Break Even Bottles
When I was working at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco circa 2005, we had a guest who lived there for nearly three months who regularly would come in and order Louis XIII neat for a cool $300, take two sips and wander off. We generally would wrap it up and keep it for when he would inevitably return a few hours later and repeat the same ritual. This was my first experience with a drink that cost as more than I made in a day.
I’m just going to lay this out there: Some spirits can be ridiculously expensive. We’re talking mortgage your parents house obscenely expensive. This price tag comes with a taste and rarity that can be truly something to splurge on, but for most mere mortals, we can only speculate and straw-taste if lucky. I love fine liquor as much as the next professional booze geek, but just the thought of shelling out thousands of dollars for liquid makes my bank account threaten to never speak to me ever again. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to try them, regardless of price point. Curiosity has lead me this far in life and I’m far from letting that stop me know.
Over at Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, Bobby Heugel is letting curiosity have a one up with a program he calls the “Break Even Bottle,” selling bottles of alcohol at the same price as the cost to the bar, allowing a peak into the upper echelons of insanely priced alcohol. Their break down is pretty simple. For example: El Dorado 25 Year, which they bought in for $570.64 for a 750ml bottle was served as 25 one ounce pours for $22.82 a pop (plus .36 ounce which goes to Bobby as a “No Angel Share.”) Other bottles that have been featured are Macallan M (sold at $169/oz), Ghosted Reserve 26 Year ($13.49/oz), and Port Ellen 14th Release ($108.47/oz).
“This all started for us about six years ago when we started to pre-sell some bottles at break-even pricing for dedicated regulars,” says Bobby, “and then a year or so ago, we started making it a regular program. There's always an option at the bar.”
While many of these bottles are super rare and priced accordingly, some are just favorite bottles they want to play with and feel guests might enjoy once dipping their toe in. For example, when a bartender Alex Negranza finished their rigorous training program, he opted to put a bottle of pre-new label Rittenhouse Rye on at $0.87 a shot. Needless to say that disappeared at a rapid pace. This kind of exploration helps build knowledge and interest from all angles.
“We sometimes fly through the Break Even bottles,” says Alex. “We take spirits that are heavily allocated, hard to find, or otherwise limited (by price, distribution or otherwise) and give people access to them. I don't know many consumers who would spend $400 on a bottle of Grand Marnier, and definitely not $50/shot for it in a bar. But we sold it for $11.18. Even I wanted to try it, and it was something cool that we could share.”
While Anvil may have championed this kind of offering, other bars around the country are starting to catch on. Mulleadys in Seattle, The Townsend in Austin, and Heist Brewery in Charlotte are a few that have started to get involved with a movement that’s being hashtaged as #DrunkenSocialism - the power of bringing good booze to the people.
The Break Even Bottle program nurtures all aspects of the business allowing bar regulars, enthusiasts, industry, and casual consumers to try something new. “It helps reward regulars, your staff gets to taste stuff they normally wouldn't, it improves relationships with brands because you sell stuff nobody else can, and, while break-even, it is profitable,” explains Bobby. “If a guest comes in and spends the money to try a break-even spirit, we've motivated another person to come into the bar. This usually results in at least a couple more drinks sales for them, and they're typically really good additional sales because these folks value high-end spirits. Everyone wins here - the house, the guest, the staff, the brand.”
While this kind of a program isn’t one for every bar, in a way I hope it could be. Personally I’ve been asked a million times about spirits I’ve never been able to afford or track down, and this kind of thing could be that opportunity I never had.