May 13, 2014
From Prohibition to Studio 54 to "Bobby Bottleservice," we bring you the timeline of exorbitantly priced bottles of booze in clubs.
Photos: Getty Images
If bottle service were an HBO show, you might liken it to modern-day Rat Pack fantasies of Entourage. But the practice of charging exorbitant prices for bottles at nightclub tables is actually better traced to Boardwalk Empire. The seeds were planted during Prohibition, when the sale of a single bottle at a speakeasy was less risky than selling drink after drink. “The drinkers were not breaking the law by having a bottle on their table,” says Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. “The federal agent had to witness the sale, so buying a bottle was a one-moment risk.” Despite those primordial beginnings, popping bottles didn’t really take off until the turn of the millennium. Popularized by VIPs crammed into banquettes at Manhattan hot spots like Bungalow 8 and Lotus, it spread like a wallet-draining virus to Miami, Vegas, and L.A., and has saturated the nightlife scene, becoming the ultimate symbol of douchey overindulgence. As the seemingly unstoppable economic engine that powers glitzy Vegas megaclubs, where status-seeking whales routinely drop six figures a night, bottle service could live on forever…Pass the $500 bottle of vodka!
1822 - Tarantula Juice
Brown’s Saloon, the first Wild West establishment known as a “saloon,” opens its swinging doors near the Wyoming-Colorado-Utah border. Catering to fur trappers in need of a shower, it was the model for countless watering holes to come that sold bottles of whiskey—or at least something resembling it. Early rotguts made from raw alcohol, burnt sugar, and tobacco juice had names like Tarantula Juice and Coffin Varnish. Make ours a double!
1921 - Bottle Model
Club Gallant opens in Greenwich Village and debuts one of the earliest bottle menus on record, charging $16 for scotch and $25 for champagne. Owner Barney Gallant wrote a manifesto, “Rules for Nightclub Life,” in 1925 that remains advisable today: “Rule No. 1: Reserve a table in advance so as to be sure of admittance.” Strangely, there was no mention of how many cans of Red Bull to order for your table.
1967 - French Twist
Les Caves du Roy kicks off a gilded age of excess in the basement of the Hotel Byblos Saint Tropez. The venerable playpen for the ridiculously rich, tanned, and entitled is still pumping dance beats and popping Cristal today and has a decadent history of hosting everyone from Jack Nicholson (who once drank there out of his shoe), Cher, and Mick Jagger in the hairy ’70s, to Bono, Bruce Willis, and Beyoncé, along with assorted Saudi royals and yacht-tastic Euros.
1977 - Studio 54
For a nightclub that didn’t actually sell liquor by the bottle, Studio 54’s showmanship and notoriously exclusive door policy influenced bottle-service spots for decades to come. It opened in a former opera house in Manhattan on April 16, 1977, ushering in a debauched disco era of preening celebrity clientele, pansexual hookups, and coke spoons. Regulars like Michael Jackson, Andy Warhol, and Truman Capote mingled with straights, gays, and costumed weirdos.
1979 - The Setup
“The original bottle service was called a setup,” says Jon Taffer, host of Spike TV’s Bar Rescue and a veteran nightlife operator. “You’d go to a nightclub where they had a 90-minute show, and it would eliminate service during the show.” Taffer was the food and beverage director at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel in upstate New York, where alcohol sure helped watching shows by Jackie Mason.
1986 - “Scarface Was Real”
John Turchin says that within a year of opening his 2,000-capacity Club Nu in Miami Beach in 1986, the cocaine dealers flooding the city began demanding bottles at their tables: “They didn’t want the waitresses to keep coming back and forth. They’d get a bottle of Chivas Regal or Colombian firewater aguardiente. Scarface was real back then. Everybody had a gun. These guys would come in and throw kilos of cocaine on the table and snort it all.”
1988 - Douching It Up
Legendary Paris nightclub Les Bains Douches begins selling table reservations, which come with a complimentary bottle, because they don’t have room to seat the crowds lining up outside. It was a favorite haunt for David Bowie and Prince. Considering a bottle-service bill can often make a man cry, the gloomy post-punk icons made for a perfect soundtrack.
1993 - VIPS Only
Peter Gatien, owner of ’90s New York hot spots Limelight, Palladium, and Club USA, starts selling bottles in a 200-person VIP “Green Room” at the 80,000-square-foot Tunnel to skirt a city law. Club director Jeffrey Jah says he began offering bottles for $90 because the city allowed only three bars per establishment. “I sold a bottle for the price of a drink times 20. People looked at me like I was crazy when I put a bottle of Jack and mixers on the table.”
1996 - Total “Recall”
Italian-born Nicola Siervo brings “recall” to Miami with Bar None, a favorite of Sly Stallone and Sean Penn (Stallone was a co-owner). Inspired by clubs in Milan and Paris, it allowed revelers to leave unfinished bottles at the club to drink later—so long as they bought more when they returned. Nowadays at Siervo’s club Wall, tables can cost $10,000 on a weekend night. “The better table you’re at, the more you drink, the more important you are,” he says.
2001-2003 - Bottle Service Rising
Bungalow 8 and Pangaea open in 2001, joining Lotus to form the triumvirate of New York bottle boîtes, with Bungalow charging a then outrageous $500 for Grey Goose. The trend goes national with bottle spots cropping up in Vegas and L.A. faster than Puff Daddy could change his name to P. Diddy. By 2003 Marquee and Pangaea adopt the Saint-Tropez tradition of waitresses delivering bottles of Cristal waving sparklers.
2006 - Put A Cork In It
With seven thriving bottle-service clubs crowding West 27th Street alone, a dozen members of the New York City Council sponsor a resolution to ban the seemingly ubiquitous practice, saying it “drastically increases patrons’ incentive to drink intemperately and promotes dangerous levels of drunkenness.” Uh, isn’t that kind of the whole point? The resolution fails.
2008 - Bobby Bottleservice
2011 - The Don Of The Nightlife
Blackjack ace Don Johnson, who claims to have taken down several Atlantic City casinos for $15 million in winnings, spends $269,000 at London’s One Four One nightclub while partying with Jon Bon Jovi. The awesomely named Pennsylvania-based card shark raises the bar in wastefulness by spraying clubgoers with a 30-liter Armand de Brignac champagne he bought for $192,000. Shine on, you crazy diamond.
2013 - $1 Million Champagne
XS at the Wynn Las Vegas lives up to its name by shamelessly hawking an 18-bottle Armand de Brignac “Empire” Collection for $1 million. Touted as the priciest bottle service ever, it features a 30-liter Midas bottle of sparkling rosé. Not sold? Neither was anyone else: The million-dollar deal has yet to be purchased.
2014 - Sin City Supremacy
Want proof that bottle service remains insanely profitable? XS, the 40,000-square-foot monstrosity inside the Encore Las Vegas, is named the nation’s top-grossing venue for the fourth time, with estimated annual revenues of $90 million. The megaclub lures the bottle-buying tourist hordes with its stable of superstar DJs. Hmm, irritating EDM beats and hugely inflated bottle-service bills? No wonder this place is killing it!
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