As is the case for most things we love, cocktail prices are rising. In Los Angeles, for instance, the most expensive cocktail at a hot spot bar over the last couple of years has increased from $14 to $20. Most Angelenos accept this dent to their wallet as insurance for a fine drink. But according to Darwin Manahan, bartenders have it in their power to create a well-crafted cocktail and still charge only a 10-spot for it.
Manahan has been a bartender for five years. His first gig was at Corazon y Miel, the now-defunct Mexican restaurant that attracted the attention of David Wondrich and earned it a spot on his Best Bars in America list. Since then, Manahan has gone on to build many celebrated bar programs, including for chef-driven restaurants Cliff’s Edge in hip Silver Lake and Downtown L.A.’s 71 Above.
His cocktails were known for not only being creative and culinary-inspired but Instagram-worthy. This year, however, he was challenged with coming up with low-priced handcrafted cocktails for a taco joint in the Arts District of Downtown L.A.
Guerrilla Tacos is owner/chef Wes Avila’s first brick-and-mortar version of his hugely successful taco truck. And like his food, he wanted something unique and elevated but without the steep price tag—in the $8 to $11 range. All cocktails were to be $10—unheard of in downtown. His restaurant is within a mile radius of high-end cocktail restaurants and bars such as Bestia and Duello, whose buzzed-about cocktails by Scottish barman Iain McPherson range from $14 to $19.
Cocktail consultants Va’La Hospitality originally built the $10 cocktail program at Guerrilla Tacos when it first opened earlier in 2018. But then Manahan was called in to take over once the group’s consultation stint concluded. After having worked at high-end restaurants, he jumped into it with enthusiasm, loving the challenge of creating expensive-tasting but affordable cocktails.
The menu currently features many of Va’La’s drinks, whose ratios Manahan has since tweaked, but also some of his own such as his Guerrilla Punch cocktail made with Havana Club rum, oleo saccharum, lemon juice, grenadine and sencha tea.
These are his tips and tricks for how he was able to create cheap cocktails that are still high-quality.
1. Build a Relationship with Your Vendors
Many bartenders feel they’re too busy to do this, but Manahan says it’s important to take the time to meet with your vendors to learn about their products and tell them about your menu. “Once you’ve built an actual relationship with your vendors, you can ask them about bottle price deals and lock in better pricing,” he says. “There has to be a symbiotic relationship. If they don’t have that relationship with you and don’t know the cocktails on that menu, how can they help you when they don’t know what’s going on?”
2. Recycle Food Waste as Free Cocktail Ingredients
Sustainable bartending not only benefits the environment, but it’s also an easy way to save on buying ingredients. “At 71 Above, we had cold-pressed cranberry juice coming in, and a quarter of it was pulp,” says Manahan. “We were throwing away the pulp in the beginning but realized we could use it. The previous head pastry chef, Gregory Baumgartner, was making granitas with strawberries. So I asked him to teach me how to make it but with the cranberry pulp. And we did it for our take on a Sea Breeze cocktail.”
3. Make the Most of What You Already Have
Aim to create several different cocktails out of the same bottle of spirit. “I love Clear Creek brandy for its versatility. I can use it in a cocktail or to season up cocktails, and I can use it in conjunction with other spirits,” he says. “On top of that, it’s great just to sip on. It’s a flexible product. And what’s nice is when I buy two cases I don’t feel anxiety about how I can push this. It’s just a tool in my back pocket that I can keep using.”
4. Less Is Always More
Ten ingredients in a cocktail does not make it good, especially when you’re trying to keep the price low. “I understand that people love creative and unique cocktails, but tone it down,” says Manahan. “If you understand classic cocktails, you realize that it’s no more than three to five things in the drink that make it what it is. With fewer ingredients comes more consistency across the board. When you have many ingredients with an inexperienced bartender, your consistency drops off, orders get complicated and ticket times tend to get very long. No one wants to wait 20 minutes for their damn cocktail.”
5. Dial In Your Prep System
Make sure your prep people understand the proper ways to juice, how to make cordials and especially how to label and store ingredients, says Manahan. Having fresh ingredients goes a long way to making a cheap cocktail taste good. “You can make an elevated signature cocktail with just three ingredients, but when you’re working with fewer ingredients, you can’t hide behind anything. The simple syrup or cordial needs to be made correctly, labeled, initialed (so you know who made it), dated and stored properly. The juice should be made that day, strained properly, stored and labeled correctly. The spirit price should be locked in at the best price you can get it. Now you should have three ingredients for this cocktail that make it cheap and hopefully taste amazing.”