The hotel bar was once thought of as a last resort for travelers after a weary day on the go. Times are changing, though, as hotel bars are increasingly becoming cool, craft cocktail stops that draw hotel guests and outsiders alike. On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” join hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe for a conversation on the history of hotel bars and how they’ve evolved to become the trendy drinking spots they are now.
Teeter, Sciarrino, and Geballe muse on the three kinds of hotel bars they’ve seen, where demand for trendy bars is coming from, and how hotels would be remiss to not take note of shifting consumer desires and interests surrounding travel — and where to stop for a drink along the way.
Tune in to learn more about hotel bars and the trajectory they’re on.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Joanna and Zach, we are in September. This is weird. Are you in the camp that this time of year is still summer or is it fall? I’m curious where you both fall on this.
J: Fall for me.
A: Really? So, after Labor Day for you, full stop, it’s fall.
J: Yeah. I mean, it’s still quite warm in New York. So depressing.
A: You’re one of those. OK. What about you, Zach?
Z: I think that my opinion on this has changed over the last few years. I was a staunch “summer is not over” kind of person. I still am very sympathetic to that general perspective, but with a child who’s going to school, it’s now fall. That’s my stance.
A: If your kid went back to school like they do in the South, during the first week of August, would you say that was fall, too?
Z: Well, I don’t live in the South, so I can’t say. For me personally, where our school does start in September, it feels pretty fall-ish. The weather’s quite nice, actually. Plus, whether you’re in New York or Seattle, the days start getting pretty noticeably shorter this time of year. It’s dark by 8 p.m. And that’s a fall feeling to me. When I’m finishing dinner and it’s getting dark out, that’s not summer.
A: Yeah. OK, fair.
J: What about you, Adam?
A: I’d like it to still be summer, but it’s probably fall. So annoying.
J: Fall’s the best. Come on.
A: I love fall as a season. I’m just already sick of Keith Beavers.
Z: Just in general?
A: He’s just trolling with the pumpkin spice shit. I don’t like pumpkin spice. He needs to give it up. It’s old. I’m not going to get into it. He just wants me to know how amazing it is. I’m just not feeling pumpkin spice.
Z: We’ll know you’ve been kidnapped if you come on the air one day and tell us how much you enjoy your pumpkin spice.
A: He’ll be here, holding a pumpkin above my head, saying he’ll drop it on my head if I don’t say that I love pumpkin spice. I could see him doing that. I bet Keith would even like pumpkin spice wine.
Z: Oh, man. Well that’s something for Season 3 of “Wine 101,” I suppose.
A: Seriously. Also, I’m pretty pumped this week because, last week, we launched the first episode of “Cocktail College.” If you are into cocktails, you’ve got to check out this new podcast we just launched. It’s hosted by Tim McKirdy, our senior staff writer. Every week he tackles one cocktail and does a deep dive with a really famous bartender who’s well known for making that drink. The first episode is on the Old Fashioned. I’m not going to give too much away, so you have to listen. He talks to a bartender who is not really famous for the drink, but taught a very famous actor how to make the drink. That actor made the drink in a movie that came out recently and it is considered by many as the best cocktail scene ever. So, you’ve got to listen to the podcast to hear who this person is, who the actor is, and what the scene is. It’s great, and it really made me crave an Old Fashioned. So, before we talk about what I drank this past week, what about the two of you. Joanna?
J: This past week, I had some interesting things. I had a new hard seltzer that I learned about through VinePair. It was Lunar hard seltzer, which was very good. I had the yuzu flavor. I tried some Interboro beer, the Bushburg Pilsner, which was good. What I’m most excited about is something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Back in the day, at a bar called Booker & Dax —
A: Yeah, that was a great bar.
J: Great bar. One of my favorite cocktails was the Banana Justino, which I understand he brought back at Existing Conditions, but I never got to go there before it closed. Anyway, I love this cocktail. It’s a banana rum cocktail. It had some lime and a coconut water ice cube. He put the recipe for it out into the world. I think it might be in his book, “Liquid Intelligence.” It requires this technique, like a centrifuge, to clarify the banana rum. I’ve always wanted to do it. Obviously, I don’t have a centrifuge, but I found a recipe for it online that doesn’t require it. It’s bananas, rum, and pectinex ultra, which is this enzyme that breaks down pectin and helps clarify without a centrifuge.
Z: Did you wear goggles while doing this?
J: I didn’t. It was honestly very simple. You blitz that all up, let it sit, and then strain it through a Chemex filter. I made the rum, and I’m really excited to make the cocktail this weekend.
A: Oh, that’s awesome. I love a good project like that. Very cool. Now, you have to tell us how the cocktail is.
J: I will.
A: Very cool. I have favorite cocktails from bars too, but they’re not that complicated. Zach, what about you?
Z: Unfortunately, the whole family was sick this past weekend. We’re still getting over it, but we are otherwise fine. There’s just the lingering congestion. That may be the other reason it feels like fall to me. I got sick. Yesterday I I did a wine dinner with a chef and friend of mine who I partnered with on some events here in Seattle. The dinner was centered around my favorite vintage of Washington wine that I’ve experienced, which is 2011. So we got to pour five wines from that vintage, from five different producers. Those included a sparkling wine, a white, a couple of reds, and an ice wine. It was really fun. Really delicious wines. I got to open a double magnum of one of the wines. That’s always kind of cool and people get a kick out of that. They were all really good. The star of the show, in some ways for me, was the ice wine. I drink ice wine very rarely. True ice wines aren’t easy to find. There’s something about that style of dessert wine where you capture the purity of the fruit, in a way that the concentration of flavor for most other dessert wines comes through drying or fungal rot, basically, that affects the flavor. With ice wines, you’re freezing it, so you get a fresher tasting wine even a decade later, which is cool. It was just a fun thing. I haven’t done a wine dinner in almost two years at this point. It’s fun to get to do that again and share wine with people who are excited about the experience. How about you, Adam? You traveled, right?
A: I had one of the greatest experiences I’ve had, post-Covid, last Friday night. It could have happened anywhere, but it happened to happen in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. We went up to Montreal for a wedding and decided to break up the drive by stopping in Saratoga, which is basically halfway between New York and Montreal. I didn’t realize, because I’m stupid, that it was race weeks.
Z: Oh, yeah.
A: Saratoga is one of the most famous cities in America for horse racing. It has one of the last tracks that is still very historic. It hasn’t been modernized, really. People still dress up for the races. It’s really cool. But I kind of didn’t realize that. There was this cool hotel — which we’re going to talk about in the next segment — that I wanted to stay at. It was very hard to get a reservation at restaurants for dinner. When I called to get a reservation, they said they had two seats at the bar. I went to this really cool restaurant called Solevo. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that basically everything about it was like Carbone, but better, less pretentious, and cool kid. It was very cool. The food was just as good as Carbone, and it didn’t have that “we’re-better-than-you vibe.” What was crazy is that we were seated at the bar, and Naomi and I became friends with Kevin and Heidi.
Z: Oh, nice.
A: It was just the coolest thing. They started talking to us, and then we had this entire conversation during dinner with this couple who was sitting at the bar and were just super friendly. They were also from New York. They had invested in a racehorse. I learned all about horse racing, because I’ve never really been somewhat into horse racing, but it was really interesting to learn and meet people that you normally would not normally meet. We went and got a drink with them at another bar afterwards.
J: How cool. That’s amazing.
A: It was just really, really fun. I happened to drink a really good bottle of Onorati at dinner, and I had an Aviation cocktail first. The coolest thing was just this event that hasn’t happened in over 18 months. I used to love sitting at the bar. If you happen to have friendly people sitting next to you, that was even better because you got to have those connections and meet people. We went back to the hotel that night and thought, “Oh my god, I can’t believe that we had missed this.” There’s that magic of sitting at the bar that you don’t realize until you go back to do it for the first time again. I will definitely sit at the bar more often now that I feel like there’s more places that are requiring that you have a vaccine in order to dine. Hopefully, there’ll be more people that I get to meet. As a good segue here, one of the reasons we stopped in Saratoga was because of this hotel. Naomi’s really into design and has always followed this design company, Post Company. They’re a very well-known hotel design company. They do lots of really cool boutique hotels. They designed a hotel that we’d stayed at a long time ago in Barcelona. I think they actually did the Dogfish Head Inn and some other really cool stuff. The only hotel they’ve ever designed that they actually also own is in Saratoga Springs. It’s called Brentwood. One of the things that they do, and a lot of these boutique hotels have done this over the last few years that I’ve really noticed, is that one of the biggest selling points is the bar. It’s really interesting to me how much the hotel bar has become cool again. I feel like there was a time, especially when I traveled in really early days, where the hotel bar was kind of sad. You did not stay and have drinks at the hotel bar. In the last five to 10 years, the hotel bar has become very cool again. Even in New York, some of the best bars are in hotels. It’s really interesting because that was never the case. Do you now hold the hotel bar to the same standard you would a regular bar? This bar at the Brentwood, not to 100 percent criticize, pushes a lot of really great cocktails, but the cocktails actually weren’t that great. Right? And they were still expensive. It clearly worked. It was a hook. I was really excited. As you’ll learn if you listen to “Cocktail College,” the ice they used was like ice machine ice. The cocktail I ordered, because I had been in the mood after listening to Tim’s first episode, was an Old Fashioned. It was really watered down because of that ice. It wasn’t a 100 percent amazing experience, but they definitely hooked me and made me think I was going to get that experience because of how they positioned themselves as this great craft cocktail bar. I’m curious to have a conversation with the both of you about hotel bars in general and how you view them. Have you seen the same trend that I have, that new, cool, boutique hotels have really used the bar as a key marketing component when it comes to getting you to stay there?
J: I have a question first. What was the vibe of the bar? I feel like, for me, going to a hotel bar is partially for the cocktails and the drinks that I’m going to have.
A: Very Freemans. Very Brooklyn.
J: Cozy. Yeah.
A: Now, because of Covid, they were encouraging people to sit outside, so outside there were benches and a fire pit. But, yes. Very craft cocktail.
J: Yeah. I definitely agree with you. I’ve seen this trend as well. I think it is a draw for me as a traveler, too, especially for smaller towns like upstate New York and across the country. If I’m exploring a small town and there’s a hip boutique hotel, even if I’m not staying there, I’m probably going to check out the bar or the restaurant. I definitely think that it’s been happening. I also think there’s something about the older, storied hotel bars. There’s something really wonderful and appealing about those to me. I think about Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle in Manhattan. The Rum House at the Edison was a place that I used to go quite a bit. It’s in Midtown, and it’s a horrible area, but that bar was a refuge from 42nd Street. There’s that old-school type of hotel bar that I think is really wonderful. Then, there’s this new thing that we’re seeing happening. It’s really interesting because I think, for those smaller towns, it has to be a draw. Otherwise, if you don’t have people staying there, how else are you going to do business?
A: It’s so interesting that you say that. There’s these two different kinds of hotel bars, and then you have your Marriotts of the world.
J: Right. There’s the third.
A: You have these really old-school, very historic, amazing hotel bars. I’m thinking of The Sazerac inside of The Roosevelt in New Orleans.
J: Ah, great bar.
A: Or, you have what seems to be the same model of bar at all these boutiques. It’s sort of Brooklyn, very craft. I don’t even know how to describe it, but they all look very similar. They all have similar fonts, do you know what I mean? It’s different. It’s not trying to copy the old, historic, big, amazing bar with the bar peanuts and stuff like that. It is supposed to basically make you think you are at a great cocktail bar in Brooklyn, San Francisco, or L.A. I don’t know.
Z: I have a couple of thoughts here. The first is that what we societally expect from a hotel bar both has and has not changed over the years. The basic expectation is the same. It’s just the form it takes that is different. When you think about what role a hotel bar plays, for the most part, it’s for the hotel guests. But it’s also maybe not that dissimilar from the experience you were describing at the restaurant that you went to in Saratoga Springs, Adam. You also go to hotel bars to meet people, both in this sort of lurid traveler kind of way, but also in the way that, traditionally, interesting people travel and people who travel are interesting. I’ve known plenty of people who enjoy hanging out of hotel bars because they’re just interesting people to talk to. A lot of other cocktail bars, even pre-Covid, were not really centered around socializing with people who you didn’t come with. One of the great cocktail bar experiences I had in my life in terms of the cocktails was Franklin Investment in Philadelphia. But, you’re siloed off with your party and you would never just randomly start a conversation with someone else. You are very clearly there doing your own thing. Hotel bars just have that vibe, no matter what the trappings of the bar are. The expectation is that a lot of people are there by themselves, because they’re traveling by themselves, or maybe with one or two other people. If they’re hanging out in a hotel bar, they’re probably looking to chat. For whatever ends. I’m not going to go there. But that’s a thing. The other thing about hotel bars, and I think this is important to note here, is that they always take on the form of providing a kind of comfort. I’m talking about comfort for the kind of people who are traveling. The classic hotel bars that you describe were comfortable to a generation of travelers — especially business travelers, who were almost exclusively white men — who wanted a certain kind of experience. They could have that experience at any of the hotels you mentioned. Now, what the generation of travelers like us wants is the trappings of a cool cocktail bar. It makes total sense for hotels, whether they’re one-offs or part of a larger company. I think about Provenance Hotels, which is based in Portland, but has hotels there, in Seattle, Nashville, Fort Wayne, Ind., and all kinds of places. One of their big things all along has been that they take over these old hotels, and one of their main focuses is on the hotel bar. They’re all a little different. They don’t all have quite the hipster cocktail bar vibe. They make a huge point of developing the cocktail program because they see that as both a selling point for travelers and a way to bring in locals. It may be that a great cocktail bar in a hotel in the middle of Manhattan isn’t going to skate by on being OK because there are many other options. But, in a lot of other places, the hotel may be the best bar in town. Or, for a traveler who doesn’t want to go that far outside of their hotel for whatever set of reasons but wants a good cocktail, the hotel bar is a great option, too. Why would you not, as a business, try and capture that market? It’s a valuable one.
A: These are really good points. The hotel bar is interesting. It has an issue. You want it to be amazing if that’s why you chose the hotel. Also, if it’s so amazing that it attracts locals, is the hotel bar too crowded and hard to get into, even if you’re a paying guest?
J: It’s a careful balance.
A: At that kind of hotel bar, you assume that you’re going to get a truly great cocktail. Whereas, at the hotel bar where only the hotel guests are staying, you’re probably drinking the draft beer or the spirit, straight. Do you know what I mean? What do we want out of a hotel bar? I’ve found, more and more, that what I want is the former. I don’t want the hotel bar to just be my nightcap. Right? I want the hotel bar to be a place where I can have a great night out, and I don’t have to leave the bar. Maybe that’s because I’m a New Yorker. When we travel, I really don’t feel comfortable driving. I don’t feel comfortable driving the second I have a drink. I really don’t want to do it. There’s a lot of places, especially around New York, that have become really trendy over the last five or six years that don’t really have Ubers and Lyfts. Or, if they do, you could be waiting 45 minutes. A lot of times, if we go out to dinner, I don’t really drink that much. If we do come back, I want to have a really nice drink and be on property. But, if it’s that good, am I then fighting against all the other people who are staying in other places who have heard that this hotel has the best bar? At least then it’s fun. If I’m doing that at — I hate to pick on them — the Marriott and it’s just a subpar drink or maybe I’m just drinking brown straight, that’s not a great experience. Then I think, well, I don’t want to drink anyways.
Z: I think this is what’s fascinating about the hotel bar. It’s getting pulled in multiple directions. There are the people like we’re talking about that want their hotel bar experience to be on par with their bar experience anywhere else. Why would I drink there if the bar isn’t able to meet my expectations for cocktails? Otherwise, I won’t, or I’ll do it out of lack of other options or as a last resort. But there’s also this other piece of it that might be more true in the Marriotts, larger chains, or hotels that, for whatever set of reasons, cannot aspire to creating a great cocktail bar internally. It’s the outsourcing of all of that to lots of the things we’ve discussed on the podcast over the last year. There’s all the different RTD brands that are trying to get into these hotel bars. The drink dispensing machines, like Drinkworks, that want to be in those places. There are all these pressures to essentially remove the hotel bar from the operations of the hotel and have it be a glorified vending machine. That’s not inherently a bad thing. I don’t want to say that’s a bad choice. I think, in some cases, those kinds of products offer a better experience than the person who makes a watered down Manhattan, who doesn’t even know what they’re doing very well. In the end, I’d rather have a really great RTD that someone just pours out of a bottle, opens a can, or just hands to me. The most important thing to me is that the drink is good if I’m spending money on it. It is interesting because the hotel bar experience is being stretched. It might end up breaking into these two very different things. In the future, the hotel bar is not what we picture now. It’s basically a fancy vending machine.
J: I agree with that. I also think that there’s still a large group of people who are still traveling and are just fine with how the hotel bar is at the Marriott is and will continue to patronize a place like that.
A: Marriott’s listening to this and they’re like, “God, Adam.”
J: I think it’s very interesting that this new wave of hotel bars is catering to a younger generation. It makes so much sense.
A: I do wonder if part of this evolution that Zach is talking about will be even more sped up by Covid. The hotel bar we’re all talking about not liking exists, often, at hotels whose primary guests are business travelers. Business travelers don’t really care about a great hotel bar.
J: Right. It serves a purpose.
Z: They care more about their loyalty points than anything else.
A: Exactly. Those business travelers that do care, I think will still stay at the trendy hotel and will say screw their points. That might be lessening as more people start to say, “I’m not going to fly for one night to Chicago from New York when we could just Zoom, so I don’t need to stay at the Marriott that’s well located near the corporate office tower that I’m going into to have my meeting that day.” Then, will we have these hotels that are realizing they need to attract more general consumers who want a great location in Chicago for a long weekend? Will they realize they need better bars? That is at least being acknowledged by these very trendy, renovated motels that Joanna and I are talking about. That’s what’s taking off all across the country for all these companies. They’re taking these old motels, fully renovating them, and making them really cool. Most of them are putting good bars inside of them, at least in image. You may actually get there and not have a great drink. But, they’re at least trying, because they know that’s what the demographic is looking for if it’s going to be a vacation. If it’s a vacation, people want to be able to have a drink where they’re staying. Not just a drink, but a good drink. I don’t want to just go get whatever beer you have on draft. I don’t want to feel like, when I’m at my hotel, that I’m drinking in the airport lounge.
Z: I have one last thing to add to this. It’s also really important to keep in mind, when we talk about all this, the other challenge in this whole sector, which is labor. We’ve talked about labor issues in the hospitality industry a couple of times recently. You have to think about how creating a great bar program is not easy. Having the right people to staff it is not easy. It may be that some of these renovated motels in some of these places might be able to attract talent because of what we’ve talked about. There’s lower cost of living, maybe you have the opportunity to have some equity, a hotel has more revenue streams than a bar does, so assuming you have good occupancy, you can usually subsidize some of the cost of doing business in the bar in a way that just a bar can’t. This is why I think you’re going to see this real separation in what a hotel bar is over the next few years. Again, this is driven by Covid and the labor market. If the bar that you’re able to operate is little more than a pour-a-shot-of-brown kind of place, at some point it doesn’t even make sense for you to have staff to do that. If you’re struggling to find people, you’re going to find work-arounds that don’t involve as many people working. At the same time, it provides opportunity in these places that maybe do see the service and skill component as being central to their mission. It’s a way to attract and keep talent.
A: I think the thing that would be really well suited to most of these hotel bars that are especially trying to go the craft cocktail route would be to take a piece of advice from Tim’s guest on the first episode of “Cocktail College.” That advice is to just master the classics. I think what happens in a lot of these trendy bars is that whoever consulted on the hotel and then consulted on the bar said the hotel should have eight to 10 signature cocktails. Right? They may have a list initially developed by a bartender, but then that list probably evolves as someone is working there. What would be great is if you could go to one of these bars and there’s eight to 10 of the classics. There’s a really great Old Fashioned. There’s a really great Martini. I think that’s what people want. If you have a really great drink that’s just one of the classics done superbly, and you’re sitting in this place that’s been so well designed, feels cool, is an escape, and you didn’t have to wait in line or make a reservation to get into the trendy cocktail bar in your town, that’s what people actually want.
Z: Certainly, if you can’t master the classics, then you probably should not be focusing on a bunch of experimental stuff.
A: Exactly. Well, guys, this has been a great conversation. If anyone listening has a hotel bar that you particularly love, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to know about it because I’d probably like to go check it out. If you do have a great hotel bar, let us know. Zach, Joanna, I’ll talk to you next week.
J: Thanks so much.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.