In 2010, 17.3 million tourists flocked to Washington. According to Destination D.C., these visitors spent more than $2 billion dollars at local hotels.
Whatever their reasons for traveling — a convention, a tour of historic sights, or government affair – these visitors have one thing in common: For a short time, they will call one of Washington’s hotels their home away from home. Many of them, whether they are diplomats, job seekers or a touring musical act, will mingle in their hotel bars. For some guests, the hotel bar is useful amenity, a place to grab a nightcap within a 60-second commute from their bed. For the weary business traveler the barstool and a highball are a way to wash away the stress of the day.
As a Washington resident, one of my favorite spots to take my guests is the POV lounge at the W Hotel Washington. Forget waiting to ascend to the peak of Washington monument (it’s closed anyway), I’d rather take in the panoramic view from the nearby 11th floor terrace at the W, a block from the White House, while relaxing in a cozy chair and sipping a cocktail.
The prominence of hotel bars in the U.S. dates back to colonial days, when bartenders served little more than ale and rum. Taverns also served as boarding houses, a place where an exhausted traveler could hitch his horse and spend the night.
As hotels grew bigger and more sophisticated, so did hotel bars. According to Derek Brown, a cocktail historian and partner in D.C.’s Passenger and the Columbia Room lounges, the modern hotel emerged some time in the beginning of the 19th century alongside the first celebrity bartender, Orasmus Willard, at the City Hotel in New York. “This set the stage for bars — not necessarily the same as saloons — being situated in lobbies of hotels,” Brown says. “Guests were treated with a drink upon arrival, the ultimate sign of hospitality.
Many famous cocktails were invented at hotel bars — from the Red Snapper (or Bloody Mary, as we know it today) at New York’s St. Regis, the Pina Colada at the Caribe Hilton in Puerto Rico and the Tequila Sunrise at the Biltmore in Phoenix.
“The main reason why great cocktails and hotels are inexorably linked is that they grew up together,” Brown says. “Hotels were often luxurious and full of amenities, including top bars and bartenders. It was the perfect environment to nurture the golden age of cocktails.”
The most celebrated hotel bar in Washington is the Round Robin Bar at the Willard Hotel. In different incarnations, his gathering spot has played host to Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. Kentucky’s Henry Clay — who served as a Secretary of State, House Speaker and U.S. senator — introduced the Southern-style mint julep to Washington at the Round Robin in the 1800s. Since then, it’s been the signature drink of the bar. In an era where cocktail menus are ever-changing, it’s almost unheard of to see something stick around for 200 years. Bartender Jim Hewes has presided over the Round Robin since the hotel reopened in 1986. “If you want to put a drink on the map,” Hewes says, “You’ll need that level of consistency.”
Henry Clay’s Southern-style Mint Julep
6-8 fresh mint leaves, plus on sprig for garnish
1 tablespoon sugar
2 oz bourbon
1 oz sparkling water
Put the mint leaves, sugar and one ounce bourbon in a tumbler. Gently muddle with a spoon. Add a scoop of cracked ice. Add equal measures of bourbon and sparkling water to fill glass. Garnish with fresh mint sprig, lemon twist and dust with superfine sugar.