ooking to impress the next time you’re out for drinks and think bottle service will do it? Think again. Bottle service may have been the thing in the early 2000s, but in 2018 it’s all about your own liquor locker.
Upscale cocktail bars and speakeasies around the country are now offering Bottle Keep programs, creating an exclusive club for spirit aficionados. The programs vary, but they all involve the opportunity for customers to buy high-end or rare liquor by the bottle (typically whiskey) and have the unfinished portion stored on site.
Why you ask? It not only gives the customer a sense of belonging, but it’s a brilliant marketing move to ensure loyalty and repeat business on behalf of the bar. And, it usually comes with a side of pretty perks, too.
“It’s a very high-end version of having your own beer stein at the corner bar,” says Jeannette Hurt, author of Drink Like a Woman.
While the concept is newer in the United States, Bottle Keep service traces back to WWII Japan, and was especially popular in both bars and Izakayas. It started as a way to store sake and shochu. In the 1970s, whiskey became popular. Today, whiskey still reigns supreme for locker programs in the U.S. Here are some of the best places to lock up your liquor.
Thanks to the opening of Bitters late last year, Phoenix’s growing reputation as a cocktail city got stronger. It is the only cocktail bar in the Valley offering liquor lockers in what it calls The Bitter Enthusiast Club (Toro restaurant offers rum lockers). The Bitter Enthusiast Club is limited to 30 members and includes the locker, invitations to VIP events, complementary access to general public events, 10% off food, discounts on bottles, and access to rare bottles.
“As a whiskey enthusiast myself, I liked the idea of creating a warm, comfortable feeling for our members,” says owner, Erika Rode. The program started when the bar opened in October 2017, and only 12 lockers are still available. Members are enthusiastic about the program, with many going so far as to decorate their locker during the holiday season.
Entrepreneur Tommy Tardie was one of the first to bring liquor lockers Stateside when he opened The Flatiron Room in New York City five years ago.
“I got the idea for liquor lockers from traveling in Japan years ago,” says Tardie. “I allocated real estate for them and prayed people would buy them.”
And buy they did. Five years later he’s sold more than 3,000 and has had to add more. The program is very simple: Guests buy a bottle and it’s stored with their name on a tag around the neck. The customer gets a membership card and entitlement cards that he or she can give to their friends, allowing them access to the bottle. Anyone in the bottle keep program receives snacks and invitations to private tastings. There is no charge for the locker—you simply buy the bottle and pay the gratuity.
At Tardie’s new venture, Fine & Rare, he’s expanded the program. While still offering an individual bottle purchase like at The Flatiron, he also offers private lockers here. A guest must buy up to six bottles upfront and an additional four per year. Within six months, all 24 lockers were sold. The lockers come with hand-carved wood plaques, and a brass tag that looks like a vintage liquor tag adorns the neck of each bottle.
“The tags are hand-stamped with your name at your table,” explains Tardie. “Theater is a big element of this program.”
The traditional speakeasy, The Franklin Room, was the first, and still the only, bottle keep program in Chicago. What sets it apart is that it is solely focused on hard-to-find bottles. According to owner, Mike Schatzman, they source about a dozen unique bottles on a bi-weekly basis for the Whiskey Keep program.
“We look for small producers or rare bottles,” he says. “Sometimes it might be a case where they only release 20 bottles in the country, and we might only get one bottle.”
Members enjoy 10% off bottles, an exclusive reservation line, invitations to special events, 25% off lunch, and incentives for referrals to the program.
Craft distiller, Marble Distillery, has put a unique spin on liquor lockers with its Barrel Club. In its two tasting rooms in Aspen and Carbondale, people can purchase their own small barrel to create their own whiskey or bourbon.
“Customers pick one of our whiskeys or bourbons when they’re at moonshine stage, and they decide how long we age the spirit,” explains Michelle Marlowe, Spirit Liaison for the company.
Each barrel is three gallons, with a number three char. Both the small size and the char means the spirit will age quickly. Members can age the spirit for two years or less. Throughout the process, members come in to the tasting room and can drink from their barrel. While a three-gallon barrel produces 19 bottles, Marlowe says it’s not uncommon to have very little left to bottle after two years!