Akbar Vaiya, co-owner/chef of One-Eyed Mike's, talks about the Grand Marnier Club at his Fells Point bar. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun video)
In Baltimore, where new bars pop up at a rapid pace, customer loyalty has become harder to cultivate.
That’s where the perks come in.
In recent years, more bar owners have created clubs and programs to incentivize customers to evolve into regulars. They offer discounted items, invite-only parties and one-of-a-kind prizes to convince visitors to join — and according to owners, it’s working.
From larger-than-usual mugs to your name immortalized on bar walls, here’s a sampling of what the Baltimore area has to offer. Read on to learn more about how the clubs work, and decide whether it’s time to punch your own membership card.
Cost to join: $175 for first bottle, $85 per bottle afterward
The self-proclaimed “world’s first and largest Grand Marnier club,” One-Eyed Mike’s is synonymous with the orange-flavored cognac liqueur. When chef Akbar Vaiya purchased the bar in 2016 with his mother, the club — and the loyalty of its members — was a major selling point.
“There were already 2,700 members-plus when I took over,” Vaiya said. “It’s 2,700 people saying, ‘Yeah, I’m down. This is something I want to be a part of.’”
After joining, you’re given a bottle and a space for it on the premises. Tell the bartender your password, and you’ll have the choice to sip it neat or to use it in one of One-Eyed Mike’s cocktails. You won’t have to pay for the liquor at each visit, and with cocktails, the bar only charges a customer for the mixers. For example, the Perfect Storm regularly costs $10, but members only pay a buck for the ginger beer, lime and bitters. Those with deeper pockets can also join the more-exclusive Grand Marnier Quintessence Club, whose membership costs $1,700 and a replacement bottle runs $1,000.
Chuck LaPorta, of Pequannock, N.J., visits Baltimore every couple of months with his wife for a weekend getaway. His routine includes a reservation at the Point in Fells — table No. 7, every time — where he’s a member of the Jameson Bottle Club. He joined because he loved the taste of the whiskey (he chose the Black Barrel), but also as a way to show his appreciation for the ambience and service at the Fells Point corner bar.
“Service, to me, is more important than the food even. In that place, it’s so consistent,” LaPorta said. “You can just rely on it.”
The Point stores your Jameson bottle on-site until you request it. Membership also includes free admission to invitation-only events like the Point’s recent anniversary party, said events manager Katie Vigliotti.
Ryleigh’s Oyster’s 1909 Society
36 E. Cross St., Federal Hill; 22 Padonia Road, Lutherville-Timonium
As far as we know, only one Baltimore club offers a custom-etched horse halter plaque designed to be displayed at its bar.
It’s one of the benefits of Ryleigh’s Oyster’s new Sagamore Spirit-branded club, the 1909 Society, which launches mid-January, said Ryleigh’s owner Brian McComas.
Rather than tethering a customer to a physical bottle, Ryleigh’s will go the digital route — each member receives a membership card loaded with $185. The balance can be used toward anything at Ryleigh’s (food, drinks, merchandise), including the members-only, cask-blend Sagamore Rye whiskey McComas bottled himself as a part of the partnership.
The card can be reloaded, and members receive 10 percent off all subsequent cash reloads, McComas said. Other perks include a stainless personalized flask, 1909 Society Under Armour baseball cap and free tickets to certain Ryleigh’s parties.
“Everybody has been very familiar with One-Eyed Mike’s success with Grand Marnier, and we wanted to make this [about] connecting two Baltimore companies,” McComas said of Ryleigh’s choice to work with the Port Covington distiller.
Idle Hour’s Chartreuse Bottle Club
201 E. Fort Ave., Riverside
Number of members: 20
Cost to join: $300 for first bottle of Chartreuse V.E.P.; $175 per bottle afterward
When Idle Hour raised money for unexpected renovations a few years ago, owners Randal Etheridge and Brendan Finnerty created a perk for donors: the Chartreuse Bottle Club, a celebration of the French herbal liqueur Etheridge particularly enjoys for its “warm and fuzzy body buzz.”
“I compare it to a strong sake — it warms you up,” Etheridge said. “You feel it physically, but you don’t feel like you’re sitting there, drinking vodka all night.”
After fundraising ended, the bar continued to accept members, who get their choice of fancier, longer-aged versions of Chartreuse: V.E.P. Green or V.E.P. Yellow (the latter being more mellow and sweet than the typical green style). The bottle has the member’s name on it, and comes with a PIN code they can tell friends or family, in case they want to share.
The Wharf Rat’s Mug Club begins to pay off fast. For $75, a member gets a 24-ounce ceramic mug, which they’ll fill free the first time and on your birthday. You’ll have to pay for subsequent drinks, but the key is its size — regular pints are 16 ounces, so members receive eight free ounces with each pour.
“If you visit frequently, your earn-out is quick,” said co-owner Jen Oliver. The lone stipulation is the mug must be used at least once per year, she said.
The club promotes the sense of community the Wharf Rat has built over decades, she said. It felt appropriate to reward the regulars, Oliver said.
“It’s a typical English bar — an extension of your living room,” she said. “It’s something we do for the locals. It’s a win-win.”
Walk around the corner beer bar Mahaffey’s Pub and you’ll notice names — everywhere. They’re listed on plaques on the wall, the bathrooms, even the barstools themselves.
Patrons earned the printed glory through beers — many of them. For Beer Club members, each 100th pint of beer, with no repeats, gets your name on the wall. Perks continue from there: Invite-only parties (400 beers), a polo shirt (1,000) and the ability to make your own beer with a local producer (3,000).
Most nights, you’ll find regulars in their seats closest to the door — including Joanne Barker, the only member to reach 5,000 beers. To hit that milestone, it took dedication and regular attendance, she said.
“People come in and say, ‘Didn’t you go home yesterday?’” said Barker, a lifelong Baltimorean in her 60s, with a smirk. “I usually stop after work, have a couple beers and then go home.”
Long a proponent of beer education, Max’s created the Explorers Club as an effort to both reward loyal customers and guide curious imbibers through the ever-expanding styles of craft beer, said general manager Casey Hard. At Max’s, where there’s a rotating inventory of more than 100 beers on draft and nearly 2,000 types of bottles, trying a new brew is part of the fun.
Members receive a notebook to keep track of their conquests, along with a T-shirt. Like other beer clubs, members reach new tiers at certain numbers — 100 beers gets your name on the wall, 500 results in a personalized growler and 1,000 leads to a private party for you and friends. The top prize, for 2,500 beers — reached by one patron thus far — is a trip to Colorado’s Great American Beer Festival, Hard said. But the bar will soon add another tier with a prize to be determined.
“It just gives people a good way to explore our selection, and to also see what else is out there in the craft-beer world,” Hard said.
Later this month, Max’s plans to launch a bourbon/whiskey club, though details are still being worked out, he said.
Blue Agave Restaurante y Tequileria’s B.A.S.T.A. & Don Julio Bottle Club
In the months leading to his Fells Point bar's 2003 opening, One-Eyed Mike's owner Mike Maraziti knew he needed a hook -- something to turn new customers into loyal regulars -- to stand out in the crowded neighborhood.
More unique, though, is B.A.S.T.A., a program created to reward adventurous tequila drinkers, said owner Brian Acquavella. Pours of tequila (the amount of a shot, which Blue Agave suggests sipping it instead of shooting) lead to milestones: After 10, you get a shirt and after 25, you receive a custom shaker kit. Try all 130 tequilas, and you receive a blue sports jacket and a ceremony inspired by the Masters golf tournament.
Kevin McMullen, a Riverside resident and a member of both clubs, earned his jacket last summer, and has already put it to use.
“I wore it to a wedding, which Brian was really happy about,” McMullen said with a laugh.
With about 550 different whiskeys on hand, Barfly’s wanted to make it easier for visitors to keep track of the styles and brands they liked and didn’t.
Enter their Baltimore Whiskey Club, a loyalty program that doubles as a report card. New members receive a letter-sized card that lists 100 whiskeys. Patrons come up with their own system — five stars, 1-10 rating or whatever they choose to manually keep track — and rate what they sip (typically neat or on the rocks), said co-owner Doug Campbell. Barfly’s holds onto the card.
There are no discounts on the pours, but try 10 whiskeys and you’ll receive a Baltimore Whiskey Club T-shirt. Complete your sheet of 100 whiskeys, and earn a free shot of something “pretty expensive,” Campbell said. So far, eight patrons have finished the sheet, and they’ve been rewarded with tastes of Pappy Van Winkle and WhistlePig Boss Hog IV: The Black Prince, he said. The whiskey selection has more than doubled since the club began, so Barfly’s plans to soon add a second card for those who’ve finished their first, he said.
Campbell said the club promotes whiskey education and camaraderie.