1940s Cocktail Menu Invites You to Sip the Past

New Hotel Mertens brings forgotten cocktails back with 1940s replica menu.

When New Hotel Mertens owner Anthony Tangorra was doing research on the history of the Mertens Hotel, which dates back to 1914, he made a surprising discovery – he came across an original cocktail menu from the hotel’s 1940s era.

The menu Tangorra found is part of the Thomas R. and Debra C. Dilley historical collection at the Grand Rapids Public Library. “I had been researching the history of New Hotel Mertens for months before finding the menu.”

Tangorra said he was surprised by how “relevant the cocktails are to modern tastes,” yet he also acknowledged that many of them were unique and offered something that “cannot be found at the usual craft cocktail bar.”

“When our bar manager Kelsey Dietz and I researched what seemed to be an obscure cocktail like the Bronx, it turned out that it was in the top five of most popular cocktails in the world in the first half of the 20th century,” he said.

Tangorra wanted to bring these forgotten cocktails back to life for another generation.

To recreate the cocktail menu, Tangorra said he and Dietz set out in search of bars still pouring the historic cocktails or they figured out how to build the drinks from scratch.

“The original list gave Kelsey a blueprint via its listing of ingredients, but no mention of the portions or methods of building the cocktails,” he explained.

Tangorra and Dietz have recreated the historic cocktail menu in nearly its entirety and the pair are eager for guests to give the drinks a taste.

“We are so pleased to be able to retell the story of New Hotel Mertens via the cocktail list, the way we renovated the space, and the little things like the matchbooks and postcards that we have replicated from nearly a century ago,” he said.

Tangorra said while there are over 40 cocktails to try, he recommends customers try the cocktails containing egg whites.

“From a cocktail ingredient standpoint it is clear that raw eggs were a primary ingredient at that time—that’s the egg white and the egg yolk. Raw eggs have made a strong comeback since the turn of this century and this menu might represent a near perfect example of how the ‘new trend’ of the use of eggs in cocktails is simply a repeat of a trend from many decades ago,” he said.

He also suggested doing a comparison – ordering cocktails with and without egg whites to see the differences.

“We suggest that a couple order the same cocktail, such as the Whiskey Sour, with and without egg to compare and contrast the differences.”

Customers can also enjoy cocktails unique to the hotel including the Grand Rapids Fizz and the Mertens Hotel Fizz.

While the historic cocktail menu will be a staple at New Hotel Mertens, during the month of January visitors have an added incentive to give these drinks a try. New Hotel Mertens pledged to donate $1 from every cocktail sold during the month from its historic cocktail menu to the Grand Rapids Historical Commission.

Tangorra sees the cocktail list as an important element of connecting New Hotel Mertens to its past.

“We will hold onto the cocktail list tightly because it is perhaps our best way for us to directly connect the people and customs of 21st century Grand Rapids to the people of Grand Rapids in the first half of the 20th century,” Tangorra said.

New Hotel Mertens is located at 35 Oakes St. SW.

*Photo courtesy of New Hotel Mertens (From left to right: the Cuban Libre (better known as a Cuba Libre), the Stinger which features a green maraschino cherry, Whiskey Sour with egg, the Big Apple, and the Coffee.

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