Shake it Up
Seattle’s Mayflower Park Hotel has turned a one-shot Martini promo into a widely-anticipated international event.
By Cynthia Nims
What started out seven years ago as a friendly competition has become a stellar and successful annual bar promotion.
Marc Nowak, the general manager of Seattle’s Mayflower Park Hotel at the time, knew that his bartenders made a pretty good Martini, but a restaurant bar only blocks away had been claiming for years to have “Seattle’s Best Martini.” This was not just a subtle assertion; the bar shouted the claim in bright neon from their window on Pine Street, a main thoroughfare across downtown. So Nowack invited Bar X (name changed to protect the guilty) to join in a shake-off to see who really poured the city’s best Martinis.
But Bar X didn’t want to play, perhaps worried they might be forced to remove that neon sign. So Nowack invited three other top watering holes in town to participate in an amiable Martini challenge to settle who made the best. Now, seven years later, the Martini Classic Challenge has become a highly anticipated event each year in the Seattle bar business.
Oh, and that other place still has its neon sign. But many Seattle-ites have come to believe as a result of the competitions that the city’s best Martinis are poured at the Mayflower Park Hotel’s popular bar, Oliver’s, the long-standing winner in the “Classic Martini” category of the contest.
DRINKLESS IN SEATTLE
In February of 1999, the event moved onto the international scene, adding a tour of four Martini spots in Vancouver, B.C. to the mix. The Hotel Vancouver was a co-sponsor this year, hosting pre- and post-functions at the hotel, as well as rooms for the judges and VIPs, somewhat echoing the role of the Mayflower Park. Hotel Vancouver’s Cate Simpson agrees that the higher profile participation benefits the host hotel, with emphasized exposure and press coverage.
Pat Boyd, F&B director for the Mayflower, explains that to take part, each participating restaurant contributes about $500 to a general fund for the “Martini Challenge” each year. The financial pot helps cover only a small portion of the expenses, which include bus transportation between locations, photography, design and printing of invitations, awards given to winners, the gala finale reception and hotel rooms for judges and VIPs. Ultimately, it’s up to the Mayflower to underwrite the event, and they spent about $18,000 for this year’s challenge, the first international version. Previous Seattle-only challenges cost closer to $10,000.
But Boyd’s quick to add that given the year-round reputation that Oliver’s has garnered as a Seattle Martini destination that “There’s a strong feeling that [the challenge] pays off considerably for us.” It is the largest event the hotel hosts each year, and they can only guess at any incremental benefits for all elements of the hotel–room rentals, business at their restaurant Andaluca, group sales–from the annual event.
Although there is a good dose of fun and festivity surrounding the challenge, the basic premise is taken seriously by the organizers and most competitors, and carried out with great care. This year’s panel of judges totaled nine: four each from Seattle and Vancouver (local food journalists and media personalities). Kate Krader, senior food editor of Food & Wine magazine, was this year’s out-of-towner.
The event gets varying levels of local media attention each year and local publications invariably mention the challenge in their calendar of events, but the organizers don’t take out paid ads of any kind. Some years, there might be during- or post-event stories done by local news programs.
Checking the shade of their Martinis, two of the judges at this year’s Martini Challenge pace themselves through the night.
“We are very fortunate that this event draws a lot of press without us spending tons on advertising,” says the Mayflower’s Stacia Williams. While they feed the local media press releases from October until the event, Williams figures the bulk of the coverage is a result of recruiting media figures as judges. “Having eight very well-known contenders, sending out press releases and with many judges from the media, the event gets noticed.”
Because of the amount of local attention, word has spread; the Mayflower gets calls throughout the year for interviews on cocktails and other beverage-related topics, and they’ve been mentioned in some Martini books, including. In all, Pat Boyd estimates that the challenge has brought them coverage in 25-30 publications.
The general public does seem to flock mostly to their favorite bar/competitor the evening of the event, and they sometimes tag along to the final round at the Mayflower. Often, it happens that the four competing bars have been close enough so that observers can walk or take brief cab rides between.
The 1999 International Martini Challenge began in Vancouver, B.C. at the Hotel Vancouver. The “Martini express” (a regular bus any other day) carted the group between the four participating restaurants/bars: Delilah’s, Joe Fortes, Gerard Lounge at the Sutton Place Hotel, and 900 West Wine Bar at the Hotel Vancouver. At each stop the judges were seated at the bar and served first a classic Martini, followed by the participating bartender’s specialty Martini (almost any creation using vodka and/or gin as a base and served in a Martini glass), and food designed to be served with Martinis. The VIP crowd mills about behind the panel, sipping from sample Martinis served while the judges are busy sipping and scoring.
The following evening, the tour was repeated in Seattle, with the bus making stops at the Metropolitan Grill, the Garden Court at the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel, Stars Bar & Dining (opened last fall by Jeremiah Tower), and wrapping up at Oliver’s in the Mayflower Park Hotel.
Among highlights of the weekend were the “pyramid pour” at Joe Fortes in Vancouver, B.C. A three-level pyramid of Martini glasses, destined for serving their “Stargazer” specialty Martini (Finlandia Vodka, creme de cassis, Cointreau) came crashing down on the first attempt, but was a rousing success on the second try. As we left for our next destination, a manager quipped that the drink had been renamed the “Falling Stargazer.”
There was more drama later that evening, with 900 West’s “After the Frost” specialty Martini. Foot-tall ice carvings of Martini glasses served as the base, to which dry ice was added before perching the stemless Martini glass carefully above.
But drama and show aside, it’s the classic Martini that is the true test, much like a really great but simple omelet shows the finesse of a fine chef. When the ingredients are few and the recipe a standard, that’s when the seasoned bartenders rise to the top of the crowd. Oliver’s has dubbed their classic Martini “The Ultimate Chill,” and it’s proof that guests can always count on an icy Martini there.
Both host hotels offer special rates to the general public interested in following the Martini challenge trail. And the Mayflower Park has a year-round package called the Martini Weekend, which includes two Martinis at Oliver’s (plus dinner for two), further emphasizing their role as Seattle’s Martini headquarters.
Their clever marketing angle for this hotel package possibly sums up why people in Seattle and Vancouver so love their Martinis: no matter how gray and wet it is outside, you can always slip off those wet clothes and into a dry Martini. Let it rain. And make mine gin.
Cynthia Nims recently was named food editor ofSeattle magazine and has been known to embark on Martini tours of her own.
Awards were given for top scores in each city, with final “International” awards given to the overall top score in each category (denoted by *).
Classic: Gerard Lounge (Bombay Sapphire)
*Specialty: “After the Frost,” at 900 West (equal parts Finlandia Vodka or Bombay Gin and Mission Hill Grand Reserve Ice Wine, with a splash of Calvados)
(Bombay Sapphire or Stolichnaya Cristal)
Specialty (tie): “Paradigm Shift” at Oliver’s (Texas Ruby Red grapefruit juice, Campari, housemade raspberry/lemon/lime sour mix, Rain Vodka and Bombay Gin) and “Millennium Martini” at The Metropolitan Grill (Meyer lemon-infused Absolut Vodka and Columbia Crest Ice Wine, with a splash of Boodles Gin)