The World’s Greatest Cocktail certainly isn’t the cheapest.
At recently opened cocktail den Left Door, 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon is combined with Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne, lemon juice, and honey to make a French 95.
The price tag? $100.
For $50, drinkers can instead opt for the Tribute to the World’s Greatest Cocktail made with Thomas Handy Rye and Ruinart Rosé.
And for those less flush with cash, there’s Gimme a Fucking French 95. The $10 cocktail includes rail rye whiskey (George Dickel) and bubbles “from close to Champagne” (Charles de Fère).
“We don’t mind using the best of the best to do what we really can do,” says owner and bartender Tom Brown, formerly of The Passenger. “It was a mission statement saying, ‘We’re not afraid to use nice things.’”
When a cocktail costs more than a flight to New York, it can come off as pure gimmick. And there are plenty of examples of drinks that are expensive purely for the sake of being expensive: One local nightclub, Heist, once offered a $1,500 three-cocktail flight with a diamond garnish. Meanwhile, Claudia’s Steakhouse added a $125 gin martini to its menu after some lawyers reportedly remarked the menu was “too cheap.”
But at Left Door as well as at Dram & Grain, the cocktail haven in the basement of Jack Rose Dining Saloon, there’s a legitimate case to be made for a hefty cocktail price tag and for mixing drinks with prized rare ingredients that are typically sipped and savored on their own. While some purists may find the idea of putting 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle in a mint julep akin to driving a 1964 Aston Martin DB5 on a muddy, unpaved road, these bartenders argue that no spirit is so sacred that it can’t be used in a cocktail.
Brown says the idea harkens back to the “silver age of cocktails,” the Victorian era, from which Left Door takes inspiration. “There were some really good ingredients available, and they used them,” says Brown. “If they were putting a red wine float on something, there might have been a chance that it was a really good Bordeaux.”
While The World’s Greatest Cocktail is the only drink on the menu with a price tag in the triple digits for now, Brown says the tiered pricing is meant to serve as a signal to drinkers that they can upgrade just about any cocktail. He’s long been a collector of rare and unique spirits, which have now found a home at Left Door.
“Having all these really good ingredients available, the temptation is just way too overwhelming to mix them around,” Brown says. “We’re living in this golden era where we have everything available to us, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t experiment with everything.”
Over at Dram & Grain, bartender Lukas Smith first introduced some pricey cocktails as a way to subsidize his own drinking wishlist. “How do I get my hands on a sip of a $1,500 bottle of Chartreuse? How do I do that? Maybe what I do is I come up with some sort of event for it,” he explains. On St. Patrick’s Day, for example, he concocted the Tipperary Insanity with 21-year-old Redbreast Irish whiskey, a Green Chartreuse believed to have been bottled in 1967, and Cocchi Rosso vermouth for $85.
“Once you’ve tasted something like that, it’s hard not to keep pursuing it,” Smith says, “and that’s the way it is with all finer things, I guess.”
Smith started offering other such cocktails as occasional specials, including the $135 Champion Elysées with L’Artisan du Cognac Grande Champagne No. 50, the 1967 Green Chartreuse, and lemon. These intermittent luxuries have since graduated into everyday menu staples dubbed the “Sacred Slaughter.”
If anyone considered rare whiskey too sacred to slaughter, you might think it would be Smith’s boss, Jack Rose owner Bill Thomas. The whiskey aficionado, whose daily hobby is watching whiskey auctions, doesn’t even believe in tainting a drink with ice. (“It dulls the palate. You’re missing the nuance of the whiskey,” he warns.)
But Thomas is totally on board with a cocktail being made with a prized, rare whiskey—as long as that spirit shines through and delivers more than just the alcohol. “What kills me is when someone takes a great whiskey and mixes it with Coke or mixes it with soda,” Thomas says. “There’s no craftsmanship here. There’s no enhancing the whiskey. There’s no celebration of the whiskey as an ingredient… You just literally killed something just to kill it.”
Smith argues that if bartenders can make great cocktails by smartly combining ingredients with so-so spirits, they can make something even better with the best spirits. “If it lives up to the hype, and it’s not just a market-driven rarity, if it actually is in a special class, it’s going to exhibit characteristics that you just can’t replicate with lesser spirits,” Smith says.
Brown compares it to his love of Billie Holiday: “I’ve enjoyed listening to her since I was a kid in my grandma’s kitchen. And when Verve remixed some Billie Holiday with some more contemporary beats, I was kind of put off… And then I listened to it, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’ It doesn’t change my love for the original, but I also really, really like that new recording of it too… I think there’s room for both things.”
Because it’s obviously very expensive to experiment with very expensive spirits, Smith and Brown rely on tried and true classic cocktail recipes. “I’m not going to crush an $800 bottle of whiskey experimenting with things,” Brown says.
Ultimately, Brown and Smith say they might only make the drink once or twice before they first put it on the menu. Brown says he tries to do trial runs with less pricey spirits; Smith says he’ll start with 60 percent of a cocktail and then build it up in the glass. So, for example, if he was planning to put an ounce and a half of whiskey in the drink, he’ll use an ounce and then slowly add more until the balance is right.
“I make sure I have a clear head and I’m focused,” Smith says. Plus, “I definitely take great care with those bottles when I’m opening them.”
Mentally, Smith says his Sacred Slaughter cocktails are more time-consuming than other cocktails because of the hours he spends thinking about things like what vermouth will pair best or how and why the different ingredients blend together.
“It’s more like I’m painting or making a collage of sorts. I’m building the flavor and the aroma, and I’m playing things off of each other,” Smith says.
And people are buying them. Brown says he’s sold as many as 10 of his $100 cocktails since opening in early January. It might not seem like a lot, but it’s the equivalent of more than 80 $12 cocktails. (Brown uses a Perlage Champagne preservation tool designed to keep the Cristal good for at least a week—not that he’s had a bottle that long. The wine is also offered by the glass for $75, and Brown says he’s been going through about six bottles about every week and a half.)
At Dram & Grain, Smith sells one or two Sacred Slaughter cocktails a week. And even if someone doesn’t buy the cocktail, they might buy an ounce of one of the spirits. “Once someone starts talking about it, usually somebody ends up with one,” Smith says. “I’d say maybe one out of 10 times that it comes up, something is purchased. And I would say two out of those three times, somebody orders an ounce of the Chartreuse, for example.”
The drinks still require a sales pitch. After all, most people consider $14 cocktails too expensive. But as a former sommelier, Smith sees a bit of a double standard. People are more likely to question an expensive cocktail than an expensive wine. “On a busy Friday night in D.C., how many $600 bottles of wine are sold across the city? I would say 100 maybe. It happens a lot,” says Smith.
Plus, Smith says Sacred Slaughter cocktails aren’t marked up as much as other drinks. At $85, he says the Tipperary Insanity is pricey but a value. “The base spirits alone would cost more than that typically at Jack Rose,” he says.
Smith says the people who buy the Sacred Slaughter cocktails generally don’t come in looking for them, which he sees as an indicator of a general openness to the idea. He finds that there’s a certain type of person who just wants to know the difference between a cocktail made with a $50 whiskey versus a $500 whiskey. But at the same time, Thomas believes more people are willing to try these kinds of cocktails because of a growing appreciation for spirit-making as an art and bartending as a profession.
Thomas also finds that making cocktails with pricey or rare spirits can take these products off their high horse. Thomas notes how the hype around Pappy Van Winkle, for example, created an artificial demand that drove up the price of the whiskey. He sees adding it to a cocktail as a revolt against marketing. “This is about enjoying what you’re drinking. This is about not taking it too serious,” he says.
It’s also a reminder that no matter how expensive, old, or rare a bottle is, it exists to be consumed.
“It’s not a museum,” Smith says. “If it just sits on the shelf forever, it’s going to die, and no one will have ever enjoyed it. And that, to me, is a shame.”
Photo of Tom Brown by Darrow Montgomery