Implementing operational change is always difficult, and yet from the guest’s perspective it’s often the little touches that make the experience exceptional. In this case, why care about something as small as a new beverage offering? We point to the ‘halo effect’ where, in the guest’s mind, non-room amenities echo back onto overall property satisfaction.
This brings us to our friend, Carlo Fontana, owner and operator of the Hotel Lugano Dante in Lugano, Switzerland and its onsite Flamel Restaurant and Bar which prides itself on being at the cutting edge of bar technology. The mission at Flamel is to highlight the local Swiss tastes while elevating the concept of mixology by having every single drink component produced entirely in-house.
At the center of Flamel’s mixology tech is a BuchiRotavapor® R-300 rotary evaporator, a pharmaceutical-grade distiller, costing approximately $16,000 plus accessories. The rotary evaporator allows the restaurant to bring new flavors into its drinks by extracting the ‘soul’ of each ingredient.
Picture the Rotavapor as a modern still; it works under vacuum so that the evaporation point of each liquid occurs around room temperature. The result is that fragrances are kept intact.
While this price tag may induce sticker shock, it’s an example of pain now, profit later. The equipment costs and training were all amortized, but after that only small quantities of externally purchased bottles were required, resulting in an average internal bottle production cost of 50% versus wholesale purchases.
Following standard recipes with some experimentation, Flamel uses this equipment to make its own gins, absinths, malts and liquors. Not only is the bar team allowed to become mixologists by crafting wild new cocktails, but they are also immersed in the classical teachings of how vacuum distillation works.
Given the complexity of making literally everything from scratch, training of the five-person team is continuous and was fraught with mistakes at the program’s outset. Fontana notes, though, that this training encourages an ongoing dialogue amongst the team, distillers and other craftsmen, offering a profound bonding experience that severely curtails turnover. The process acts as a deeper form of continuing professional development by incentivizing the team to learn the technical skills of processing the raw materials into beverage ingredients.
With everything produced onsite, the only inputs are pure Swiss grain alcohol with 98% of other ingredients also from Switzerland and the remaining 2% of raw spices sourced from around the world. Besides distilling different types of citrus fruit, many of the herbs used come from the hotel’s nearby urban garden, while the team is constantly challenged to infuse unusual ingredients like jalapeño, black garlic and horseradish.
Even with this laboratory mindset, management nevertheless keeps the menu approachable with twists on classic cocktails – a negroni made from self-produced liqueurs or an old fashioned with Swiss rye whiskey and diluted with birch water. Bonus points here on the sustainability front as this push for everything local has sharply minimized food miles insofar as the procurement of exotic raw materials.
For its bar ice, Flamel uses a technique called ‘directional freezing’ where microfiltered water is put in large insulating containers, and after about 48 hours blocks of crystalline ice are formed with impurity residues at the bottom that can be separated out. Such blocks melt much more slowly and can be stored in the freezer instead of having to be thrown away every night as is the case in most cocktail bars.
Being avant-garde to the nth degree certainly generates that wow factor, but Fontana isn’t afraid to admit that it can alienate the less adventurous visitors. The key to overcoming this challenge has been to wholly embrace the concept at every touchpoint of the hotel’s messaging so that guests are aware of how different Flamel is well before they arrive. Setting this expectation ensures that the surprise always skews positive when the finished blend is served at the table.
The core philosophy here reinforces a mantra that the two of us deploy: try to appeal to everything and resonate with no one. Flamel isn’t for everyone and that’s entirely why it works.