It's Five O'Clock Somewhere: The Fascinating History of Iconic Hotel Cocktails

As we all dream about returning to some of our favorite hotel bars, one writer considers a few classic cocktails — and toasts to a brighter future.
By Talia Baiocchi
September 05, 2020

The hotel bar is neither here nor there, and I mean that as a compliment. Unlike the dive, its highest purpose isn’t to feel rooted to a place — to be so indispensable that it acts as a museum to its patrons’ collective memory. Unlike the modern craft cocktail bar, its mission is not to reflect a drinking culture that keeps up with Instagram. And unlike the wine bar, or beer bar, or sports bar, it doesn’t pledge allegiance to any one drink or pastime. In a hotel bar, nobody cares if you’re a Packers fan or a freak for orange wine from Slovenia. The best hotel bars aren’t about the here or now; they are grander and more enduring than the present.

Perhaps that’s why so many cocktails we now consider timeless were born — or at least lionized — in hotels around the world. I think about luminaries like Ada Coleman, the world’s first female celebrity bartender, who at the start of the 20th century helmed the American Bar at London’s Savoy, or Harry Craddock, who held the same position in the 1920s and 30s. Between them, they created a number of now-classic cocktails, which have been shepherded through the ages by a long line of white-jacketed bartenders.

Or Salvatore Calabrese, working half a century later at the Dukes London hotel, who understood that it was precisely within the remit of the hotel bar to freeze a bottle of gin or vodka, pour it straight into a glass with great tableside flair, and call it a cocktail. The now-iconic Dukes martini is today served by head bartender Alessandro Palazzi.

Another nearly half-century later, at the NoMad Hotel in New York, Leo Robitschek’s “cocktail explosions,” like the Demerara Dry Float — a whopping 27.5 ounces of spirits, syrups, and juices combined in a two-foot-tall, elaborately festooned glass vessel — recall the grandiosity of the punches served at hotels during the previous high renaissance of the cocktail, in the late 1800s.

Unlike the tiki bar, the hotel bar doesn’t require a theme in order to provide an escape from the present, but it’s escapist all the same. I’ve lived in New York City for close to two decades, and every time I step into Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle hotel, tuck into a corner banquette while a Cole Porter or Duke Ellington tune spools out from the piano, and order a martini — or an Old Cuban, as the case may be — I feel as though I too am neither here nor there. I’m sliding into a centuries-old continuum, drinking in an enduring, rose-colored vision of my city.

How to Make These Iconic Drinks at Home

Sazerac, from the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt New Orleans

The origins of this storied drink remain lost to time. Though the Sazerac may not have been invented at its namesake bar in New Orleans, that institution, which opened in 1938, has become one of the classic places to enjoy one.

Ingredients

• ¼ oz. absinthe

• ½ oz. simple syrup

• 2 oz. rye

• 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

• Garnish: lemon peel

Directions

1. Pour the absinthe in a chilled rocks glass. Swirl to coat, then discard. Set glass aside.

2. Add the simple syrup, rye, and bitters to a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir to chill.

3. Strain into the prepared rocks glass.

4. Express the lemon peel over the glass and discard.

Hanky Panky, from the American Bar at the Savoy, London

Created by Ada Coleman, the first famous female bartender, the Hanky Panky is perhaps the only classic cocktail to call for amaro — in this case, Fernet-Branca, the now-beloved bitter liqueur from Milan. Think of the resulting drink as a bittersweet martini.

Ingredients

• 1½ oz. gin

• 1½ oz. sweet vermouth

• 1 barspoon Fernet-Branca

• Garnish: orange peel

Directions

1. Add spirits to a mixing glass with ice and stir until chilled.

2. Strain into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass and garnish.

Piña Colada, from the Beachcomber Bar at the Caribe Hilton, San Juan, Puerto Rico

While Barrachina Restaurant Old San Juan also lays claim to the island’s best-known cocktail, most concur it was dreamed up at the Hilton. There’s no debating, however, that the postwar creation was — and still is — the perfect expression of jet-age escapism.

Ingredients

• 2 oz. rum, light or aged

• 1 oz. pineapple juice

• 1 oz. cream of coconut

• 1 oz. coconut milk

• ½ oz. lime juice

• Garnish: wedge of pineapple and an umbrella

Directions

1. Shake all liquid ingredients with one cube of ice.

2. Pour into a hurricane glass, top with crushed ice, and garnish.

The Dukes Martini, from Dukes London

The Dukes martini, or the “direct martini,” as creator Salvatore Calabrese called it, is the perfect encapsulation of brazen, 1980s opulence: a whole four ounces of spirit, pulled right from the freezer and served tableside.

Ingredients

• 3 dashes dry vermouth

• 4 oz. vodka or gin, frozen

• Garnish: lemon peel or olive

Directions

1. Dash vermouth into a chilled cocktail glass to rinse, then discard.

2. Pour in the vodka or gin and garnish.

Old Cuban, from Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle, New York

One of the city’s most beloved hotel bars was the birthplace of this revered modern classic. Bartender Audrey Saunders created the drink for the bar’s revamped menu in 2001, and it’s remained a fixture ever since.

Ingredients

• ¾ oz. lime juice

• 1 oz. simple syrup

• 6 mint leaves

• 1½ oz. aged rum

• 2 dashes Angostura bitters

• 2 oz. champagne

• Garnish: mint leaves

Directions

1. Muddle the lime juice, simple syrup, and mint in a mixing glass.

2. Add the rum, bitters, and ice, and shake well.

3. Strain into a cocktail glass, top with the champagne, and garnish.

A version of this story first appeared in the September 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.