Bottle service isn't an especially new trend in upscale clubs around the country, but only recently did the "V.I.P" trend make its way to Milwaukee.
Basically, patrons drop a bunch of cash on a nice bottle of vodka, for example. That $150 bottle (or more) enables them great seating and the privilege to mix their own cocktails right at the table.
It's a move that is intended to make customers look like high-rollers.
And it's a move that, according to Ald. Jim Bohl, chairman of the Common Council Licenses Committee, is illegal in all Wisconsin bars.
"It's allowable for wine," says Bohl, who explains that a provision in the state statute lets customers take an unfinished bottle home. "Bottle service, with high-end, top-shelf liquors that people are purchasing at tables in suite areas -- that, according to the state statutes, is not legal."
Adds Bohl, "It's not legal for you to purchase that particular intoxicant and have it in your hand in an establishment for consumption on site."
A handful of clubs, including Texture, Centanni, CO2 Ultralounge, Decibel, Suite, Soho 7 and Silk offer bottle service, but only recently did the Common Council find out the practice is illegal and violates a state statue. But, because it's a state statute and not a city ordinance, the Common Council can't make bottle service league legal.
"Not without the state providing enabling legislation," he says. "We cannot supercede the state."
Bohl says it's unlikely the state legislature will take up the issue, either, since outside of Milwaukee, he doesn't see the topic of bottle service as something that would catch on across Wisconsin.
According to the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the issue isn't a particularly high priority at this point, and Executive Director Pete Madland says he had to reread Statute 125.51 even to become familiar with bottle service's question of legality.
"We never advocate for any bars that break the law," says Madland. "If they want to change the law, we have a process for that."
That process involves writing a bill and finding a member of the state legislature to back it, but Madland says he doesn't see that happening any time soon.
Locally, the topic came up at a recent liquor license renewal hearing for Aura, 1011 N. Astor St., in which Milwaukee Police Sgt. Chet Ulickey noticed an ad for bottle service and informed the council.
"I'm not saying that there will be a measure to crack down," says Bohl, "but I think that right now, it's growing and we wanted to at least educate those establishments that there will be an effort to provide information and to eventually enforce."
Aura did receive its renewal, but Bohl made the club's owners aware of the infraction. He says the owners indicated that neither they nor the police even knew what they were doing was illegal. He says Aura intends to fix the problem.
Bohl says he doesn't have a personal objection to bottle service, and he recommends clubs look at ways around the statute, which was originally designed as part of the Class B liquor license. That permit lets taverns serve as an indirect liquor store.
Because the law says a bar can't place an original liquor bottle larger than four ounces on display for patrons to consume on premise, Bohl says other states will similar restrictions enable bars to pour that bottle into a carafe, or even to keep the original bottle in a lockbox that can only be poured by a server.
"It's a little weird, but it's legal," he says.
Bohl says it's clear that the original intention of this statute wasn't meant to deny bars the right to offer bottle service, and he doesn't know of any penalties to bars that are breaking the law.
"When the statutes were written, this was not anticipated," says Bohl.
And that doesn't even address 12-oz. "malternatives," like Smirnoff Ice or Mike's Hard Lemonade. Is that considered a bottle of liquor, he asks.
Still, Bohl doesn't see the bottle service infractions as a very significant issue, and he admits it only affects a few bars.
"I think we're rather limited in terms of the places we have to do education with," he says. "Whether or not a couple of those alternatives, they're able to be taken advantage of -- and my guess is probably yes -- I guess we'll have to have a formal interpretation if there is some request for enforcement from the police department. That's their call."
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.