Drunken Socialism: The “Break-Even Bottles” Bringing Rare Spirits to the People

Bars around the country are offering up pours of rare and expensive bottles at cost, in a new form of drinking egalitarianism dubbed #DrunkenSocialism. Nicholas Hall on the growing practice of offering these "Break-Even Bottles" and some of the rarest stuff you can currently find by the ounce, and where.

Back in October 2014, Bobby Heugel, owner of Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge, embarked on a slightly tipsy social experiment. The premise was simple: He’d sell rare and expensive bottles of liquor by the ounce—at cost. On the menu, it’s listed as the “Break-Even Bottle” program; on Twitter, he dubbed it #DrunkenSocialism. The first bottle he broke out was a 40-year-old Highland Park, finished in sherry casks, sold at $88.67 per ounce. Not even two years later, the bar recently released its 26th Break-Even Bottle, a 37-year-old cask strength Lagavulin, currently being poured for $94.89 per ounce. (As for the .36 ounces remaining after 25 one-ounce pours? “That’s Bobby’s Share. He’s no angel,” the menu explains.)

What #DrunkenSocialism aims to do is transfer the boozy wealth from the realm of secret handshakes to the masses by creating excitement and anticipation around these rare bottles, driving business in the process. In this way, everyone can have just a little bit of something they’d probably never be able to get their hands on.

Several weeks ago, Heugel wondered who else was doing this sort of thing and posed the question on Facebook, resulting in more than 60 responses pointing to bars and bartenders with similar programs. Some who hadn’t yet joined the cause pledged to follow his lead in their bars. Since then, the #DrunkenSocialism hashtag has taken on new life.

As with the many diverging branches of political socialism, the drunken variety has multiple schools of thought and as many interpretations, all with slightly different goals. At Meta in Louisville, Kentucky, Jeremy Johnson takes the Anarcho-syndicalist approach (compared with Heugel’s more Marxist bent), largely aiming to upset the applecart of ordinary luxury spirits pricing and distribution. Most notably, he recently offered his allocation of Pappy Van Winkle at cost (around six dollars for the 12-year and seven for the 15-year), as means of thumbing his nose at the cult of Pappy by making the perpetually sold-out bottles available to his customers.

Even though Johnson doesn’t regularly offer a Break-Even Bottle (“collecting is not my sport”), his customers appreciated the gesture. “So many folks came up to me saying, ‘I never could have afforded to try this—thank you.'” In a way, Meta’s slightly sacrilegious approach most closely mirrors the spirit in which #DrunkenSocialism was born, pulling the Pappy from the hands of the elites and pouring it into the mouths of the people. That boozy riff on the classic Marxist slogan “De chacun selon ses facultés, à chacun selon ses besoins” (From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs) seems especially fitting, given Heugel’s penchant for riffing on French socialist protest art in the flyers he created for his Break-Even Bottles.

For some bar operators the program started as a novel way to move products that had been languishing on the back bar because customers didn’t know what they were or they were prohibitively expensive when sold at standard markups. Travis Stanley-Jones borrowed the Break-Even idea from Heugel about nine months ago at his Mulleady’s Irish Pub in Seattle. What started out as a way to work through esoteric bottles from the bar’s sizable collection of Irish whiskey has morphed into “a liquid thank-you” to his customers. As the program caught on, Stanley-Jones started sourcing bottles specifically for the program, instead of just using it as a clearing house for slow-moving stock.

At Seattle’s Rumba, Break-Even Bottles are a way of rewarding their most hardcore customers. Every month, the bar opens a rare, expensive bottle of rum as a reward for members of the Rumba Rum Society who are drinking their way through the group’s signature map of the Caribbean. “If you’re still working on your map, you can purchase the rum at half-off,” says Rumba’s Jim Romdall. “But if you’ve completed the map, you get one ounce at cost.”

Now that the for-the-people trend has now spread to bars around the country—and beyond—here’s a look at a few key places offering their own spin on #DrunkenSocialism.

Anvil Bar & Refuge | Houston

Favorite Break-Even Bottle: Port Ellen 35 Year Old 1978 Single Malt Scotch . “An incredible and very limited Scotch from a distillery that stopped Scotch distillation in 1983. We don’t regularly stock bottles that are this expensive because it is hard to turn them over,” says Bobby Heugel, “but this Break-Even Bottle was so good, I decided to buy another and carry it in the bar regularly as well.” Price: $108.47/ounce

Current Break-Even Bottle: Lagavulin 37 Year Old 1976 Single Malt Scotch. “This is the oldest distillery bottling of Lagavulin ever released. Very little of it made it to distributors, and what did has almost entirely disappeared,” says bar manager Terry Williams. “Taste it now, or taste it never.” Price: $94.89/ounce

White Whale: “If I could get my hands on a bottle of Yamazaki 25 Year, I would love to offer it as a Break-Even Bottle. I’ve only ever had that whisky in Japan,” says Heugel.

Mulleady’s Irish Pub | Seattle

Favorite Break-Even Bottle(s): Bruichladdich Black Art Fourth Edition 23 Year Old 1990 Single Malt Scotch and Compass Box “This Is Not A Luxury Whiskey” Blended Scotch. “Most restaurants and bars do not offer such bottles because they collect dust on your back bar and act as little more than a status symbol,” says Travis Stanley-Jones. Price: Bruichladdich: $12/ounce; Compass Box: $10/ounce.

Current Break-Even Bottle: Highland Park Odin 16 Year Old Single Malt Scotch. “A dense, smoky, spicy and brawny 16-year-old single malt packaged in a Viking ship motif,” says Stanley-Jones. Price: $11.87/ounce

White Whale:The Celtic Whisky Shop has a really cool selection of rare and vintage stuff,” says Stanley-Jones. “We’re talking [bottles from the] ’40s, ’50s, ’60s—maybe even older.”

The Rogue Gentlemen | Richmond, Virginia

(Note: Virginia law prohibits selling alcohol not-for-profit, so The Rogue Gentlemen applies a small markup but keeps its offerings as close to the Break-Even Bottle spirit as possible.)

Favorite Break-Even Bottle: John E. Fitzgerald Very Special Reserve 20 Year Old Straight Bourbon. “Long story short, when Heaven Hill bought the original [and much storied] Stitzel-Weller distillery in 1999, there were 12 barrels of wheated bourbon in one of the rickhouses—the last of the bourbon distilled there. Ever. That’s what’s in these 3000 375mL bottles: a 20-year-old wheated bourbon that can never be re-released. You’re basically tasting bourbon lore DNA,” says owner John Mayer. Price: $50/ounce

Current Break-Even Bottle: Elijah Craig 23 Year Old Single Barrel Straight Bourbon. “It isn’t particularly rare or incredibly special, but its age, desirability and ‘rarity’ in Virginia makes it a good one for the program.” Price: $15/ounce

White Whale: E.H. Taylor, Jr. Warehouse C Tornado Surviving Kentucky Bourbon. “I’ve only had one chance to try this, and it was just mind-blowingly good,” says Maher. “I would do many terrible things to get my hands on a bottle.”

The Townsend | Austin, Texas

Favorite Break-Even Bottle: Samaroli Guadeloupe Vintage 1998 Rhum Agricole. “It was aged 13 years [in wood] at Samaroli’s warehouse in Scotland (this is all my understanding, the nuances might be off a little bit). It was pretty fascinating to taste a rum that old,” says beverage director Justin Elliott. “Very cool stuff.”

Current Break-Even Bottle: Navarre Vieille Réserve Cognac. “It’s a 40-50-year Cognac. They release 60 bottles a year to the States, which is about as rare as it gets,” says Elliott. Price: $7.36/ounce

White Whale: “There are a couple of 100-year-old Madeiras we’re trying to figure out,” says Elliott.

Rumba | Seattle

Favorite Break-Even Bottle: Bristol Spirits Caroni 34 Year Old 1974 Rum. “It’s one of the oldest known stocks that still exist from Caroni, a now-closed distillery in Trinidad,” says Jim Romdall. “Most rums with that kind of age will be overwhelmingly dry and wood dominant, but this rum shows no signs of being over-oaked.” Price: $14/ounce

Current Break-Even Bottle: Neisson 15 Year Old Rhum Agricole. “Long-aged expressions of rhum agricole from Martinique are rare and very different from what you would normally find in a rum with a 15-year statement on its label,” says Romdall. Price: $15/ounce

White Whale: “We haven’t gone too nuts with expensive bottles,” says Romdall. “My goal is to work our way up to the Appleton 50 Year in September, which would be around $160/ounce.”

Westward | Seattle

Favorite Break-Even Bottle: Paul Giraud Très Rare 40 Year Old Cognac. “Paul Giraud is known for producing only pure, vintage Cognac,” says bar manager Andy McClellan. “There is something truly incredible about getting to taste and offer a spirit that’s from a single year, especially when it’s 40 years old.” Price: $8.50/ounce

Current Break-Even Bottle: Blackadder Glenugie 24 Year Old 1981 Single Malt Scotch. “Blackadder is a well-known independent bottler that I like. For a 24-year-old whiskey that’s bottled at cask strength, it’s incredibly smooth,” says McClellan. Price: $8.14/ounce

White Whale: “It’s my mission to get people to drink more Calvados,” says McClellan. “The one bottle I want to get is the Adrien Camut Prestige du Pays d’Auge. It’s a 40-50-year-old Calvados that will knock your socks off.”

Mission Kitsilano | Vancouver, British Columbia

Favorite Break-Even Bottle: Delamain Réserve de la Famille Cognac. “This single cask Cognac is über rare and absolutely phenomenal,” says head bartender Justin Darnes. Price: $21.74/ounce

Current Break-Even Bottle: Black Bull 40 Year Old First Release Blended Scotch. “This is a first-release bottle that is no longer available. The producers were here last year and were stunned to find that we still had some, because they didn’t even have any. They ended up buying six bottles of their own whisky to take home to Scotland with them,” says Darnes. Price: $20.07/ounce

White Whale: Bisquit Dubouche 1840 Cognac. “An ancient, pre-phylloxera Cognac from Bisquit (now Renault-Bisquit), one of the old pre-eminent houses of the day,” says Darnes.