Lukas B. Smith is a busy fella. The bright star on DC’s cocktail scene is simply in demand, with three posts at present: barman at rum distillery Cotton & Reed, beverage consultant at just-opened French restaurant Le DeSales and beverage codirector at Eighteenth Street Lounge’s new bar Addendum. And despite his stock rising exponentially in the past months, there’s no big head; he remains a joy to converse with.
Whether it’s diatribes about the The Fast and the Furious franchise, or the manner in which he intricately describes his thought process when approaching prospective menus, Smith maintained a gregarious candor during our interview. So if you happen to see a tall bearded gent manning the bar at Cotton & Reed, listen closely to his cocktail suggestions and be sure to ask him what he thinks about AMC Theatres’ chicken tenders. Read on to learn more about the District’s favorite cocktail concocter.
On Tap: How are things at Cotton & Reed?
Lukas B. Smith: Cotton & Reed has been a really refreshing, unexpected surprise. We’ve done better with the bar menu than we thought we would – almost 40 percent higher than our projections.
OT: How do you go about building a drink menu?
LBS: For the new pairing menu I’m doing with Le DeSales, the first thing I did was talk to the chef. I want to have a menu that makes sense. It’s all about how [the drinks] look, smell and taste. I’m a big advocate for pairing cocktails with food. That’s an attractive concept for people.
OT: How would you characterize the cocktails at Le DeSales?
LBS: I need people to have refreshing cocktails with maybe a little less alcohol. We want them to be a little wetter. I have a sour build cocktail, and I rely on herbs a lot for cocktails that I’ve made. That approach kind of infiltrates everything I do: integrating brown and white spirits, while trying to cover everything. I like all my drinks to be on the lighter side, generally, [without] a ton of sugar. You want to make sure that everyone, even folks not super into cocktails, can find something that they are going to like.
OT: How are the drinks different at Cotton & Reed?
LBS: At Cotton & Reed, the needs are a little different. There’s no food, so the difference is that I need to have a cocktail for every person that wants a cocktail: gin drinks, whiskey drinks, sweet drinks, sour drinks. I have to make those drinks as different as I can, and represent a broad range of textures and flavors. We serve 400 people on Saturdays, so you have to be able to move fast.
OT: How often do experiment with new cocktails?
LBS: New cocktails are constant. I’d say that I make new ones on a weekly basis. In a way, I’m always thinking about it. There’s classic stirred and shaken cocktails, and even some on draft. I’m developing new rum products for Cotton & Reed, and I’m working on a few different rums, so the menu skews toward those things. I need to communicate to the guests how they can use them at home.
OT: What rituals do you have to help you get into that creative mindset?
LBS: A big part of what I do is hitting the farmer’s market to see what looks good. Between that and going out to eat, a lot of my innovative cocktails are things that I stole from chefs, such as a combination in a dessert that I figured out how to make into a drink without it tasting like food. I always experiment twice a week, but always on Sunday. It’s not like I’m throwing different spirits in a glass, it’s that I’m trying to make a syrup or a bitter taste exactly like I want it. If it turns out how I want it, then I’ll drink it. Sunday is technically my day off anyway.
OT: What does a regular work day look like for you?
LBS: Today isn’t uncommon. I made piña colada mix from scratch at 6 a.m. this morning, because I had to be at Le DeSales to meet with press from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then I’ll go back to Cotton & Reed and work the night shift.
OT: What’s your favorite restaurant in DC?
LBS: The thing I crave most often and enjoy the most is ramen at Daikaya. I probably eat it more often than anything else. If I’m going to have a no-limit experience, and I’ll admit that I let it go from time to time, my roommate is a bartender at Rose’s Luxury, so I’ll go and start dinner there with the caviar service. That’s the best thing in the city. Another I enjoy is Sushi Taro. The trouble is that it’s getting harder to name them now, because of how many there are.
OT: Go-to date spot?
LBS: Probably at the Dabney; the Dabney is a little less formal. The reputation at Rose’s Luxury is so big, and it might make a date feel way bigger. At the Dabney, it’s a little more relaxed and you can eat some cornbread or some sliders, and the service is wonderful. Le Diplomate is good for that too.
OT: What kinds of movies are you into?
LBS: I have an embarrassingly thorough appreciation for crappy movies.
OT: Where’s your favorite place to catch a flick?
LBS: I spend a lot of time at the Regal at Chinatown. I’ll go see pretty much anything. I don’t care if the reviews are bad. I love bad movies. I go by myself. I just want to turn it off and enjoy. I’m shamelessly embarrassed.
OT: Are you a sports fan?
LBS: I am a college football fan, an NBA basketball fan and a baseball fan across the board. I’m from Georgia, so I root for the Braves, Hawks and Bulldogs. With how busy I get, they’re more of a distraction than a passion these days. I might have gone to see four games last year. I’m getting into hockey, and the Capitals are the only DC team I’ve really adopted.
OT: Did you play any sports growing up?
LBS: I played football and baseball young. In high school, I focused on basketball and crew, because I’m rather tall. Basketball is my passion, but I wasn’t that athletic or good at it. Before too long, I was a spectator on my own team [laughs].
OT: What music do you listen to while working?
LBS: I’m pretty eclectic with music. I’m a big rocksteady and ska person. But honestly, I’m all over the place. I like jazz when I’m working and thinking. I’m actually kind of snobby with it.
OT: What about live music? Any favorite venues?
LBS: Most of my going out time, I’m at restaurants. That’s my number one hobby. But, if I’m going to see music, I’ll go to Baltimore for that. I spend a lot of time in Baltimore. I’ve got a ton of friends up there, and it has a different vibe.
Try Smith’s cocktails at these locations:
– The ocean
– Greek literature
Can’t Live Without
– A good hat
– A jigger
– A bar spoon
– A lime
– A centigram scale
– Cotton & Reed rum