I’m looking through a menu and deciding if I want something with eggplant and garlic, or perhaps ramps and scallions. Maybe something with yogurt? Or something more savory with saffron and bouillabaisse? Only I’m not browsing the seasonal food menu at your favorite tapas joint in town. I’m looking at the latest cocktail concoctions from head bartender Jessica Weinstein at Hank’s Cocktail Bar in Petworth.
“I had this idea to do this ‘food production’ thing,” explains Weinstein of her new menu, set to be unveiled on June 20.
It’s more comprehensive book than small menu though, offering sections such as “food production 101” and “market fresh” to go along with the classic cocktail riffs she calls “not so classics.” As for the funky food ingredients, she thinks about what’s fresh, and she takes full advantage of the knowledge – and the produce – she can find in the kitchen.
“A lot of it is communication with Chef [Jamie Leeds],” says Weinstein. “We start figuring out the technique side from the kitchen.”
Plus, with a culinary background of her own, she also has the wherewithal to grab a handful of this or that and just make something happen based on a sauce, flavor profile or concept.
“I love to be able to go into the walkout [kitchen] and just steal everything,” Weinstein says with a laugh.
More specifically though, she looks into seasonal produce that’s available, and sees what she can get her hands on and what types of flavors could potentially play nicely with others.
“I read The Flavor Bible a lot,” she says. “It’s my favorite thing to ruminate on.”
The drink that started it all for her new menu was the Club Med, made with saffron-infused Avion tequila, coconut water, lemon, burnt sugar, Amaro Nonino and Pernod Pastis.
“That’s when I realized ‘food production 101’ had to happen, [and] I fell in love with the idea. It also felt like a fun way to interact with the back of the house, too.”
Soon there were sweet peas in the Shelling Peas is Torture, in reference to the tedious task of shelling peas that those in the kitchen know all too well, while eggplant and garlic get put to use alongside El Silencio
Mezcal in the Pass Me the Deadly Nightshade. The deviously green Scallion Stallion showcases Ilegal Mezcal handcrafted liquor, with an assortment of fresh greenery, from ramps to green onions to cilantro.
As Weinstein talks about her latest concoctions, inspirations and experiments, there’s a real giddiness and excitement behind it all. You can see the cocktail nerd wheels turning as new ideas and riffs continue to pop up – and don’t worry, that’s not only a compliment, they’re her words, not mine.
“It’s fun to come here and do some nerd stuff,” she says.
The smaller space and reduced chaos at Hank’s Cocktail Bar in Petworth affords her that opportunity, whereas the busy scene at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont was often more about meeting the demands of a
high-volume, high-pace atmosphere.
Here though, as she’s talking through her drinks, she may decide one needs extra depth and so she reaches for some sherry, while another might need a touch of salt to take it to the next level, or an aromatic drop of oil delicately placed onto its surface as a finishing touch. She’s dedicated to nailing those little details, always progressing, and continuing to move her menu forward rather than letting it get stagnant.
Perhaps the showstopper of the new menu though is the Bearnaise, served in a honey bear container.
“[It’s] the favorite nerd moment in my career,” she says.
The drink is made with Absolut Elyx vodka, orange juice, Greek yogurt, honey, tarragon and Peychaud’s, and is a deceptively creamy, sweet and refreshing choice for this time of year.
It’s fun and it’s eye-catching, but as with all the new drinks she’s creating, it’s not simply about showmanship, or wackiness purely for the sake of it. The drinks have to stand up on their own accord.
“That’s where I feel like a lot of bar managers mess up,” she says, as they pursue whatever wacky ideas they’ve dreamt up without considering if people will actually enjoy the drinks, which is the point, after all.
Of course, some creative pizzazz and flair never hurt.
“I want people to look at my drinks and know they’re mine. But there’s serious flavors there, too.”
Hank’s Cocktail Bar: 819 Upshur St. NW, DC; www.hankscocktailbar.com
Funky Ingredients & Where to Find Them
Dram & Grain
Alligator meat: The Gator Wrestlin’ & Paddle-Backs cocktail has Chartreuse infused with alligator butter. 2007 18th St. NW, DC; www.FB.com/DramandGrain/
Chapulines (grasshoppers): The Five Suns cocktail has a line of crushed chapulines resting atop the drink. 1250 9th St. NW, DC; www.espitadc.com
Hank’s Cocktail Bar
Garlic, eggplant, saffron, peas, ramps: Jessica Weinstein is relishing the opportunity to unleash her cocktail nerd with the entire new cocktail menu at Hank’s, including the Bearnaise, served in a honey bear container. 819 Upshur St. NW, DC; www.hankscocktailbar.com