Bring-your-own-bottle bars lure Madrid’s open-air drinkers inside

A few nightspots are welcoming in youngsters keen to avoid fines for outdoor drinking

A ‘botellón’ in Madrid’s university district.
A ‘botellón’ in Madrid’s university district.álvaro garcía

A bottle of booze, a euro, and a single playing card is all that’s required for hard-up youngsters to enjoy a drink at two bars that have recently opened up in Madrid’s Moncloa university district. Customers bring their own bottle of spirits and the euro covers the plastic glass, ice and mixer. The initiative is a new solution to an old problem in the capital: the botellón, the open-air drinks gatherings that annoy local residents with the noise and rubbish they generate.

It’s 2.30am in Cábala, one of the two bars trying out the experiment, and the DJ has just called last orders. The place has been serving students since 11pm, all of whom are issued with a playing card indicating which of the bottles behind the bar is theirs. With five minutes to go before closing, a young woman is trying to get one more drink in. One of the five waiters behind the bar pours a stiff measure into her glass. From 3am onward, all alcohol brought in from outside not yet consumed stays in the bar. And until 6am, anybody who wants to continue drinking has to do so like in any other bar, paying between €3 and €5 a drink.

The kids can go out without spending much money, while local residents don’t have to put up with the noise” Nacho, owner of the Cábala bar

“The idea came about as a solution for young people with not much money to spend, and the police crackdown on the botellón,” says Nacho, the owner. “People aren’t going out so much at night any more, so we decided to try something else, rather than closing the bar.” He first tried out the idea in Cábala a year ago, and six months later, extended it to his other bar, Campus. “This is a solution that benefits everybody. The kids can go out without spending much money, and without having to put up with standing around in the cold, while local residents don’t have to put up with the noise they were making,” he says.

But many local residents remain unconvinced. Ana and Diego, along with their two small children, moved into an apartment block close to the bar. “We moved in on a Saturday evening, and the noise was unbearable. If they stayed inside the bar, that would be fine, but they go out on to the sidewalk to smoke; as the night progresses, they get drunker and the noise level goes up,” says Ana, adding that she hasn’t slept properly all week: “We thought it was normal for a Saturday night, but it’s the same every evening!”

Three years ago, the bar was empty midweek, now it is full every night as a result of the new policy

Their neighbor, Miguel de la Rosa, has lived in the block for 17 years, and says Cábala has always been a problem, despite repeated complaints to the authorities. He says the worst period is during freshers’ week: “A couple of years ago, we had to lock up the entrance to the building to stop students from sitting in the doorways all night.”

Manu Soto, a first-year aeronautical engineering student and regular at Cábala, admits that he and his friends “make life difficult for local residents,” explaining that the bar and others in the neighborhood are packed out in the first weeks of term, forcing drinkers out on to the street for air. “Unless residents have double glazing, it must be impossible for them to sleep at nights,” he says.

That said, some residents accept the indoor botellón as the lesser evil, saying that at least the streets are no longer littered with empty bottles, cups and other refuse left behind by partying students. But walking round the area after dark, there are still large numbers of young people drinking in doorways.

Unless residents have double glazing, it must be impossible for them to sleep at nights” Student Manu Soto

The idea of moving the botellón took off around five years ago, and has proved a success in some cities in Andalusia and Valencia. “It has worked best in the traditional areas where people used to drink in the street. That’s why it’s not surprising that the first bars in Madrid trying this out are in the university district, and the police are not as active there as they are in the center of the city,” says Vicente Pizcueta, a spokesman for the Noche Madrid association of bar owners. Other areas of the Madrid region have copied the idea, with La Nuit, a bar in Torrejón de Ardoz, close to Barajas airport, advertising a €5 entry fee to its Friday and Saturday night indoor botellón on its Facebook page. Wally Luciano, the owner of La Nuit, says he started allowing young people to bring their own bottle in April. “We realized that halfway into every month people had run out of money.”

Nacho, the owner of Cábala, says that three years ago, his bar was empty midweek, and that he has now been able to fill it every night as a result of the new policy.

In one establishment he charges €1 entry, but in the other, admission is free. Of the 35 bottles brought in at the beginning of the night at Cábala, more than half are usually empty at closing time. The management does not check whether the bottles brought in are full or have been opened.

Nacho says he throws out anything left at closing time: “We can’t allow kids to be wandering around the streets with bottles,” he says.

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