You are cordially invited to participate in this imperfect, subjective, thirst-provoking, sure-to-enrage (my editor, for instance, is highly doubtful about the King Cole Bar’s Manhattans) discussion of the best places to enjoy classic libations.
While the history of the cocktail remains obscure, one thing is certain: It has traveled around the world, reappearing in exotic new blends wherever man has found a novel poison. Indeed, the connection between cocktails and geography can hardly be denied. Singapore gave us the Sling, New York City the Manhattan, Havana the Cuba Libre.
The British developed many mixed drinks in their colonial conquest of the world—a taxing pursuit that must have required frequent libation.
Travel, like empire-building, often demands a well-mixed cocktail, which is surely why some of the best drinks are served in bars at grand hotels. Others occupy sightseeing aeries atop skyscrapers or historic old familiars around the corner. The key is to suit the beverage to the locale, or vice versa, an effort to which I am devoted. Wherever I go I try something different. What can I say? Here’s looking at you, kid.
Gin and Tonic
Those thirsty English developed the G&T, laced with malaria-fighting quinine, during the Raj in India, so it’s only correct to order one at the Patiala Peg Bar in New Delhi’s Imperial Hotel, which opened in 1931 and was the scene of partition discussions among Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Mountbatten.
The origin of the Manhattan remains contested; some credit it to Dr. Iain Marshall who supposedly mixed the first one up for a banquet at a stylish New York club around 1870, others to the bartender at a downtown drinking hole on Broadway near Houston. In any event, the quintessential New York cocktail, made of bitters, sweet vermouth and bourbon, is most at home at the King Cole Bar in the St. Regis Hotel on Fifth Avenue, though the house drink is actually the Bloody Mary (formerly known as the Red Snapper). Never mind that, there’s nothing swisher than sipping a Manhattan under the bar mural by Maxfield Parrish.
Ensenada, Tijuana, Juarez and Galveston all claim to be the home of the margarita. I like them best overlooking the Pacific Ocean from the rooftop bar at the Hotel Los Cuatro Vientos in the old town of Puerta Vallarta, once favored by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. But a connoisseur friend of mine says there’s no surpassing the icy green cocktail at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville bar in Key West, Florida.
I could write a book about this deceptively-simple crown prince of cocktails, made with gin or vodka and a whisper of dry vermouth, then decorated with an olive, pearl onion or lemon twist. Recent tinkering with the recipe has produced fancifully-named martinis in outlandish flavors. But the plain, dry classic is still the best and hardest to mix. I connect them with the mid-century modern America of Mad Men and the Brat Pack which is why I love to sip a dry one in a poolside cabana the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Synonymous with Greek Revival plantation houses, the Kentucky Derby and everything else southern, the mint julep was imported to Washington, D.C., by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay who tippled in the Hotel Willard. The historic Round Robin Bar is still there, dispensing its signature mint juleps to politicos and pundits.
These days everyone’s drinking mojitos, a mash of rum, lime juice, sugar cane, sparkling water and mint, thought to have been invented in Cuba. All too often they’re ruinously watered-down, but not at the elegant lobby bar of the Metropole Hotel in Monte Carlo which serves mojitos in gigantic glass tulips at the Grand Prix price of about $25 a goblet.
Licorice-flavored Pastis is the summer drink of the French working man, served at bar-tabacs in the Midi; try any no-name dive at the harbor in Nice or Marseille. It comes with a carafe of tap water; watch with wonder during dilutions as the liqueur turns milky-green and eminently-drinkable.
A bartender at the legendary Long Bar in Singapore’s Raffles Hotel invented the sling, but you only have to go as far as New Orleans to get a primo version at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone.
Spritz con Aperol
Together with Campari and soda, the spritz con Aperol—a bitter-tasting, neon orange aperitivo distilled from plants like gentian and rhubarb—is the cocktail of choice for steamy Italian summers, mixed with white wine and served on ice with a green olive and a slice of orange. It makes a colorful, thirst-slaking concoction at Bar Zanzibar on the Campo Santa Maria Formosa in the Castello district of Venice.
Does anyone really drink Tequila Sunrises in the morning? Of course not. Sunset is the right time for them, preferably at the Beach House on the south side of Kauai, Hawaii‘s garden island. But you’ve got to get there at just the right moment to see the fabled “green flash” that lingers briefly after the sun sinks below the western horizon.