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Not Your Average Bottle Service

Not Your Average Bottle Service

Bars and restaurants step up their spirits game with private lockers for expensive bottles

Bottle service usually evokes images of people at a nightclub with pricy bottles of vodka and servers bringing over champagne with sparklers. People can drop buckets of cash, but then have nothing to show for it the next day, except maybe a hangover. This newer concept in the U.S. changes the game entirely.

Dubbed "bottle keeps," restaurants and bars around America have taken a cue from a long-held Japanese tradition of selling customers expensive and oftentimes rare bottles of spirits, usually whiskey, which they hold in lockers at the establishment. Patrons can return to enjoy their bottle whenever they want until, of course, they finish the bottle.

"When I opened this place, I liked the idea of having something unique or different," said Tommy Tardie, owner of New York's The Flatiron Room, who discovered the concept while visiting friends in Japan after college. "Bottle service has almost a negative connotation in New York and I didn't want to represent that. I wanted something more sophisticated and I thought this concept from Japan could work well."

And work well it has. Since opening a few years ago, Flatiron has sold 2,500 bottles of whiskey they store in lockers on display in the restaurant (he even sold two the day they opened!). Each locker holds upwards of 20 bottles that can range in price from the $200s up to a whopping $15,000 for something extra rare, like a $10,000 bottle of The John Walker, a 42-year-old speymalt Macallan or a Balvenie 40. Generally the buyers are true whiskey enthusiasts. Other times they use the bottles as showpieces or to impress friends or clients. But it always gives people a connection to the restaurant and naturally turns them into regulars.

"It's a way of giving people the impression they own a piece of the space, like this is 'my location,'" Tardie said. "For us, it's a way of converting customers from a one-time user to a repeat user. For them it's the cachet of having a place, the feeling of someone knowing your name. This is that on steroids. Someone can call in and ask to have their bottle on a table and when they arrive with a guest, it's on the table with distilled water, ice and an amuse bouche. It makes a nice impression with clients."

"It's a way of giving people the impression they own a piece of the space, like this is 'my location,'"

Chicago's Franklin Room, a sophisticated subterranean den of spirits and elevated American comfort food, originally featured various spirits in its locker program, but changed the name from the Bottle Keep to the Whiskey Keep to focus exclusively on Scotch, bourbon, rye, Japanese whiskey — even Tasmanian whiskey. Since opening in 2014, the Franklin Room has signed up about 100 members who have all purchased at least one bottle. The free-to-use program (you just pay for the bottle) has attracted a wide variety of whiskey lovers.

"What we've found interesting is there are a lot of whiskey geeks out there who are your average everyday people," said Franklin Room owner Mike Schatzman. "It's not about prestige. People like the program so they can get their hands on unique spirits they can't find anywhere else." Schatzman works with distributors and directly with spirits brands to procure rare bottles. "We want limited distribution that's exclusive where you won't really be able to find it at a liquor store," he said. "It's like having a secret society of these whiskey makers."

Having the Whiskey Keep builds loyalty and that begets new customers in the process. "The bottles keep our customers patronizing us at least once a week or every week and a half," Schatzman added. "It brings in a ton of new customers, too. I see 70 percent of the customers from our bottle program bringing in someone else to introduce them to the program."

The appeal has spread across the country, but sometimes with a bit of a cost for membership. Steak & Whiskey in Hermosa Beach, Calif., charges a $500 annual fee to rent one of 10 lockers. Guests can fill it with whiskey or other rare spirits sold at the restaurant or bring in their own wine, as some guests have done. Others have teamed up to split the cost of a locker. However they do it, customers feel like they belong in the restaurant.

"When people invest into the restaurant, they don't do it to make money," said Scott Young, Steak & Whiskey's director of operations. "They do it to be part of the restaurant and the whiskey locker program helps that."