Drink Value

by Rhett Williams

What are you actually getting for your money when you buy a drink? Quantifying the value of the drink is simple, in terms of alcohol volume versus cost. Of course, most of us don't drink only to consume alcohol, so this exercise could be considered pointless. At first I started this little experiment not just for fun but because I have several friends who complain about drink prices at cocktail bars. Twelve dollars for a mixed drink is average in a good bar in Vancouver or New York, but those accustomed to buying draught beer for around five dollars or club highballs for seven have a tendency to complain about cost when going to a higher quality bar or restaurant.

These people may not understand what they're getting in their drink, with a highball typically containing 1 oz of cheap alcohol and a cocktail usually containing 2 oz of better quality liquor.

With this in mind, I set out comparing drink costs by type to confirm my view that not only is a well-made cocktail of the highest personal value to me personally, but also the highest financial value. While this could simply be considered an exercise in the "cheapest way to get drunk," doing these calculations ended up giving me more perspective on what my drinks are really worth.

Here are the guidelines:

I looked at a cheap, average, and expensive price for each drink. I compared menus in

Vancouver, Portland, and New York to get a good average. With the Canadian dollar being above or comparable to the American dollar, I found that cocktails aren't actually that expensive in Vancouver with an average of $12 at a high quality cocktail bar, (with New York being the same and Portland being cheaper.) I looked at a sleeve of beer, a glass of wine, a Manhattan with regular and high-proof whiskey, a typical sour (with 1.5 oz of spirit), shots, highballs, and low-proof cocktails.

Here is an example of the math:

The average Manhattan at a Vancouver cocktail bar costs $12 and contains 2 oz of whiskey at 40% ABV, and 1 oz of vermouth at 15% ABV, with bitters being negligible.

To calculate the actual alcohol volume, (2 oz x 0.4) + (1 oz x 0.15) = 0.95 oz of pure alcohol per Manhattan. $12 cost divided by 0.95 oz of alcohol gives $12.63 per ounce of pure alcohol.

For a pint of beer, the same math is applied by multiplying the alcohol content by the total volume, then dividing the price by this ratio. And so on and so on.

After collecting this data, a quick look at cost by alcohol volume puts beer at the top, followed by spirit-heavy cocktails and shots, with club highballs and low-proof cocktails performing the worst.

I then compared the drink price to the dollar value of alcohol by the ounce. There are some very obvious outcomes, with the expensive sours being the worst price, using a hotel bar in Vancouver with a $14 value as an example. The best value by alcohol volume was of course cheap beer, which in Portland can come at $3 per pint during happy hour. Setting those aside and looking at the comparison of price to cost-by-volume...

The best performers in order were:

  • high-proof cocktails (without big markups)
  • regular-proof Manhattans
  • beer

The midpoint was an average glass of wine.

The worst performers in order were:

  • low-proof cocktails (at a regular price - as they often are)
  • club highballs
  • typical shots

The best deal by far, for example, is a Booker's Bourbon (at 63.5% ABV) Manhattan at a

cocktail bar with a one dollar markup (using a Gastown bar in Vancouver as an example), or simply a stirred cocktail with a spirit base. The worst deal is ordering a low-proof mixed drink like an Aperol Spritz when you're getting charged the regular $10-12 cocktail price.

Using this information simply to determine the cheapest way to get drunk, we have to be mindful of a major factor: the rate of consumption. The faster you drink, the less time your body can metabolize alcohol, and the drunker you get. Beer not only takes longer to drink but also has a high water content, further reducing the rate of intoxication. Compare this to drinking a cocktail with 2 oz of spirit, which is not only consumed faster but contains less water and often more alcohol. Yes, you can drink shots faster, but they’re more expensive by alcohol volume in comparison. So there’s the answer: the cheapest way to get drunk is to drink regular or high- proof cocktails.

There really is a lot more to the value of your drink than just the price of the alcohol. Ordering a highball in a club, which will get you the cheapest liquor in the well, soda from a gun, bad ice, and no interactive experience has to be the worst possible decision here. Compare this to sitting on a barstool and getting excellent service from a master of his or her craft, watching your hard-earned drink being made with skilled hands using fresh and high quality ingredients, discussing the recipe or history, and getting good alcoholic value for your dollar. Or, compare it to visiting a good beer pub and trying a local craft beer after an interesting brew-discussion with your bartender or server, and still getting good value for your dollar. Mood and social cues have scientifically measurable bearing on taste response, so things will actually taste better if you’re happy or socially influenced (for example, by the bartender, or watching someone else thoroughly enjoy the same drink before you). The quality of the ingredients alone is reason enough for me; sipping a real 100% blue agave Tequila in a cocktail for $12 is dramatically more valuable to me than doing a shot of an awful mixto tequila for $4-7 - which turns out has a bad value anyway!

I was definitely biased to begin with, choosing to only spend my money on good quality drinks with good quality service where I'm paying for the experience and not just the alcohol. Now I can see that I'm truly getting value for both the personal and the practical - or at least I can tell myself that to feel better about spending time calculating the cheapest way to get drunk.

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