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CORDIAL AFFAIRS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Passers-by on Bond Street in Fells Point notice the Christmas tree still lit in the window of One-Eyed Mike's, but not because it's been so long since the holiday passed.

They stop to take pictures of a tree made of 121 Grand Marnier bottles. What they don't see is the nearly 3,000 shots that were poured from them.

At One-Eyed Mike's, Grand Marnier - the heady cognac redolent of oranges and amber in hue - is the house specialty, not just a choice on the shelf. There's a club of Grand Marnier aficionados, 60 members strong, who pay $125 to belong. Membership buys them their own bottle at the bar and the chance to socialize with fellow lovers of the liqueur. (Renewing a membership costs $75, which buys another bottle.)

Theme bars are nothing new - there are sports bars, single-malt-scotch bars, bars that feature 100 varieties of draft beer - but a bar whose specialty is Grand Marnier, with a club for drinkers, may be a first.

"As far as we know, it is the only Grand Marnier club," says Wendy Scherr, a spokeswoman for the drink's maker, Marnier-Lapostolle, in New York. "We think it's wonderful."

Grand Marnier has "always been my drink of choice," says bar owner Michael T. Maraziti. "It warms you up all the way down. ... I wish I could remember who turned me on to it, because God bless them."

Maraziti's partner, Shane Fullerton, doesn't recall a time when Maraziti didn't drink Grand Marnier, but he says they got the idea for their club while at a Federal Hill pub last summer.

"They had these plaques on the wall commemorating 100-pint, 200-pint Guinness drinkers," Fullerton says. "We thought we could do that with a Grand Marnier membership."

Since the grand opening of One-Eyed Mike's in September, the duo has sold about 40 cases of Grand Marnier - almost 500 bottles, more than some bars sell in a year.

"That's insane," says Tom Creegan, an owner of Brewer's Art in Mount Vernon. "We're selling more of it in the last couple of months than we did at this time last year, but that's still maybe 10 or 12 bottles. No one's going to come close to the kind of numbers they're doing."

Bottles of Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge sell for about $40 in liquor stores, while the 150th- anniversary edition can run as high as $170. Shots at One-Eyed Mike's cost $6 each, which runs to $144 for an entire bottle.

The bar's name is not only an allusion to the pirate themes of the past - One-Eyed Mike's predecessor was the Seafarer for three decades - but also to Maraziti's first year in Baltimore. A mugging left him wearing an eye-patch for two months. Besides posters of Pirates of the Caribbean and skull and crossbones flags, there are other signs of the pirate motif.

Newcomers to Grand Marnier are encouraged to "walk the plank." The plank might not send you literally to the murky depths, but it does allow you to sample a "flight" of Grand Marnier, from the Cordon Rouge to the 100th anniversary edition to, finally, the 150th-year anniversary edition, at a cost of $30. (The anniversary versions mark milestones of the Marnier-Lapostolle company, not the drink's.)

Maraziti, a Rhode Island native, celebrated his 42nd birthday recently by puffing on a stogie at his namesake establishment and holding court with friends he's made in his nearly four years in Baltimore.

Deni Tabor, who was one of the club's 32 charter members, walked in, her teeth chattering. Mike Zabora - known as Mike 3 because he's one of five bartenders there named Mike - asked, "Which one are you, Deni?"

"C-1," she mouthed, and Zabora retrieved her bottle from the members' glass cabinet. There, bottles of Grand Marnier are categorized by letter and number. As more club members streamed in, the process was repeated - with many shots stacked on top of one another as members treated each other. Less than six months after the club began, one member is already on her 25th bottle.

A Grand Marnier banner takes up nearly an entire wall in the game room, and Grand Marnier shakers and snifters adorn the main room.

"I was not into Grand Marnier before I met Mike," said Tabor, 49, who moved down the street in June with her husband Neil. "Then I decided to try it, and tonight I'm probably going to open bottle No. 5 ... and I'm not even a drinker. You almost never pour one drink. You share."

Like any good club, there are rules:

Members meet once a month.

A shot must be done once a month on a non-meeting night.

Grand Marnier must never, ever be served on the rocks.

And club tradition suggests that you clink glasses with your friends, then tap the bar once with the bottom of the glass before shooting or sipping.

Tabor has become such an enthusiast that she even dressed as a Grand Marnier bottle for Halloween. The life-size cutout hangs proudly in the game room.

"It's the social aspect of the club I like best. They are such nice people," says Tabor, who spent a recent vacation in Florida with 15 of her new friends. The club draws an impressive crowd: doctors, bankers, lawyers, schoolteachers. restaurant owners among them.

Crystal Whitman, 26, a manager at nearby Kooper's Tavern, says the club "wouldn't work without Mike, his friends, the buzz he generates on this bar and how tight-knit the group is. I think it's amazing and ingenious."

At Bohager's, the bartenders drink most of the Grand Marnier the club stocks.

"In the service industry, it's the signature drink," said general manager Lorin Gray. "It tastes strong, with a sweet flavor. It doesn't have the burn of vodka. It goes down smoothly."

Other regulars appreciate the presence of Maraziti's faithful shepherd-mix, Duke. The owners hope to expand the bar menu and convert a game room to a dining room.

It's part of their plan to try to draw as many people as possible, while still keeping the Grand Marnier club as the focus of the bar, a concept that sits well even with the beer-drinking regulars.

"I'm not one of the chosen few," said Bill Kelly, a steel worker sipping his bottle of Budweiser, "but it's a great crowd."

The distilled history

Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge, a blend of Citrus Bigaradia bitter orange peels, cognac and sugar syrup, was created by Louis-Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle in a company lab at Neauphle-le-Chateau, France, in 1880.

The new liqueur became a great favorite of a well-heeled international clientele. Today it boasts the largest export sales of any French liqueur. There are four varieties, two of which are served with the Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge as part of a sample "flight" at One-Eyed Mike's in Fells Point:

Grand Marnier Cuvee du Centenaire: Created in 1927 to mark the 100th anniversary of the distillery founded by Jean-Baptiste Lapostolle.

Grand Marnier Cuvee du Cinquantenaire: 150th anniversary edition, created in 1977. Grand dame of the line.

The Grand Marnier Club at One-Eyed Mike's

No application is necessary to join. Just visit or call and make an initial payment of $125.

The initiation fee gives you a reserved bottle at the bar, which is assigned a letter and number that corresponds to your name.

Club members meet on the third Monday of each month at 8 p.m.

To maintain good standing in the club, you have to do one shot once per month on a non-meeting day.

When you come into the bar, one of the five bartenders named Mike will fetch your bottle and pour an ounce-and-a-half shot for you and anyone else you want to treat.

Club tradition suggests you clink glasses with your friends, then tap the bar once with the bottom of the glass before shooting or sipping.

Membership lasts as long as your bottle. When you run out, renew your membership for $75 - the cost of reserving each bottle after the first. (At liquor stores, a bottle costs about $40.)

One-Eyed Mike's

708 S. Bond St.

Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Saturday

Food is served until 10 p.m.

410-327-9823

- Athima Chansanchai

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