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Pricey cocktails gaining traction at hotels

The hotel bar isn't what it used to be. Well, it's not what it used to be maybe a decade ago, but it is more likely to be what it was nearly a century ago.

"Bars were previously a holding space," said Emily Wines, the master sommelier and senior director of beverage programs at Kimpton Hotels. "We've had a shift in how we look at our bars."

Boutique hotels and even many of the big chains have invested in their bars as a way to stand out and bring in more travelers as well as locals.

(Read more: St. Regis wants all eyes on its $90 million makeover)

"Now that the economy is coming around, people are spending more on drinking as opposed to just drinking free wine at wine hour. They're coming and drinking, they're entertaining, they're coming in with a group," Wines said. "I would say it started to pick up about two years ago and within the last year we're seeing more momentum, spending more across the board at our hotels, restaurants, weddings."

Image Source | Getty Images

While the trend has been slowly building, hotel operators are very optimistic this will be a very good year for their bars.

A December report by the consulting firm Technomic showed hotel operators forecast 4.4 percent growth in their food and beverage sales in 2014. "Of the segments we track, hotel operators are among the most optimistic," said Donna Hood Crecca, the senior director for the adult beverage resource group at Technomic.

Kimpton is among the hotel chains that have invested in training for their bartenders so they are now likely to squeeze fresh juices at the bar, use dense Kold-Draft ice cubes that melt more slowly and offer drinks uniquely popular in their city.

(Read more: Get ready for a beer cocktail boom)

"We now have bars that really drive business. Mixology has really shifted the way we offer our various craft cocktails," Wines said.

In some ways, the new is merely a return to the past, said Dale DeGroff, a mixologist, author of "The Essential Cocktail" and founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail.

Before Prohibition, the hot spots for cocktail innovation were at the big-city hotels, such as the original Waldorf, The Plaza, the Hoffman House and the Knickerbocker, DeGroff said. After Prohibition, the alcohol industry was run by the gangsters and all those bartender craft skills were lost.

Degroff, the longtime head bartender at the Rainbow Room in New York, was part of the movement that worked to revive those old recipes and skills.

As fancy cocktails have gone mainstream, employee training behind the bar is crucial, said Hood Crecca.

"There are good profits to be made there, but you must have a really well run bar," she said. "It makes a huge, huge difference. When you're in a hotel industry, it's all about hospitality. They have to understand the product they're handling."

The innovation is expected to continue as the influence of Gen Y grows.

"Millennials are driving everything in adult beverages," said Hood Crecca. "They're driving pretty much all the trends."

(Read more: Younger drinkers tire of the taste of light beer)

While the millennials are the ones most likely to try a new drink, "Gen X and baby boomers have more disposable income and are extremely important in any location."

—By CNBC's Amy Langfield. Follow her on Twitter at @AmyLangfield.

Follow Road Warrior on Twitter at @CNBCtravel.

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