Everyone knows the best bars are the ones where everybody knows your name – or where somebody does, at the very least; or failing that, the kind of bar where there’s a bottle with your name on it.
That’s the idea behind the whiskey club – clube do uísque, or club do whiskey – a much-cherished tradition and a fixture in assorted bars across São Paulo, from high-class joints to humble botecos. Just look out for the row of bottles with names written on them, in felt-tip on the label or over masking tape.
In Itaim Bibi, at cosy and upscale São Pedro São Paulo, the dark wood interiors give the impression of being deep inside a 17th-century ship – in the captain’s cabin, perhaps. In the myriad labelled bottles adorning the wall, Buchanan’s looms large, alongside Jameson’s, Logan and the usual suspects. At Vila Madalena’s Astor, meanwhile, customers have taken to the offer with such gusto that half-empty (– half-full?) bottles make up a good part of the walls of the establishment’s two storeys. Upstairs, in at atmosphere reminiscent of an up-scale boteco, gleaming bottles compete with scenes of old São Paulo and gangster movies. Down the stairs in SubAstor, the atmosphere is darker and sexier, with red velvet walls adorned not with whiskey bottles, but vodka, its clear liquid more suited to the low-lit, night lounge atmosphere.
At Astor, a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label – one of the most popular choices on the whiskey club scene, and heavily promoted by the brand – will set you back R$165, while your own bottle of Ketel One vodka is R$220. A single dose, on the other hand, will run you R$16.50 and R$22 respectively, so that with 19 servings to a bottle, there are significant savings to be made. ‘It’s more economical to buy your own bottle,’ says one Astor barman, ‘and here, you have a year to drink it. But most people don’t do it primarily to save money – it’s to have their own bottle up on the wall.’
It’s unclear how the custom started in São Paulo: ‘It’s been a São Paulo tradition forever,’ says barman Edson Fernandes of Bar Brahma in the historic city centre. ‘No one I know has any idea where it came from, or can remember when bars like this didn’t have a whiskey club.’ Some old hands in the Sampa whiskey club stakes can recall Japanese restaurants’ holding bottles behind the bar for regulars as long as thirty years ago, and there’s even speculation that the Japanese community might have introduced the habit, since keeping your own bottle behind the bar is a longstanding tradition in Japan’s nomiya bars, with loyal customers’ names written out in kanji characters on the bottles.
At old-school Bar Brahma, where Caetano Veloso and other bohemians once famously tipped their glasses, a variety of whiskies including Cutty Sark at R$190 and Johnny Walker Blue label at R$1,180 is available for purchase, and storage, behind the bar. Here, the statute of limitations on keeping a bottle is three months. ‘It’s definitely a chic thing to do for our upscale customers,’ says Fernandes, surveying the bottles stored in Brahma’s upper floor bar. ‘But to be honest, probably half of the whiskey stored here won’t be consumed before the three-months are up.’
Given that risk, there’s no material reason to keep a bottle behind the bar anywhere. There will be other bottles, and the whiskey in them will be the same. But that’s precisely the point – the clube do uísque allows the patron to gain something immaterial – a sense of belonging, perhaps – with the commitment to return as its only price.
São Pedro São Paulo is at Rua Dr. Renato Paes de Barros 127, Itaim Bibi (3079 4028, saopedrosaopaulo.com.br).
Astor is at Rua Delfina 163, Vila Madalena (3815 1364, barastor.com.br).
Bar Brahma is at Avenida São João 677, República (3333 3030, barbrahmasp.com).