Swiss Hotels Raise the Bar in the Country
To find a well-made drink in Switzerland, look to the country's top hotels and resorts.
Depending on which part of Switzerland you're in, beer or wine may reign as the drink of choice. You'll always be able to find an Aperol spritz, or the Swiss-sanctioned alternative, the Hugo, an elderflower-flavored spritz. But well-made cocktails? They're still emerging from the shadows, and it's often at the country's top hotels where cocktails are making their biggest and best impressions, on locals and travelers alike.
“If you want a good drink with the best ingredients, you have to go to the right type of place,” says Anja Staudt, bar supervisor at Rive Gauche Terrasse, a swanky outdoor bar and lounge at the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich. It's hard to say what happened first — the international clientele demanding more cocktails, or the hotels seeking to appeal to them — but either way hotel bars are offering patrons something outside of the traditional realm found elsewhere in Switzerland.
“In Europe...it's different,” says Anthony Boschat, bar manager at BAR in Lausanne's Beau-Rivage Palace. He's describing the entire bar experience, from the type of service expected, to the fact that patrons predominantly sit at tables rather than directly at the bar. This eliminates interaction with the bartender, making it less likely that customers take a chance on something new, and hindering those who are looking to expand upon their boundaries from actually doing so. It makes the bartender's job that much more difficult as well, and it's something that Boschat and others are seeking to change.
With experience bartending in London and Paris, he tries to incorporate what he learned in those cities into his work in Switzerland, offering a combination of the type of high-end service expected from a five-star hotel, with a modern approach to cocktails. For the latter, that includes everything from housemade syrups to barrel-aged cocktails and even house-made vermouths, and Boschat is as hands-on with his approach as possible, including his interaction with customers.
“You don't need the cocktail menu, I'm the cocktail menu,” Boschat says, and he loves when customers are actually up at the bar with him, offering the chance to engage in conversation. “It's not just selling cocktails, it's about a moment with people...you need to talk with the people.”
This identical stance is also taken at the Allegro Bar in Bern's Hotel Allegro. “Of course we have a menu, but really, we like talking to people,” explains bartender Sammy Emanuel Bruu. For Bruu, who's from the Netherlands, he attributes the struggle of the cocktail to fully take hold in part to people being stuck in their ways. “Sometimes people here need to let go,” he says. “And I'm here to try to break them!”
That back-and-forth with a knowledgeable bartender is crucial to get the job done. From there, earning customer trust creates a cycle of positive feedback, encouraging bartenders to continue experimenting and patrons to continue ordering. Management buy-in certainly helps, too. After a successful rooftop pop-up at the hotel this summer, Bruu is hopeful he'll be able to continue thinking even further outside the box with his cocktails, which is the fun part of the job for him.
Similarly, back at the Rive Gauche Terrasse, this summer was the first that Staudt and her team had full creative control of the cocktail menu. “I have much more fun making drinks like this and surprising the guest,” she says while mixing up the purple Papillon, with Monkey 47 gin, lemon, thyme, and lilac syrup over crushed ice. Customers at her bar may always ask for their famous Bellini in summertime weather, but something a bit craftier is more in her wheelhouse.
Low-ABV cocktails are one way to help ease patrons into selections beyond the wine or beer program. At BAR, Boschat has found that as opposed to a glass of wine or an aperitif before dinner, a low-ABV libation often serves as a happy medium, allowing customers to dabble with cocktails.
Staudt has also seen the same, but attributes the rise of low alcohol cocktails to Zurich's status as an international banking capital. The bar is a power lunch destination, but nobody wants to return to the office sloshed after a quick meal. A low-ABV cocktail, on the other hand, offers a tasty and refreshing choice which can be enjoyed worry-free. Her low-ABV drinks on the menu nod to the book “The Art of the Shim” with the catchy tag line “More drink. Less drunk.”
Depending on the clientele a hotel attracts, though, sticking to the classics may be the best way to capture that cocktail customer. “It's our role, it's heritage, it's history, and we have to be an ambassador for those so they're not lost,” says Urs Bührer, general manager of Bern's Bellevue Palace, speaking to the importance of classic cocktails. The hotel is both physically and metaphorically at the center of the government's wheeling and dealing, and properly done old-school drinks have lasting appeal. Iconic drinks for an iconic institution, enjoyed with an other-worldly view of the Aare river from the patio — never a bad idea.
That said, the hotel isn't afraid to step into a new direction either. “We do the classic cocktails, but also new, trendy things,” Bührer says. “And gin is very trendy in Switzerland.” That's why the hotel's lobby has morphed into a stacked gin bar, with 99 gins proudly on display.
Of course, putting on a bit of a performance never hurts either, which is why Boschat calls to his time in London with the introduction of a martini trolley at BAR. “It's a very new idea to local people,” he says. “And some people get the cocktail only for the show.”
The gospel of cocktails is spreading and progress is being made across Switzerland, whether customers choose to explore by trying a low-ABV drink, enjoying an iconic one or a showy one, or finding themselves going down the rabbit hole by exploring homemade vermouths and the latest bar innovations.
“It's been good for bar culture,” Boschat says. “Five years ago it wasn't like this.” Keep fighting the good fight, then.