Consumption as Competition in Nightlife Culture

By Gamal Hennessy

There is an international competition every four years that brings athletes from all over the world for several weeks to participate in events of all types. There is a social competition every night that patrons of every class, race and demographic group compete in when they step up to the bar. Olympic athletes compete for fame, medals and patriotism. What do drinking competitors getting out of their experience? What motivates them to push the boundaries of tolerance and risk damage to their health and social status?

When Drinking Becomes a Sport

Keep in mind I’m not referring to any specific drinking game here. We are discussing drinking as a competition in and of itself without any other secondary set of rules. The rules of the game are simple; who ever is perceived to consume the most liquor in a given period of time and remain functional wins. This is a sprint, not a marathon. Someone who has one drink every night for ten nights is irrelevant to this contest. Someone who has ten drinks in one night is likely to get attention.

The interesting thing about the rules of competitive drinking is that they are seldom explicit. They are only hinted at in the statements that these rivals make:

Don’t try to keep up with me. I will drink you under the table!

You had 5 drinks last night?  I don’t even remember how many I had. It must have been around 9 or 10....

Who wants more shots?

The message is clear; in order to participate in this competition you have to keep drinking until you attain the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.

Benefits of the Game

In competitive drinking, the quality of the drink is not important. The quantity is important. That means the benefits of this type of drinking are not sensual, they are social. The winners of competitive drinking are attempting to raise their social status among their peer group. It is a display of strength meant to send a message of high tolerance, endurance and superiority in comparison to the other drinkers. It is also a secondary signal of abundant resources and enthusiasm to push oneself in the name of “having a good time”.

All of this might sound petty and juvenile to the nightlife foreigner but the same dynamic exists in all levels of modern society. In the normal world, we compete in terms of money, house size, weight, hours worked, material goods owned and a host of other social struggles that are nothing more than substitutions for violent conflicts for dominance among our peers. Not everyone subscribes to competitive drinking as a concept, but that doesn’t make it any more or less credible as a social competition within that environment.

Pitfalls of the Game

Every game that has a winner also has a loser. In the case of competitive drinking, the loser is the one who consumes alcohol to the point where he is damaged socially, legally, financially or physically. This can manifest itself in a drunken brawl inside the club, a tarnished reputation, a lost job or a trip to the hospital. The pitfalls of competitive drinking both in the short term and over time can impact every other aspect of the competitor’s life. Like any other social competition however, some people are willing to risk everything for the chance at success. Everyone feels invincible when they start and very few people imagine themselves being the losers. Winning is a more happy daydream.

Two Types of Player

In competitive drinking there are the ones who drink and the ones who pretend to drink and exaggerate their consumption. The drinkers have the ability to enjoy the benefits of the game but also are susceptible to all of the pitfalls. The pretenders also can enjoy the benefits but can often avoid all of the pitfalls depending on how adept they are at subterfuge. While there is a potential social backlash for a person who is consistently caught lying about their drinking levels, the reality is that many people exaggerate their consumption to participate in the game and most of the drinkers do not have the attention span to keep track of what the pretenders do and don’t drink when they are in the heat of competition.

Organizers of the Game

When we try to find out who set up this game and who benefits from it, it is easy to point our fingers at the operators and accuse them of organizing and profiting at the expense of the patron. But a more reasonable observer has to look beyond the four walls of the bar. It is our wider society that pushes the maxim that more is better. It is our general economy that encourages increased consumption as a cornerstone of our prosperity. Outside of nightlife we have found a way to make every aspect of our social lives into some kind of competition. In many ways, nightlife culture is a mirror to mainstream culture. The patrons are primed to compete long before they step past the velvet rope. The operators may profit from this behavior, but they are hardly the ones to create it.

The Game in the Context of Nightlife Culture

Nightlife Culture is an artistic and social environment. If there is an absence of other types of interaction (musical, sexual or communicative) many patrons will default to competitive drinking. Understanding the motivation behind the action and dealing with those drives will help both the patrons and mainstream society better handle the benefits and pitfalls that it creates.

Have fun.
Gamal

The Four Residents of Nightlife Culture

      

 

by Gamal Hennessy

All nightlife patrons are not created equal.

I am not talking about differences in race, income, social status or gender. I am not referring to the reasons they might go out or the things they might like to do or the places they might like to go. The personal preferences of one patron and another is a natural and normal expression of individuality. I am talking here about basic patterns of behavior. I’m referring to the perspectives that separate one person from another and directly influence that person’s nightlife experience and the experience of the people around him or her. In my experience I have found that there are four types of residents in the nightlife space; operators, natives, amateurs and fanatics.

Operators: make the nightlife machine work. They are the people who offer the services and experiences that patrons come to enjoy. Operators exist on many levels and perform a wide variety of functions. Everyone from the owner of a venue to the manager, bartender, DJ, musician, hostess, waitress, security guard, dancer, sound technician and promoter are one level or another “operating” in nightlife. For many of them it is a passion. For all of them it is a business. Whenever you go out and enjoy a good party at a well run venue, with no fights, good service and a positive atmosphere, you have the operators to thank from the top of the food chain all the way down the line.

Natives: see nightlife as their natural habitat like a polar bear in the arctic or a tiger in the jungle. They are the people who spend a lot of time in nightlife and maintain a harmonious relationship with it. These are the people who go out to on a regular basis for a variety of different reasons and experiences; lounging with friends one night, listening to new music on another night, meeting clients for drinks and then dancing with a date at the end of the week. Some of them might know operators and use those relationships to get the inside track on the latest and greatest. All of them know the spots that best suit their personalities. The most important aspect about a native is the sense of balance. These people can drink, dance, and date several nights out of the week without sacrificing their health or their ability to work and without leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

Amateurs: are relatively new to the nightlife experience. Circumstances like age, a previous lifestyle or simply being new to an urban environment have limited their exposure to clubs and the things that go on inside. New amateurs haven’t been to many venues. They don’t know what to expect when they get there. They don’t know what they can handle. They don’t know how to react in different situations and they haven’t integrated nightlife into the rest of their life. Old amateurs only go out to the clubs on rare occasions, but they go out on these same occasions every year. Although they have been exposed to nightlife on their birthday, New Year’s Eve and possibly Halloween, their relationship with nightlife is tenuous at best. Many of them still are unsure of what goes on in nightlife, many of them consume too much when they do go and many of them suffer in one way or another as a result of that over consumption. While some new amateurs evolve into natives, old amateurs shy away from repeated exposure to nightlife because of the pain associated with their over consumption.

Fanatics: combine two distinct qualities. First, they have considerable exposure to nightlife. They know where to go, they know what to do, they know what they can and can’t handle. Second they consistently strive to go beyond the limits of what they can handle with little regard for the consequences. These are the people who leave their homes at the start of the night with the mantra “Tonight, we are going to get fucked up!” They believe the volume of liquor they can drink is an indicator of their status. They see fights with other patrons and police altercations as struggles for respect and freedom. They consider the destruction of property and the disruption of people’s lives as inconsequential. They regard blackouts, hangovers and strained relationships are the cost of doing business. In the mind of the fanatic, if you’re not going to go too far, you shouldn’t bother going.

So where do you fit in?

Everyone who goes out fits into one or more categories. It might not be easy at first glance to figure out where you fit in. As I said before, it’s not based on age, standard of living, gender, race or social background. What kind of resident you are is based on your pattern of behavior and the frame of reference that guides your actions when you are out. Some patrons enhance the night, some patrons cause problems. You know who you are. The question is, are you the nightlife resident that you really want to be?

Have fun.

 

 

 

The Cultural Impact of Bottle Service in New York Nightlife

By Gamal Hennessy

If the rumors are to be believed, Rhianna might be single handedly responsible for altering nightlife culture this year. The bottle throwing brawl between Chris Brown and Drake, allegedly over her, has shut down W.I.P, sparked statements from the City Council, the NYPD, the State Liquor Authority and the newly formed Hospitality Alliance.  It remains to be seen what will come out of this controversy, but it is clear that for better or worse, changes in the bottle service dynamic will have a direct impact on nightlife culture itself that should be considered before any sweeping changes are made.

Historic Origins of Bottle Service

The practice that is now referred to as bottle service began in Post War Japan, where sake bars began to serve seated soldiers whole bottles of liquor at once, instead of constantly shuffling back and forth with drinks. What started out as simple efficiency evolved into a motivation for club reservations in Europe and finally a barrier to entry in New York, Miami and Las Vegas. The popularity of bottle service grew for two reasons; the economic benefit to the operators and the social benefit to a specific type of patron.

Economic Impact of Bottle Service

Everyone knows that the difference between the cost of a bottle of liquor in the store and the cost of a bottle in the club can easily be several hundred dollars, but not everyone knows why. Bottle service has nothing to do with liquor. It is about real estate and social prestige that has no realistic relationship to the actual cost of the liquor. When you order bottle service you are also assigned a specific geographic area that is far more valuable to the operator than the bottle. Each table they sell represents a specific stream of revenue. If bottle service was really just about liquor, the bartender would hand you the bottle and send you to stand in a corner.

The value of that real estate can be fundamental to the bottom line of any venue. A recent Harvard study called “Marquee: The Business of Nightlife” claimed that while only 40% of patrons on any given night might buy bottle service, that group accounted for more than 80% of the nightly revenue. From an economic standpoint, that means that the reduction or elimination of bottle service from New York nightlife would make it difficult for many venues to remain open. From a cultural standpoint, a severe contraction of the market could alter the basic activity and interaction that people have when they go out, regardless of whether they buy bottles or not.

Psychological and Social Impact

Patrons don’t pay for bottle service because they don’t know how much a bottle of vodka really costs. They buy bottle service because they perceive several benefits in this nightlife ritual:

  1. It is a temporary display of wealth that sends a message to potential lovers, rivals and associates.
  2. It is a source of ego gratification that can give the buyer a higher sense of worth relative to the rest of his or her normal daily routine
  3. It is a method of segregation that patrons use to separate themselves from other groups in a venue.
  4. It is a security blanket that patrons can use to feel safer in what might otherwise be a foreign or uncomfortable situation.

Ironically, it is social and mental aspects of bottle service that are the source of the problem. When celebrities, or any group, enjoys a feeling of entitlement they are more prone to act out in an anti social manner, especially if they feel there are no consequences. If a bottle throwing melee breaks out and the club is punished instead of the celebrity fighters then that feeling of entitlement is reinforced. We shouldn’t be surprised if they engage in similar behavior in the future.

Is This the End of Bottles?

There have been rumors and theories floating around about the end of bottle service from the time that it became a staple in nightlife culture. The most recent prediction of its demise has come in the wake of the economic crisis but the number of venues that provide bottles has not decreased significantly.

Can new regulations and laws hurt bottle service in ways that the economy couldn’t? Is it possible that we could see the practice altered, curtailed or eliminated from the nightlife landscape? To the best of my knowledge that decision hasn’t been made yet. I do know that if local officials are attempting to send a message to the nightlife community, that message needs to be sent to the people actually fighting and not the location that the fight took place.

 

Bottle service isn’t the main problem in the Brown/Drake fiasco; uncontrolled male aggression and fragile male egos are the main problem. We can’t solve that problem by legislating away bottle service. Take away the bottles and boys will find something else to fight with.  The most adequate response to promoting safety and security in nightlife is not to ignore the fanatics and punish the operators. If there is video of the crime, check the video tapes. Prosecute the bad actors in criminal and civil court. If the venue is found to be complicit in the events that occurred, then punish them in addition to everyone in the fight. To simply close the club and let the celebrities walk away empowers other fanatics to engage in similar behavior without fear of the consequences and they’ll do it with or without bottles.

Have fun.

G

The Culinary Side of Nightlife Culture: An interview with Jimmy Carbone and Rev Ciancio

By Gamal Hennessy

Music and fashion might be the most public aspect of nightlife culture, but consumption is the most basic and integral part of the experience. What we can eat and drink in nightlife is very different than what we allow ourselves to consume in normal life. There is an escapist quality in culinary nightlife that is just as strong as the artistic passion or the sexual expression. To get a better appreciation of this side of the culture, NCI sat down with Rev Ciancio and Jimmy Carbone to get their perspective on the eve of their new event series Elixirs and Eats.

NCI: Where did the concept of Elixirs and Eats come from?

Jimmy: We've been producing events together for a couple of years now. We know what goes into a successful event and what people enjoy. We have also made connections with a lot of small businesses creating unique small batch spirits. We decided to couple our involvement in culinary culture with the up and coming spirits producers that we know to create a unique series of events.

NCI: How did each one of you get involved in the culinary aspect of nightlife culture?

Rev: I started in the music biz as an artist manager. Managing bands is essentially like as series of pop up events.  I'd set up the tour, get the band in their van or bus, promote the shows and put the band back on the road when the show was over. After doing that for a few years, my interest in music events began to ebb, but my interest in the hospitality industry overall got stronger. That's when I began to focus on more culinary productions around the city.

Jimmy: I started out on the culinary and hospitality side of the business. I own and operate a restaurant called Jimmy’s No. 43 so the food and drink side of the equation has always been important to me. It was my involvement in that business that exposed me to the spirits that we are going to be focusing on for Elixirs and Eats.

NCI: How is your event different from other tastings in the city?

Rev: We’re different for two reasons. We've found that many of the tastings in the city focus more on the cocktail and not on the complexity of each spirit. That's why we want to offer our independent spirits neat or on the rocks, so our guests can get a full appreciation of the straight bourbon and the food we pair it with.

The other thing is, a lot of liquor tastings have a stiff corporate feel about them. We want to expose people to these great spirits and we want them to be able to meet the producers of each liquor we bring it, but we also want people to have a good time. That's why we're going to have great live music and a first rate burlesque show as well. We want people to get off work, come straight over, enjoy a summer evening on a beautiful rooftop and have a good time. That's always the main focus for us.

NCI: Tell me about the entertainment that you’ll have for each event and the venues you are working with.

Jimmy: We should talk about the venue first. Hudson Terrace is an amazing spot in terms of location, style and set up. It is the perfect place to spend a summer evening. It's also a great place to create a unique New York experience. We're going to have international trumpet player Fabio Morgera and his trio playing live to add to the ambiance and the Love Show burlesque to add some spice to the night. When you combine all that with our culinary offerings you get one of the best after work experiences in the city.

NCI: What about your beverage partners? Tell me a little bit about how they got involved in Elixirs and Eats.

Jimmy: We've met many great independent distillers when we were producing our previous events. For this first show, we're bringing together Warwick Valley, Caledonia, Scorpion Mezcal, and Templeton to let our guests sample and discuss what their spirits are all about. If you have a love for well made bourbon or you want to find out more about it, this will be a great setting for that.

NCI: What is the ultimate goal of Elixirs and Eats?

Rev: We want to expose people to more of the culture of spirits and create an atmosphere where people have fun exploring new tastes, new music and new experiences. We're not planning to take over the world with Elixirs and Eats. We just want to have fun giving people what they enjoy.

Have fun.

G

Women Behind Bars: Drinking with the Fairer Sex

Last week, the Manhattan Cocktail Classic took over dozens of venues in New York for a celebration of spirits, cocktails and the leaders in the industry. One of the more unique events was the Women Behind Bars seminar at Pegu Club on Saturday afternoon. Over rum punch, hanky pankys and gin mojitos, the speakers offered an overview of the historical role of women in the business of drinking.

The discussion was sponsored by LUPEC (Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails) and traced the involvement women bartenders from medieval Europe to today. Two recurring themes came across whether they were discussing public houses in England, taverns during the American Revolution, bars during the Industrial Revolution, saloons of the Western Migration, speakeasies of Prohibition or the modern cocktail lounge. First, women were both implicitly and explicitly used by men to attract men to places where liquor was sold. Second, women have always had to fight for access, rights and respect when it comes to being involved in this culture. Sometimes they had to fight moral attacks, sometimes they had to fight misogynistic attitudes. Sometimes they had to fight each other. It was their success in those battles that helped shape the environment we have today.

Nightlife culture became a focal point for social change in the role of women in a manner that was similar to minority integration and the rise in LGBT acceptance.  None of these groups have taken control of nightlife away from the establishment, but they have changed the perception and experience of nightlife that we have the luxury of taking for granted today.

Have fun.

G

Nightlife Culture Review: Flute Grammercy

Flute is a solid component to New York cocktail culture.

One of the best parts of the venue is the way they seat people. This might sound stupid, but it makes a difference. The host sits all the large groups and singles upstairs in the main room and gather all the couples down in the basement. This saves the party crowd from having to suffer through PDA that doesn't include them and lets the couples fawn over each other in peace. I wish more places did that.

The cocktails are quite good as well. Like many cocktail lounges now, Flute focuses on a specific liquor in most of their drinks. In this case champange is the common theme. We tried a few drinks and each one was quite good. The service is good. The dim room and comfortable furniture are good for enjoying crafted cocktails. The music is a random hot mess of an iPod shuffle, but no one is perfect.

If you like cocktails you will like Flute, whether you are in a group or a couple.

Have fun.
G

21 Essential Websites for New York Nightlife Culture

 

There are so many blogs and websites for New York nightlife that if you tried to read them all you’d never have time to go out. This list collects some of the best and most up to date writing online. This isn’t a list of sites about the industry side, venue reviews or a list of purely self promotional sites. There are plenty of good ones in both those categories, but this list focuses on the sites with a cultural focus. Some of them will be familiar, others will be new. I hope all of them will help learn more about New York nightlife culture go out and have fun.

 

Music/ DJing

Ear Drum NYC

Frequency

New Music Daily

Village Voice Music 

 

Nightlife Tastemakers

Elite Daily

Good Night Mr. Lewis

Guest of a Guest

NY Nightlife: @NYNightlife (on Twitter)  

Societe Perrier

 

Bartending/ Drinking

New York Barfly

Shake and Strain

The Truth about Bartending

 

Restaurants/ Eating

Eater New York

Grub Street New York

Zagat New York

 

Fashion/ Style/ Photography

The Dandy Project

I Rock the Shot

Paper Magazine

Young, Rich and Faking It  

 

Wine

DomaiNYC

 

Beer

The Beer Friends

 

Nightlife changes over time, so this list will change with it. If you think I left someone out that needs to be here, or you think someone is here who shouldn’t be, let me know.

Have fun.

G

What is So Good About Happy Hour?

Depending on who you listen to, the tradition of happy hour is being targeted by local government.  The rumor alleges that in an attempt to curb overconsumption and the reduced quality of life that goes with it, government officials are considering a ban on happy hour. This story probably isn’t true but it does raise and interesting question; does New York nightlife need happy hour and does the practice more trouble that it is worth?

Happy hour is normally the time period between 4-7 pm on weekdays.  During happy hour, a venue will lower their drink prices, offer food specials and have other economic enticements to get people to go out after work and before the night begins. It is the time for co-workers to complain about the boss before getting on the commuter train. It is the time for early first dates, pregaming and the casual consumption that many people rely on. It is the closest equivalent we have to European bar and café culture where people can connect over a stein of beer in Vienna or a glass of wine in Paris. Not everyone can hit the club at midnight or come back into the city on the weekend to go out. In the age of Groupon and Living Social, happy hour is the original discount incentive. It is just another reason for people to go out and do something they were going to do anyway.

I am not aware of any spike in nightlife related crime due to happy hour. Most of those issues happen between midnight and 4am. Banning happy hour will not eliminate early drinking. It will only discourage that percentage of drinkers who were only going out because drinks were cheaper. People will still need to complain about their boss, consume casual liquor and come together in a social setting. If there is a social issue created by happy hour then that issue should be dealt with directly. Trying to discourage social interaction and casual consumption doesn’t help anyone.

Have fun.

Gamal

The Social and Psychological Benefits of Pregaming

 

By Gamal Hennessy

According to the Urban Dictionary, pregaming is a synonym for drinking derived originally from tailgating before a sporting event such as a football game. It later became known as drinking before any major gathering. Many people see pregaming as simply a cheaper method for overconsumption. In many cases it can have that effect. What most people do not realize is that the practice also has social and emotional benefits based on bonding rituals that are a natural extension of the activity.

Protection and Identity

According to David Grazian in his book On the Make, nightlife is an anonymous environment. Very few people know who you are beyond what you tell them. This situation is beneficial for anyone who wants to redefine themselves or explore lifestyles that they are not familiar with. This relative anonymity is one of the reasons nightlife is so attractive to young people and counter cultures who are seeking to define themselves outside the framework of conventional society. But that same unknown quality can create a high level of anxiety and insecurity for anyone attempting to define their personae and exploring new situations involving class, age, race, or sex.

A pregame with friends serves two purposes here. First, it creates a social bond for the group that they can turn to for short term support as they venture out. The idea that a young lady won't be abandoned by her girls if she is approached by a questionable man gives her more confidence to go out. A boy who knows he won’t be rejected, isolated or unsupported makes going out easier, even if the bond is largely a facade. The pregame creates that short term bond that makes the rest of the night an enjoyable group activity instead of a nervous isolated one.

A pregame also offers an opportunity for the members of the group to engage in activities that display and reinforce their sexual identity. The subtext contained in the competitive drinking games, sharing stories of past adventures, and the collective preparation for the adventures to come all help to establish each members desired (or perceived) sexual and social status.  Because a large part of going out is about projecting image (even more than the actual sexual, consumption or experiential value) the pregame is a vital part of the process because it helps establish image for the night.

 

Not Drinking Just to Drink

Descriptions of pregame activities reinforce this concept. In Notes from the Night, Taylor Plimpton describes meeting his best friend at a bar for drinks before heading out to the clubs. The experience they share isn’t about the drinks they consume or any conversations they have with strangers at the bar. It is about connecting with each other in a way that prepares them to enter the nightlife environment with more comfort and pleasure than they would have by just going straight to the exclusive venue. Keep in mind, this bonding experience is often not the result of a conscious choice. It is a natural by-product of the activity that would probably be destroyed if the players went into it thinking about the bonding process. 

There are many pregames that end in a sloppy mess. There are many nightlife players that are predisposed to overindulge in alcohol and only use the pregame as the first stop on the road to a drunken stupor. But this does not negate or diminish the value of the pregame on an emotional, psychological or social level. The title pregame is extremely accurate because much like the pep talk that players give each other before a game, pregame drinking puts nightlife players in the proper frame of mind to enjoy the night.

Have fun.

Gamal

Liquor as a Rite of Passage

by Gamal Hennessy

Nightlife is defined as adult activities outside the home that revolve around social connection. By definition, children are not meant to play a significant role in the discussion of nightlife benefits or problems. However, we all know that minors are drawn to liquor, because it has happened to many of us. So any discussion about reducing underage drinking in nightlife has to include the motivations of the minors if we want to create positive change.

In the United States, consumers must reach the age of 21 before they are legally permitted to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages. This legal barrier creates one of the most powerful social effects of liquor in nightlife. Nightlife is an adult environment primarily because alcohol is served there. The collective message we send is, “If you can drink, you must be an adult.”

The fact we label people who can drink “adults” and people who can’t drink “minors” creates a need to drink that has nothing to do with the liquor itself. In our system, the permission to drink is a symbol of adulthood and independence. This is one of the main reasons that teenagers struggle to obtain fake IDs and then sneak into clubs even though they may not like the environment. Ironically, many of them don’t really want the liquor because they dislike the taste of alcohol. But they do want to grow up faster than our society will allow. They want to be adults faster than their physical, mental or emotional capabilities can manage. Consuming liquor is a short cut to that status.

This is not the same in other countries. According to the International Center for Alcohol Policy, many countries have a legal drinking age of 18 or even 16. In influential states like China, France, Israel, Italy and Russia, there is no drinking age at all. There is a direct relationship between the rules for drinking and people’s relationship to alcohol.

We have created a powerful social motivation for minors to drink. But it is interesting to note that while the sale of alcohol to minors is seen as a major problem in nightlife, most minors get their drinks without ever stepping into a club. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 10.1 million people aged 12 to 20 nationwide reported being current drinkers of alcohol. While these numbers might be shocking, it is enlightening to take into account another study conducted by the Department of Health in 2006. In a work entitled. “Where Do Minors Get Alcohol From?” the government found that, depending on the age of the minors, anywhere from 85-97 percent of the alcohol they have access to is from outside the nightlife setting. While underage drinking is a problem across America, nightlife is not a primary location for that kind of abuse.

Unfortunately, nightlife is often singled out as the villain in the story of underage drinking. The social motivation of the minors themselves is often discounted or ignored. But placing the blame solely on the doorstep of the operator will not solve anything. Change can only occur if society changes its perception of and relationship to liquor as a whole. When our indulgence is more responsible, our relationship with liquor is more relaxed. When that happens minors, won’t feel the need to drink illegally because the social benefit will be gone.

Have fun.
G