Return of martinis, Manhattans and other mixed drinks – restaurant beverage marketing

Return of martinis, Manhattans and other mixed drinks – restaurant beverage marketing – column

Mort Hochstein

Return of martinis, Manhattans and other mixed drinks

A recent mail brought me a press kit headed “The Civilized Martini.” I might have tossed that bit of folderol out with the other junk, but I saved it because it was in step with the times even if its authors didn’t realize how prescient they were.

I think the martini may be coming back. Not today, not this week, not this month, but slowly over the year we’ll be seeing increasing interest in not only the martini but also all other forms of cocktails.

It sounds like optimism you might hear from a salesman for one of the big whiskey companies, but no, there’s more foundation to the prognosis. In talks with innovators, food-and-beverage directors for the big hotel chains, more and more frequently I hear reports of unexpected increases in sales of martinis and Manhattans and other mixed drinks.

One instance does not make a trend, but when was the last time anyone ever ran out of VO? It happened to Ted Fondulis at his four-star Hemingway’s in the mountains of Vermont this summer.

“We had an upsurge in cocktails,” he reports. “People were ordering Manhattans, martinis, old-fashioneds as if we were back in the ’60s. These were the same people who have been ordering white wine for the past few years. There were a few nights when we were out of VO.”

I’ve seen it even at home. One recent holiday brunch at Chez Hochstein, I had one request for cold vodka to go with smoked salmon, and that inspired about half my guests to forgo their usual white wine in favor of something a bit stronger. I’m sure the swing to vodka had nothing to do with glasnost. Our drinking habits are changing. Again.

What inspired today’s topic was a visit to the “new” Rainbow Room and the restaurants that are part of the Rainbow complex at Rockefeller Center. Joe Baum is the man who brought that super Manhattan night spot back to life just before New Year’s Day. He is also the man who created The Four Seasons, Windows on the World, and, most recently, Aurora. He has inspired countless trends in food service.

The Rainbow Room has been getting tremendous press coverage, not only in New York but also in national publications. Baum makes news, and what he does others are quick to copy.

He thinks it’s time for a return to cocktails. The Rainbow Room opened in 1934 at a time when America was bouncing back from the days of Prohibition, and the room’s Cafe Society clientele thirsted for good spirits. They drank cocktails, and they drank champagne.

Baum believes in linking with the past, so he’s put 38 cocktails on the drink card for the Rainbow Room, 27 on the list that diners receive before dinner, another 11 on a huge after-drinks card. In addition to all those, there are five non-alcoholic cocktails as well.

All those almost forgotten Pink Ladies and Rob Roys and Bronx cocktails are back on the card. Now that’s a statement if I ever saw one.

For those who can’t remember the days when every sophisticated evening–in the movies, at least– started with a cocktail or for those just too young to know what goes into a Jack Rose or a Pink Lady or a Sazerac, the card lists the ingredients of all those alcoholic blends.

Baum will be presenting those drinks in a very attractive line of cocktail stemware. They’re triangular shaped, sort of like wide champagne flutes. Ray Wellington, who worked as wine steward at Windows on the World and later became manager of Baum’s Aurora restaurant, helped create the cocktail list and helped select the new glasses.

It’s a terrible pun, but Ray is high on the whole cocktail idea: “One person sees another drinking those exotic drinks, and before long the whole table is ordering more of the same.”

At Baum’s suggestion, Wellington researched the drinks of an era he was too young to have known, studying the Gunhill Bar Book, the Stork Club Bar Book, the Savoy Hotel Cocktail Book, and Ted Saucier’s “Bottoms Up.” He winnowed the potential list to a group of top favorites and then added a few more of his own invention, drinks aimed to appeal to a younger audience.

The new Rainbow Room is still very new, and there’s no solid evidence, but early reports are that “cocktails are moving” at the rooftop restaurant. And if it’s happening there, you can be sure the change won’t stop at the Big Apple.

Although we’re focusing on cocktails here, let me report that Wellington has also put together a very strong wine list, about 220 labels, to satisfy the needs of the Rainbow Room and a half-dozen satellite facilities as well as the many function rooms in the Rainbow complex.

The wines are priced fairly, although Wellington, who has since joined the Alan Stillman restaurant group in New York City, says they are not as low as those at this nation’s leading wine-selling restaurant, Windows on The World. I had a look at the latest Windows list just recently, and it is truly good reading if you are a consumer watching your dollars in superexpensive Manhattan.

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