We spent Saturday night at one of Smirnoff’s infamous Red Door parties, which are touring the country with the hopes of bringing you the “ultimate house party” experience. Did it succeed?
“Man, YOLO used to stand for something before it went all corporate.” That was a comment made on one of my Instagram photos capturing the “Party Rules”* for Saturday night’s official Toronto edition of Smirnoff Red Door. It’s also the comment that succinctly describes the night. Period.
10 p.m.: I descend upon a house—bathed in that trademark Smirnoff-red glow, so it looks like it’s bleeding—on Madison Avenue, north of Bloor, near U of T, past the Maddy and its line-up of already-buzzed freshmen. There are guys with iPads and headsets checking off names at the foot of the walkway. The Red Door party is very exclusive, you see. (A silver key in a box arrived Purolator’d to my door with the debrief earlier this week. If you’re not invited personally, you can win a handful of tickets through social media.) It’s also secretive and selective. (There are surprise DJs awaiting you inside.) You can hear the cheers and the sound and fury bursting from the backyard patio. There better be a pool, I think. On the porch, three girls are jumping up and down on a couch, acting like they’re missing a chromosome—or three. Beside them, two guys—one beefy and one scrawny, both in red skinny jeans and a black shirt—flank the red wooden door. They explain how it will go down: “Here are two drink tickets. Drinks are $3.50 and there is no ATM on site. Welcome to the ultimate house party.” We’ll see about that.
If you’re not familiar with the liquor giant’s Red Door concept jam, it’s really very simple (albeit ambitious and hopeful): “How many times have you been proud to say, ‘I was there!’? Some experiences are completely unforgettable and you’ll talk about them for years, revelling in the fact you were there. The Smirnoff Red Door party is dedicated to those seeking out and sharing those one-of-a-kind moments.”
It’s a traveling party making the rounds across the country in the spirit of (responsible) debauchery and phenomenal times. This modus operandi also provided the backdrop for my recent excursion to Vaughan’s “Little Richmond,” the subject of last week’s Night Shift column in The Grid. During that one fateful night at Luxy Nightclub, the Red Door party was confined to a corner where the suburbanites could unlock an actual cardboard red door with a special code for the chance at winning a prize like, say, a pair of earbuds. I couldn’t really say much about it because, well, that was all there was to it. I found out later that Smirnoff works the smaller nightlife circuits as teasers to the big “main event” in major cities like Toronto, where they mount major parties at unconventional venues with complete control over more than just a corner: talent that isn’t a radio disco jockey, party games and favours, and a “curated” aesthetic.
10:30 p.m.: Tonight’s unconventional venue is actually a frat house that Smirnoff rented for the week so it could completely remodel the basement and the first floor. That means a lot of red—leather chairs, paint, etc. And you know what: It actually looks great, and is probably a step up from grotty frat chic. In the living room, there’s a flat-screen TV with a live feed to the backyard so you can see a combination of who’s spinning and who’s dancing or who’s tweeting what. There are mirrors with lit-up trim so you can feel like a star in a David Guetta video. There’s a chalkboard sign blocking the stairs to the second floor: “Give your friends FOMO [by tweeting] #reddoor.” The main hallway is like a Smirnoff hall of fame, with pictures from previous Nightlife Exchanges and events. There are also slogans, like “YOLO,” “capture every moment,” and “keep calm and have a house party.”
Red Door is part of a series of nightlife-based brand initiatives aimed at providing branded experiences. Most recently, there was an “India Nightlife Exchange” at Cherry Beach and another one I went to at an east-end loft with headliner Deadmau5. They’re generally just more “elaborate.” So that’s why I’m here. To give it another shot. For the premium experience. And to quell your FOMO.
11:15 p.m.: Let’s play a game: How many drink tickets will it take to get right drunk with perfectly poured one-ounce custom cocktails? Tonight’s selection include seven varieties, like the Mule (vodka and ginger ale) or Razzle Dazzle (raspberry vodka and soda). The big push, though, is for Smirnoff’s newest flavours: white grape and fluffed marshmallow. The basement is actually converted into one big black-light pillow fight in honour of the latter, where you can drown in down feathers and drink the Pillow Fight with actual mini marshmallows in it. Upstairs in the kitchen, snack on a mini candy bar while you wait in line to learn how to craft some of Smirnoff’s drinks. But you can’t touch anything except to pour your own lemonade or cranberry juice (and candy) before you queue, so it’s basically just a bar.
This all leads to the backyard, where the party begins and ends just as quickly. And the aspiration, I decide, is like Project X meets The House Bunny: LED beach balls, face paint and plastic umbrellas, a spray-paint shirt section, pulled-pork sandwiches, dancers in DayGlo. Sure, sure, that’s all a fine distraction, but the main coup for Smirnoff is actually its musical bookings. Direct from Sweden, the Cazzette duo—who have the number one song on Hype Machine today—warm up the crowd way too early. Ridiculously on point 416 locals Zeds Dead bring the crowd to the floor until it was time to go home.
The Red Door concept is very Canadian in that it only exists in Canada, as far as I know. Earlier this month, the brand of first-time drinkers everywhere launched the Midnight Circus tour, “a collection of ideas—a celebration of the newest, most extraordinary spectacles in nightlife.” It aims to interpret how we party through “influencers and cutting-edge artists.” It premiered in Mexico City and Bangkok with an interactive art installation by photographer David LaChapelle, and will travel from Chile to Romania and beyond over the next six months. Toronto is not on the itinerary.
1 a.m.: It’s all over, and the drink-ticket sales ended way earlier. “You have 30 seconds to order your last drink,” says the mixologist. Do I love the Red Door or hate it? I can’t decide. Probably because it doesn’t matter. Personally, I don’t think anyone is going to YOLO-the-fuck-out in front of hired cops stuffing their faces with pulled pork, on top of security watching every other inch of this place. It goes against house party 101—the cops have to shut you down, not babysit you. (At the very least, Smirnoff sold me on marshmallow vodka. I’m not even kidding: I am buying this up for the next bachelorette/sorority mixer/baby shower I go to.)
Still, people had fun. And more fun. And now there’s a whole Twitter page for all the fun. We were treated well, myself included. My only regret, perhaps, is not getting a graffiti tee. Others would have wanted nothing more—just look at the Facebook wall. The problem is everything that used to stand for something is now “all corporate.” Music. Clothing. Citizens. Clubbing. Then it’s not so difficult to resent the bastardization of the house party in hopes of giving kids what we’ve trained them to want most: elusive, epic-sized good times. House parties used to be our only escape; now, we’ll be chasing those moments forever.
I suggested, half-jokingly, that Smirnoff should give the money and resources (or at least unlimited vodka) to let someone not so wrapped up in “responsibility” and “brand power” to show kids a good time. After all, I’ve found those real raging house parties that Smirnoff only dreams of throwing actually exist, remember? YOLO over and out. (Sorry, Drake.)
Oh, and those Party Rules:
1. Toast with shots
2. Make friends
3. Follow us @SmirnoffCanada + tweet using #reddoor
4. Remember YOLO
5. Drink Smirnoff
6. Dance your heart out
7. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want on Facebook (we’re taking pictures!)
8. No reason to drive use #taxi