Without a doubt, the most depressing of spirits “occasions” has to be when you open the average hotel mini-bar. Whenever I’m in a hotel room (which is too often), I always peek into the little fridge — above the Heineken and bad chardonnay — to confirm the lackluster selection of miniature booze on offer.
There’s almost always an Absolut vodka, a Crown Royal, Johnny Walker Red or Jack Daniel’s, a Gordon’s gin or Bacardi rum. The usual. Though sometimes you’ll encounter an absurdist mini-bar and find, say, a Malibu coconut rum or a tiny bottle of Grand Marnier (to mix with what, exactly?).
I never open one of these tiny bottles, but I often wonder who does. And to what purpose. For instance, if you open a mini-bottle of gin or rum, what do you mix it with? The accompanying can of Coke or Schweppes tonic is usually of regular size. Is it part of a scheme to get you to open two miniatures of gin?
On desperate occasions, I might break down and open a $9 bottle of Perrier, a $7 bag of M&M’s or a $6 can of Pringles. But there’s something about popping the top off a little white bottle of Malibu that feels like a step in the wrong direction along life’s journey. Alone in my hotel room, sipping my Malibu, I feel certain I will begin to ponder ideas best left unpondered.
I was talking about all that recently with several bartenders, all of whom scoffed at the average mini-bar. Adam Bernbach, of Estadio and Proof, said the only time he had ever partaken of a mini-bar was when he received a $15 credit with the room. “I opened a beer,” he said.
Mini-bars usually have crummy liquors, said Derek Brown, owner of the Passenger and Columbia Room. “When’s the last time you saw a good rye whiskey or artisanal spirit in a mini-bar? I wouldn’t expect a chef to make a dish of the Pringles and M&M’s. So how can you expect to make a drink with Malibu, Grey Goose and maybe, if you’re lucky, Dewar’s?
“I’d prefer to go out to a bar and have an experience,” Brown explained. “Drinking is, to me, more than a few bottles mixed together. It’s about being with people, enjoying the skillful production of a beverage.”
So you can imagine how surprised I was, when I checked into the super-fancy James Hotel in New York’s SoHo a few weeks ago, to find almost everything that Brown says is missing from the mini-bar drinking experience.
Instead of a mini-bar, the James offers something called an “in-room mixology experience.” The rooms are stocked with pretty decent 375-milliliter bottles such as Gosling’s Dark Rum ($35), Macallan 12-year-old ($65) and Patron Silver ($45), and even some good artisanal spirits such as Tuthilltown’s Hudson Baby Bourbon ($50) and Corn Whiskey ($45).
But the twist is that, for $28, guests can call down and have a full array of mixers brought to the room: bitters; dry and sweet vermouth; fresh lime; lemon and orange juices; ginger beer; Cointreau; Lillet Blanc; simple syrup; cherries and fresh mint; along with a shaker and other bar tools.
Julio Quijada, the James’s amiable in-room dining manager who has taken an in-house crash course in bartending, came with the set. He demonstrated a few cocktails such as a Corpse Reviver, a daiquiri and a margarita. Then, as we talked, Quijada watched me mix a few drinks of my own, such as a rum Manhattan and a mint julep. (You pay per-bottle fees for the spirits you open.)
The experience, which also is offered at the James Hotel in Chicago, was so much better than the typical mini-bar that I wondered why more hotels don’t do this.
When I told Brown about the James’s in-room mixology program, we agreed that it seemed like a step forward, an improvement whose time had come.
At the very least, Brown noted, it would be helpful for the traveling bartender, amateur or professional. Brown generally brings his own bartending kit, “but it’s like forgetting your toothbrush,” he said. “ ‘Hey can you send up a Boston shaker? I left mine at home.’ ”
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Follow him on Twitter: @boozecolumnist.