The folks behind a pop-up bar traveling cross-country are paying homage to the golden age of cocktails by bringing 150-year-old recipes from a library of rare and vintage drink books along for the ride.
The Traveller Bar is on a two-year road trip through 20 of the Loews hotel locations coast to coast. Currently you can find the speakeasy-inspired, open-air metal structure — it's constructed from materials from an old elevator car — stationed in the lobby of the hotel's Santa Monica outpost. On Sept. 8, it will start its next monthlong stop at the Loews in Hollywood. Anyone can visit the bar, hotel guests or not.
The bar, which only has four worn, brown leather stools, may be diminutive in size, but it holds a lot of history within. Stacked behind the glass shelves is a small library of rare, old-school cocktail books that any beverage nerd would love to get their hands on. One of them is the first edition of The Bar-Tender’s Guide by Jerry Thomas — the first cocktail recipe book ever written; it was published in 1862 and is apparently valued at $8,000 right now. If you're lucky, you might even be able to get the bartender to unlock it from the shelves and let you thumb through its yellowed pages. Others get to peruse the pages digitally on the iPads placed on the bar counter while they sip cocktails concocted from throwback recipes from those books. It's a chance to time travel for a bit and drink your way through the 1860s to 1930s.
The Gin Fix, a cocktail served at the Traveller Bar, is based on one of the 1862 recipes from The Bar-Tender's Guide. It's a summery and refreshing mixture of gin, lemon juice and simple syrup, garnished with a couple of plump raspberries. It's a simple boozy beverage that makes for a good starter drink before you begin delving into the stronger libations, such as the simply named Whiskey Cocktail. It's a twist on the Manhattan — punched up with flavors from the Angostura bitters and demerara syrup's hint of caramel —and the inspiration for it is taken out of a page from the 1895 Official Handbook & Guide — NYC Bartender's Association.
And while many of us have had a version of the daiquiri at some point in our lives, the Traveller Bar's version originates from a recipe from the 1922 book Cocktails: How to Mix Them by Robert Vermeir. This one was as easy to crush in the summer then as it is now. It's a straightforward recipe, with rum, lime juice and pomegranate grenadine.
The Traveller Bar is the brainchild of Mark Weiss, senior vice president of food and beverage at Loews Hotels. The seed for the idea was planted while he was traveling on a plane, brainstorming how to create an experience surrounding the golden age of cocktails. It seemed apropos that while he was on a trip, he doodled the plans for the Traveller Bar.
Originally, Weiss wanted to completely build out the bar from an old elevator car used during the turn of the century. He went on a wild goose chase to obtain one, but in the end, those old-school cabs weren't big enough to fit an entire bar inside and were difficult to find, so he had to make a compromise. Weiss got a team to build the bar from scratch, using vintage pieces of metal, glass and wood to give the bar its old-timey feel. The glass windows have images of a monkey sipping out of a martini glass, and the back of the bar is emblazoned with a toast: “Here’s to those who think outside the glass. To the bold few who are called to shake up the status quo & inspire stories worth telling.” He collaborated with a group of mixologists, Collectif 1806, on the project, and they gave Weiss access to their extensive library of vintage cocktail books to showcase at the Traveller Bar.
“In a hotel you tend to have your premium restaurant or resort with pool areas and your traditional bars, and I felt that what would be great — and even if it was for a limited amount of time — was to give our customers a little taste of how it used to be and transport [them] into that era,” Weiss says.
Ordering classic cocktails at bars is nothing new, but the surge in popularity in consumers imbibing hand-crafted cocktails has reverberated throughout the country. Cari Hah, head bartender of Big Bar by Alcove in Los Feliz, says that she sees younger customers ordering more old-fashioneds, Manhattans and Moscow mules than she did a few years ago. “Classics are classics for a reason, and they are delicious,” Hah says. “I think that a big reason [for the attraction to classic cocktails] is the proliferation of cocktail-centric bars. Because there are so many more great bars that are now offering wonderful cocktails, they have become a standard.”
Weiss doesn't think classic cocktails will be leaving the forefront anytime soon. If anything, he foresees that bartenders are just going to have to learn to craft the cocktails more efficiently, because the general audience is starting to grow impatient about waiting forever at the bar for a cocktail to be made. Long cocktail menus are going to start getting cut down to three or four really solid drinks, he says. Weiss also thinks that with all trends coming in “bursts,” the bourbon movement is on the cusp of giving way to gin, rum and vodka, which he says will “come back with a vengeance.”
It will be in the mezzanine level of the Loews Hotel in Hollywood from Sept. 8-Oct. 4, Wednesdays through Sundays, 4-10 p.m. 1755 Highland Ave., Hollywood; (323) 856-1200, loewshotels.com/hollywood-hotel.