Cate agrees that the limit acts as a canny challenge meant to provoke interest in patrons.
“Fundamentally, it’s a marketing gimmick,” he said, “and a sort of dare to the kind of bluster-fueled guy who either takes it as a challenge or is worried about their perception when drinking tropical drinks.”
Recent history, however, has shown that that schtick can be applied to not just the Zombie, but any strong drink. The Dukes’ Martini is an undiluted cocktail, the freezer-kept gin or vodka poured directly from the bottle to the glass. It, therefore, packs quite a punch. While the drink is famous for many reasons — its temperature, the small amount of vermouth used, its being built on a trolley tableside — one of them is that you can only order two. Brian Evans, the beverage director at the Lobby Bar, has carried on that tradition.
“While guest safety is most certainly a very important reason for implementing a two-drink limitation,” says Evans, “we cannot deny the thrill of good marketing tactic and the notoriety attached to ‘living dangerously.’” But Evans also has a practical reason for the restriction. “In terms of maintaining the quality of our most popularly ordered menu item within a larger space of 200 seats, this limitation helps us strategically rotate the freezer-kept bottles effectively, so that each guest can enjoy it in its ideal, bracingly cold temperature with its table-side presentation.”
Why an Espresso Martini would be given the Zombie treatment is less clear. The Dick Bradsell invention is currently one of the most popular cocktails around the globe and if there’s a bar that is limiting people in their consumption of them, I haven’t encountered it until now. But Morgenthaler has his reasons.
“We are using a super-strong cold brew concentrate from a local roaster called Good Coffee,” he explains. “Having over-caffeinated people consuming alcohol can be troublesome, so we put that limit on there as an ‘out’ for the bar staff in case anyone is feeling like a liability.”
But even Morgenthaler admits that the curtailment works like a charm as customer catnip.
“It’s also been a surprise marketing tactic,” he says. “People have been coming in to try the ‘forbidden’ Espresso Martini on the menu.”
As for Chris Moore at Little Ned, his reasons for the Zombie limit were somewhat romantic. “I just wanted to pay homage to the original Zombie,” he says.
I ask Moore if he thinks Donn Beach really cared about the well-being of his customers or if he was just a good salesman? Moore smiles.
“A bit of both,” he says.