Bottle culture

Bottle culture

Popping champagne bottles in a club takes on a whole new meaning when you are partying at a nightclub such as Clarke Quay's Fenix Room.

On a recent Friday night there, female servers dressed as sexy cheerleaders and air stewardesses came out with Dom Perignon and Cristal champagne bottles lit with blinking LED lights - forming a champagne train, as the club has dubbed it.

With a mascot dressed as a yellow Minion from the movie Despicable Me in tow, the girls presented the bottles to the table of VIPs - a group of executive types in their 30s - who ordered the booze. Some took photographs, while others just stepped aside to watch the servers open and pour the champagne.

The total damage for those few minutes? About $6,000.

Forget about individual drinks and jugs of housepours.

Clubgoers in their 20s, 30s and 40s - both male and female - are now ordering drinks by the bottle, encouraged by a champagne-popping culture that has grown here over the past few years with the opening of VIP clubs.

Even at commercial dance clubs such as Zouk and The Butter Factory, and at Mando-pop club Shanghai Dolly, bottle sales now make up the bulk of the revenue.

Clubbers and club owners say affluence and exposure to clubbing trends overseas contribute to the burgeoning "bottle culture" in Singapore, with some clubgoers saying the trend started taking off as early as 2010.

Club operators decline to tell SundayLife! how much revenue is generated from bottle sales, although they note that sales have "definitely increased" year-on-year in the past three years.

Ms Tay Eu-Yen, 34, executive chairman of The Butter Factory, says "Bottles are a status symbol, but they are also cheaper than if you were to buy a whole load of individual drinks; when people need to hit a minimum table-spending, it makes sense to buy bottles instead of 1,000 loose drinks."

She adds: "What's driving the trend is the desire for higher service standards as Singapore 'internationalises' its nightlife."

Zouk's head of marketing and events, Mr Timothy Chia, 33, says while buying bottles was seen as a luxury in Singapore in the 1980s, "it has gained mainstream popularity as prices have become more affordable".

He adds that Zouk has seen a 10 per cent year-on-year increase in bottle sales in the past few years.

Mr Dennis Foo, 60, chief executive of St James Holdings, which owns Shanghai Dolly, says bottles sales make up 75 per cent of overall revenue at the club.

Indeed, on Friday night, there are at least two bottles - brown spirits such as Martell, Chivas and Macallan whisky are the drinks of choice here - sitting on nearly every table at Shanghai Dolly.

In the back room, more than 1,500 unfinished bottles of liquor are stored for customers.

Mr Dirk Cornelis, 36, group general manager with Limited Edition Concepts, which owns Club Kyo and restaurant-lounge The Vault at Circular Road, notes that 40 per cent of revenue at Kyo comes from bottle sales, with vodka and champagne selling best.

He says convenience is one of the reasons why people turn to the bottle these days, and it "also gives them a better overview on how much they spend during the night".

Mr Cornelis adds: "Within the current competitive market, guests who prefer bottle service like to be recognised by staff and feel as if they are at home hosting a party."

As art director Edmund Tan, 31, puts it: "Firstly, ordering by the jug looks passe. Secondly, you don't have to keep ordering and waiting for drinks. Drinking from the bottle is like the 'in' thing now, and it's easier to impress girls too."

He parties at places such as The Butter Factory at One Fullterton and Fenix Room every couple of weeks.

Hong Kong native and Singapore permanent resident Peter Leung, a private investor and co-owner of a hair salon, says he and his friends spend between $4,000 and $10,000 each time they party.

Mr Leung, who declines to give his age, says: "I think the bottle culture has taken off because of increased disposable income; people are just out to celebrate and have a good time."

Mr Phillip Poon, 36, a director with Massive Collective, which manages nightspots Dream, Playhouse and Fenix Room at Clarke Quay and Mink and Royal Room at Pan Pacific Singapore, says the bottle service culture originated in the United States, particularly in New York and Las Vegas - although he cannot be certain when exactly the practice started.

"To book a table, you needed to order bottle service. VIP tables in New York and Las Vegas are in strong demand due to the celebrity culture, and this eventually flowed down to other countries as well," says Mr Poon.

Popping bottles and the high life go hand-in-hand, with rappers and singers such as LMFAO and Lady Gaga glamorising the culture in their songs and videos.

As Asian-American rappers Far East Movement's 2010 hit Like A G6 put it: "Poppin bottles in the ice, like a blizzard/When we drink, we do it right, gettin slizzard."

Mr Michael Ault, 51, owner of luxe ultralounge Pangaea at Marina Bay Sands, says: "A bottle-service nightclub will generate three to four times the revenue of a bar or club... and the customer experience is greatly enhanced."

"Super large bottles of high-end vodka and champagne" is the tipple of choice in his club, with the "biggest spend" at a table in Singapore so far being in "vast excess of $100,000".

Nightclubs often require patrons to spend a minimum amount of money if they want a table and sofa to sit at; the amount can range between $1,000 and $3,000.

The perks that come with a table reservation, such as having a private space to entertain and interact with friends, bypassing the usual queues to pay entry fees and having a server attend to your needs, encourage clubgoers to open bottles.

The cost of a bottle - a regular 0.75cl size - of champagne, whisky or vodka can set you back between $160 and $280. Premium brands such as Dom Perignon and Cristal can easily cost between $540 and $1,050 a bottle.

The bigger spenders say it is a "face thing", where ordering 10 to 20 bottles of champagne at a go becomes an attention-grabber to impress friends and patrons at luxe clubs.

Self-employed finance trader Jay Wong, 27, is a regular at nightspots Fenix Room, Zouk and Asian-fusion nightclub Sonar at Orchard Hotel, and has ordered up to 30 bottles of champagne on a night out.

"I don't really know how it started; my friends and I started seeing people opening like 20 bottles of champagne at a go, so we also open 20. They open 30, we also open 30," says Mr Wong, who adds that he can spend about $10,000 a month on alcohol.

"When the bottles come out, everyone stops dancing, and the club's attention is on you... it's kind of like a novelty, then it becomes a habit."

If they cannot finish the champagne? "We just start spraying people with it," he admits.

But not everyone parties like Mr Wong. Some say it also makes more economic sense to order by the bottle when partying in groups.

Sales executive C.K Tan, 35, a regular at Mandopop club Shanghai Dolly who sometimes buys two to three bottles of alcohol a night, says: "One bottle is $200 and it gives you 22 servings of alcohol... that's cheaper than buying the equivalent in individual drinks."

Asked if the culture of popping bottles may encourage binge- drinking or alcohol addiction, club operators say no.

The National Addictions Management Service has seen a progressive rise in the number of new cases of alcohol addicts each year, from 240 new cases in 2009 to 418 new cases in 2012.

Senior counsellor with the service, Mr Viksesan SB, 40, says that with alcohol "widely available in Singapore" and "used for celebrations, relaxation and socialisation, many may perceive alcohol to be a normal harmless product because it can be legally consumed and used in many social settings", leading to binge drinking.

But there are measures in place to promote responsible drinking in clubs, such as a responsible service of alcohol workshop launched by the Health Promotion Board in 2012. The programme teaches employees in entertainment outlets to identify early signs of intoxication and delay or stop serving alcoholic beverages to patrons.

To date, 281 staff from 18 entertainment outlets have been trained at this workshop.

Club operators also say patrons are not obliged to finish the bottle in one night. Most clubs can store unfinished bottles for patrons for about a month.

Mr Poon says: "Consumers can keep the bottle... for later use, so it's not exactly encouraging the customer to finish everything on the night itself."

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