Is Bottle Service Growing Up or Fading Away?

Once the indicator of an A-lister, bottle service and all its diamond-encrusted pomp has become one of the biggest gimmicks in American nightlife. But how did it go from exclusive to everyman? Regan Hofmann on the dying ritual of pay-to-play tables.

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In Las Vegas, a nightclub inside the Bellagio offers a very special package: For $250,000, you get a Midas (which is equivalent to forty 750ml bottles and half the size of a grown man) of champagne and a red button that, when pressed, makes the hotel’s famous fountains dance to the song of your choice. In suburban Georgia, the weekend-long EDM festival TomorrowWorld—a sort of Burning Man set with late-career Tim Burton style—sells VIP tables in a “Sky Loft” above the main stage that come with magnums of Belvedere vodka and 12-packs of Red Bull. In 2012, at bygone NYC club WiP, rappers Chris Brown and Drake were involved in a melee alleged to have begun when Brown sent a bottle of champagne to his rival Drake’s table. It ended with the two sides throwing bottles at each other across a crowded dance floor, causing cuts, concussions and a lot of spilled Cristal.

The common thread among these three outrageous scenes? Bottle service.

Velvet ropes and VIP sections, extortive pricing and conspicuous consumption—bottle service is a symbol of the worst excesses of the nightlife industry. It’s understood by all—even its biggest proponents—as a way for club patrons to prove their worth and for club owners to wrest profits from a notoriously unstable business model. Bottle service is where frat-house brothers go after aging out of the Greek system, where bad behavior is rewarded with high fives and drinking is just a means to an end.

Though the practice is still very much in its infancy in the U.S. (at barely 20 years old, it’s not even old enough to drink), bottle service—along with its ludicrous excesses and the clientele it attracts—have taken over the modern club scene. Ron Alan, a publicist for the notorious Peter Gatien’s NYC clubs in the 1990s, was on the front lines as bottle service culture evolved. Gatien’s Tunnel was the first big club to designate a VIP section for those willing to purchase full bottles of vodka, sometime around 1992, but, as Alan recalls, the idea took a while to catch on: “I remember the promoter trying to explain [the system] to me—he had to teach people about it, and nobody was really listening to him.”

It was loosely based on the European fashion for serving bottles of champagne in clubs, which had crossed over to NYC’s society and high-fashion hangouts in the 1980s—places like Régine’s, the U.S. outpost of a legendary Paris hotspot. But hard liquor was something different. As high-volume clubs became overrun with the less-than-elite in the early ‘90s, A-listers fled to smaller lounges in the newly flourishing SoHo. But, as A-listers do, they didn’t expect to pay for anything, which put a strain on the club owners’ margins. The solution: Sell high markup access to the beautiful people and business types who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to get past the door.

With nearly 21 years under its belt, is bottle service finally growing up? Ironically, the biggest threat to nightclubs may be the same guys who saved their business back in the ‘90s. These days, there’s little cachet in being the bottle service big shot; as the barrier to VIP status has become purely about money—that great equalizer—the original lure of exclusivity has faded.

“What they were really paying for wasn’t the bottle; it was the table, but in order to get the table they had to buy the bottle,” says Alan. “People paid, like, $400 or $500 for a lousy bottle of quote-unquote top-shelf vodka—and it was probably Stoli.”

Over the next 10 years, the A-list clientele shifted from artists and models to simply people who could pay the highest markups, and the beautiful hangers on they attracted. As prices soared, clubs became more and more gimmicky (remember NYC’s Remote Lounge, where drinkers controlled a closed-circuit video system to watch other tables?), and premiums attached to the product itself grew more lavish. Rather than just a bottle of top-shelf vodka and some decanters of juice and soda, bottle service came accompanied by everything from scantily clad “bottle girls” to diamond-encrusted, gold-plated bottles in a range of sizes. The rarely seen Midas is so large it requires at least three people to carry and pour it.

And though it can be easy to blame the bottle itself—detractors and moralists say easy access encourages patrons to drink past their limits—once upon a time, a full bottle of booze at the table was a symbol of fellowship and hospitality, not foolishness. In 16th-century Russia, Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) instituted the kabak system, state-run taverns where vodka could be purchased by the bucket and eventually—as packaging technology improved—by the bottle. It was in kabaks that Russian toasting culture flourished, the ritualized dance of dedication-shot-snack that still lasts long into the dark, arctic night.

In Japan, the “bottle keep” system evolved in the 1940 and ‘50s, when whiskey culture hit there hit mainstream. Bar patrons with better personal stashes than the local bar’s could bring in a bottle, leave it tagged in the bar’s locker and return to drink it over the course of months, the bar supplying fresh ice and friendly service every time.  Many izakayas and other bars adopted the practice, and the system is now employed for bottles of shochu and sake as well as whiskey.

It’s so highly regarded, in fact, that bars in the U.S. have begun a bottle keep system of their own. San Francisco’s Nihon Whisky Lounge and NYC’s Flatiron Room both sell rare and special-occasion bottles of whiskey that are held behind the bar for their owners; NYC’s Saxon + Parole goes one step further and sells membership to its Cabinet of Cocktail Curiosities, where a new cocktail is bottled monthly and held for members to enjoy at their leisure.

With nearly 21 years under its belt, is bottle service finally growing up? Ironically, the biggest threat to nightclubs may be the same guys who saved their business back in the ‘90s. These days, there’s little cachet in being the bottle service big shot; as the barrier to VIP status has become purely about money—that great equalizer—the original lure of exclusivity has faded. Bottle service is now commonplace in clubs from Indianapolis to Edmonton; it’s part of the formula (along with blue LED lighting and velvet ropes) that gets deployed into any mid-sized urban center looking to turn it up. Meanwhile, true elite wannabes have turned their attention to understanding challenging spirits and collecting the esoteric; today, even the most basic bro is more likely to show off his knowledge of rare mezcals than be seen downing DIY vodka-sodas from a bedazzled bottle.

“Now it’s literally just pay to play; there’s not even a pretense of exclusivity,” says Alan about today’s sorry state of bottle service. “Back then, you still had to know somebody to get that privilege—it wasn’t just, ‘Call this number, what’s your credit card number, see you at 10.’” In clubland, the bottle-service thrill may be gone, but for serious drinkers and cocktail enthusiasts eager to dip their glasses into the bottle keep system, it may be just beginning.

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