After a brief, giddy period of inflation during the Great Cocktail Expansion, we seem to have settled on an unspoken baseline price structure. In Boston proper, that amounts to roughly $11 to $13 per cocktail, though you'll still find plenty of super-sized "martinis" at $14 to $15. In Cambridge and Somerville, the average is between $9 and $11. Paradoxically, that's where most of the best cocktail bars are found. At Green Street in Central Square, for example, many of their expertly made cocktails hover around the $8 mark.
Being the sort that appreciates both the quality and quantity of our booze, we set about looking for the best bars with the cheapest high-quality cocktails. At cocktail nerd's haven Backbar, they've got a selection of $7 (!) options. The "Tradesman" section is meant to appeal to bar-industry folks, with cocktails made with bitters like Fernet or Cynar, or with quality but less-expensive spirits, like Old Overholt or Laird's Applejack.
There are a few different variables to consider, says Backbar's Sam Treadway. "For me, the most important factor that goes into pricing is the cost of ingredients, mostly liquor costs," he explains. "Then I think about house-made ingredients, which factors in labor costs."
Treadway continues, "I think real estate comes into play when you order something that has a fixed cost for any bar." Rents in, say, the Back Bay or the South End will be higher than those at out-of-the-way Somerville or Cambridge bars, of course, so a bar in the former will need to charge more for the same product. But kudos are in order for two industry favorites, Silvertone and jm Curley, for maintaining high standards while also flirting with the below-average downtown price of $9.
"It's probably a bit more cultural, too," says local bartending legend Brother Cleve of neighborhood variations in pricing. "We tend to think of Back Bay/Beacon Hill/South End residents as being wealthier than their Cambridge counterparts, but a lot of that is a myth. Maybe not for Somerville." Going even farther afield, he says, you can still find gems, like the Pleasant Café in Roslindale, which has an outstanding, and huge, time-capsule-like cocktail menu.
"A Grey Goose and soda costs every bar the same amount to make. But certain bars will charge more based on the atmosphere they are creating," adds Treadway.
The looser, more relaxed bar experience at a place like Garden at the Cellar, for example, helps to keep costs down, says manager Marilyn Carter. Instead of overstaffing by hiring numerous managers, as you'll see at swankier spots focused on "guest experience," she keeps things bare-bones, which makes it a lot easier to sell an $8 Negroni or a $7.50 Sazerac. "The big corporate places, they have to do it," she says of raising prices.
Not so much at the Independent in Somerville, where they're able to offer a higher-quality cocktail list, with some better ingredients, without sticker shock: an Old Tom Collins made with Ransom Old Tom gin and a Perfect Pal made with rye, Aperol, Cinzano Rosso, and Noilly Prat are only $9 and $8, respectively. "We try to keep it on the lower side; we're more of a neighborhood spot," says the Indo's Isaac Sussman.