On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss the confounding appeal of top-shelf cocktails. These are drinks that incorporate ultra-premium spirits into their recipes — and whose prices can range from $50 to $1,000.
Why are these cocktails gaining popularity in recent years, as opposed to their less expensive counterparts? Who’s buying these premium sips, and are these top-shelf cocktails worth the spend? Join your hosts as they discuss these topics and more — and taste a top-shelf tipple for good measure. Tune in to learn more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: It’s the Friday “VinePair Podcast.” It’s Friday, and we’re almost done with February, you know? Are we done with February? We’re almost done with February. We’re close.
Z: It always messes me up, since February has 28 days. Especially this year, because Monday is the 28th. It’s the week of Feb. 28 to March 4, which just f*cks my mind.
A: I’m like, “Wait, what?” I don’t get it. But I’m pumped, man. February is great because it pops us through winter faster. Let’s get it done.
Z: You’re basically there once February is over.
A: Let’s go, baby, let’s go. So I’m pumped; it’s Friday. I thought we would talk about what I think is a fun conversation around cocktails, a certain kind of cocktail. Let me tell you both a little story. Recently, I was out to drinks with some friends, and one of the drinks on the list at a cocktail place we were at was a riff on the Penicillin. It was not called a Penicillin, because a lot of people don’t do that, since the person who created the Penicillin is pretty litigious. Anyways, it was a riff on a Penicillin. But in the drink, the Scotch was 20 years old, and the bottle of that Scotch is normally $300 a bottle. My friends were pretty appalled, because the cocktail was quite expensive. My friends asked me, “Adam, you write about cocktails. Why would you do this?” Isn’t this a waste of really good Scotch? If this is 20-year-old Scotch that’s so fancy, shouldn’t we be sipping it neat? Why would you ever put it in the cocktail? And I just looked at them and said, “I bet this bar got a lot of press for this cocktail.” Marketing, basically. But I’m curious what you both think. I feel like it’s become even more common recently, right? There’s some crazy Hennessy, high-end Sidecar with their top-of-the-line Cognacs. You have people doing insane Margaritas forever. What is one of them called? The Cadillac Margarita or whatever? It’s with all premium ingredients.
J: The Grand Marnier Float.
A: Yeah. So do you think it’s ever appropriate to use really expensive spirits? And why do you think it’s become more popular recently?
J: I don’t know that I would ever do it myself, except for the purposes of this podcast.
A: Joanna, you gave away what we’re about to do at the end.
J: Sorry. I think it depends on the cocktail. For the riff on a Penicillin, that is ginger syrup, honey, lemon juice, right?
A: And Scotch.
J: Of course, the spirit in question. But I think that that’s essentially masking it, right? Why would you use such an expensive spirit? But I get the appeal to consumers. It’s special, there’s something obviously very bougie about it. You’re about to drop — I don’t know, how much could that be?
A: It was $50.
J: How extravagant. So I get that that’s something that bartenders or bar programs would have for people who want to drop those dollars. What do you think, Zach?
Z: I think that’s actually a really good point here. First from the perspective of, is it ever a good idea or ever worthwhile to make cocktails with these really premium spirits? I think the answer is, sometimes. I think there are cocktails that can, in a lot of ways, really accentuate the flavors of certain spirits in a really nice way. Some of the really classic cocktails do a good job of doing this. I think there are others, whether it’s the Penicillin or something else, that don’t exactly mask the flavor of the spirit, but there’s so much else going on in the drink that they don’t necessarily allow you to appreciate all the nuance that theoretically is there in some of these really expensive spirits. I will add two notes. One is that a lot of really expensive spirits, not all, but a lot of really expensive spirits, are really expensive because it will help them sell. They themselves exist to allow people to feel very special in buying and consuming them. They may not themselves be all that much better or more complex or interesting than a much less expensive version of the same spirit. So in that sense, does it ruin them? Probably not. They are probably no worse for a cocktail than a less expensive version of the same spirit. Additionally, I think one thing that bar programs have seen is that there is a subset of the drinking population that wants to consume conspicuously, wants to consume expensive liquor, but does not want to drink that liquor neat. And putting it in a cocktail allows them to feel sophisticated while ordering a $50 cocktail or a $100 cocktail or a $1,000 cocktail, or whatever the f*ck we’re talking about.
A: And those do exist, it’s crazy.
Z: But they will enjoy drinking it in a way that they will not enjoy drinking a $500 dram of Scotch served neat. There’s a lot of people who want the prestige, or they want the people there with, or the people in the bar, or the bartender to know, “You know what? I got f*ck you money. I can drink this drink, but I want it in the format I want. Not in the format that some other person might think it’s best appreciated.”
J: How you should drink it, yeah.
Z: Can I tell you guys a story now?
A: Yes, yes,
Z: So the instant you prompted this, Adam, I had a memory of one of my relatively early bartending experiences. I’ll be honest, the bar I worked at at this time did not have a crazy selection of top-shelf spirits. We didn’t have these ancient bottles, but we did have Pappy Van Winkle. And it wasn’t crazy the Pappy prices that we have right now.
A: It was still Pappy Van Winkle.
J: I’m worried where this is going.
Z: It was $150 a shot, if I recall correctly. One night, I had a gentleman come to the bar and say, “Do you guys have Pappy?” I said, “Yeah, we do.” He said, “I want four shots of that.” And I was like, “Do you want it stirred down at all? Do you want a cube?” He’s like, “Actually, can I get it on the rocks?” And I was like. “Sure, that’s fine.” He’s like, “Actually, can we get some Coke in there?”
A: It’s your whiskey, do what you want.
Z: Where’s your card? I’m gonna run this card before I make this drink. He paid for it, and he and his buddies drank their $150 whiskey and Cokes and seemed happy about it. I’ve told that story to lots of people over the years. There are a lot of reactions and one of them is like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that they would ruin it.” That is not a drink I would have, even with well whiskey, to say nothing of a very expensive bourbon.
A: You’re not a whiskey Coke guy.
Z: Not a whiskey Coke guy, sorry. But I will say that, it was clear that they wanted to be able to say they’d had Pappy Van Winkle, or that they had spent $150 on a drink, or whatever was going on there. If I hadn’t leveraged that instinct in people at times, whether it was cocktails, wine, whatever, if someone wants to spend the money at some point, it’s no longer my responsibility to tell them how they should consume the drink they’re drinking. If they want to put ice cubes in their $1,000 bottle of Burgundy, it’s not my problem.
A: I think we’re seeing, in this day and age as we’ve discussed multiple times, there are lots of people who have done very well in the pandemic. There are lots of people who have a lot of money. I think we’re also seeing this sort of rejection of the normal ways that you are supposed to consume things. All one has to do is go to social media, it doesn’t even matter what your medium is, whether that’s YouTube, TikTok, or Instagram. Watch people making insane wagyu beef like chili and tacos. No, that’s not what you’re supposed to do with it. This meat is so expensive. But that’s what people are doing to kind of almost say “I can afford this and f*ck off.” I’m sure it already exists but you know that if it doesn’t, someone is going to make a super expensive Long Island Iced Tea. You just know that that’s where it’s all going. To some extent, I’m not going to be the person to order it. Zach, I agree with you, some spirits are definitely just pricey to be expensive, especially when those spirits are vodka and gin and things like that. But with some of these aged whiskeys, when they get really old, what you notice if you’ve gotten the opportunity to taste some really old whiskeys, is they actually lose a lot of their character. Especially with Scotch. Talisker is a Scotch that’s known for being extremely smoky, not as smoky as Lagavulin, but it’s pretty high on the smokiness scale. As it gets older, the peat goes away. It literally matures out of the liquid. Let’s say you were making a cocktail that called for smoke, but then you decide to do it with a 25-year-old Talisker. You would actually lose some of what the drink would be looking for in character. The drink probably wanted that smokiness, and you’re saying, this is now a much smoother whiskey, so it’s interesting. But again, as we’re in a time and place where people want to show off, these drinks are going to continue to exist. If you are a listener of the podcast and you’ve had one of these drinks, I’d love to know what it was, how much you paid, and where you got it, because it does fascinate me. There’s so much pomp and circumstance about it. I think there’s a place in Vegas that does a really crazy Sidecar. They pull out the cart, they do it all at the table, and it might be one of ones you were talking about, Zach. It’s like $1,000, and people order it. They love to watch it, see it, bring out the super, super-expensive Hennessy bottle or whatever, and go to town. If that’s the way you want to consume, that’s the way you want to consume.
Z: I think with a lot of this, to what extent are we just doing it so that everyone else in the bar knows that you ordered the $1,000 cocktail? It’s equivalent of the dive bar bell that you ring to say you’re buying everyone a round, right? It’s just a way to be like, “I got money.” Which again, it’s whatever. Vegas exists basically to take care of and clean up off of people like that, who want to consume very conspicuously. But I do think there’s another interesting piece to this and I want your guys’ perspective on it. You mentioned at the beginning with your story, Adam, that you told your friends, “I bet they got a lot of press about this.” Do you think that that should be true? At this point, it should be reported breathlessly about the newest $500, $1,000 cocktail that some place is doing? One, it’s almost certainly a gimmick that four people will ever order, in most cases. Two, it’s clearly attempting to sort of say, “Come here and spend money that you can’t think of anything else to do.”
A: I mean, I don’t want to speak for the editor in chief here and whether she would cover it. I don’t think that’s something VinePair covers that often, right Joanna?
J: No, no.
A: But it’s for sure something Delish covers, or some of those other publications that literally exist for viral everything. “This is the most expensive car you can ever buy right now.” And that’s what it exists for, for sure.
J: While we wouldn’t cover the more gimmicky ones, we have covered things like tableside Sazerac service, where you can get a $96 Sazerac at a very reputable bar in New York City. There are certain levels of this. But the $1,000 sundae or the fries that they do at Serendipity are very clearly gimmicks. I think that’s the difference.
A: It’s interesting what you bring up, Joanna. To your question, Zach, it’s not fair, but it also depends on the restaurant or bar group or person that does it. Everyone reported on Boulud’s expensive burger, because it was Daniel Boulud. Any expensive cocktail Major Food Group does, it’ll get reported on because it’s Major Food Group. They own Parm and Carbone and The Grille. This is what they do. Let’s say they have the most expensive Espresso Martini. I don’t think they have that, but I’m sure they will now.
Z: You should at least get a free one.
A: Yeah, I should at least get a free one. Whoever listens to this, if you associate with Major Food Group, hook me up. I’ve never been to Carbone. Anyways, if you are one of those types of restaurateurs or bar programs, you 100 percent will get covered — even by us, because you’ve earned your reputation.
J: We think that there is merit behind that, that you’re allowed to do that.
A: If you’re some bar no one’s ever heard of, or a restaurant that’s known for doing gimmicky sh*t, that’s more for the same publications that cover every single gimmick. And I think that people also take it less seriously.
Z: So I want to drop a little bit of a hot take here, because it seems like the appropriate place before we drink. I think that a lot of what we’re talking about here is obviously specifically oriented around cocktails, because that’s kind of what the prompt was from you, Adam. But I think that a lot of what I’ve said about there not being enough of an elevated experience to justify the price other than being able to feel like a big shot, is super true about high-end wine, too. I have had the ability to taste not anywhere near all of the very expensive wines on the planet, but I’ve had the opportunity to taste some of the wines that do fetch really, really high prices. It has never felt worth it to me. And again, this is coming from someone who is not poor but not crazy wealthy. And to me, the difference between a $1,000 dollar bottle of wine and a $100 bottle of wine is really meaningful. Those $900 matter. If you’re the kind of person for whom that zero doesn’t make a difference, then I don’t mean to say that there’s no difference between those wines at times or even adding another zero, potentially, in a restaurant. But I think that for almost everyone, if there is a difference, it’s so small that you have to have a kind of wealth that I don’t really understand to be like, I’m willing to pay this. Or you just want to do the thing that we’re talking about. You want to show the level of wealth you have. You want to make it clear to people that you have that and that dropping $5,000 or $10,000 on a bottle of wine or a couple bottles of wine or whatever is just something you can do. Whatever, that’s fine, I guess. I don’t personally find that to be very interesting. And again, a lot of those wines almost are described like the Talisker, because they’re often very old bottles and they’re probably past their prime drinking window. The nuances of very aged wine are, at best, hard to pick up on, if not completely absent. So there is a lot of gimmickry around that. When someone orders those wines, whether they order them in a restaurant or buy them at auction or something like that, if the point is to consume them, I think you’re paying to be able to feel like a big shot. But whatever; those aren’t the only two things that exist for that purpose.
J: I just think cocktails and wine are so fleeting to spend that much money on.
A: That’s what’s also interesting. Not to get us too off topic, but that’s why it’s been interesting to me to watch people, especially celebrities who have massive amounts of means, get into wine when they’ve achieved a certain amount of wealth. You see the kind of bottles they Instagram, and it’s bottles that I’ll never get to have. I’m sure they are amazing because they’re the bottles they’re consuming. But I just have to believe that there’s other amazing wines from Ribera del Duero than just Vega Sicilia, right? Or that there’s amazing Burgundies that aren’t DRC. But if that’s what you get to have all the time, good for you. I probably will never have them.
Z: It definitely taps into a kind of competitive element. When you are talking about athletes, musicians, movie stars, or whomever, all of them have a certain amount of ego, a certain amount of competitive element. To be able to say, “I had this bottle,” is a way of saying that I got something that virtually none of their followers, but even their peers, may not be able to to source. There’s a lot of that ethos that surrounds these categories.
A: I do think, at the end of the day, that is how you build a luxury brand. Luxury brands have to feel exclusive, right? They can’t feel like they’re for every person. It’s the same with watches, cars, fashion. That’s where you stand out. So it’s interesting. There’s certain brands I’ve heard of recently that are not sure what they want to be. Are they luxury brands? Are they brands that are in more creative communities? But at the end of the day, especially when it comes to high-end spirits, they’re luxury brands. They are brands that you’re saying something by being able to order it. And you want people to know what the price of it is. So being able to sit down and say, “I can order this $100 cocktail” is saying something about you and how successful you are. It’s your signal to the market, right? And it’s the same as why people strive to carry a black card or things like that. It’s to say, I want this signal to show people that I’ve done really, really well. This isn’t my theory. This is the market professor Scott Galloway’s theory. But he’s always said, especially when it comes to young men who are successful in the finance field, etc., if you’re thinking about how we are as humans looking for a partner, I can provide for you. I can help us build a life together, blah blah blah.
Z: All the $1,000 cocktails you can drink.
A: Exactly, right? We can live wherever. And that’s why people do it. With that being said, we made our own baller cocktails to drink this Friday. Joanna, what did you make?
J: I made a Godfather cocktail.
A: And what did you make it with?
J: I made it with Johnnie Walker Blue. A totally normal and fine thing to do. Sorry, Dad. I took his bottle.
Z: Oh no.
J: It’s only 2 ounces.
A: Does he know you did this?
A: That’s amazing.
J: And there’s half-an-ounce of amaretto and a lemon twist.
A: I love it. Zach, how about you?
Z: Since we all kind of ended up in the Scotch realm, I made a Rob Roy. It’s basically a Manhattan, but with Scotch, with Macallan 18. So 2 ounces of Macallan 18, a half-ounce of Carapana Antica vermouth, just a little dash of Angostura, stirred. I’m about to sip it.
A: So it’s stirred and then strained?
A: So you went single malt, and you made yours differently. My grandfather’s cocktail was a Rob Roy. I didn’t know this part of the story because I wasn’t alive yet. But when I was alive, I saw that my grandfather had one drink every night. When he was my grandfather at the time, I remember the one drink. When he was a furniture salesman, he would go door to door, all that kind of stuff. He would come home and he would make one drink, and it was always a Rob Roy. I think it was with Seagram’s 7. I made mine with Johnnie Walker Blue, and I made mine the way he did, which was always in a rocks glass with ice. He muddled the cherries first. So he would muddle the Maraschino, and then he would add the rest of the liquid. So I did 2 and a half ounces of Scotch, an ounce of sweet vermouth, obviously Antica as well, some Angostura, and stirred it together before the ice just to mix it up a little and get that cherry juice in there, and then added the ice. Sometimes, he would also add an orange. I don’t know where that came from, so I didn’t do that. I also didn’t have an orange. He would add a whole orange wedge and kind of muddle that in, too. I think it was when they were all just muddling sh*t.
Z: So it’s like an Old Fashioned/Rob Roy.
A: Yeah, but that was his drink. So I’m drinking a Rob Roy.
Z: Can you tell the difference between this and Seagram’s 7?
A: Yeah, you definitely can. This is quite easy to drink. Seagram’s is actually not a Scotch, so sometimes, he would use Cutty Sark. Cutty Sark was his big one. Seagram’s might have been for something else; now I remember that it’s not a Scotch. But Rob Roy was his drink. Yeah, this is weird. It is a nicer cocktail, I will say that. It is a nicer cocktail. If I saw this on a list, my Johnnie Walker Blue cocktail would probably be $50 to $75. But it’s tasty.
Z: My Rob Roy is really nice. You still get a lot of the character of the Macallan 18, all the sherry wood cask and stuff. But there’s a little way in which the flavors from the vermouth and the bitters do bring it out a little bit more. I don’t know if this is how I will choose to consume Macallan 18 in the future.
A: No, but it was fun for now.
Z: It’s not bad. How was your drink, Joanna?
J: It’s great. I’m enjoying it, actually. I don’t think you really lose the Scotch too much here.
A: I still can tell that it’s a very premium Scotch. I have to say, I really can. It’s not like what I think the experience would have been like in that story to begin the conversation. In a Penicillin riff, you probably would have lost this. You would just taste the honey and the ginger and things like this. Here, the Scotch is playing really nicely with the Angostura and the sweet vermouth.
J: Well, good for us. Happy Friday.
A: Have lovely, amazing weekends. I hope this is a nice way to kick your weekend off, and I will talk to you both on Monday.
J: But before we go, we have a shout-out.
A: We do have a shout-out. That’s right.
J: I’m going to do it. Lou Bank, thank you so much. This is a shout-out to Ben Scott of Mezcal Mal Bien on the birth of his son. Congratulations, Ben.
A: Congrats Ben. Thanks, Lou. And to remind everyone, you can get a shout-out as well. Just invite a lot of people to the email list. There’s a whole tracking software. Sign up for our email newsletter VP Pro, and you can learn how to do it. The more people you invite, the more likely you are to get a shout-out on the pod for you or someone you love. Again, you guys have a great weekend. See you Monday.
J: See you then.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.