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by jon warech | July 2, 2013 | Food & Drink
The Miami party scene has gotten more extravagant over the years.
Iman and David Bowie enjoying bottle service at Les Bains Douches in Paris in 1991.
The ’70s New York disco scene, with spots such as Studio 54 (where Elizabeth Taylor celebrated her 46th birthday), paved the way for Miami’s megaclubs.
Ingrid Casares, here with Kelly Klein and Madonna, brought star power to Miami nightlife in the ’90s.
Frank Sinatra was a frequent VIP in Miami Beach in the ’60s.
Every night in every nightclub around the world there is a moment, a single instance that is without a doubt the apex of the evening. It’s when the DJ is playing his song, the celebrities are dancing on their VIP couches, and an entire room of partygoers feels like the best of friends. It is the moment for which every Champagne-sipping, electronic-dance-music-loving night owl lives. And, for the right price, that moment can be all yours.
At LIV nightclub at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach-a worldwide leader in “moment making”—all you have to do to own it is, say, drop around $100K for a 15-liter bottle of Ace of Spades Champagne or a couple of jeroboams of Dom Pérignon right before the confetti that signifies this nightly magical moment drops, and it won’t matter if Skrillex is spinning or Diddy is dancing because all eyes will be on you. They are moments that have come to define Miami, inviting big spenders to come in, partake, and be the center of attention.
David Grutman, managing partner of LIV, is the wizard behind some of these moments, but as he says, when it happens, there will be no need to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.
“There’s a whole production to the night,” Grutman says. “The night is a crazy party: people jumping out in Smurf outfits, the top DJs in the world, the confetti and the crazy performers. It’s a visual orgy that goes on. It’s a sensory overload, and they become the superstar in front of a club of 2,000 people. It’s not only a rush, it’s a way to be noticed in a sea of insanity.”
While today this over-the-top bottle-service decadence and theatricality are a nightly occurrence on South Beach, it wasn’t always the case. It’s taken decades for bottle service to evolve from an almost accidental convenience to the grandiose LIV-like levels now being produced. Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. hung their ties up in the 1950s and ’60s at classic spots such as the Eden Roc and Deauville Beach Resort, sipping on 18-year-old Chivas Regal and gin martinis, but according to a few old-time employees, they weren’t exactly getting sparklers with every cocktail. In fact, it was single-serve drinks back in those days, less the occasional VIP request from Ol’ Blue Eyes.
Since the Rat Pack days, the time-honored tradition of premium partying and lavish late nights has grown to astronomical proportions so obviously that nearly every person involved in Miami nightlife in the early days takes credit for adding bottle service to the equation. In many ways, they are all correct.
If you ask John Turchin, who in 1986 opened the 2,000-person mega-disco Club Nu with his brother Tommy Turchin, the desire for bottles of alcohol at tables happened somewhat organically, spurred by a crowd that knew a thing or two about partying.
“It was the drug dealers,” Turchin says. “They had cocaine and money all over the place. Then the rappers came in, and they wanted to buy 20 bottles of Cristal. We didn’t have ice buckets big enough to hold 20 bottles back then, so we used garbage cans.”
Having multiple bottles at the table morphed into a status symbol for the hard partiers with straight cash and bona fide power, but in those days, the alcohol was there for drinking. Buying a bottle—the cost of which was based on the price of a glass times the amount of glasses per bottle and landed in the $150 range—didn’t get you a specific table or a dancing Smurf.
“When we were in business from ’86 to ’96, we never made somebody pay for a bottle to sit down at a table,” says Turchin, who has since found great success in the real estate developing game. “I didn’t think it was appropriate. The customers ran up a tab anyway.”
Just as Club Nu was closing its doors, a new wave of nightlife made its way to the beach, with a VIP mentality that meant in order to sit, you had to buy a bottle. Paris native Eric Milon tapped into what he knew from club life in Europe (many credit St-Tropez with the international birth of bottle service) to bring a certain je ne sais quoi to South Beach nightlife when he opened The Living Room at The Strand along with his brother Francis.
“It started in Europe,” Milon says of bottle service. “[At] nightclubs in Europe, for as long as I can remember, you can acquire a table and a bottle of Scotch. With The Living Room, that was the idea from the get-go. Guests can sit on a sofa at a table, like they were in their [own] living room, and have bottle service.”
At the same time, celebrity-friendly Ingrid Casares and Brooklyn-born Chris Paciello joined forces to open Liquid, a club that welcomed a dance floor crowd on one side and New York socialites, A-list celebrities, and local big shots battling for one of the 10 tables in a packed VIP room on the other side.
“We created an area that people felt was special,” Casares says. “It was roped off, you had celebrities to the right, celebrities to the left, pretty girls. They’ll spend any amount of money just to be there."
“But if we didn’t know who you were, you couldn’t get that table anyway,” Paciello adds. “It wasn’t about spending $10,000 and we’ll give you the table. It was less about the money and more about the party.”
Both Milon and the Paciello/Casares team use terms like “real estate” and “supply and demand” when discussing bottle service in the late ’90s, and they speak fondly of the camaraderie of VIPs and a celebrity crowd that has since been unmatched on South Beach. (“I remember Harrison Ford rolling on the floor,” Milon recalls.) It was also the beginning of the unwritten rules of South Beach, with dress codes, guy-to-girl-ratio requirements, and name-dropping like never before.
“If you were a man, it was impossible to get in unless you did spend a little bit of money,” Casares says. “One time when Puffy came in, he wanted a table, and he rolled in with like 20 guys, and we didn’t allow him to sit.”
With the opening of Bar None in 1996, the Italian-born Nicola Siervo, who burst onto the South Beach scene in ’92 with restaurant/lounge Bang, created an environment in which the actual bottle was the most beloved.
“Back in the day, you went to the club, you ordered your bottles, and if you didn’t finish your bottles, we used to put your name on them and save [them],” Siervo says. “But if the same customer was coming back, in order to get a table and to recall their bottle, they had to order new bottles.”
It sounds glorious—the idea of last night’s vodka being put on ice for the party to be continued at the bottle-buyer’s leisure—but, alas, it was short-lived. By the time Siervo opened Mynt Lounge in 2001, “recall” was dead and the show that LIV lovers appreciate today began to take form. Eric and Francis Milon joined forces with Roman Jones to open Opium Garden and Privé, and eventually Mansion, and all of the high-end clubs were serving expensive bottles beaming with sparklers and delivered by gorgeous, half-naked servers.
Over a 20-year span, the bottle-buying customer went from simply being thirsty to wanting prime real estate in a VIP club to now actually being part of the show. It’s like buying a ticket to a basketball game: In the ’80s you just wanted to be there, in the ’90s you paid to sit in the front row, and today, LeBron James is letting you throw him an alley-oop in the fourth quarter. “Some people don’t even like to drink,” Grutman says. “They just want the show.” And without those people, there is no slam-dunk at the club that night. “You’re not paying for the bottle, you’re paying for the experience and the real estate,” adds celebrity photographer Seth Browarnik. “How much would someone pay to party next to Frank Sinatra?”
Of course, where there is glitz and glamour and a chance to be the center of attention, there will always be competition. Thus, bottle wars, where one customer tries to outdo the next, became such a key element in the nightclub equation that clubs like LIV were designed to promote just that.
“Without giving away too many trade secrets, you want to create energy between bottle customers so it kind of encourages a competition,” Grutman says. “LIV has a lot of those kind of tables [that] face each other, and you can see every table from every part of the room.”
Seeing the other guests get the royal treatment is one thing, but seeing the beautiful women with these guests is equally important, because where there are no models, there are no bottles. Your World Entertainment’s Michael Malone and Marko Gojanovic provide the pretty exclusively for SL Miami nightclub, and work around the clock catering to the needs of the 1,000-plus models in their Rolodex, so they will show up to the party and create the perfect atmosphere for their bottle-buying customers.
“It’s a full-time job,” says Malone of integrating models into the club.
“Some people go beyond their threshold because they love the attention,” says Chris Paciello, who recently opened Story with Grutman in the old South of Fifth home of Privé/Opium Garden. “They’re getting their ass kissed by staff; they’re getting treated like gold. The girls are around their table. They get caught in the moment.”
For the most part, money is not an issue. The party circuit has gone worldwide, with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and even royalty from Brazil to the Middle East paying big bucks to party in Monte Carlo, St-Tropez, Ibiza, and right here in Miami.
"[For] most of the VIP customers who can afford it today, it doesn’t matter what is happening to the world economy,” says Milon. “As I always say, if you make a million, you come in here and you drink to celebrate. If you lose a million, you come here and you drink to forget. The ones who lose, they might not upgrade their yacht or buy a jet, but they’re still drinking Champagne.”
And the bottle service isn’t limited to just nightclubs. If it’s 2 pm and your plane just landed from Paris, you can check in at the Delano South Beach, strip down to a Speedo, and have a bottle waiting for you at a poolside cabana. “Delano Beach Club is not just a pool, it is now a destination in itself, offering the complete Miami ‘day life’ experience,” says J.P. Oliver, the general manager at the Delano. “The energy at the pool has definitely evolved, and we now offer fine dining along with bottle service.”
It’s all hands on deck for a big business that continues to get even bigger. The desire to keep the old-school mentality of VIP first, money later gets tougher with today’s DJ-dominated club culture. Seventeen years ago, when Nicola Siervo was delivering bottles for customers at Bar None, a DJ charged $150 to play a set. Today, the big names demand $150,000, so at all the clubs, including Wall, at which Siervo is the managing partner, the bottles serve more as a $20,000 ticket to the concert.
“We do that when we have [a DJ] like Sebastian Ingrosso. It’s very unique to see a big DJ like that playing in an intimate space like Wall,” Siervo says. “We try to be selective, but there’s a limit, obviously. I’m not going to lose money if somebody wants a big table.”
At the clubs like LIV, Story, and Mansion, the DJs are in high demand. The fans who cannot afford VIP treatment can get past the velvet ropes by simply purchasing a ticket. It seems worlds away from the guy dropping six figures to party, but, in fact, they are all important cogs in the party machine, and despite the difference in credit-card limits, they unite as one when that special moment arrives each night.
“We always set up 200 to 300 fan tickets because you want the fans to go crazy in the middle,” Grutman says. “It’s better for bottle service because when the fans are going crazy downstairs, people like to purchase more bottles because of the energy.”
The dollars being made and the production being put on night in and night out are an impressive feat that today’s club owners, who are popping bottles at an all-time-high rate, have down to a science. “I think of the amount of money we made, and I can only imagine the amount of money they are making today,” Ingrid Casares says. “It must be insane.”
Actually, with über doses of decadence and DJs pumping pure adrenaline to enable six-figure bar tabs on any given night, insane is a bit of an understatement.
photography by shutterstock (champagne); manny hernandez (casares); alexis duclos/gamma-keystone via getty images (iman)