Vlad Novikov was walking to the bar for his next shift, burrito in hand, when he spotted the can. Ice-cold and sweating a ring onto the step upon which it had been casually placed, this Bud Light was singing his name. He locked eyes with the man next to it, who offered him a drink. Novikov hungrily obliged, sucking down a third of the can in one sip.
“There’s a time and place for every drink, and that was the best Bud Light I’ve ever had,” he says.
One might not guess that this same man (who swears this bizarre story is true) is the creator of a $100 Manhattan at The Peninsula Chicago’s Z Bar, a high-class rooftop cocktail bar that opened last summer. The whole idea started several years ago when Russian-born Novikov was working at a bar that received an allocation of a fine rare whiskey. He envisioned creating a Manhattan from the stuff and pricing each drink at $100 to account for costs.
For obvious reasons, the owner quickly shot down his idea. The argument went something like this: No one will ever buy it, and you should never make a cocktail out of nice whiskey. Yet Novikov wasn’t ready to give up; he just needed the appropriate bar to make it happen.
“I’ve always been of the opinion that if a cocktail is good with a good spirit, it should be great with a great spirit,” he says.
This pricey Manhattan became an earworm to Novikov—so much so that he mentioned it in his interview with Z Bar. Intrigued by his ambition, they gave him the job (official title: director of cocktails and culture). His $100 drink finally happened.
So what exactly constitutes the price of the Z Bar Manhattan Royale? It starts with a choose-your-own-adventure rare whiskey (18-year-old Elijah Craig bourbon or 15-year-old WhistlePig straight rye) and decadent bitters (black truffle or orange saffron), plus a high-quality vermouth like Carpano Antica. It’s served in a handmade crystal glass from England with a matching decanter on the side, which you pour over a solid block of ice topped with a full sheet of 24K gold.
“When we first put it on the menu, I was terrified no one would buy it,” says Novikov of the Royale. It turned out to be quite the contrary: They sell more than 30 per month.
The absurdity of it all is not lost on Novikov, who agrees it's ridiculous to spend $100 on a cocktail—or even operationally for the bar to make one, for that matter. He’s been surprised by the diversity of guests who order it.
One of those guests is Matthew Dagley, a business development manager who’s dropped a Benjamin on the Royale four times in the last year. “I saw ’15-year’ and ‘Manhattan’ and just closed the menu; I had to try it,” he says.
It helped that Dagley knew Novikov and placed trust in his creativity behind the bar. Dagley also loves Scotch, and other expensive things that worry his accountant—but to him, the value is high. “All food and drink are flushed away eventually if you think about it,” he says, “so [for me], they’ve always been about an experience.”
Jerry Murphy, who works in marketing and advertising, has also ordered the cocktail twice. “It’s not something I would do every day,” he says, “but I have spent $100 on a lot less nice things.” For him, this is a drink that must be sipped and savored—not thrown back to catch a buzz before dinner.
Novikov says women order the Royale, too—mostly as part of a celebration like a birthday or anniversary, but not always. Some, he notes, just want to live it up. “They ask, ‘What’s the best thing you have?’” he says.
Z Bar isn’t the first bar to serve up a pricey cocktail, yet it’s among the few to execute a perfect recipe—drink, atmosphere, and clientele as key ingredients—that actually sells. The Green Room in Burbank, California, for example, makes a $158 martini with Nolet’s Reserve gin. It’s meant to showcase the bar’s curated selection of rare spirits, yet bar manager Ryan Smith says the martini is a tough sell. (Most customers order their fancy gin straight up instead.)
Other bars create over-the-top drinks for sheer shock value. The Next Whisky Bar inside The Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC added a $1,500 Impeachment Cocktail, made with Pappy Van Winkle 23-year bourbon, earlier this year. Kitschy, yes; delicious, surely. But sellable? Hardly. It’s been removed from the menu.
The success of the Manhattan Royale has made Novikov even more ambitious. In April, he added a grander version of the cocktail, made with extremely rare Heaven Hill 27-year barrel-proof bourbon. The price: $275.
Time will tell if he’s gone too far with this one. But in an environment like Z Bar that’s all about playfulness and experimentation, Novikov takes a “why not?” approach, acknowledging it’s perfectly acceptable to have a Manhattan Royale kind of night on Friday and a Bud Light Saturday afternoon.
“I don’t think every bar should be putting $100 Manhattans on their menu,” says Novikov. “What it comes down to is experience… and I think a lot of other bars can look into pushing the envelope with the upper limit of price-consciousness.”