The very act of travel almost guarantees that you’ll be craving a drink, but the comfort of your hotel room isn’t exactly set up for imbibing. Do you order a $9 beer from room service? Venture downstairs to the hotel bar—where you’ve got to face, well, the sorts of folks who typically sit in a hotel bar? Or grab a $6 Coke and $9 ounce-and-a-half of Jack from the minibar and call it a night?
There are better ways. And though some of us crazies travel with a portable cocktail shaker at all times—come on, look how cute!—you don’t need to get that fancy to seriously upgrade your cocktail game. Behold: your guide to hotel room cocktails. (I’m raising a toast with my sloppy but tasty improvised daiquiri.)
Let’s go through each of the essential elements you’ll need for cocktail crafting.
Glassware. Even the dive-iest Motel 6 should have at least a couple of cups, even if they’re foam-covered insulated coffee cups. Classier establishments might have wine glasses or water goblets or—and this is ideal—two sizes of glasses, which you can nest for a makeshift cocktail shaker.
Ice. Again, even your hard-core budget dive should have an ice machine. Although depending on how hard-core a budget dive it is you may have to wander the dingy hallways to find it.
Sugar. Simple syrup is key to most cocktails. But what is simple syrup? Just equal parts of hot water and sugar. And where can you get sugar? Everywhere. Usually it’s even in convenient packet form. Maybe there’s a sugar caddy next to the knockoff Keurig near your minibar. If not, you can always just swipe an extra few packets at the breakfast buffet.
If you’ve got a coffeemaker in your room, boil up some water, dissolve an equal amount of sugar in it, and you’re all set. If you’re in some sort of philistine motel without a coffeemaker don’t worry. Simple syrup needs hot water, but not that hot. Just turn on the hot water and let it run until it steams a little. That’ll be hot enough. Then add the sugar and stir it until it’s dissolved and the liquid is clear. Done.
Citrus. You’re not likely to find fresh lemon juice stashed in the minibar. But citrus is all around you and it’s often free. You can get lime wedges or lemon wheels with a glass of water. Or you could take the oranges no one ever eats at the breakfast buffet and stash them for fresh orange juice later. If you’re lucky you might even find a grapefruit there. (One grapefruit gets you an awful lot of juice.)
If you have limes, just squeeze the wedges by hand. If you’ve got lemon wheels, it’s all about muddling. Stack ’em in the bottom of a glass and smash them up with whatever you can find. We’ve been known to use the blunt end of a hairbrush. (Please wash it first.) You could also use the bottom of a small liquor bottle. Which brings us finally to…
Booze. You can avoid paying exorbitant minibar prices with a little planning. Those tiny bottles of rum they sell next to the cash register at the liquor store are God’s gift to the thirsty traveler. Why? Because you can carry them on a plane. The little guys are only an ounce and a half. So stick them in your transparent plastic bag next to the toothpaste and shampoo; the TSA can’t touch them.
If you do want a more substantial bottle, buy local—a bottle of local rum in the Caribbean, say. The big bottle will probably cost almost the same as whatever they put in your minibar and you can check it on the way home.
A Few More Tips
Taste and adjust. Since you probably don’t have a jigger in your carry-on (and if you do, you don’t need this guide), your proportions won’t be exact. So take a teeny sip before figuring out if you need more lemon or sugar or gin.
Ice is your friend. Proper chilling is everything in cocktails, so make good use of that icemaker. Cold can cover a multitude of sins.
Don’t worry about aesthetics. A few lemon seeds or a little gritty sugar at the bottom won’t ruin the taste. And who are you trying to impress anyway? These drinks are either for you or they’re for someone you’ve already got in your hotel room.
The pseudo-shaker. Let’s say you have slim glasses in the bathroom and slightly larger ones next to the minibar. Fit the larger glass over the mouth of the small one, and voilà: cocktail shaker. Just do your shaking over the bathroom sink, and go a little gentler than you otherwise might. Those things were not made to take a beating.
BYO bitters. I traveled all over Southeast Asia with a carry-on–friendly bottle of Angostura bitters, which has the highest ratio of awesome-to-volume of any liquid in existence. We’d get pineapple-ice shakes on the street for less than a dollar, pour in some local rum (about $6 per bottle at 7-Eleven) and dash a bunch of bitters on top. It tasted ridiculously sophisticated for the effort it required.
Bitters let you turn whiskey into an old-fashioned, mediocre gin into a Pink Gin, make a rum and Coke taste a lot better, add depth to overly fruity tropical cocktails. Bitters are your friend, and they up the level of your cocktail-drinking experience like nothing else.
OK, Some Drinks
The Hotel Daiquiri
Start with Hotel Simple Syrup: Dissolve ½ of a sugar packet in an equal amount of hot water. Add the juice of 1 lime (about 8 of your free wedges). Add 1½ ounces of rum (or 1 full airplane bottle). Shake with ice however you can (if you don’t have the pseudo-shaker described above, you can pour the mixture back and forth between two glasses. It’s better than nothing.) Drink out of whatever glass is available and marvel at your ingenuity.
Alternatives: Swap in tequila, and you’ll end up with a simplified margarita. Gin? You’ve got a gimlet. Vodka? Vodka gimlet. Pretty much any alcohol + lime/lemon + sugar will taste good.
Smash up ½ of a lonely orange from the buffet in the bottom of a cocktail glass, add ice and a baby bottle of vodka (for a sort of screwdriver) or rum (our preferred). A grapefruit works in place of an orange but needs ½ of a sugar packet’s worth of your Hotel Simple Syrup.
You don’t need me to tell you how to make a Jack and Coke or a Cuba Libre (although the latter gets much better with a huge squeeze of lime and some bitters). But other sodas make great mixers, too. Gin and Sprite is almost like a Tom Collins. Vodka and ginger ale is almost a Moscow Mule. And if you close your eyes, tequila and Fresca can seem downright Paloma-esque.
Hotel Room French 75
You will need a bottle of Champagne for this, but you’re on vacation right? Just go out and grab one.
Make about 1 ounce of Hotel Simple Syrup using 1 sugar packet and an equal amount of hot water. Leave it in the bottom of a glass, and squeeze 6 lemon wedges in there. Add ¾ ounce of gin (½ of a baby bottle). Stir all that with a little ice, then top it off with a few ounces of cold Champagne.