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Where to sip classic hotel cocktails

Seated at the bar of the Big Four Restaurant in San Francisco’s Huntington Hotel, I drink in the scenery: Lead-glass mirrors. Forest green banquettes. Striking photographs of early California history.
Image: Huntington Hotel
(c) Huntington Hotel
/ Source: Forbes

Seated at the bar of the Big Four Restaurant in San Francisco’s Huntington Hotel, I drink in the scenery: Lead-glass mirrors. Forest green banquettes. Striking photographs of early California history.

Then I ask the bartender for another martini.

“It’s amazing how many people love these classics,” notes Jeffrey Crolius, who has stood behind the Big Four’s long stretch of polished wood for the past ten years.

I watch him do his magic.

Back in a not-to-distant era, hotel bars were the place to sample the latest and greatest drinks of a thriving cocktail scene. These days, such timeless libations are just as likely to be found outside of hotels, some still blended to perfection in their place of origin, others popping up around the globe in new incarnations.

Take the Sidecar. A world-class cocktail with a rich Parisian history, the Sidecar would become even more famous by the variation currently concocted at the Hemingway Bar in the Ritz Paris, where its price tag ($515 a glass) reflects its coveted ingredient: an 1865 Ritz Reserve cognac. The hotel’s bartender, Colin Fields, is equally renowned for his newer creations, as well as for making his own Pimms—right there at the tiny bar.

Camper English, a spirits expert from San Francisco, recently visited the Ritz’s bar, and noted that watching Fields at work was the best part of the cocktail experience.

“His conservation of movement is truly impressive,” English explained, “very precise and genteel.” In other words, this is exactly what you should expect from someone who knows how to turn a drink into a luxury.

The Sazerac—another bar gem of French extraction—is sometimes referred to as America’s first cocktail. An exquisite blend of cognac and bitters, it was created by Creole immigrant Antoine Peychaud in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the 19th century, and has since been dubbed the “iconic drink of New Orleans” by food and drink expert John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance.

In contemporary New Orleans, the definitive version of the Sazerac can be found in the oiled-wood Library Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton, where bartender-supreme Chris McMillan is known for mixing the finest of southern cocktails. For those who enjoy the sensation of “drinking a flower,” Chris also makes an exceptional Ramos Gin Fizz, a sweet and frothy cocktail whose creation requires about three minutes of shaking, so that its egg whites blend perfectly with the orange blossom water. Another popular New Orleans’ drink is the Vieux Carre Cocktail, which was invented in 1938 by the head bartender of the French Quarter’s grand Monteleone Hotel.

“With this cocktail in hand at the Monteleone,” explains Marcos Tello, a bartender from Los Angeles who recently made the pilgrimage to the Big Easy, “you sit down and say to yourself, ‘This is New Orleans.’”

Then there’s the Bloody Mary, which first arrived in America in the 1920’s at New York’s St. Regis Hotel—courtesy of the Parisian bartender who had created it. According to lore, management at the St. Regis was wary of offending its clientele with the cocktail’s less than elegant name, so it debuted as the Red Snapper—and it has remained the signature drink of the hotel’s King Cole Room ever since.

Sipping this heartiest of cocktails while gazing up at the lounge’s famed Maxfield Parrish mural is a transforming experience for New Yorkers and guests alike.

Another cocktail crafted to perfection in New York (the Manhattan notwithstanding) is the martini, and an exceptional variation can be enjoyed at Bemelmans Bar in the city’s Hotel Carlyle. Described as “the exemplary hotel bar in America” by David Wondrich, cocktail historian and co-author of the new book, "Imbibe", Bemelmans is known for having among the city’s largest and best martinis, which come with an iced mini-carafe so that your drink stays cold as refill your glass.

“We make drinks that are incredibly well-balanced in their ingredients,” boasts Bemelmans barkeep Brian Van Flandern, “as well as in their appeal to various tastes.”

But what would a bar be without its more tropical splendors, such as the Piña Colada, which was invented at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1954. “Pina Colada” literally means, “strained pineapple”—and a half-century later, the Hilton bar continues to prove that the fabulously fruity drink has withstood the test of time. Meanwhile, the Mary Pickford—a heady blend of rum, pineapple juice and maraschino liqueur—was also created in Caribbean climes, at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana during the Prohibition era. It was named for America’s beloved silent film star, but its kick isn’t quite so quiet.

The Queens Park Swizzle, another rum libation (this one with bitters, lime and mint) originally hails from the Queens Park Hotel in Trinidad. Now a chic favorite in many hip bars, it “must be made properly with Caribbean rum to get it right,” notes bartender Marcos Tello, who sticks to the original recipe when he serves the drink at Los Angeles’ Seven Grand bar. “It also looks like a green, white and red flag—it’s simply a beautiful drink.”

And yet, in the world of colorful hotel cocktails, the sweet, pink Singapore Sling, invented in 1936 at the Hotel Raffles Singapore, remains the grande dame at the bar. While drink historians such as David Wondrich maintain that “almost no one makes the Singapore Sling according to the original recipe anymore”—primarily because of its long list of ingredients—the staff at Raffles stands by its version.

“It is fruity and refreshing in our hot weather,” explains David Lama of Raffles Singapore, “which can be dangerous in a way. It’s very easy to drink too many.”