Cocktail History: American Hotel Bars
All photos by Keith Allison.
I enjoy transience. Being in places full of people who aren’t from there and won’t be there for long. I used to like airport bars, but with air travel being what it is these days, those have become more of a desperate necessity than enjoyable diversion. Hotel bars, though, still hold a certain allure for me, a romance of travel and strangers, clandestine meetings and sly trysts. It’s true that many hotel bars -- like many hotels -- are a bit mundane. A few macrobrews, some flavored vodka, a couple serviceable whiskies, and a few cocktails. It doesn’t matter to me, though, and whether it’s a speakeasy-inspired craft cocktail bar in a glamorous hotel or a linoleum floor and neon “Cocktail Lounge” sign joint on the road between here and Tucamcari, few things please me as much as sitting down for a drink at a hotel bar.
Recently, as part of the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, I had a chance to attend a talk by Rene Hidalgo, head bartender at the Iroquois Hotel’s Lantern’s Keep, about the history of hotel bars and the role they’ve played in cocktail history. This lesson was paired with era-specific cocktails, starting with a Sherry Cobbler ( simple mix of Amontillado sherry, muddled fruit, and ice) and ending with the Lantern’s Keep Stonecutter Highball (a variation on the gin and tonic).
The first American hotel -- not a tavern, not an inn -- is generally considered to be New York’s City Hotel, which opened in the mid 1790s. In the early days of the American hotel, the bar was one of the crown jewels a hotel could offer -- and through them ice and refrigeration and the chance to have a cold drink in the middle of the summer. Bars were instrumental in selling a hotel to people, and as such, hotels were willing to let their bars indulge in amenities such as ice. Armed with such luxury, early barmen like the City Hotel’s Orsamus Willard took mixed drinks from the elixirs and concoctions of village apothecaries and into the era of the cocktail. In short order, New York bartenders like Sherwood Sterling of the Astor House Hotel, and freed slave turned New York coach house entrepreneur, Cato Alexander, started a craze that grew steadily throughout the 19th century. As Hidalgo stated during the talk, “By the 1890s, Americans were the best in the world at drinking.”
In the late 1880s, American cocktail culture was exported to England in the form of The Savoy Hotel’s American Bar. The cocktail program was established by bartender Frank Wells, who was followed by Ada Coleman, one of the first female cocktail masters and creator of our second cocktail during the event, the Hanky Panky (gin, sweet vermouth, and Fernet Branca). Later, another American Bar bartender, Harry Craddock, would author one of the best-known bar guides in history, the Savoy Cocktail Book -- first published in 1930 and still in print. Shortly after the American Bar opened at the Savoy, France got in on the American scene when the swanky Ritz Hotel opened its own cocktail bar.
While these American style cocktail bars were flourishing in Europe, back in New York and the United States, things were getting rough. Bowing to growing pressure from temperance leagues and decency brigades, the
US was swept up in a wave of new laws meant to curb -- or eliminate entirely -- the consumption of alcohol. In New York, this was the era of Raines Law rooms. Raines Law, which stated that only establishments with a certain number of rooms could serve alcohol, had been passed to cut down on the number of neighborhood bars and the (usually poor) drunks they created. Instead, every shabby bar threw up cheap walls and cots, declaring themselves a "hotel." Far from curbing excessive drinking, these “Raines Law rooms” encouraged it, not to mention the added effect of increasing prostitution. By 1920, Prohibition was in effect, and many of the best bartenders from American centers of cocktail culture left to work in Europe. Drinking at American hotels still flourished -- just not legally, and the primary function of the cocktail was to mask the taste of horrible, toxic illegal liquor.
In the late 1940s, and really coming into its own during the 1950s, the American hotel bar re-emerged, albeit in a somewhat different state. Two world wars and Prohibition had eliminated many once familiar ingredients and alcohols from American bars. But more importantly, this was the era of road travel, of Route 66 and family drives down to Florida. The first hotel to capitalize on this new trend was Howard Johnson's, built across the country and with the philosophy that they should all be identical to give a sense of the familiar to travelers. As more different types of Americans began to stay in hotels, the hotel bars had to broaden their appeal. Challenging cocktails and bizarre inventions took a back seat to solid, if predictable, mid-century cocktails and the “gets the job done” style of hotel bar that is still common today.
The primary flamboyance during this era was the tiki bar, which favored strong, fruity, rum-based cocktails over the previous generations of gin and whiskey based drinks. Many hotel bars adopted the Asia-meets-
Polynesia exotica decor and altered their drinks menu to appeal to the Martin Denny set. Where as Howard Johnson's was meant to be familiar in an unfamiliar place, tiki bars did just the opposite, creating an illusion of the strange and exotic in the increasingly homogenous and familiar landscape of mid-century America. Although most have closed down, you can still find tiki themed hotel bars at places like the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel.
And then came the 1980s -- as Rene Hidalgo referred to it -- “the Tom Cruise in Cocktail era of drinking.” Hotel bars, like American cocktails, slipped into a state of mediocrity, more concerned with sweeteners, pre-made mixes, and flair than with the drinks. Hidalgo illustrated the era with two versions of a cocktail called the Jungle Bird. The first version was the authentic version, a bright pink grapefruit-colored cocktail with a Maraschino cherry; the second version is the one you might actually want to drink, a Lantern’s Keep variation that adds Campari to the mix and results in a much more interesting -- and tastier -- cocktail.
“And then about fifteen years ago,” Hidalgo said to usher us out of that neon-cocktail time, “America remembered that cool thing it did that one time.” Ushering in the current era with the Stonecutter Highball, Hidalgo spoke of the resurgence of craft cocktails (formerly known just as "cocktails") and the rebirth of hotel
bars. Things are not the same now as they were in the 1800s; bars must still split their identity between patrons who are interested in esoteric old cocktails like the Hanky Panky and those who just want to relax with a Bud Light or vodka and soda (“people who don’t understand why everyone is dressed all...ye oldde”). But more and more hotel bars are reclaiming their spots as top cocktail bars -- if not with travelers, then certainly with locals. Hidalgo said the majority of the business at Lantern’s Keep comes from New York residents, not hotel guests.
The history of the cocktail is inextricably linked to that of the hotel and the hotel bar, and to sit in one of the best little hotel bars in the country and listen to a man as passionate about the history as he was the drinks was a delight. The five cocktails didn’t hurt either.