Behind the Bar

Drunken Socialism: How Break-Even Bottle Programs Boost Your Bar

A bottle being poured into a glass.
Give customers a taste of rare and expensive spirits. Photo via Flickr/Patrik Nygren.

What was once the provenance of mega celebrities and NBA players is now being brought to the common man.

Break-even bottle programs (or as the concept’s creator calls it, "Drunken Socialism") – is the idea that by purchasing rare and expensive spirits and then selling them by ounce at cost to your customers, you are able to make ultra-premium rare spirits accessible to everyday Joes.

The concept initially took root about two years ago when Bobby Heugel, co-owner of Anvil Bar and Refuge in Houston, wanted to bring power (or at least expensive booze) to the people.

“About five years ago, we had some of our investors start asking if we could start bringing rare bottles into Anvil,” he said. “I didn’t want to start stocking those kind of spirits unless we knew there were people willing to pay for them ahead of time.”

Huegel also balked at the idea of huge markups on rare spirits to cater to a tiny piece of the clientele.

“We decided that if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it at cost,” he said.

That means that as Anvil has been able to get their hands on various spirits, they pay regular-market prices for the bottle (avoiding messy and expensive second-hand market markups), price out the spirit by the ounce, then begin selling the bottle, ounce by ounce, to anyone willing to put up the money.

The first bottle to christen the grand experiment was a bottle of 40-Year-Old Highland Park at $88.67 per ounce.

Currently on the menu is a $2,000 bottle of The Macallan Reflexion.

It’s not all uber-rare bottlings and hyper-hyped whiskies.

“Not too long ago we put a bottle of Rittenhouse Rye on the menu,” Huegel said. “It was kind of a joke, but it kind of wasn’t. More than anything it’s about trying to give people a chance to try something that they probably otherwise wouldn’t order in a bar.”

The blue-collaring of premium spirits

Huegel’s idea has proven so popular that over two dozen bars across the country have already implemented their own forms of drunken socialism.

For Kaleb Cribb, Lead Bar at Holeman & Finch Public House in Atlanta, it was a chance meeting with Huegel that got him thinking about how to bring a similar program to his bar.

“I met Bobby November of 2015 and had the chance to really talk to him about how Anvil had been pioneering the program,” he said. “I brought the idea back home to Atlanta and made the pitch to our owners.”

Cribb was up-front – the actual bottle program itself wasn’t going to make Holeman & Finch any money directly, but it would serve as one hell of a marketing tool for the business.

“I was really passionate about it so I kept pushing,” he said. “Three or four months ago is when we were able to get the program fully up and running.”

Cribb has taken a more widespread view to the break-even program than many other bars, trying his best to steer clear of Scotches, whiskies and other “standard” rarities and ages. Instead, Holeman & Finch regularly boasts rare rums, cognacs, Armagnac and even gins.

“In fact, we’re just about to offer the Nolet’s Dry Gin The Reserve” Cribb said. “That’s a $700 bottle of gin. Essentially it’s the most expensive gin in United States, if not the world.”

And that’s exactly what Cribb wants – to attract the spirit nerds and newcomers alike to see what all the fuss is about.

“We want you to come in and ask ‘Why the hell would I pay $40 for an ounce of gin?’” He said. “Then, once you taste you say, ‘Oh my God, that’s not like any gin I’ve ever tasted!’”

By utilizing distributors and suppliers and not messing with the second-hand spirit market, bars like Huegel’s and Cribb’s are taking part in what Cribb calls the “blue-collaring” of premium spirits.

“I really like the whole deal of making these spirits accessible for ‘normal’ people,” he said “I enjoy bringing down what would be considered the ‘high society’ of spirits and pulling them down to a blue collar accessibility.”

Making money while breaking even

So it begs the question – how in the world are bars able to make that ever-important profit when there’s no markup on their rare spirits?

“We’re going through our rare bottlings in three to four days,” Huegel said. “In those days – especially times when we have super rare offerings – we’re pulling in way more people than we would have had any other day of the week.”

And because many programs limit the number of ounces you can purchase – either per round or per visit – you have more people coming through the bar that are purchasing three or four cocktails at standard list prices.

“There are a lot of times these people wouldn’t have even come through had we not had that rare bottling available,” Huegel said.

Cribb echoed Huegel’s successes.

“We limit the ounces to one per round,” he said. “Which means that if you’ve got four people at the table, only one person at that table can get that ounce until the next round.”

And because of the ability to access previously inaccessible spirits, both have seen a spike in cocktail and beer consumption.

“There’s no sign in these programs slowing down,” Huegel said. “Between the excitement of trying rare spirits to the educational component to the exposure of guests to new cocktails, it’s been a huge success.”

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