There’s one word being used a lot right now to describe the New York bar scene: expensive. “Prices are out of control,” says an industry friend. “My Martini cost more than my burger,” tweeted the New York drinks writer Kara Newman recently. “This is where we are now?”

At Overstory, one of the city’s hottest bars, cocktails are $24 before gratuity; at the famous jazz lounge Bemelmans Bar, half the Martinis are now over $34, plus up to a $35 per person cover charge at peak times. “You can drop $500 on a couple of cocktails and dinner in New York these days without batting an eye,” says drinks writer Tyler Zielinski.

Connaught Bar’s £26 Martini is mixed tableside
Connaught Bar’s £26 Martini is mixed tableside © Christian Banfield

London bars have also passed the £20-a-drink mark. The house Martini at The Dorchester’s new Vesper Bar is £25. Many signature cocktails at The Savoy’s American Bar are closer to £30. The notoriously strong Martini at Ian Fleming’s old haunt, Dukes Bar in St James’s, is a bracing £22.50.

You can make a very decent Martini for a couple of quid. So what are you paying for? “Ingredients only account for around 20 per cent of the list price,” says Liam Davy, head of bars at Hawksmoor group ($19 for a Martini in Manhattan, and £13-£14 in London). “You’ve also got to factor in labour, rents, rates, glassware, printing of the menu and so on. Costs for all these things have gone up hugely.”

Rising prices also reflect a change in what people expect from a bar visit, he adds. “People used to treat a trip to a cocktail bar more like a trip to the pub – they’d spend the whole evening in there. Now they’ll have one or two cocktails, max, but they’re expecting much more of an ‘experience’.”

Connaught Bar offers a choice of bespoke bitters for its Martini
Connaught Bar offers a choice of bespoke bitters for its Martini © Leonardo Filippini

That “experience” might entail free cocktail tasters on arrival, hand-carved ice, Michelin-grade ingredients, live music, staff in designer uniforms and luxury snacks. At the Connaught Bar, £26 Martinis are mixed tableside, with a choice of bespoke bitters and poured from a great height into a crystal glass engraved to match the scalloped ceiling. What you’re really paying for here, argues director of mixology Ago Perrone, is the personalised service: “That human factor is where the magic lies.”

If you’re prepared to forgo some of the bells and whistles, it is still possible to have a memorable Martini in London for half that price. At Soho’s award-winning Soma bar you can have a £13 Martini twist made with coriander vermouth, citrus pepper, purple carrot and Himalayan gin. Swift’s bars in Soho, Shoreditch and Borough also do a fine line in more affordable stiffeners.

But the fact is, for all the sticker-shock, five-star bars are busier than ever. “We can no longer tell the difference between a Monday and a Saturday,” says Perrone. The cocktail, it seems, remains a high priority. 

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