Arriving at the Soggy Dollar Bar in the British Virgin Islands is neither easy nor inexpensive. The best way to get there involves flying into St. Thomas or Tortola, chartering a boat to Jost Van Dyke’s White Bay and then swimming up to the beach in front of the bar. The reward for such efforts is the Painkiller, a drink that was created at the bar in by its original owners, George and Marie Myrick, in 1971. Forty-six years and five owners later, the drink is still drawing willing travelers from around the world, many of whom already have a drink waiting for them at that bar.
In 1989, after the mess that Hurricane Hugo left behind was cleaned up and people began returning to that part of the Caribbean to sail, Veronica Champion, then-owner of the Soggy Dollar, had a number of guests at the bar who had friends that they knew were on their way to Jost Van Dyke, and they wanted to buy them a drink in advance. “I said, sure, why not?,” says Champion. “Within a couple of hours I had approximately 20 pre-purchased drinks on separate pieces of paper.”
Realizing this wouldn’t work for long, she transferred the names to a clipboard and then a logbook. Finally, she resorted to using poster-sized pieces of paper housed on a shelf behind the bar. Eventually, the list got out of hand and Champion knew it would be impossible to keep track of. “Basically, we found the best way to make it work was to pretend we remembered the person’s name and give them a drink,” she says.
The buy-your-friend-a-drink tradition has carried on at Soggy Dollar ever since. On a given day, there could be anywhere from several hundred to a couple thousand Painkillers on pre-order; some names have even been on the list for up to six years, drinks left unclaimed.
This collegial construct of paying drinks forward goes beyond a little cove on an unheard-of island, appearing in bars and restaurants across the country. Where this phenomenon actually started is hard to say, but a number of places point to the Motor City Bar on NYC’s Lower East Side as the mainland inspiration. Motor City was a true dive bar in every rock ‘n’ roll sense of the term—cheap beers and shots, a notoriously grungy bathroom, unpretentious, tattooed patrons, many of whom were musicians themselves—one of the last remaining of its kind in New York until it closed in 2013, 18 years after it opened. The owners, Francesca Romeo and Teresa Farnell, had erected a little whiteboard next to the bar where bartenders would write in red marker the names of friends for whom patrons had bought a drink.
When Mark Korns opened High Dive, an “indie rock lounge,” as he describes it, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood in 2009, he installed a chalkboard next to the bar after having seen Motor City’s buy-a-drink program in action. Ever since, there have been 30 to 40 names scrawled next to a dollar amount, from $3 on the low end (the price of the least expensive beer at High Dive) up to a surprising $500, Korns says. “There’s a guy that used to come in, I won’t give his name, but he owns the Chiclet mansion in Brooklyn. He had friends in the neighborhood and would come in and leave 300, 400, 500 bucks on the board for them.”
In addition to giving a communal feel to a place, the ritual of leaving a drink for a friend is a total win for the bars, says Korns, in the same way that gift certificates at Christmas are great for retailers. A good number of the drinks tend to go unspoken for, leaving money in the till.
In times of necessity, Korns has also seen the chalkboard operate as an unexpected cash-under-the-mattress fallback. “I’ve witnessed people leaving themselves money,” says Korns. “We opened in 2009, and Brooklyn was feeling the recession; the board made many happy at the time.” Once, a guy knew he’d blow his paycheck, so he decided to bank something so that he could drink during the weekend.
The best of these boards harken to the much more neighborly aspect, encouraging the purchasers to say why they’re leaving a drink, which means that even outsiders will know who lost a bet, who’s turned 50 and who’s loved the most. It’s this intrinsic sense of belonging to a place that has spurred a number of bars and restaurants around the country to nail up their own boards. In this effort, rock bars have undoubtedly led the charge.
Some roads still lead back to Motor City. In fact, its influence took a circuitous route, by way of Santa Ana’s Lola Gaspar, to Three Seventy Common in California’s Laguna Beach when it opened in 2011. For Brooklyn’s The Levee, however, it was the since-shuttered Mickey’s Blue Room, a place best known for loud punk rock music in New York’s Alphabet City, that inspired them to put up their own chalkboard; the Sportsman Special, a can of Carling Black Label and a shot of Evan Williams, is most frequently on the list.
Larry Romanowicz, manager at Southern Provisions in Baltimore, points to a bar and music venue that he used to frequent in Minneapolis called Triple Rock Social Club. Two members of the punk band Dillinger 4 own the spot, which has been around since the mid-1990s. Whereas club kids probably weren’t ordering one another shots of Four Roses Single Barrel or Blanton’s bourbon, that’s what’s most popular at Southern Provisions, which specializes in whiskey.
In the past few years, the leave-a-drink system has even gone high-tech with the arrival of several phone apps, like BarEye, HouseTab, Drink’s on Me and Beer2Buds—all of which allow you to order drinks for friends (or strangers) from your phone at participating bars—with varying success. Even the Soggy Dollar is making a go of online drink sales; as of October, you can now order Painkillers for beach-bound friends on its website at $7 a pop.