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Does Johnnie Walker Blue Cost Too Much in NYC?

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Welcome to Suttonomics, where each week Eater Data Lead Ryan Sutton looks at facts, figures, and interesting data across the restaurant industry. This week, he revives Eater's Johnnie Walker Blue Index to find out if we're overpaying for that high-end Scotch.

It's 10:30pm at Tao Downtown. Taye Diggs, who follows me (and everyone else) on Twitter, has just walked in, and there's a model sleeping on a couch — no, she's awake now, and she presses her clutch purse against her lips, because, well, I suppose that's what models do. The bar is three deep with bros in untucked shirts. Seems like the right place to order Johnnie Walker Blue, a global luxury commodity that's often the expensive Scotch of choice for those who don't have an expensive Scotch of choice.

That's not necessarily a criticism; Blue is a lovely whiskey, with notes of caramel, vanilla, wood, and just a whisper of smoke. It's smooth, almost too smooth. I like to think of it as the filet mignon of Scotch, because it's not terribly distinctive, it tastes great, and it goes down easy. Blue is a great choice for beginners with a few extra bucks, or for more experienced imbibers looking for something excellent yet familiar when traveling far away from home, which is another way of saying it's available everywhere.

Tao's bartender, who eyeballs the pour, tells me the standard serving is a generous 2.5oz, and as an experienced imbiber who woke up late the next morning, I'd say he got it right. The price for this beverage, served neat, is $44.

That's heck of a lot less than what you'll pay for Johnnie Walker Blue elsewhere in the city. Walk across the street to Buddakan and 2oz will run you $52. Stroll around the corner to Morimoto and the same pour is $60. Or walk down a few blocks to Catch and you'll pay $75. That's a $31 price differential for the same product among four clubby restaurants that are quite close to one another. By comparison, a neat pour of Maker's Mark will cost $13-$16 at those same venues, a paltry $3 difference.

In fact, this Suttonomics inquiry into 38 prominent restaurants and bars across the city shows that Johnnie Walker Blue prices can drop as low as $35 (40/40 Club) and rise as high as $85 (Nello), a hefty $40 price swing. Compare that with Maker's Mark, which only varies by $9 among that same group of 38 restaurants.

So say what you will about Johnnie Walker Blue — one of my colleagues calls the exorbitant prices it commands a "douche tax." But really, no one deserves to be ripped off. That's why I've decided to bring back the Eater Johnnie Walker Blue Index, which William Tigertt of Freeman's debuted back in 2006. The Index, in its 2014 form, tells you how much your JWB costs, how much it's is marked up, and how much a bottle would have cost had you purchased it at "restaurant prices."

Now here's the catch. Statistically speaking, the $9 price swings for Makers Mark and $40 swings for Johnnie Walker aren't significantly dissimilar; each accounts for about a quarter of the value of a bottle of the respective spirit, with Blue at just under $200, and Maker's Mark at $36.99. And to be fair, many of these restaurants have a higher percentage markup for Maker's — (311% to 620%) — than JWB (122%-439%).

But consumers don't deal in statistics. They deal in absolutes — the cash that comes out of their pockets. And the cold hard fact is that you might end up spending $30 or more for JWB in one establishment over another, possibly by accident because many restaurants don't publish their hard liquor prices, either on the web or in print, which is disturbing in itself. So kudos to Del Posto, Per Se and others with online liquor lists for being commendable outliers in this regard.

If transparency is one part of the problem, another is the so-called "douche tax" that my colleague referred to; restaurants know that buyers of JWB are willing (and can afford) to pay more of a premium than buyers of Makers or other more pedestrian pours. So big props to Marea, a two-Michelin-starred, rich people's hangout on Central Park South, for going easy on the prices; it asks just $42 for JWB.

Even Tao deserves credit for keeping its prices on the lower end, most of the time at least; the clubby venue charges $800 for JWB bottle service. Thing is, with the 2.5oz pours at $44, one could just buy an entire bottle's worth of Blue at the bar for $446. Perhaps that means Tao's bottle service entails what could be New York's most expensive per square foot real estate charge. Shots, anyone?

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