D.C.’s Cocktail Scene has a fresh new look.
Story by Sarah Karnasiewicz
Photo by Ryan Donnell
Washington, D.C., has always had a taste for the strong stuff: To this day it holds the nation’s title as the state with the highest alcohol consumption per capita—even leading profligate Nevada. Still, despite the city’s affinity for imbibing and its worldly citizenry, in many ways D.C.’s drinking culture has remained much the same over the past century, dominated by white-collar power brokers whose tastes in cocktails ran as conservative as the cut of their suits.
But since the turn of the new millennium, an influx of students, young creatives, and culturally minded professionals has transformed neighborhoods like the U Street Corridor, Logan Circle and Penn Quarter into trendy shopping and dining destinations. Talented chefs have revitalized local palates, helping establish the city on the international food scene, and now a collaborative ethos of experimentation has invigorated the city’s bar culture, where housemade ingredients and hand-carved ice are becoming de riguer. “There’s a real enthusiasm in town—a feeling of being a part of something exciting and still nascent,” says Derek Brown, a sommelier, bartender and spirits consultant who, through his work at spots like Komi, has played an integral role in the city’s cocktail renaissance. “It used to be that when someone came into a bar, the same three drinks were always mentioned. But every day that’s changing.”
A founder of the D.C. Craft Bartender’s Guild, which was established in 2008 as a social and educational club for the District’s most serious bartenders, Brown is a spirited tour guide for his city and its cocktail scene. “The American cocktail revival may have been led by New York and San Francisco, but D.C. is perfectly primed for it,” he says. “After all, we’re one-tenth the population of New York. But D.C. is international, and we’re by and large very well educated. Basically, we’re a city of geeks.”
To the delight of the District’s resident history buffs, many of D.C.’s newest cocktail landmarks share a sensibility with the pre-Prohibition model popularized by pioneers like Milk & Honey in New York. In shades of burgundy upholstery, tooled leather and burnished wood, these cocktail dens combine a plush, Neo-Victorian luxury with the incognito style of a speakeasy.
When The Gibson, a cozy, U-Street-corridor cocktail spot run by restaurateur and local music producer Eric Hilton, opened its unmarked door in 2008, it was among the first of its kind in the District, with a menu that was respectful of the classics but with some creative twists. The bar’s list, categorized by spirit, features standards alongside playful variations, like a Brunswick Sour made with white rum, lime and gilded with a bright Merlot float. An appealing roster of old-fashioned punches also come ready for sharing, portioned out with silver ladles from pedestaled bowls that gleam like crystal balls in the candlelight.
Striking a balance between neighborhood watering hole and upscale drinking den is a delicate task, but The Passenger is spot-on. The latest venture by Derek Brown and his brother Tom, The Passenger is set in the rambling remains of an old hardware store on the fringes of a Midcity neighborhood better known for raucous juke joints and storefront evangelists. It captures a laid-back feel with straightforward cocktails, canned beer and ball-park franks, though the drinks are all bartender’s choice, the beer is micro-brewed and the locally made dogs are sourced from the farmers market and topped with homemade slaw and kimchi.
But The Passenger also happens to secretly house a bespoke cocktail sanctuary in a space that was once a storage closet. That refuge—a reservations-only, 18-seat club called The Columbia Room—might share the same front door and street address with The Passenger, but step inside the hushed and glowing anteroom and you feel a sense of calm overtake you as the frenetic pace of the outside world is shut out. Brown has called the space an homage to the meticulous cocktail bars he studied while visiting Japan, and there is certainly a spa-like tranquility to the clean lines of the modern (yet comfortable) furniture, the quiet music and simple botantical-themed décor.
One part omakase bar and one part mixology magic show, it’s a concept that could easily veer toward the pretentious, but Brown tiptoes the line masterfully. Guests sample a flight of amuse bouche by chef Javier Duran and three cocktails by Brown, tailored to the season and the patron’s tastes. Meander from a glass of Champagne to a cool gin and cucumber soup onto a tart Taiwanese Girl—a mix of gin, Yellow Chartreuse, lemon bitters and grapefruit that glows in a coupe. “This isn’t the intimacy of being pressed up against a bar with the rest of the crowd,” says Brown. “It’s the real thing.”
For decades the D.C. food scene has been gathering steam, sloughing off its meat and potatoes past and emerging as a world-class culinary playground with the help of star chefs like Michel Richard and José Andrés. So, it’s little surprise that some of the city’s best bars are situated right beside those top-notch kitchens.
Proof, a brick charmer on the fringes of the Penn Quarter, earned a following through its delicious, well-priced seasonal cuisine and sprawling, international wine list. But last summer bartender Adam Bernbach—who’d previously made waves with his housemade syrups and bitters and carefully crafted drink menus at PS7’s and Bar Pilar—signed on as the restaurant’s bar manager and immediately set to work creating a uniquely food-friendly cocktail menu. Thoughtfully categorized by course, it’s designed to help diners easily decode which aperitif will pair best with their grilled eggplant, or whether bourbon will make a good mate for their duck breast.
“People love the drinks, but in Washington, food is still what brings them in the door,” says Gina Chersevani, the bubbly mastermind behind the market-driven bar at PS7’s, a swanky New American restaurant on the fringes of Chinatown. Chersevani blends teas, pickles her own produce and preserves seasonal berries, and many of these ingredients find their way into the bar’s tasting menu: a limited-seating, symbiotic, seven-course extravaganza of cocktails and small plates that she and chef Peter Smith have devised to complement and enhance each other’s work. Past highlights have included Chersevani’s Smoked Tomato Jameson Bloody Mary paired with grilled cheese and—for the annual cherry blossom festival—smoked pork belly with a savory cherry sauce paired with her Don’t Mess With My Tutu, a blend of Combier Rouge, gin and lemon juice garnished with a smoked cherry cotton candy. But the selections change constantly, according to the seasons and Chersevani’s inspirations. “Don’t get me wrong—I love historic cocktails and Kold Draft ice, but I don’t feel bound to any orthodoxy. Chef has his tools and I have mine,” she says. “This bar is my spice rack.”
Arguably no restaurateur in the city has done more to encourage that experimentation than José Andrés, the avant garde Spanish chef behind D.C. landmarks Café Atlantico and Minibar. Taking a cue from his mentor Ferran Adrià, Andrés introduced molecular gastronomy to D.C., and that showmanship spilled over to his bars. Owen Thomson, head bartender at Café Atlantico and president of the D.C. Craft Bartender’s Guild, draws on vintage cocktail manuals but lightens his menu with whimsical touches like a Smoke and Fog cocktail that’s inspired by chemistry lessons gleaned from his colleagues in the kitchen. Instead of floating sherry on top, as with a traditional Fog Cutter, he uses liquid nitrogen to turn the sherry float into actual fog. Still, for Thomson, there’s showmanship in simplicity too, like his Farm to Glass special, a recipe that changes weekly during the summer according to the ingredients he finds at the farmers market.
In nearby Alexandria, Va., locals have Todd Thrasher, bartender at the understated speakeasy-style PX (and another alumnus of Atlantico), to thank for bringing a dose of the District’s cocktail sensibility across the Potomac. Thrasher—who also collaborates with chef Cathal Armstrong to design the cocktail concepts at Restaurant Eve—might pepper his menu with techniques learned under Andrés, but ultimately his cocktails remain rooted in honest, flavor-driven ingredients like heirloom tomato water, tobacco syrup, pickled peaches and housemade tonic water.
In Georgetown, Jon Arroyo, beverage director for Farmers & Fishers (and its sister restaurant downtown, Founding Farmers) also combines high-concept culinary training with ingredient-driven inspiration. Working from the concept that the nation’s early farmers were also among the country’s first distillers, Arroyo and his team have constructed a large but accessible drink list using local produce and small-batch craft spirits. The menu stretches from standards, such as the Sazerac, to updates like the Señor Arroyo made with jalapeños, pineapple and tequila, and the Farmer Jon, a sweet and smoky citrus highball made with the restaurant’s private reserve of cherry- and applewood-smoked rye from local Wasmund’s distillery in Sperryville, Virginia.
From international diplomats to campaigning politicos, Washington has always been a city of well-heeled transients. That’s why, before there were nouveau speakeasies and high-concept kitchen cocktails, there were grand old hotels with grand old bars. Those institutions had geography going for them: Two of the oldest and still greatest, the Off the Record Bar in the basement of the Hay Adams and the Round Robin Bar at the Willard InterContinental, lie more or less in the backyard of the White House. But even now, their drinks—mostly classics—are also sterling works of professionalism and trend-resistant style, wrapped up in an ambience that still offers unsurpassed people-watching and glamour.
If straight whisky is your thing, head to The Scotch Bar, an offshoot within the Round Robin that offers more than 100 scotches by the glass and the flight, plus a small selection of cocktails like the Silver Bullet, which blends gin and scotch.
Just down the street sits the historic Hotel Washington, a massive Italian Revival masterpiece that was built in 1917 and over the 20th century hosted some of the city’s most illustrious visitors, from Duke Ellington to Elvis. In 2009 it got a makeover as the W Washington D.C., the centerpiece of which is a stunning rooftop lounge called P.O.V, which boasts 180-degree views of the White House (the East Wing is a mere block away), the Lincoln Memorial, the Pentagon, the Washington Monument and Arlington National Cemetery. The sleek décor (armchairs lacquered in bold reds and blacks) and well-crafted cocktails are every bit as impressive as the vistas, thanks to a bar menu designed by New York bartender Sasha Petraske. You’ll find seasonal specials alongside studious classics, like a potent Dark and Stormy mixed from fresh ingredients (the staff runs through 80 pounds of fresh ginger root every weekend) and served with hand-chiseled ice. Since opening last summer, P.O.V. has quickly become a favorite cocktail stop, but that means reservations are highly recommended.
If leather armchairs and fireside chats are more your speed, head to the bar at The Tabard Inn—the oldest continually operating lodge in D.C.—where chief bartender Chantal Tseng mixes creative, historically minded cocktails in a wood-paneled room lined with stained glass and stuffed with an assortment of curving couches, faded oriental rugs and oil paintings that seem torn straight from the pages of a Victorian novel. On a cool autumn evening, you’d be hard pressed to find a more appealing seat in town: relax under the world’s only known portrait of George Washington without his wig and sip a Mortal Sunset, a mix of rye whiskey, Cynar and black tea maple syrup. Or try the eponymous Tabard cocktail, a potent mix of reposado tequila, amontillado sherry, Drambuie, orange bitters and fresh thyme.
Tseng brings a storyteller’s sensibility to her work, drawing inspiration from history and the Golden Age of hotel bartenders who went before her, like the globe-trotting Charles H. Baker Jr. Case in point: The Chrysanthemum, a light, springtime sip that combines French vermouth, Benedictine, absinthe and orange, and whose origins Tseng traced to a 1930s ocean liner, the S.S. Europe. Like the rest of the cocktails she loves—and the city she serves—the results are charming mix of old and new, rough and refined.
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