Friday, June 27, 2008

The Future of Cocktails 2: Boozy Boogaloo

Following my recent missive regarding the state of the cocktail "fad", Professor Erik, CEO of Underhill Lounge, left some very thought provoking comments, and I decided to drag some of my response into the light of day.

One of the things he touched on is a classic -- Cost. With the economy doing less than stellar, it's not hard to imagine folks deciding that $9-10 for a drink is way more than they are willing to pay. I don't, however, think that it is a straight issue of price. Rather I think it is an issue of perceived value -- America thrives on value, and value over the last decade or so has come to be embodied in price vs. size. A double cheese burger from McDonalds is not a good burger. But sell it for a buck, and it becomes fucking delicious. Conversely, a lot of people will look at a cocktail that's 3-4 ounces, look at the $9-10 price tag, and see nothing but a money sink.

Complicating things, is the issue of quality vs. cost. While people are quite comfortable with the idea that if they are paying more for a meal out, they will be receiving (hopefully) a meal of higher quality, this is an idea that hasn't really taken a deep hold on a great many of today's imbibers. This is due to drinkers not thinking of cocktails in culinary terms -- That a drink made correctly, using quality ingredients, is going to be substantially better than a drink thrown together with whatever's cheapest, and the price of those quality ingredients, and bartender talent make the finished product worth the extra few bucks. Boiled down to its simplest, it's a mentality of; it's just a bunch of booze in a glass. What's the big deal?

All that said, one doesn't have to look too hard to see plenty of people packing into cocktail lounges drinking away with gusto. This seeming paradox links into another really interesting point Erik brought up -- that he's concerned that San Francisco is "becoming a sort of theme park for rich foodies..." The idea of gentrification in San Francisco is, to put it bluntly, huge. In a city where even middle class wages can require making concessions to keep afloat, and the idea of owning a home is a running gag for many, the influence of money on the social landscape is almost constantly being put under the microscope. It's a fair number of these rich foodies (many of them surprisingly young, if my informal system of looking at the drinkers around me has any validity) which are helping to prop up the current rise in the popularity of cocktails.

Don't get me wrong -- Having money, and an appreciation for food doesn't make anybody inherently bad, but many of these "wealthy foodies" also fall under the category of scenesters. Their interest lays more in being in on the latest "thing" that everybody is talking about. Because these are the people with purchasing power, these are the people that (even subconsciously) upscale bars are going to cater too (and who would blame them). In the more mild of cases, it means keeping an impressively large stock of spirits which ties up cash in inventory requiring higher prices. The more crass cases, and the ones which are more detrimental to the cocktail movement, involves bars churning out $15 Red Bull/Vodka, justifying it because there's a DJ, and you had to wait in line to get in, and convincing those people that they are tasting what the cocktail revival is about.

Eventually there will be a tipping point where those individuals will decide that cocktails are not longer the in thing, and take their money elsewhere. When that happens, one can only hope that enough people were swayed by the power of a truly good drink that the cocktail renaissance will turn out to be more than just a fad. This seems like an awful lot of hand wringing about booze in a glass, but nobody ever said it'd easy to be a cocktail geek.

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