The Martini is not just a classic American cocktail, it is the classic American cocktail.
Pulitzer-prize-winner Bernard DeVoto, author of the 1951 drinking companion “The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto,” described it as “the supreme American gift to world culture.” The drink continues to influence modern culture, with Emojipedia selecting an olive-garnished Martini as the definitive cocktail emoji.
In its simplest form, the drink comprises just two ingredients: London gin (some prefer vodka, but that’s not a classic Martini) and dry vermouth (preferably French). A basic olive or lemon twist garnish adds flair and flavor, though both are strictly optional, as is the inclusion of a few drops of orange bitters. It’s a deliberately boozy concoction and consensus opines that one Martini is never enough, but three is almost always too many.
For Martini aficionados like me, the beauty of the drink lies in the fact that it’s a classic cocktail with no set-in-stone recipe. When mixing at home, I have preferred gin and vermouth brands, and a favored ratio for consummating the two (12:1, in case you’re wondering). I add two dashes of orange bitters, garnish with a lemon twist, and pour into an ice-cold coupe glass, of which I keep a healthy stock in the freezer.
If I’m drinking out, I don’t expect such scrupulous attention to detail. Preparing a good Martini requires practice; perfecting the drink is nothing short of an art form. In dive bars and sports bars, most of which struggle to maintain clean draft lines, I’m not going to set myself up for the disappointment of a lousy Martini.
When I’m traveling, however, and staying in a hotel, it’s a different story. If that hotel has a functioning bar, at the very least it should be able to offer a half-decent Martini. Sadly, in my experience, this is often not the case.
To ensure I book accordingly in the future, I set upon a quest to determine which of our country’s major hotel chains makes the best Martini. Granted, I wasn’t going to be able to try every Martini at every Marriott or Hilton across the country, but if a chain mixes a good Martini in New York, you’d expect the standards to be just as high in most of its locations nationwide.
I enlisted the help of someone who also travels the world in the name of booze: VinePair contributor and fellow Martini enthusiast Aaron Goldfarb. We mapped a course across Midtown Manhattan that incorporated all the major chain hotels. Our planned approach was simple: We’d ask for a “Martini,” and offer further guidance only when prompted.
The desired cocktail would contain well gin, dry vermouth, a twist garnish, and should never, ever, ever, be shaken. Our final scores and ranking would take into account factors such as preparation method, ingredients used, the cocktail’s balance and appearance, and overall value for money.
The results, I’m sad to report, were almost unanimously disastrous.
(135 W. 45 St, New York, N.Y. 10036)
The Hyatt bar, serving New York’s best chain hotel Martini, fuses sushi lounge decor, ’80s romantic ballads, and expertly prepared classic cocktails. A Hungarian bartender named Csaba stirred 3 ounces of Ford’s gin and a half-ounce of Dolin vermouth, before pouring into an attractive freezer-chilled coupe glass. He reached for a peeler, extracted a generous twist from a juicy lemon, and expressed the fruit’s oils into the drink. To those who regularly prepare Martinis, this probably doesn’t sound special. After bearing witness to some of the atrocities of this roundup, it was a bona fide stroke of genius. Average score: 21.5/25
2. W HOTEL
(1567 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10036)
The juxtaposition of decor and atmosphere alone makes the W Hotel bar worthy of a visit. The room looks flashy, but there’s a clubby vibe and at least 90 percent of the clientele seem to be there to get “lit.” It’s like driving around in a Mercedes Benz wearing an Adidas tracksuit. The bartender served a stirred Bombay Sapphire and Carpano Dry Martini in two glasses, each containing three pimento-stuffed olives. It’s not a preparation I would normally ask for, but it worked and was the perfect accompaniment for some interesting people-watching. Average score: 19.25/25
(60 W. 37 St., New York, N.Y. 10018)
Drinking in the 37th Street Hilton feels akin to ordering a Subway sandwich inside a gas station. Seated at the bar, you can practically check guests in at the front desk, which is separated from the drinking area by a thick cordon rope that may or may not has been lifted from a local museum. Beefeater and Martini Rossi were stirred and poured into a chilled glass before the drink was garnished with a pith-heavy lemon “twist.” Average score: 14.75/25
4. BEST WESTERN
(50 W. 36 St., New York, N.Y. 10018)
There’s a subtle charm to Best Western’s hotel bar, with its designers apparently briefed to combine the essence of a country club and a London pub. Another establishment pouring Georgi as its well gin, the bartender checked if we’d like a splash of “Rossi,” before stirring and pouring into a chilled ’70s cocktail glass. The drink arrived with pre-prepared twist garnish, which was 80 percent pith, and did little to disguise the overpowering flavor of cheap gin. Average score: 13.5/25
(270 W. 43 St., New York, N.Y. 10036)
With live golf streaming on the largest TV screen I’ve ever seen, and a dedicated “Pappy” menu, Westin’s bar seemed like a glorified man cave. A well-dressed server stirred Beefeater gin and Cinzano dry vermouth tableside, before inextricably garnishing with an orange peel. The erroneous citrus twist knocked the balance out of the park, while the proceeding check ($30 with tip) dropped our jaws to the floor. If I ever return, I’ll order the Pappy. Average score: 11/25
6. MARRIOTT CLUB PULSE
(33 W. 37 St., New York, N.Y. 10018)
The appearance and ambiance of Marriott’s Club Pulse hotel bar set high expectations. Golden art-deco fixtures topped a sleek marble bar, while an acoustic duo provided a live soundtrack. We ordered a single Martini, and the bartender pulled two dainty coupe glasses from a freezer and poured New Amsterdam gin and Dolin vermouth into a mixing glass. But then, she plopped in a handful of ice cubes, topped the glass with the other end of a Boston Shaker, and throttled the concoction to a watery Martini tribute act. Average score: 9.75/25
7. HOLIDAY INN
(585 8th Ave., New York, N.Y. 10018)
The craft-beer-focused Rattle N Hum bar at the Holiday Inn on 8th Avenue keeps things lively until 2:00 a.m. After passing through the lobby into a boisterous dining area, we received a dirty, shaken Marini, garnished with three gigantic olives. The good gin came from a little-known brand called Georgi, which retails for around $12 for a 1-liter bottle. Without the brine, the flavor would have been a distant luxury, while the olives themselves were the drink’s only redeeming feature. Average score: 9/25