A few years ago, hotel restaurants were given a similar makeover and quickly went from drab to four-star. It's no coincidence. A celebrity chef or a popular lounge can keep guests on property (spending money) and can even attract locals. Both are important profit producing amenities, especially during this recession when hotels are struggling to stay open. The strategy seems to be working. In 2008, according to PKF Hospitality Research, alcoholic beverage sales in hotel lounges, bars and nightclubs grew by 10.7 percent over the previous year.
One reason the big chains have gotten serious about cocktails is the success of the W Hotels' chic cocktails bars. Just as the W's boutique style, including its palette of earth tones and modern furniture, was adopted by the industry, so too was its focus on creating a vibrant nightlife scene.
At about the same time in New York, San Francisco, and London a number of pioneering cocktail bars opened, offering excellent drinks and also functioning as impromptu bartending schools. This was very important, since the fine art of shaking cocktails had been largely forgotten. Out of this scene came a talented society of international bartenders who went on to open their own places. There are now a number of professional training programs (written about recently in the Wall Street Journal) that are helping to teach bartenders around the country the craft of mixology.
To keep up, many hotels are hiring top experts to retrain their bar staffs. A few years ago, Marriott started an extensive program with master mixologist Dale DeGroff, which centered on switching to fresh-squeezed juice from pre-made mixers.
Fairmont has partnered with Kathy Casey's Liquid Kitchen to hold clinics in dozens of its hotels around the world. Talented bartenders like Ryan Magarian, Christy Pope, and Chad Solomon are dispatched to a property to teach the bartenders about the history of cocktails, correct techniques, the proper way to serve a drink, and how to setup and manage a bar. "It's a total program," says Mariano Stellner, Fairmont's corporate director of food and beverage. "Not just a recipe book."
Hotels are also expanding their menus. Just a couple of years ago, the Merrion in the center of Dublin offered guests 20 cocktails. The posh Georgian hotel currently serves more than twice as many drinks, including 16 on a new special "Martinis at The Merrion" menu. The signature cocktail is, naturally, the James Joyce that calls for Bushmills whiskey, sweet vermouth, Cointreau and fresh lime juice.
Of course, to go with your bespoke cocktails you need more than just peanuts and stale pretzels. The Sunroom Lounge at The Water Club in Atlantic City has a cocktail menu created by Allen Katz, director of mixology and spirits education for Southern Wine and Spirits of New York, and also a food menu created by famed chef Geoffrey Zakarian. Guests can pair their Improved Hemingway Daiquiri with a goat cheese and arugula salad or a chicken curry tartine.