As the rest of his campaign desperately tries to keep Utah’s electoral votes from falling into the wrong hands, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump was in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. You might remember this as the venue for Trump’s last hotel promotion-slash-birtherism event ― the one that got full coverage on cable news and featured a collapsing stage evidently rush-delivered from the metaphor store.
The cable news cameras stayed away this time, but as Trump is ostensibly still running for president and Election Day is less than two weeks away, a few reporters were obligated to attend this latest example of Trump’s mixed-up priorities. One of them was The Daily Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi, who is at her sly and savage best as she sets the scene for this ribbon-cutting.
There’s a lot to absorb, but I can’t stop thinking about this hotel’s cocktail bar, which seems to violate a number of conventions, perhaps even some of the Geneva ones. Per Nuzzi:
The bar at the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, Benjamin’s Bar and Lounge, is a sprawling space with high ceilings, few customers and too-sweet cocktails that go for $20 to $100, the most expensive being the bar’s namesake, a concoction of rye, potato and winter wheat vodka, shaken and served with raw oysters and caviar. There is also, inexplicably, a section of the menu called BY THE CRYSTAL SPOON that offers literal spoonfuls of wine for anywhere from $15 to $140.
Let me just tastefully arrange some exclamation points and question marks really quick:
Nuzzi also tweeted a photo of this bar’s cocktail menu.
Holy cats, you guys! That is some hot nonsense, right there. Look at those prices! What would have to happen for you to pay $24 for a finger of bourbon, a gloop of honey and a couple dashes of orange bitters? I would need a few questions answered before I paid that much for a half-assed Old Fashioned. Questions like: “Did Kentucky just get nuked from space, causing a supply shock, and nobody told me?”
Who on earth would pay $100 for whatever is being done to Benjamin Franklin’s good name on that first item? It’s vodka and rye and potato and raw oysters and caviar? What? How? Why? Hop in a cab, go up to Eat The Rich and you can have a shot of rye and a shot of vodka and a bunch of raw oysters for much less than $100. If you’re willing to forgo the caviar, you can even tell everyone that you’ve “deconstructed the Benjamin.” Now you a fancy molecular gastronomist, bruh!
Not everything on this menu is terrible. In the privacy of my own home I might try this “Rocking Chair” thing. I am guessing that Trump’s bartenders are simply rinsing the glass with the Laphroaig to give it some smoke, but advertising it in such a way that it sounds like you’re getting your money’s worth of decent scotch, because how else would you justify a $20 charge on a peat-smoked glass of rum and honey and lime juice?
That “Please Sign Here” cocktail, with the mezcal and aperol, is a solid drink, but I liked it even better when it was called the “Naked And Famous” and it was created by Joaquin Simó of New York City’s iconic Death & Company bar ― who will typically sell you drinks mixed by professionals for about $15. Unless you can confirm that the mezcal was hand-bottled from the personal secretions of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, do not pay $20 for this drink.
I was talking, a few hours ago, to a certain bartender I’m lucky to know. Her take:
I can’t decide what upsets me the most about this. Is it the recipes? Is it the random capitalization? Is it the terrible names? Is it the venue? Aw, it’s all of it. I would like to suggest adding the following cocktail: “Bitter Tears of Regret.” 1 part Malort, 1 part Root, 1 part Rumchata, absinthe rinse. Garnish with Hemlock.
Really, by any metric, this place is absurd. Did you know during the Sept. 26 presidential debate, this bar sold hummus for $29? One order was supposedly enough for six people, but still: You would literally have to not know what hummus was to agree to pay that much.
As The Huffington Post’s Travis Waldron reported at the time, the hotel bar was also offering a debate-night drink special that entailed you paying $100 to essentially drink all the Budweiser you could get down your gullet in three hours. As getting your money’s worth would involve slamming back a beer every 12 minutes, it was the perfect deal if you wanted to watch a presidential debate and then get rushed to a hospital and/or a recovery program immediately afterward. (To be fair, that’s what a lot of people wanted to do after that debate.)
Why is this cocktail bar so insane? Well, probably because Trump is going to have to go to some great lengths to recoup the investment he’s made in this hotel. As Fortune’s Jennifer Wang reports, when the General Services Administration first made the property available for redevelopment, Trump won the right to refurbish Washington’s iconic Old Post Office by sensationally overbidding his rivals. By doing so, he might have created a financial hole for himself that’s too deep to dig out of:
Soon after, rival bidders complained to the GSA, alleging that Trump’s promise to spend up to $200 million on renovations (reportedly $60 million higher than competing bids) and pay $3 million in yearly rent is financially unfeasible. “A properly conducted price reasonableness analysis would have resulted in the conclusion that the minimum base lease proposed by Trump would require Trump to obtain hotel room revenues which are simply not obtainable in this location based on the concepts for the redevelopment,” read a Hilton team lawyer’s letter to the GSA.
Trump’s checkered financial history, marred by numerous corporate bankruptcies, was also questioned. Colony Capital, a private investment firm that was a partner in the initial bid, eventually bowed out of the project, citing that the timeline had become too long for the firm. To finance the renovations, Trump took out a $170 million credit line at Deutsche Bank (his camp says he only drew down $125 million of that credit line); Trump reportedly spent an additional $40 million from his own accounts.
Since then, Trump has faced numerous setbacks, some of them self-inflicted. As Wang reports, Trump’s anti-immigrant positions so repulsed Jose Andres and Geoffrey Zakarian, the chefs who’d agreed to open restaurants at the hotel, that they subsequently backed out of the deal. (Litigation is pending.) Trump got another restaurateur to take one of the spaces, in a contract less favorable to Trump than his original deals. The other space is being transformed into about 5,000 or 6,000 square feet of conference space ― which will only generate revenue if the 30,000-some-odd square feet of conference facilities that were already there are filled.
Wang also reports that Trump has not been able to rent his hotel rooms at the preferred rate, instead having to offer them at “heavily discounted prices,” which a Trump spokesperson puts down to simple market fluctuations. But, there is a but!
In the days leading up to the World Bank-IMF’s October meetings in D.C., the property reportedly offered discounted room rates, while other five star hotels in the downtown area were fully booked out. Currently, rooms at The Four Seasons Hotel ― which Trump’s camp has compared his property to ― start at $775 per night for a Oct. 27th booking, while prices at the Trump hotel start at $404 per night. The nearby St. Regis, another historical landmark close to the White House, charges $565 and up per night.
When you add Trump’s need to recoup this investment to the revenue shortfalls he’s already faced, it makes sense that you’d see this sort of shakedown happening at the cocktail bar. Everything really might depend on convincing people to order spoonfuls of wine and insanely marked-up mixed drinks (which range from quotidian to fussy to unnecessary) on a regular basis. Who knows? Maybe there are enough people willing to pay $20 for a confused Kir Royale thingy that can’t decide if it should have pear liqueur or Chambord, so now it has both.
Look: If you are coming to D.C. and want to drop some major scratch on cocktails, please take my advice and go to Copycat, or the Passenger, or Southern Efficiency, or the Columbia Room, or Denson’s, or literally anywhere else.
And if you ever find yourself thinking you might just spend $100 to drink 15 Budweisers in 180 minutes, please, find someone to talk to. Your life is too precious.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.
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