Photos: M.K. Koszycki

Behind the Bar: National Bourbon Heritage Month

Congress deemed September National Bourbon Heritage Month in 2007, and 11 years later, the nation’s capital is still celebrating one of the most American spirits each fall. The month-long occasion gives locals the perfect excuse to spend the District’s last warm days trying creative bourbon cocktails around town. We chatted with some bourbon-loving bar gurus to get you in the mood.

James Nelson BLT

BLT Steak
James Nelson, Beverage Director

On Tap: How are you using your cocktail program to celebrate National Bourbon Heritage Month?
James Nelson: In the fall, we like to do an off-the-wall bourbon cocktail, but we always have our Manhattan. It’s bourbon with chai-infused vermouth and bitters. People come to a steakhouse and like to drink Manhattans, so this is our spin on that. It gives people a chance to try something different and not out of their comfort zone.

OT: BLT is known for featuring fat-washing bourbons. What does that process entail?
JN: We’ve featured an A5 Wagyu fat-washed bourbon and a foie gras-washed bourbon. For that process, you seal it with the bourbon and whatever fat you’re using and then you cook it just under the boiling point of alcohol with an emergent circulator. That way, you’re not damaging the spirit, and raising the temperature increases extraction so you’re able to pull those flavors out more readily.

OT: Have they been popular with your customers?
JN: I know it sounds a little [strange], but it works. I think the most important thing is to have the staff behind it. If they’re excited about what we’re selling, people are more likely to try what’s being recommended to them.

OT: What ingredients do you like to experiment with in bourbon cocktails?
JN: It depends on the season. During summer, my favorite drink is the Bourbon Smash. You don’t think of bourbon drinks as summer drinks [until] you add things like our house-made huckleberry syrup, lemon and mint – all fresh and vibrant flavors – and a lighter bourbon.


This Ginger Is The Peach
Simple syrup
Ginger beer
Peach jam

BLT Steak: 1625 I St. NW, DC;

Brian Nixon 2

Truxton Inn
Brian Nixon, General Manager and Bartender

On Tap: How are you celebrating National Bourbon Heritage Month?
Brian Nixon: We’ll be getting our barrel of Old Forester bourbon that we just picked out down in Louisville last week, so we’re going to do something fun with that. We’re going to do a big release party as well.

OT: You have quite a few bourbon drinks featured on your menu now. Do you prefer working within bourbon-based cocktails?
BN: I like to see what our guests like, and a lot of guests currently gravitate toward bourbon. It’s one of those things that’s in now, and that’s a great thing. It is such an American spirit, and there’s such a wide variety of cool drinks out there right now.

OT: How do you keep your bourbon cocktails creative?
BN: We have a lot of fun with a lot of different spirits. We’re always playing with different things. We’ve got a rye cocktail that’s been doing really well here, which has a really cool herbal bitter that’s made by monks with Angostura amaro and some chocolate bitters. It’s just super fun and delicious, and people have been really digging it.

OT: Have any ingredients you’ve experimented with surprised you?
BN: I’m always surprised by how things work. Our [drink made] with Cynar is really cool. I did one with pamplemousse and it came out kind of awesome. [With] a Gold Rush, you’ve got lemon, honey and bourbon, and it’s a similar cocktail [when made with] grapefruit, which for some reason is one of those things that totally works.

OT: What’s your favorite drink on the menu right now?
BN: We’ve got the Horizontal Mambo, which is a tiki drink. That’s my go-to right now.


The Skipper
Old Forester Bourbon
Simple syrup

Truxton Inn: 251 Florida Ave. NW, DC;

Frankie Jones 2

The Occidental
Frankie Jones, Bar Manager and Mixologist

On Tap: The Occidental serves more traditional fare, but your cocktail program is experimental. How does the program highlight the food menu?
Frankie Jones: We’ve been delving into the history of the restaurant with the cocktails and the food. We will be 112 this year, so there’s a lot of history there. Our chef has started going back to that time period and reinventing and reinvigorating items that were on the menu or from that time period. With the cocktails, a lot of the names and mixing of the spirits goes back to historic events that have happened here. We try to not overcomplicate anything, and we let the products speak for themselves.

OT: What are some lesser-known ingredients that lend themselves well to bourbon drinks?
FJ: I like to add other liquors like tequila and gin. There’s a classic cocktail called the Suffering Bastard, and it has bourbon and gin in it. I think [it’s important to] not just limit it to being the spirit on its own, but open it up to playing around and pulling out all the flavors in bourbon. Bourbon itself is not a flavor, it’s comprised of many different ones that occur in the aging process.

OT: What’s your go-to drink for someone who is unfamiliar with bourbon but wants to give it a try?
FJ: I would choose a bourbon sour, because you still get that bourbon flavor but it’s tart and tangy. I like to make them the traditional way with egg whites, so it’s even a little bit creamy. It’s a very easy way to be introduced to bourbon.

OT: What sets your drink menu apart from other DC spots?
FJ: The simplification of the cocktails themselves. I love all the crazy things that bartenders in the city are doing, but what I really like are simple drinks. Simple, approachable drinks with complex flavors. The main focus here is keeping it simple, clean and to the point.

Occidental 3

The Senators
Jefferson’s Bourbon
Dolin Blanc Vermouth
Aromatic bitters
Carpano Antica

The Occidental: 1475 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC;

M.K. Koszycki

M.K.'s entire life revolves around music, whether it be scouring Twitter for the band of the moment or catching a live show at one of DC's many venues. When she's not at a gig, find her hanging out with her golden retriever, drinking beer with friends or re-watching Twin Peaks for the hundredth time.