Photos: Kayla Marsh

Behind The Bar: December 2017

Ready to break tradition this holiday season and switch up your seasonal selection of libations? We sought out some of the most unique cocktail bars in and around the city to see what they’re concocting this winter. Whether you want to sip boozy ramen in a basement speakeasy below Sugar Shack Donuts, have your cocktails served to you through a vintage confessional or explore Balkan-inspired concoctions in a swanky cocktail lounge, these three spots are guaranteed to provide a one-of-a-kind experience.

Nocturne 1

Chris Jakubowski
Bar Manager, Nocturne

On Tap: What’s the advantage to having a small, intimate atmosphere at your bar?
Chris Jakubowski: You have a lot of time to really get to know every guest and convince them to take chances they might not otherwise want to take. It allows us to make complex things and actually have the time to explain what we’re doing so people can fully appreciate what they’re drinking.

OT: What are some off-the-beaten-path ingredients on your menu?
CJ: Everything has something fun in it. The [Bubblegum Crisis] is a jackfruit cocktail with a Wrigley’s double mint gum flavor, and we add a bit of sake to it. The [Penny McIntosh] has pigeonwing tea, which is a color-changing ingredient. Everything has something fun and unique in it. The menu is just a way to explore different flavors in liquid form.

OT: Why do you think locals are drawn to speakeasy-style spots like Nocturne?
CJ: It’s the idea of discovery. It’s kind of cool to grab the key and find your way to the back of Sugar Shack and onto the elevator, then come down and you’re in this coffee-stained vintage place where we play classical music outside. You really get that vibe coming off of the elevator that it’s going to be a little bit more refined – a quiet, Parisian nighttime street scene. It’s all about that progression. You’re finally in Nocturne and you’ve had so much sensory overload at this point; it’s like you’ve finally arrived.

Pictured above

Chris J’s Pick
Rob Hates This
Blue cheese

Nocturne: 1932 9th St. NW, DC;

Church and State 1 (Chris Pearson, Bar Manager)

Chris Pearson and Ron Baker
Bar Manager and Managing Partner, Church and State

On Tap: What’s popular on the menu this season?
Chris Pearson: The Devilish Daquiri is one of the most popular ones. Old Fashions are the staple. [There’s] no muddling involved; we let the taste of the bourbon come through.

OT: How would you describe Church and State’s atmosphere?
Ron Baker: The vibe is mellow, and there’s a heavy focus on conversation and the quality cocktail that’s in front of you. What we’ll hear from patrons usually is, “This is classy.” It sets the tone right when you hit that doorway. We play jazz and eclectic world tunes. People will come with out-of-town friends and they’re like, “Look at this cool bar in my neighborhood.” They’re proud of it.

OT: What makes Church and State’s cocktails unique?
RB: One of the unique components of us is that we are all-American. We want to maintain our role in the evolution of craft cocktails in DC. We provide quality ingredients; our rail is top-shelf.

OT: What do you love about bartending at Church and State?
CP: My favorite part is creating cocktails and seeing if people will like [them]. There’s more of a creative challenge only using American products, so we don’t get any of those crazy liqueurs; [it’s] more of a grassroots way of making cocktails. We have to figure out how to make that ingredient and include it in the cocktail.

Church and State 2

Chris P’s Pick
The Color of 45
American amari
Calisaya liqueur
Orange peel

Church and State: 1236 H St. NE, DC;

Baba 1

Danilo Simic
Beverage Director, Baba

On Tap: Why was Baba opened underneath Ambar?

Danilo Simic: We wanted to bring a New York-style cocktail bar in[to] this setup; a cozy place where you can sit by the fireplace, be comfortable and enjoy.

OT: Do the drinks have Balkan influences similar to the cuisine?
DS: Upstairs is Balkan food that is followed by Balkan cocktails, and downstairs we wanted a focus on Balkan cocktails followed by Balkan cuisine. The idea of the Balkan cocktails revolves around house-made brandy, which is extremely popular and traditional. Thirty to 40 percent of cocktails are made with Balkan brandy, and 60 to 70 percent are made with whiskey, gin, tequila, etc.

OT: What’s the funkiest drink on the menu right now?
DS: If I had to pick, Malas Palabras (pineapple-infused mezcal, house amaro, orgeat syrup and lime juice). It’s tropical [and] smoky with citrus notes and a bittersweet finish. It’s the most complex drink on the list.

OT: Any new winter drinks on the menu?
DS: We’re adding three more cocktails. One will be an Irish coffee; we are also a coffee bar during the day, [and] lots of people ask for it in this neighborhood. It’s the simplest thing: Irish whiskey, brown sugar, black roasted coffee [and] heavy cream.

Baba 2

Danilo’s Pick

Balkan Hot Toddy
Slivovitz Rakia
Scotch whiskey
Lemon juice
Star anise
Lemon essence
Hot water

Baba: 2901 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA;


Kayla Marsh

Kayla grew up in Falls Church and graduated from JMU in May 2016 with a major in media arts and design. She was an editor for two student-produced publications in addition to studying Spanish, Italian and American Sign Language. She has Harrisonburg's incredible food scene to thank for her beer and food obsessions. You can find her singing in traffic, eating tacos or live tweeting The Bachelor.