New cocktail joints may be mushrooming from Melbourne to St. Mark’s Square, but as finicky drinkers demand better martinis, the real bastions of great drinks mixing aren’t these pop-up stand-alone spots-they’re the (often unheralded) bars hidden inside hotels.
"Hotel bars have always led the pack. There doesn’t seem to be any pretense when it comes to hotel bartenders," explains Charlotte Voisey, a transatlantic cocktail jockey who has designed drinks for New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel and London’s Dorchester, among others. That may be because there’s no one manning the velvet rope or controlling the door inside a hotel; after the doorman, the hotel bartender is often the first person a customer will encounter. "You never know when the King of Dubai’s son will walk in," says Voisey, "so you have to assume everyone is a valued guest-and rightly so. It’s about delicacy, discretion, and genuine service."
Voisey explains that hotel bars became cocktail oases during the Prohibition era, when fugitive mixologists like Harry Craddock fled America and set up bolt-holes in European institutions (Craddock landed at the Savoy and was the brains behind its iconic American Bar). Indeed, London is still a hotel-bar hotbed, notably thanks to Giuliano Morandin, the mastermind at the Dorchester.
Today, tucked in the sheltering bastion of a hotel, hotel bars remain reasonably impervious to economic ups and downs, giving them equal parts longevity and kudos. "They’re protected from the economy and the fads and trends that other bars fall victim to," says Voisey. "And because of that support, hotel bars usually have a much tighter training program, along with more investment and expertise."
So, with Voisey’s wisdom on hand, we’ve guzzled our way around the globe to corral a list of the world’s best hotel bartenders. These men and women preside over hotel watering holes from Sydney to San Francisco; some bars are minimalist chic, while others evoke an English country house; a few are storied legends, but most are new, under-the-radar favorites.
At Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel in New York City, for example, Brian Van Flandern’s creative, purist approach to bartending includes concocting his own tonic with imported quinine. And at Beijing’s edgy new design hotel, The Opposite House, Aussie cocktail wunderkind Milan Sekmulic mixes delicious drinks with cheeky names like Herbie Goes Detox in the hotel’s bar, Punk and Mesh. What all these hot spots share, though, is a commitment to the perfect cocktail, thanks to the passion and skill of their mixologists.
When it comes to testing a hotel barkeep, Voisey says you should expect them to acknowledge you moments after entering. “It doesn’t take half a second to look up, smile, or wink to acknowledge a guest,” she says. And the best test cocktail? A daiquiri, which every mixologist has heard of but not all have mastered. "It’s a very simple drink," says Voisey, “but it shows whether a bartender can balance sweet and sour."