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Is a $20 Old Fashioned Really That Much Better Than a $2 Old Fashioned?

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How much should an Old Fashioned cost? In 1936, according to a letter to the editor in The New York Times, the price was 35 to 50 cents. Adjusted for inflation, that translates to roughly $6 to $9, but the prices of whiskey and New York real estate have outpaced inflation: most Old Fashioneds in Gotham cost $12 to $14, and if you can find one for ten bucks, it’s a bargain.

Or is it? What is the real cost of liquor and labor? How cheaply can an Old Fashioned be made, and how might an egregiously expensive one justify its price? I set out to explore the opposing price poles of the market. Could I make a $2 Old Fashioned that held its own against one that cost $20?

It wouldn’t be easy. Two ounces of whiskey represents about 8 percent of a 750-mL bottle, which meant that I couldn’t spend any more than $25 on my base spirit. Having already researched the best bottom-shelf spirits, I selected a bottle of Four Roses for $23 and invited two friends, Andy and Joe, over to serve as guinea pigs.

For the three of us, I muddled a teaspoon and a half of sugar with an amarena cherry, a splash of water and a vigorous, sustained shaking of Angostura bitters. I added six ounces of whiskey and stirred, then I strained each serving over a large ice cube and garnished with a generous peel of cara cara orange.

Matt Ufford

We raised our glasses and took a sip. Joe called it “solid without having a bite behind it.” Andy credited the orange peel with adding dimension to the Four Roses. “I definitely would have guessed a more expensive whiskey,” he said.

Still, it wasn’t my best work. I had neglected to consider that I usually make an Old Fashioned with rye, and Four Roses is a sweeter bourbon. As a result, I found my two-buck Old Fashioneds sweeter than the drink should be. “It’s a little sugar-forward,” admitted Joe. Andy gave perhaps the most succinct and accurate review: “That’s what an Old Fashioned tastes like.” It was neither praise nor criticism; I had neither elevated nor disrespected the industry standard. All in all, not bad for $2.

Despite New York City’s knack for exorbitant prices, there are few establishments brazen enough to charge twenty goddamn dollars for an Old Fashioned. Most of these are the bars in the city’s oldest luxury hotels; part of the price is the history and the hope that you are sitting in the same booth F. Scott Fitzgerald once occupied. We opted, instead, to go to Fine & Rare, an upscale Midtown lounge that feels old but is newer than any whiskey on its shelves.

There, on the first page of the cocktail menu, was the Smoking Rye Old Fashioned, with Knob Creek Rye, Angostura bitters and demerara orange zest garnish. And then: “Choose your smoke: Hickory, Applewood, Mesquite or Cherrywood.” Yes, $20 gets you your choice of wood smoke infused into the cocktail. We huddled to discuss the options, and each ordered a different smoke (applewood was the odd man out).

Matt Ufford

The drinks arrived in wine glasses topped with coasters. A cloud of smoke swirled in each glass. I removed mine and placed my nose to the glass to inhale the scent. Then I coughed, because I had inhaled what I definitely already knew was hickory smoke.

Once the smoke dissipated, we sampled the drinks. “This has way more layers,” said Joe, and it was an understatement. It was almost comical how much more complex the Smoking Rye Old Fashioned was compared to my amateur effort. Each of our cocktails was considerably different: Andy’s mesquite Old Fashioned had distinct, almost aggressive campfire notes; my hickory had a smoky-sweet note like the char on a beef rib; Joe’s cherrywood was more muted by comparison. All three were sublime. “It’s not often a drink surprises you,” said Andy. (My only complaint was the wine glass. With all due respect to the infusion process, part of the appeal of an Old Fashioned is the comfortable heft of a rocks glass.)

I took another sip. Deeper into the drink, the smoky notes became more intense, and I sank deeper into the dark leather couch next to the fireplace. Deeper into the lounge, a blonde chanteuse sang jazz standards with a live band. The cacophony and discomfort of Manhattan on the other side of the window felt like a hazy memory. This $20 Old Fashioned was far, far superior to the one I had made in my apartment with children’s toys stuffed into baskets under the credenza. But was it 10 times better?

“No,” said Andy, “but it’s an experience.” He drank the last of his liquid campfire. “There aren’t many drinks I’d spend $20 on, but this is on the short list.”

An Old Fashioned, like most things in our free market, should cost what you’re willing to pay for it. Two dollars and some effort can deliver everything you could want in an Old Fashioned, as long as what you want doesn’t include smoke infusions, entertainment and someone else serving you. Twenty dollars can deliver all of that. It is both an egregious overpay and something priceless: It’s an experience.

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