Behind the Bar

The Unlikely Success Story of a $25 Cocktail

A cocktail next to a menu.
How can small markets pull off selling expensive cocktails? It comes down to clearly communicating the value of the drink. Living the High Life, sold for $25 at Vermutería 600, contains a rare brandy imported from Spain, and the menu includes this information. (Photo: StandEatDrink Hospitality Group)

Milwaukee can be considered one of the cheapest cities in the country. So it’s no surprise that when beverage director Daniel Beres put a $25 cocktail on the regular menu of Vermutería 600, some patrons rolled their eyes.

But despite such disbelief, Living the High Life has become a big seller. In fact, in the ten weeks since the bar first opened, more than 60 customers have ordered this brandy cocktail. “We didn’t want it to be gimmicky — all flash and no smash,” Beres says. “It was well thought-out. Milwaukeeans want to make sure they get something of value. They’re smart consumers.”

Aaron Gersonde, co-owner of the bar and its attached restaurant Hotel Madrid, says Beres was given free reign to design both the bar and its menu. The bar itself features a wider, 12-inch metal panel so its bartenders don’t have to place any of their syrups, bitters or equipment onto the expansive drinking and dining area. The Bates Cocktail Index of 1934 inspires the menu. “We wanted to create a beverage program that would hit the same level of what we’re doing with the food,” Gersonde says. “We’re looking at pushing the boundaries, and we just happen to be in Milwaukee, not New York or Chicago.”

Living the High Life takes its name from a certain beer manufactured in Milwaukee, but its roots come from a brandy-based version of the Manhattan, combining Cognac, dry curaçao and Angostura bitters. Beres had only read about the Spanish brandy, Lustau Solera Gran Reserva, and he first had to work with his distributor to import it directly from Spain and then plead to get it to him before Vermutería 600 and Hotel Madrid’s grand opening. Retailing at $50 or more per bottle, the Solera Gran Reserva isn’t the most expensive brandy on the market, but it’s also fairly rare. “You can’t just go to the liquor store and pick it up,” Beres says.

Beres then infused Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao with Turkish figs for 24 hours, shaking it lightly once every hour for the first four hours. The figs, once removed, become the garnish. The brandy and the infused curaçao are stirred together with Carpano Antica and Bittercube Trinity and Angostura bitters. Then, just before it’s served, a winter spice vapor — cinnamon, clove, coffee and two or three threads of tobacco — is sprayed into a covered dome over the cocktail. To stay in compliance, Beres made sure the vaporizer would be approved by the city.

A cocktail in a glass dome being presented by a bartender. Vaporizing Living the High Life adds value and sensory appeal. (Photo: StandEatDrink Hospitality Group)

“There are certain things you don’t want to do without permission,” Beres says. “And you don’t want to get hit with fines or have to close something down.” Since no flames were used — it’s a vapor, not smoke — the vaporizer was easily approved, and it’s that last step, the vapor, that makes Living the High Life worth its $25 price tag.

“You’ve got a huge wow factor every single time you make it,” Beres says. “Last Tuesday, we were making four of them for a private group, and there was this couple sitting at the bar. They both stared at it, and one of them said ‘Oh my gosh, that nose is amazing.’ The husband and wife then both ordered one.”

“It’s not unlike what happens when you’re sitting on a patio in summer, and a mojito goes by,” Beres continues. “That fresh, sprig of mint hits you, and you think, ‘Yeah, I’ll take one of those.’”

Word of mouth and social media posts of the drink have helped promote Living the High Life, but the best sales pitch is simply having someone step out of their comfort zone to order the drink. “If one person is adventurous enough to order it, it’s guaranteed we’ll sell more,” says Sean Wille, marketing director for the StandEatDrink Hospitality group, which owns the bar and restaurant. “It’s creating a sensory experience.”

Both Beres and Wille say you can’t just pour together a few expensive or interesting spirits and then slap a higher price on a drink. Such a cocktail has to be thoughtfully designed and in keeping with an individual bar or restaurant’s overall theme. Living the High Life fits in with the upscale, Spanish theme of the bar and restaurant, and its price tag costs only $10 more from the second-most expensive cocktail, a twist on the French 75 that comes with its own appetizer.

Because the cocktail was as new as Vermutería 600 and Hotel Madrid, it was easier to price its signature cocktail higher than other places around the city. “It’s always easier to start new than to retrofit either a bar or a menu,” Beres says.

The menu also clearly lists the exact spirits of each cocktail. “In larger markets, they might just list gin as an ingredient,” Beres says. “Here, they want to know why you’re charging $14 for a drink, and if they do a search on Google, they’ll know why.”

Even with the wow factor, plenty of customers just want a brewski, and the bar serves up $3 Estrella Damms on tap or a Coors Tallboy in a can. And for just a dollar more, they can even get another kind of High Life.

Get the recipe for Living the High Life

Jeanette Hurt is the author of Drink Like a Woman and is an award-winning writer focused on spirits, food and travel.

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