The Price of the Drink

Usually, when a bartender is overheard talking about commodity prices or weather systems, he’s either indulging a customer or making plans for his own investment portfolio. But lately, the conversations about these things have more to do with day to day bar and restaurant operations.

Why? Because so many cocktail programs, especially this time of year, are dependent on the predictable supply of quality fruits and vegetables. Farm-to-table drinking, just like dining, can be thrown off schedule and more importantly out of budget when the weather turns blistering hot and searingly dry, as it did in much of the country throughout July. This makes it hard to get the predicted amount of juice from cucumbers or melons without sending your predicted pour-cost through the roof when said produce arrives smaller or drier than anticipated. To say nothing of the flavor calculus – if your summer twist on an Old-Fashioned includes, say, peaches, well, you may need to go back to the planning stages, or grill them or cook them down with some simple syrup to get the flavor profile you counted on.

And those, especially Midwestern, bartenders who like to save summer by preserving its bounty for use in the autumn in syrups, compotes, pickles or other ingredients, well, they’ll have a problem justifying that as well this year, it seems. Drought’s no good for anybody, anytime, and when it happens, it’s time to re-think your next step.

Don’t gloat, those of you who steer clear of fruit in your concoctions, a la Red Smith (a Pulitzer Prize winning sports columnists, Smith always ordered his drink this way – “I’ll have a vodka tonic. Just the vodka and the tonic and the ice. No fruit, please.”) Corn prices are through the roof and are expected to continue heading that way, which means not only bourbon, Tennessee and other American whiskies may be getting more expensive, but also American made vodkas, many of which depend on corn. Prices of wheat in Europe and Russia are moving north fast as well. Tequila may be cheap now, but the usual and expected reckoning is coming in the agave roller coaster in a short time for certain – it always does.

These price fluctuations have rarely been a bartender’s concern but now that more bars behave in their purchasing like restaurants, and more bartenders are in charge (or should be) of not only drink creation but profit and loss, they will be. Bourbon thrives because it’s good but also partly because it is an enormous value when vodkas can cost much more. Ditto tequila. But absorbing cost increases or passing them on are the two unpalatable choices that remain.

Am I predicting doom and gloom? Not at all; this is all about profitability; how to plan for it, execute it and adjust for it. So before making your next drink menu change, check with the kitchen manager about price trends, scan the farmer’s market for what’s bountiful and inexpensive this year, quiz the vendors about what they are seeing. Seasonal drinking can bring your bar lots of attention, make you friends in other communities, satisfy and delight your customers and make your business hum. But each time you make a choice about a fruit to feature, you’re making a business as well as a culinary decision, and a smart bartender treats it that way.

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