There’s nothing quite like the cocktail bar of a luxury hotel, with its legendary tales, lavish hospitality and carefree atmosphere. Considering the restrictive “new normal” of the current times, there’s little we wouldn’t give to be in one right now.
Manila’s cocktail bar culture had been enjoying a sort of renaissance in the years right before the pandemic. Nondescript spaces in not-so-prime locations ingeniously transformed into dimly lit, low-profile yet high-concept bars, with dressed-up millennial bartenders serving drinks with a flourish as if it were the 1920s.
Smelling an opportunity, mainstream hospitality players eventually caught on.
Pretty soon, the young maverick mixologists who had previously been at independent bars were shaping the beverage programs of luxury hotels in Makati and Bonifacio Global City.
These institutions were able to up the ante on customer experience through premium and novel ingredients and the polished execution of creative concepts, along with five-star hospitality and rigorous safety and sanitation protocols.
They were doing well – some even won accolades from international award-giving bodies – until the country was placed in lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic and operations were put on hold.
Now that Metro Manila is slowly warming up to the idea of stepping out for a drink once again, will cocktail bars in luxury hotels become the most popular – and sensible – choices?
FEW PLACES CAN TOP THE PLEASURE of having a sunset cocktail on top of a skyscraper like The Peak, a multi-concept F&B establishment occupying the top three floors of Grand Hyatt Manila in BGC which reopened in October.
To the east are the mountains of Rizal province and Manila Bay to the west. Needless to say, the space offers welcome sights and much-needed breathing room after months of limited mobility.
As dusk falls and the metropolis turns into a jeweled vista, senior mixologist Sean Carlos de Vera is busy making The Peak Sour, the hotel bar’s signature cocktail and a nod to its extensive whisky collection.
It takes skill and audacity to successfully reinvent a classic – especially one as simply constructed as a whisky sour, which requires only whisky, lemon juice and sugar, with the option of adding egg white. But de Vera transforms this old favorite by combining 16-year-old Lagavulin single malt and Maker’s Mark Kentucky bourbon, creating a nuanced complexity that is brightened with pineapple and basil.
It is a triumphant departure from the indispensable lemon, delivering tropical notes with fragrance, sweetness and well-rounded flavor. To smoothen the drink’s smoky and peaty finish, De Vera tops the drink with the rich texture of egg white foam.
Starting on the 60th floor of the hotel, The Peak consists of a bar and grill restaurant, music lounge and whisky parlor – each distinct in character but coming together to form a coherent whole. Its Tokyo-based designer, Nao Taniyama, explored Manila’s arteries without a map, and his experience shaped The Peak as a multi-concept space, the sheer size of which allows for various diversions in a single night: one could dine on the open deck, dance in the music lounge or relax in one of the two private whisky rooms.
Unifying all three sections are refined, contemporized motifs of Filipino culture, such as indigenous tattoo patterns embossed on industrial-inspired walls and traditional Filipino basket weave designs known as solihiya.
The play of light, as it streams through the latticework and bounces off the textured walls, was intentionally designed by Taniyama and enhances The Peak’s pleasant maze-like quality, reminiscent of Manila’s network of streets and alleys. The concept is a boon in a city famous for its gridlock—and which now can be challenging to explore.
“Whatever you want to do, you can find it all here at The Peak. Guests can enjoy their sunset cocktails with our cheese soirée or champagne and oysters, then move indoors to have some whisky in one of the private rooms, before enjoying a late dinner at the steakhouse. Our guests do all three and mix it up according to their mood,” Heidi Manabat, the Grand Hyatt’s marketing communications director, says.
THE BACK ROOM SEEMS DETERMINED NOT TO BE FOUND during my pre-pandemic visit. Disavowing any kind of association with Shangri-La at the Fort, which it is actually a part of, the speakeasy has no direct access from the hotel.
Instead, I go out into the street and get over my reluctance to enter an unmanned side door into a deserted, dimly lit hallway. I head down a staircase and I am lost; I should’ve made a sharp left after the shoeshine station where the dark cloakroom would lead me right into the Prohibition era.
It’s that era’s tradition of homemade booze that The Back Room has tapped into during the lockdown. According to bar manager Dicky Hartono, closing the bar to ensure the health and safety of guests “encouraged us to be more innovative and to work around limitations. We moved towards the general direction of Shangri-La’s F&B where we cater to guests in the comforts of their home. We launched DIY kit variations of our cocktails, including our in-house gin, Bee’s Knees.”
Even before the pandemic, The Back Room was creating its own gin at its in-house gin laboratory, bottling it for guests to enjoy at home. The Bee’s Knees – the ’20s slang expression for something excellent – adds a Filipino touch to the idea of bootleg gin by using endemic botanicals such as malunggay (moringa), sampaguita (Philippine jasmine) and dalandan (native orange).