Is the Recession Killing the Open Bar?

The recession is jeopardizing much that is sacred to New Yorkers. But could it also threaten the existence of the cherished institution of the open bar at a delicate time when our collective broke ass most needs gratis liquor? I gathered several prominent booze aficionados who for years have been quenching their alcoholic thirst free of charge around the city and asked them if the crap economy was affecting their freeloading drunken ways. And when they were done slurring their belligerent responses, I posed the question to the world’s foremost open bar expert, Myopenbar.com’s Seva Granik, whose nifty online service has been highlighting open bars in cities around the country since 2005. Some names have been changed to protect the inebriated.

Samantha, a well-regarded 20-something media vet who’s a regular at sponsored open bar events, warns of declining quality. “There are still plenty of open bar events, but the quality of liquor, I’ve noticed, has drastically dropped. No more Jameson, Grey Goose, or Champagne. The last few open bars I went to didn’t even offer ginger ale as a mixer. It’s Dewars and Coke, or bust. And if you opt for beer over sponsored liquors, you better get there early and stock up — otherwise you’ll be drinking blueberry vodka and tonics all night. Not a fun hangover to deal with the next day.”

Kyra, a young, successful PR girl whose own company puts together many open bar events, explains the pressing need for getting drunk for nothing in today’s economy. “I’m much more likely to go to open bar events now and save money. I don’t think I have skipped any freebies in the past few months, when I used to skip them all the time. For instance, tonight I had plans with friends to go to one of our favorite restaurants and bars, but then someone got free box tickets to a Knicks game (with free booze and possibly food), and we all jumped on it. One of the girls hates sports, but she is going just for the free booze!”

And now the expert opinion, from the only panel member who didn’t appear to be pleasantly trashed at 2 p.m. (at least he didn’t seem drunk on the phone). Myopenbar.com founder Seva Granik says we have nothing to worry about: “Open bars haven’t gone down in New York. One interesting thing that has happened in the last two years is that while brown [alcohols] and vodka may have pulled dollars for [sponsored open bars], beer has maintained [its availability at open bars]. Also, more venues are doing their own open bars to lure in customers, using their own cheaper well alcohol to bring in traffic [which has declined since the economy soured].”

And yet a BlackBook writer who’s a regular on the free booze circuit tells us of a recent, sub-par open bar experience. “I feel like there are fewer events for sure, but that might be because it’s winter. I was recently at an event in the Plaza Hotel for the Eton, and they were giving away nice drinks and nice hors d’oeuvres, but then popcorn. That struck me as weird. The alcohol was fine, I suppose, but a little light.”

The seasonal explanation holds up, according to Granik, who also credits the bitter cold for the perceived decline in free booze events. “In the summer, we’ll do 60 listings a week, but this is the slow season. We’re still averaging 3 or 4 a day, sometimes 5 to 7 open bar listings this winter. New York is the strongest of all our cities; we have a culture of open bars here.”

Jeremy, a New York-based blogger who estimates he hits one to three open bar events a week, seemed displeased. “There’s less Sparks, because they stopped making it, and which used to sponsor everything. But that’s good, cause it was nasty. At the LVHRD events, they always have free Dewars. So here’s my question — if you always know where you can get free Dewars, why would you ever buy it?” He then grew angry, slammed down his vodka-spiked Vitamin Water, and accused Granik’s site of poisoning the well, as it were. “Since the Myopenbar.com list has gotten more popular, I’ve noticed it’s harder to actually score free drinks at open bar events, because everyone reads the site and goes there, so the events are mobbed. This upsets me.”

But where some find misery, others see opportunity. Andrew, who runs the promotions and events division at a trendy downtown glossy, thinks this alleged dip is a good time for smart brands to send a strong message in a barren market. “I see this economic situation as a fantastic opportunity for an alcohol company to increase brand loyalty. With open bars drying up, it is leaving a void for someone, preferably Jim Beam or Dewars, to swoop in and dazzle everyone with free booze.” The shifty marketing man continues: “For me, the flask solution is the best open bar. I take people’s half empty glasses, maybe there’s still some ginger ale in there, and I just pour my shit into there. Flasks will always be my open bar.”

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