Posts

The Imperial Gin and Tonic // Photo: Rey Lopez

Behind The Bar With The Imperial’s Andy Bixby

Since its long-awaited opening in November, The Imperial in Adams Morgan has quickly become a destination for cocktail enthusiasts buzzing about the funky ingredients and collection of rare bottles and vintages. Bridging together multiple historic buildings, the highly anticipated three-level concept from Jack Rose owners Bill Thomas and Stephen King has become a multi-floor playground of sorts for beverage director Andy Bixby.

He’s able to let loose in the basement of The Imperial, where neighboring Jack Rose’s cocktail bar Dram & Grain has relocated to provide an outlet for offbeat and unconventional cocktails. The first floor focuses on a cocktail menu that pairs well with the raw bar, seafood and Mid-Atlantic menu offerings.

From building on and elevating base ingredients to presenting innovative cocktails with a new perspective, Bixby is constantly challenging his team to think about the next ingredient, the next recipe and the next concoction. We caught up with him to find out what first-time guests and repeat customers can look forward to at The Imperial this winter.

Andy Bixby // Photo: courtesy of Julep PR

On Tap: It’s been a long road to opening The Imperial. What are you most excited to share with guests now that you’re officially up and running?
Andy Bixby: I think it’s the full space. [Co-owner] Steve [King] has done a ton of work making sure the design is great. [Chef] Russell [Jones] has done an incredible job making sure the food is good. My hope is that I can help to complement and build upon that with cocktails I think are meant to be consumed with food. I’m excited for people to come out and try things that wouldn’t necessarily be the first thing they’d order, [and] to have people’s eyes opened up to new corners of the beverage world.

OT: The food menu is taking more of a role than at sister restaurant and bar Jack Rose. How does the beverage program play into the menu?
AB: I was very excited to take on this program as a sister program to Jack Rose because this allows me to flesh out more of my creativity. It’s always been about the food on this first floor. The beverages were always meant to help elevate and bolster that food program. The Cham-boo! is one of our cocktails featured on the main floor because it is the perfect pairing with the majority of our food. In essence, [it’s] a classic cocktail called the Bamboo. We’re taking that concept, force carbonating the whole thing and turning it into an emulation of how you drink champagne. But [it’s] actually just an elevated form of this cocktail.


The Imperial Gin and Tonic
Bombay Sapphire
House dehydrated grapefruit tonic
Clarified lemon & grapefruit
Juniper salt
Saline & CO2
Garnished with fresh grapefruit, thyme, tarragon & juniper berries


OT: A lot of the focus surrounding The Imperial’s opening has been centered on the rare bottles, vintages and unconventional cocktail ingredients. Talk to me more about the varied selection.
AB: [Bill Thomas] spent the last two years really scouring to curate vintage spirits. The oldest thing we have is a bottle-and-a-half of cognac bottled in 1854. We have turn-of-the-1900s madeira, ports and sherries. We also have 1960s Galliano Amaretto. As far as the real fun ingredients, that’s where the basement comes in. Right now, we have three base ingredients on the menu: a citrus amaro, a tamaro (three different amari blended together and sous-vide with tamari, shoyu, miso, mirin, lemongrass, ginger, sesame seeds [and] dehydrated lime), and an anisette. We can constantly rotate the menu while we keep [those] ingredients and start making new ingredients. The goal is that we can still always produce these drinks, or at least very close facsimiles of them, by the time people start to fall in love with them and want to keep coming back.

OT: The reception has been overwhelmingly positive so far, with lines out the door before the bar is even open. What do you think is behind this buzz and what does that say about the cocktail culture in DC?
AB: The cocktail culture in the city has changed drastically. I’ve been bartending now for almost 11 years and I’ve noticed a significant change in how people are going out and wanting to imbibe. Guests want to be educated [and] learn more. I’ve always focused on bartender-to-guest interaction because I want to make sure that if you have questions, you can have that outlet – somebody that can talk you through with confidence and understanding of what’s going on in the beverage. I think that’s [been] a huge change over the last couple of years.

OT: If you had to select one drink from the menu that you’d recommend to guests, which would you go with?
AB: I think the Cham-boo! is an incredible cocktail that helps bridge [the gap between] people that love cocktails but also those that don’t necessarily want to think about cocktails as much. Our Imperial Gin and Tonic [is] our cornerstone drink to what I want the program to be. It is a Spanish-style gin and tonic served with Bombay Sapphire, our house dehydrated grapefruit tonic and a little bit of juniper salt. The tonic itself has clarified lemon and grapefruit. [It’s] fully carbonated [and] we serve it in a large balloon glass with a grapefruit wheel, thyme and tarragon bunched together [with] juniper berries. I think it’s an aesthetically beautiful cocktail. It’s simple in concept, but we are giving you a gin and tonic that is wildly different from any gin and tonic you’ve had before.

The Imperial: 2001 18th St. NW, DC; http://imperialdc.com

O-Ku Martini // Photo: courtesy of O-Ku

Behind the Bar: Inside Union Market’s Thriving Cocktail Scene

Neighborhoods grow, dynamics shift, and restaurants and bars find their groove among these transitions. For Union Market, a neighborhood that’s recently seen dramatic change, there’s plenty of room for everyone to enjoy a drink. Whether a dive bar or a sophisticated sushi spot, the message is clear: all guests are welcome to take part in the conviviality that only comes from a shared drinking experience.

Last Call

Gina Chersevani’s Union Market footprint continues to grow this fall with her love letter to dive bars, Last Call, which opened in late October. The proprietor of bagel, soda shop classics, and cocktail-themed Buffalo & Bergen and nostalgic, cocktail-slinging airstream Suburbia is setting up shop just steps from Union Market.

This new spot pays homage to watering holes from a bygone era when quality drinks and affordable price tags were the standard.

Amid the new high-rises and shiny eateries, Chersevani identifies a missing Union Market element: a corner bar, a neighborhood pub, a local gathering spot – all things that once dominated the scene. Chersevani’s vision for bringing back that culture and creating a space where “you can be in and out of there for $15 bucks” comes to life at Last Call.

“I want to refresh what your vision of your local watering hole is,” she says. “I want to refresh what a dive really is. A dive is a place to hang out, have great conversation [and] chill with your friends.”

Photo: Rey Lopez

Upon entry, guests are greeted by a long bar. The bones of the space haven’t seen much change from the building’s past life as a retro cafeteria, other than the removal of decades worth of grime and buildup. Blue, green and white-colored facades were revealed after weeks of scrubbing the walls, and the team decided to keep them as a nod to the past.
Another design quirk is the alley door painted green – perhaps a vestige from the days of Prohibition marking the spot as a booze-friendly locale, with stories from neighbors strengthening the myth. From the history to the innate charm, everything about the space seemed to be the “right fit for me,” according to Chersevani.

“It spoke to my soul,” she says of the space.

Cocktails are inspired by old-school favorites, travels and drinks from past haunts. A frozen Irish coffee comes by way of Chersevani’s penchant for the version served up at New Orleans’ bar Erin Rose, a must-stop for her when visiting the Big Easy. Another drink dubbed the 169 Bar, a carbonated old fashioned, gives a nod to the historic New York City bar of the same name. And there’s even a divey take on the Aperol spritz: an Aperol Schlitz.

The food menu is influenced by staff favorites, featuring “a rotation of sandwiches inspired by dive bars we love from across the country.”

Whether you’re a local or someone stopping in for the first time, Chersevani wants all guests to feel at home. A visit to Last Call “should be fun, and you should want to be a little dancy.”

When Queen comes on and the familiar sounds of “Another One Bites the Dust” signal the end of the night at Last Call, what will you find Chersevani drinking? Miller High Life.

“Ice-cold beer [and the] ‘dun dun dun’ of Queen always remind me of pure fun.”

1301-A Fourth St. NE, DC

Photo: Rey Lopez

Last Call’s Aperol Schlitz
1.5 oz. Aperol
5 oz. Schlitz beer
Orange slice to garnish

O-Ku

As one of the first standalone restaurants to open outside of Union Market, this DC offshoot of the Southern-based Japanese eatery focuses heavily on fresh ingredients and elevating customer experiences.

O-Ku Beverage Director Alvaro Umaña weaves seasonal flavors into his cocktail menu, playing off of what the kitchen works on to “enhance the experience and the food.” For example, a carpaccio dish featuring green apples is hitting the menu soon, an apt pairing for a highball Umaña is finalizing that will include a green apple shrub.

“We switch the menu at the same time the kitchen does,” he says. “I want to put items on the menu that really go with the food we’re serving and really enhance it.”

What makes the Union Market locale stand out from other O-Ku locations? With the exception of a few staples on the menu that remain constant across all locations, the spot offers a larger variety of products.

Photo: courtesy of O-Ku

“Other than [a] couple of items, we really run free,” Umaña continues. “We’re empowered to do what we feel is best, and I think that’s really been one of the keys to [our] success.”

The O-Ku team has seen their fair share of locals come through the doors, in addition to out-of-towners who recognize the brand from its Southern counterparts. With an eclectic customer base, it can be challenging to curate a drink list that appeals to regulars and newcomers alike.

“One thing we like to do is change our menu regularly,” Umaña notes. “But if there are select seasonal items, let’s not shy away from them because they’re not on the menu. The flexibility to add and build [upon] the menu is what helps keep everyone excited.”

Boasting a lineup of stellar whisky and gin, O-Ku’s cocktail offerings are also impressive.

“We have a lot of great cocktails,” the beverage director adds. “The one that O-Ku is known the most for is the Sugar and Spice.”

The mix of habanero-infused vodka with passion fruit is “wildly popular” among guests, but the most impactful drink on the menu for Umaña is a simple martini. Guests choose a base of Japanese rice vodka or Japanese botanical gin, which gets mixed with one part sake for an effervescent take on the classic cocktail. As a gateway sake drink for a lot of his guests, he notes that the soft introduction to the spirit is appealing to those who may have preconceived notions about it.

It’s rewarding for Umaña to see the genuine experience when guests opt in for trying something out of their comfort zone and are pleasantly surprised.

“It’s nice to see someone veer away from what they traditionally have. It changes their perspective when people are willing to give it a chance.”

Umaña’s martini is the embodiment of the restaurant’s aesthetic: “simple yet flavorful, which is what we strive to do at O-Ku.”

1274 5th St. NE, DC; www.sushirestaurantwashington.com

O-Ku Martini (pictured above)
1 1/2 oz. Roku Gin or Haku Vodka
3/4 oz. Spring Snow Sake
Stir cocktail + garnish with lemon twist

Paul Gonzalez, Lauren Paylor, Deke Dunne // Photos: M.K. Koszycki

Behind the Bar: Honoring the Past and Future of Black Bartenders at Allegory

How do you honor a legacy that has all but been forgotten by a collective consciousness? It’s an almost impossible question, but the team at Allegory – Eaton Workshop’s literary-themed cocktail bar – is answering it in a way that’s interactive, educational and engaging.

Presented in conjunction with multidisciplinary artist Khalil Joseph’s “BLKNWS” exhibit, which opened at Eaton last month and runs through December, Allegory’s head bartender Paul Gonzalez and his team set out to commemorate the legacy of black bartenders who paved the way for the beverage industry.

To do this, the Allegory team called upon prominent black bartenders in the community to craft and submit drinks of their choosing to this special menu. They’ve also included drinks made by bartenders of yesteryear who previously have not received the acclaim owed to them – pioneers like Cato Alexander and John Dabney, to name a few, make appearances.

One such modern bartender making a contribution to the menu is Lauren Paylor, bar director at cocktail bar Dos Mamis and beverage director at restaurant Pom Pom, both newly opened in Petworth. Though the Bronx native came to DC to study nursing at the Catholic University of America, she was quickly embraced by the city’s tightknit and talented hospitality world where she found a community to grow and create with.

When Allegory manager and bartender Deke Dunne and Gonzalez approached her to be part of this experience that she describes as a transition and continuation of the “BLKNWS” exhibit, she was all in. Paylor contributed a drink called the Loco Bananas: a sweet, smoky, banana-infused whiskey and rum-based cocktail.

Loco Bananas

“Seeing this turn in the DC community specifically with celebrating all aspects of history as far as cocktails are concerned is really nice,” Paylor says. “There are so many pieces that are often left out. They’re pertinent, they’re important and they have great significance. I was head over heels to be able to be part of this.”

Gonzalez explains that while his time at other bars in historic stretches of DC piqued his curiosity and appreciation for untold sides of the city’s hospitality history, “BLKNWS” provided Allegory with a platform to dive even deeper and make these bartenders’ stories heard and appreciated in tandem with the impactful message of the art.

“Deke and I used to work at The Gibson, and we thought it was fascinating how 14th and U is such a historic corner,” Gonzalez says. “Most of the people who live in the city now or that just go up and down that block know nothing about Black Broadway or all these amazing clubs. There’s a rich history that’s on that one strip from 7th to 14th Streets [in the U Street Corridor]. We took that as the starting point and started doing a little more research.”

To capture the history of black bartenders in the city, Gonzalez and Dunne dove in and found fascinating and necessary stories of entrepreneurs who did much more than just make a great cocktail in an era where the world was outwardly aiming to oppress them.

“The further we researched, the more we dug into finding all of these historic bartenders, and the greater the story [became],” Gonzalez continues. “These people literally started off as slaves and then by the time it was done, they weren’t just free. They owned businesses. One of them put his son through medical school. These are just stories that people need to know. You don’t call yourself a professional if you only care about the pretty side of history.”

The team found that some of the most important voices in this era were often excluded. Dunne notes that they are lucky to know the limited information that was available to them through their research.

“Cato Alexander was one of the forefathers of the cocktail scene back in the 1830s, and there’s little to nothing [available] about him,” Dunne says. “There are all these famous characters that were some of the best bartenders in the world that were black and had vertical growth in society, and nobody was talking about them.”

Alexander is just one of the talents the Allegory team sheds light on. As a modern black bartender, Paylor is happy to have the opportunity to make history known to those who come through to enjoy the menu.

“There is so much I’m learning now about the significance of black people and people of color in history – specifically in DC – and the broader spectrum of America,” she says. “There’s still so much we don’t know and there’s a little frustration that comes with that, but we’re doing our part to ensure that moving forward, we can continue the conversation and hope that this history doesn’t repeat itself. All people deserve to be celebrated for the impact that they’ve made on this industry, whether it was past or present.”

Experience “BLKNWS” and Allegory’s accompanying cocktail menu through the end of December.

For more on Lauren Paylor and Dos Mamis, visit www.dosmamisdc.com and follow her on Instagram @lpdrinksdc. Learn more about Allegory at www.allegory-dc.com.

Allegory at Eaton Workshop: 1201 K St. NW, DC; www.allegory-dc.com

Bartender Ashley McPherson // Photos: M.K. Koszycki

Behind the Bar: Cane Brings Island Life to the District

Intimate, colorful Trinidadian restaurant Cane popped up on H Street just three months ago, and everything about it will instantly transport you to the islands. The restaurant, co-owned by chef Peter Prime and his sister Jeanine Prime, pays homage to their experiences growing up in Trinidad.

The restaurant is small, but its vivid colors make for a unique and welcoming experience. From the yellow wall decorated with beachy shutters to oil paintings (one even capturing former President Barack Obama in Trinidad) to the textured feature near the bar made of recycled sugar cane, everything about the restaurant is intentional and well thought out to make for a one-of-a-kind dining experience.

While the cuisine and ambiance may be the primary allure of this brand-new spot, the well-rounded cocktail program has become more than an added bonus.

“It’s just like the cherry on top,” says Cane’s bartender Ashley McPherson. “The food is already amazing and then you get a nice, refreshing cocktail that brings out the flavor of the food.”


Carnival
Real McCoy 5-year rum and white rums
Pineapple shrub
Coconut orgeat syrup
Angostura bitters


Nestled by the small bar are shelves stacked high with a wide array of Caribbean rum hand-selected by Peter. Selections include standouts like El Dorado, Scarlet Ibis Trinidadian rum and more. Each cocktail is made to perfection with a different type of rum in each glass adding its own flair to the menu.

“It was a lot of fun to play with these drinks,” McPherson continues. “As we got more rums and more cocktails, we thought, ‘Let’s educate more people on rum.’”

Cane’s drink menu was originally only going to include four cocktails. But because of its growing collection and the menu’s success, they saw it as an opportunity to bring more Caribbean rum into their collection and educate DC foodies on how rum has played a significant role in Trinidadian culture.

The District is no stranger to rum bars, and the steady influx of these locations can partially be associated with the start of Rum Day DC in 2011. However, Cane takes a different approach, highlighting the cultural aspects of the spirit.

Whether it’s the food or drinks, everyone is bound to experience the sweet and spicy kick of flavor found in Trinidad while at Cane – from the Cane Fever, which includes a pineapple-habanero shrub that soaks for a week to bring out the best flavor, to the Carnival containing coconut orgeat syrup and the Indian spice garam masala complemented by Cane’s West Indian and Caribbean style.


Cane Fever
Scarlet Ibis Trinidadian rum
Pineapple-habanero shrub
Lime
Sparking water


McPherson also recommends the Irie Old Fashioned. It’s a particularly great option for those that aren’t as keen on rum, as its ingredients of sugar cane and house-made vanilla bitters have a sweet flavor comparable to a traditional old fashioned.

Although the cocktails tend to take center stage at Cane’s bar, they pair well with appetizers like doubles – a popular Trinidadian street food that consists of two pieces of flat, fried dough filled with curried chickpeas – and the jerk wings.

As for entrées, the tiffin box is a popular option for a party of two or more, depending on your appetite. The four-level pyramid is a traditional dish in Trinidad and India, served with Indian bread and an assortment of chutney and curry samplings.

Cane’s sous chef Kyle Burnett says servers break down the shareable entrée, showing diners what the assortment consists of and the variety of sauces that can be paired with them. Needless to say, the dish will leave you full enough to need a to-go box. The team at Cane plans to continue highlighting their variety of rum cocktails through late summer and fall.

“It’s a pretty intimate space and we are packed out every day, so we are just riding that wave,” McPherson says. “We’ll come up with even more fun cocktails for the fall season.”

Cane: 403 H St. NE, DC; 202-675-2011; www.cane-dc.com

Photo: Hayley Olivenbaum

Behind the Bar: Staycation Edition

Vacations, no matter how lovely, are never quite long enough. You deserve more than a weeklong romp on the beach and there are ways to recreate that magic without straying far from home. Enter Coconut Club, located catty-corner to Union Market, and The Wharf’s Tiki TNT: two places that can help you recreate vacation vibes while whipping up drinks that are tasty and tropical. While I fully encourage taking as many trips as you can fathom, you can make any day a little sunnier when you walk through the doors and up to the bars at both of these locations.

Coconut Club’s Chris Chapman, Tina Hatano and Adam Greenberg // Photo: Aliviah Jones

Coconut Club

Four months ago, a brightly colored storefront popped up near Union Market on Penn Street – a quickly expanding destination for food and drink in the District. It belongs to Coconut Club, the creation of Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay champion Adam Greenberg.

It’s an airy oasis in a neighborhood that still feels charmingly industrial – think an open-air door, bright murals, tropical flavors and plenty of plants. Greenberg drew from his travels to warmer climates in places like California, Cuba, Hawaii and Miami.

“The idea is that you are on vacation,” Greenberg explains. “You’re at the beach so it should be carefree, whimsical, a little bit fun. It shouldn’t be so serious.”

Chris Chapman, who manages the bar along with Tina Hatano, echoes that the laidback sentiment plays into all they do. The bar anchors everything from its location in the middle of the space, and is slightly reminiscent of a swim-up bar at a destination beach club.

“We wanted to be approachable and not overwhelming,” he says. “There are not a lot of decisions to make – just fun. We try to keep that rolling and stick with that vibe on both sides, from the bar and the kitchen.”

Not one to skew tropical, beachy or sunny when you order a drink? Coconut Club still has you covered.

“There’s something for everyone,” Hatano adds.  “If you want wine, it’s not going to be something that requires a 20-minute description. It’s going to be something like a really nice, classic sauvignon blanc. If you want a cocktail, you can get something spirit-forward. You can get something fruity.”

In the four months since they’ve opened their doors, the team has kept a pulse on what everyone who’s taken a mini-vacation at Coconut Club has had to say, and looks for ways to conduct their brand of fun in an even more effective manner.

While wildly Instagrammable drinks like the “That Thing’s On Fire” will stay on the menu, Chapman notes they’ve got some changes up the sleeves of their tropical shirts. “A classic cocktail list with Coconut Club’s variations [and] classic tiki and beach drinks that everyone wants to have and everyone loves” are all slated to make appearances on the menu.

The Rum Manhattan exemplifies this ethos – a smooth but not saccharine twist on the classic dark drink that uses toasted coconut, fat-washed rum for a cocktail that’s approachable but distinctly Coconut Club. The foodie destination recently introduced brunch, and plans to roll out a happy hour later this summer.

Coconut Club’s Rum Manhattan // Photo: Aliviah Jones

“Be on the lookout,” Greenberg says. “Even though [people] like what we’re doing, we’re only going to get better at what we do, which is great.”

It’s evident that even though the dedicated team desires to improve whenever possible, they’ve already tapped into a desire for whimsy paired with quality food and drink.

“We get people that come in dressed up for Coconut Club in Aloha shirts,” Chapman says. “It’s a thing! It’s like, ‘This is what we’re doing Saturday. Everybody get on Amazon and buy your stuff.’”

Hatano agrees.

“And that’s the whole point: just come here and have fun.”

540 Penn St. NE, DC; www.hellococonutclub.com

Tiki TNT’s Todd Thrasher // Photo: Hayley Olivenbaum

Tiki TNT

Tiki TNT’s giant smokestack can’t be missed by anyone entering the city via 395. Proclaiming the motto “Make rum not war,” the distillery and bar helmed by Todd Thrasher lets patrons know it’s a place to abandon personal and political troubles before crossing the Virginia state line and entering the three-story haven.

“We have a president that we all want to forget about – at least that most of us want to forget about,” Thrasher says as he explains the concept behind his latest creation, the potent TNT Problem Forgetter. “So, this was the kind of cocktail where you can come in and forget about everything that went bad during a bad day. You can have one, and you start feeling good right away.”

Much like the motto on the smokestack, it captures the essence of the spot, shaken into a colorful zombie glass.

“Every tiki bar seems like they have their one cocktail that represents who they are,” he continues.

For years, Thrasher has been known for his careful craft, making bitters and other cocktail ingredients around the DMV while also running the Eat Good Food Group (speakeasy PX, Kaliwa, and Virtue Feed & Grain, to name a few). With Tiki TNT, he’s able to enact a new level of craftsmanship with every drink as Thrasher’s Rum is distilled onsite.

“I make the rum how I want the rum to taste,” he explains. “I’ve been making cocktails and ingredients for years and years and years now. It just gives something extra. Now I can make ingredients. I can make bitters and the base spirit, too.”

In the case of the signature TNT Problem Forgetter, there’s a two-drink limit. But the boozy offering will certainly make you forget your problems as the name suggests, as will the vibrant atmosphere Thrasher and his team work tirelessly to cultivate. While there are plenty of structural details that delineate Tiki TNT from the norm, he says it’s the “spirit of Aloha” that truly makes the whole experience come together every day.

TNT Problem Forgetter // Photo: Hayley Olivenbaum

“You have to live Aloha – live nice and live friendly. We tell the staff, ‘You have to have that Aloha spirit. You have to be warm. You have to be welcoming. You have to be fun because we live in DC, which is a high-stress place.’  Last night, everyone that came in here was like,  ‘Oh, this is like a vacation.’”

With Tiki TNT’s third-level rooftop now open, providing a stunning view of The Wharf and across the Potomac, it’s easy to forget you’re not in the tropics with locally crafted rum in hand and a holiday-esque feeling surrounding you.

1130 Maine Ave. SW, DC; www.tikitnt.com

Photos: Trent Johnson

Behind the Bar: Design Edition

In a city filled with bars touting the best craft cocktails, local beer programs or even late-night eats, what’s bound to make patrons stick around and even more importantly, come back time and time again? The atmosphere created by a bar can make or break its overall experience, no matter how good the drinks on hand.
Two new additions to DC’s ever-growing cocktail scene, however, prove that providing the best of both is possible. And while the overall style and décor of these locations is not similar at first glance, they share a common goal: unpretentious, enjoyable sips in atmospheres unlike anything else in the city.

Astoria

Eli Schwarzschild

Owner Devin Gong and Bartender // Partner Eli Schwarzschild

“I always rode trains when I was little, and I loved the dining car of the train where you had the bar in the middle and the seating on either end,” owner Devin Gong says of the narrow but inviting locomotives that inspired the look of his newest venture, Dupont Circle’s Astoria. “When I first walked in, it was a very long and narrow space, and it reminded me a lot of a train car.”

With the help of CORE architecture + design, Gong brought his childhood nostalgia to life. With nods to his flagship spot on H Street, Copycat Co., the space invokes the kind of intimate setting you’d perhaps get from a drink on a bustling train car in the midst of a grand adventure. A talented artist himself, Gong painted the three works of art that hang over large, cozy booths – they even look like train car windows at first glance.

It’s a subtle callout, however, and Gong was careful to make sure he didn’t “hit people over the head” with his interior inspirations. Similarly understated is the bar’s approach to food and drink. Astoria’s beverage director Eli Schwarzschild points out that while the concept is inherently creative, they aren’t trying to overthink things.

“It’s a combination of classics paying homage to drinks that have stood the test of time,” Schwarzschild explains. “If the drinks aren’t broken, don’t fix them is partially our philosophy. We want to respect the drinks. But on the other hand, there’s creativity in a sense. We have originals, but it’s not about us per se. We’re just trying to put out drinks that could perhaps be mistaken for a classic; not so many infusions, just going back to the basics and staying true to the ingredients, which is a very French idea.”

One thing that’s present at Astoria but not necessarily at other outposts serving classic cocktails is an array of doodles flanking the menu, hand-drawn by Schwarzschild himself. They’re incredibly detailed and time-consuming to produce, so why do it?

“Not many people notice it, but it’s the one person in a million who does that makes it worth it,” Schwarzschild says. “It’s just that characteristic of art that is almost existential. Whatever you decide and whatever matters to you, that’s what it is. It’s kind of meanderings – left-brain kind of thoughts. As long as there’s a feeling there, I let my brain go with it.”

The bar provides a welcome combination of outside-the-box elements with unpretentious but well-crafted drinks. At the end of the day, it’s clear Gong and Schwarzschild are able to incorporate personal passions into this endeavor, and the bar is even better for that energy.

“I don’t have lofty goals to change the scene or anything like that,” Gong concludes. “I know what I do, and for me this is more self-indulgent than anything else.”

Hummingbird

HUMMINGBIRD
St. Germain
Punt e Mes vermouth
Lemon
Honey
Cinnamon
GF

Astoria: 1521 17th St. NW, DC; www.astoriadc.com

Hex

Kit Yarber

General Manager Kit Yarber

The second floor of The Passenger in Shaw was home to a sporadically used space, only opened on the rare occasion that the neighborhood bar was hosting a band. Kit Yarber saw an opportunity to transform the underutilized level into what he now describes as the “a little goth, a little kitschy” Hex.

As general manager of the newly minted space, Yarber decided the décor and menu would take cues from astrology, tarot and the occult. Numerology comes into play as well, as “hex” indicates the number six and the menu is broken up into six categories. All 12 astrological signs are represented on the menu, and Yarber says he based it off people he knew when deciding what sign to name the drinks after.

“It’s been funny because people come in and want to order their sign, of course, and they’re like, ‘How did you know?’” he explains. “I just tell them I based it off of someone who was that sign.”

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can draw a rune – or divinatory symbol – from a bag behind the bar, and you’ll be presented with a drink that corresponds to the symbol hidden on the menu. There are also runes flanking the wall to the right of the bar, along with a stuffed unicorn head, lovingly called Ophelia.

“I always loved the Victorian haunted mansion, pictures on pictures on pictures look,” Yarber says of the plethora of design elements that adorn the walls and tables. “We talked about having a curio aspect. Everything kind of mismatches but it ends up working out together. We just had fun with it.”

The resulting space is a nod to the supernatural and spiritual without feeling spooky. It’s overall feel is intimate and inviting. Since opening, it’s been a mix of lovers of the elements present at the bar and those who are completely unfamiliar that have stopped in for one of Yarber’s creations. The spot has even caught the attention of local pan-Pagan group The Firefly House, who plans on hosting a handful of regular happy hours at the spot. You can also catch occasional tarot readings.

Whether you’re the type to pull a daily tarot reading and analyze everything through the lens of the zodiac or just want to enjoy a drink in an inviting space, Yarber wants Hex to be a place where you can sit, relax and connect.

“I wanted Hex to have a different ambiance,” Yarber says. “I love the craft cocktail scene and craft cocktail bars, but I feel like they get stuck in a certain era. I don’t want it to feel pretentious. I just want it to be chill. I want to get people up here who love talking to people and [offer] a different ambience that can still be appreciated as something unique.”

The Incantation

THE INCANTATION
Rittenhouse Rye
Sacred Bond Brandy
Averna
Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
Punt e Mes vermouth
Orange bitters
Angostura bitters

Hex Bar: 1539 7th St. NW, DC; www.hexbardc.com

Photos: Trent Johnson

Behind the Bar: Neighborhood Classics

With DC’s craft cocktail industry on the rise and more and more mixologists digging deep in their bag of ingredients for new flavors, it’s understandable that some creations at local haunts might seem intimidating. However, if you’re in search of a place with a unique atmosphere and a laid-back list of offerings, Grand Duchess in Adams Morgan and the newly opened Jake’s Tavern in Shaw are two of the best, so allow us to take you behind the bar at two of the District’s neighborhood spots.

Grand Duchess
Co-owner Rory Adair

Lined up among the other rowhouse businesses on the Adams Morgan end of 18th Street sits Grand Duchess. Though the name conjures images of mystique and royalty, the location is much more subdued. Upon entering the building adorned with a diamond logo, you’re greeted with the look and feel of a 50s or 60s diner – complete with a jukebox, and assorted memorabilia and art adorning the walls.

“That’s what we’re going for – an old-time comfort you don’t really get anymore in bars – especially because we’re a neighborhood cocktail bar,” co-owner Rory Adair says. “We kind of just pick up what’s cool. The jukebox actually came from a diner that was closing in Southern Delaware.”

Owned and operated by Adair and Vinnie Rotondaro, Grand Duchess opened in 2017 and has since offered AdMo a lowkey place to enjoy vinyl, read a book or hang out with friends for a few hours.

“We’re rock ‘n’ roll vinyl nerds,” Adair says. “We play a lot of records. We have a jukebox full of 45s. I think it adds something. A lot of times, guests will see us put on vinyl and they’ll ask to see the actual covers.”

In fact, the first thing highlighted on the Grand Duchess website is the phrase “Cocktails & Vinyl.” The bar interlinks the two subjects whenever possible – from events and vinyl-only DJ sessions meant to bring in new audiences to cocktail crafting sessions in the “beat lab” inspired by music.

“Vinnie and I will be in here after hours, and we’ll just put some tunes on and figure out what the songs mean and how they translate into a cocktail,” Adair says when describing the pair’s beat lab. “The majority of our cocktails are named for albums. The Louder Than Love is a Soundgarden album. We were thinking something outrageous, and Chris Cornell had a very unique voice. We also have the Twin Infinitives – that’s a Royal Trux album, so we were thinking a little sweeter and juicier.”

Though music and cocktails can be intricate in nature, Adair favors a simpler approach to both. While vinyl collectors and cocktail aficionados can sometimes be intimidating, Grand Duchess is trying to pull in a laid-back clientele with a warmth and openness reflected in the decor and drinks.

“We like to riff on the classics because they’re the best. That’s pretty much our outlook on everything. We don’t get too crazy.”

Adair also has a list of canned beers, wines and happy hour classics, but he always encourages folks to try out one of their creations.

“I have seen a lot of people who otherwise might not have stepped into a cocktail bar who discover that [Grand Duchess] is approachable and cool, and maybe they’ll try a cocktail.”

Grand Duchess: 2337 18th St. NW, DC; www.grandduchessdc.com

LOUDER THAN LOVE
Yellow chartreuse
Gin
Amaro
Lemon


Jake’s Tavern
Bartender Jason Fellman

The name Jake’s Tavern sounds like a neighborhood spot that might be featured in a modern-day rendition of Cheers. Though you won’t find Ted Danson drinking a Pimm’s Cup at the bar, the casual establishment in Shaw has already found a niche since opening in late January.

“The thing we kept hearing over and over again after we opened the doors was, ‘We’re so happy you’re here,’” bartender Jason Fellman says. “There was an appetite for a simple, honest place that was doing things at a high level of service with a low level of pretense. [We’re] just trying to do things well.”

Unlike other neighborhood taverns, Jake’s is extremely bright with white walls and blue trim. The bar is lit by a large window, and the outdoor patio recently opened for warm weather months. The bar’s simple decor is reflected on the menu, which features a plethora of beers from local to national favorites as well as classic cocktails.

“We’re not going to have a ton of esoteric amaros on the list,” Fellman says. “We’re not going to be bending the curve with ingredients. When I go out to a cocktail bar and look at the ingredients list, I may not know some of them. As a consumer, that can be off-putting or intimidating and we’re trying to get away from that. We want you to feel comfortable with a nice, well-prepared Old Fashioned or a Tanqueray and tonic. We want to be as approachable as possible.”

Before the bar established its aesthetic, they wanted to put feelers out to gauge consumer preferences. There was no preconceived notion other than wanting to give locals what they desired most.

“[We have] a tremendous dexterity to engage,” he says. “One of our big objectives was to come here without being steeped in a concept, with the flexibility to be open to feedback from the community. There’s an effort here to simplify service and always be smiling and responsive. People love Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, and that’s where we want to be.”

The current menu features those classics along with variations on the Orange Crush, Martinez and Pimm’s Cup.

“I think it’s spirit-driven and season-driven. You’re going to see a lot more gin-focused stuff as we head into the summer. I’m not trying to show you something you’ve never seen before. What I’m trying to do is [make] what you like the best I can.”

Jake’s Tavern: 1606 7th St. NW, DC; www.jakestaverndc.com

PIMM’S CUP NO2 BOURBON
Pimm’s
Fresh-squeezed lemon juice
House-made mint syrup
Ginger beer

Jake’s Orange Crush
Vodka
Triple Sec
Fresh-squeezed orange juice
Sprite


Big Changes Ahead for Virginia Happy Hour Ads 

Have you ever noticed that happy hour specials outside of Virginia can seem a bit more adventurous than those in the Old Dominion? Starting July 1, that’s slated to change. After an embattled ordeal between the state and area restaurants – many of which had to alter their advertisements between DC, Maryland and Virginia – bars and restaurants now have more creative liberty with which to advertise their offerings.

Actual drink prices can now be listed, along with fun or alliterative drink special titles that allude to the type of alcohol on special. This will no doubt give businesses better ways to entice customers, and in turn give customers a better picture of what their favorite watering hole will have to offer in the summer months and beyond. There are certain things remain unchanged, though. Namely, you won’t find any happy hours past the witching hour of 9 p.m., and two-for-one drink specials remain off the table.

For more information on these changes, visit www.abc.virginia.gov/licenses/retail-resources/happy-hour.

Photo: Dannah Strauss

Behind the Bar: Park View’s No Kisses

When the team behind Colony Club looked to open their next cocktail bar, they aimed to recreate the kind of spot they’d frequent. That meant a cool vibe and décor, good beer, a solid wine list, and approachable, well-crafted drinks. The result is No Kisses, which opened next door to Colony in DC’s Park View neighborhood at the end of March.

Like Colony Club, which operates as a coffee shop by day and a bar by night, No Kisses hopes to attract a broad audience to its indoor and outdoor spaces.

“We tried to keep the barriers to entry relatively low,” says Max Zuckerman, one of the bar’s three partners.

That means finding a variety of beverages, not just upscale creations. The cocktail program is overseen by Cody Hochheiser, who brings experience from DC institutions like 2 Amys and Pineapple & Pearls. He says his menu aims to hit many of the main spirits categories, from bourbon to mezcal. That goes for flavor profiles, too.

“I want to get fruity, I want to get herby, I want to get briny, I want to get boozy,” Hochheiser says. “There’s something for everyone.”

Among their cocktails is the NK Negroni, a variation on the classic elevated with Ford’s Gin, Vermouth del Professore, and both Alta Verde and local Capitoline Tiber amaro. Get spicy with the Tequila Cimarrón-infused Chili Wise or go for a simple Old Fashioned made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, nocino walnut liqueur, and black walnut and orange bitters.

Cocktails range from $11 to $13, and the menu figures to change as the weather warms, gravitating toward more refreshing cocktails like spritzes. Aside from liquor, the bar stocks both cheap and upscale beers, including a bunch of hand-imported selections. There’s also a more robust wine selection than most cocktails bars have on hand.

“If someone wants to just come in for a glass and not think about it, that’s fine,” Zuckerman says. “But we did put a lot of thought into making a really cool wine list.”  

The bar is full of funky touches, including ceiling lights that change color, velvet-lined booths and dark wood floors. It reflects a cozy den designed for getting comfortable. Come later this spring, drinks can be enjoyed on picnic tables in the expansive outdoor “garden” shared with Sonny’s Pizza, also owned by the same trio. On that note: food isn’t served inside No Kisses, but customers are welcome to hang al fresco to enjoy a slice of Sonny’s pie along with their cocktails.

As far as the name, Zuckerman prefers not to dive too deep, saying only that it came from a short story the co-owners were reading while working on the business; it’s sure to be a talking point among guests. After four years running Colony Club, the team hopes they have a tried-and-true formula that will make locals feel at home, whether it’s sharing a bottle of wine or meeting up for a date.

“The neighborhood thing is pretty real to us,” Zuckerman says.

Follow No Kisses on Instagram @nokissesbar and learn more about the bar at www.nokissesbar.com.

No Kisses: 3120 Georgia Ave. NW, DC; www.nokissesbar.com


Shrub Cocktails: Next-Level Drinks with a Fruity, Acidic Kick
As DC eases into spring, the biting winds and slushy sidewalks of winter are slowly being replaced by warm breezes and flower beds. Inside, cocktail bars are welcoming the new season with vinegar-based fruit shrubs, which can add depth and complexity to any drink.

“We love shrubs for cocktails because you get your acid and your sweet at the same time,” says Charlie Berkinshaw, owner at DC-based Element Shrub. “If people are weirded out by putting vinegar in a drink, I usually tell them to just think about shrubs as the acidic component – with a little sweet – of the drink.”

Here are four spots to order this season that take advantage of this unique product.

Hank’s Cocktail Bar
Several shrubs are used in Hank’s “Market Fresh” cocktails, including the scotch-based Peat and Pineapples. The smoky cocktail includes Talisker whisky, jalapeno shrub, pineapple and spicy “fire” tincture. For something bubbly, choose the We’re Just Friends, which comes with cava and a rotating house shrub or syrup. 1624 Q St. NW, DC; www.hankscocktailbar.com

Momofuku CCDC
Celebrate April with the spritz-inspired Pocket Full of Cherry. The colorful drink uses Mancino Sakura vermouth, sparkling sake, rhubarb shrub and Gran Classico bitter liqueur. 1090 I St. NW, DC; https://ccdc.momofuku.com

Quadrant
The new and extensive travel-themed menu at this Ritz-Carlton cocktail bar features The Covered Bridge with honey gin, Calvados brandy, and a house-made blueberry, lemon and ginger shrub. It’s rounded out with fresh lemon juice, honey and orange blossom water, lemon bitters, and an egg white. 1150 22nd St. NW, DC; www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/washington-dc/dc/dining/quadrant

The Smith
Kick back with a glass of Santiago Punch blended with pisco, house-made pineapple Thai basil shrub and Green Chartreuse. The drink gets additional tropical notes with the addition of velvet falernum, lime and bitters. 1314 U St. NW, DC; www.thesmithrestaurant.com/location/u-street

Learn more about Element Shrub at www.elementshrub.com.

Photo: Trent Johnson

Behind the Bar: Women’s Issue Edition

DC has risen in the ranks as one of the most exciting bar scenes in the country as of late. At the helm of many of the buzziest bars in the city are women leading award-winning teams to craft the best and brightest cocktail programs. Whether they’re mainstays, newcomers or home to a specific spirit, each one is worth taking note of – not just because of the world-class drinks, but for the noteworthy ladies at the helm, too.


Megan Barnes (Photo - Trent Johnson)

Photo: Trent Johnson

Megan Barnes

Beverage Director + Partner, Espita Mezcaleria

Notice mezcal popping up across the city over the past few years? You probably have Espita Mezcaleria’s Megan Barnes to thank for that. The Shaw spot’s menu highlights the spicy and smoky spirit’s best qualities, converting even the most stubborn drinkers into passionate connoisseurs who keep diaries around their favorite varieties.

“I loved it from first sip,” Barnes says of the spirit.

She got her start at Columbia Room working under Drink Company’s Derek Brown, who introduced her to mezcal.

“After work, I would walk down to Oyamel because at the time, that was the only place you could get mezcal. Now, I go down to Mexico about three times a year, and that’s also opened the door for me to learn about different ranges, styles, techniques and flavors. And meeting the families who are producing the mezcal – it’s really kind of a romance.”

Although Barnes’ time at Espita so far has been a well-awarded one, including a RAMMY last year for best bar program, she credits the bar team behind her and the city’s supportive cocktail scene for her continued successes.

“The DC bar scene is probably the best in the entire country. We’re so tight-knit and we’re always rooting each other on, especially the women in the city. We love each other so much.”

Espita Margarita (Photo - Trent Johnson)

Photo: Trent Johnson

Margarita
Tequila
Lime
Ligit Triple
“Nogave” syrup

Espita Mezcaleria: 1250 9th St. NW, DC; www.espitadc.com

 


Alex Bookless (Photo - Trent Johnson)

Photo: Trent Johnson

Alexandra Bookless

Beverage Director, Eaton Workshop

Eaton Workshop’s ambitious pursuit of creating a social justice-minded hub for travelers and locals alike is a perfect match for seasoned beverage director Alexandra Bookless.

“We’ve got four concepts including the cafe [and] the coworking space, and we do events as well, so there’s a lot going on,” she says of the bars she oversees within the multi-use downtown space, which sees about a 50/50 split between natives and visitors.

Bookless and her team develop detailed menus for Allegory, American Son, Kintsugi, Wild Days and a soon-to-open bar within their coworking space. Not only do they make it seem effortless, but Bookless has helped usher in a new wave of luxury hotels as spots for community and craft cocktails.

“People really support our ideas and allow us to have a strong creative voice, which is really on theme for Eaton Workshop in general – just supporting art in all forms. It’s kind of a holistic approach to supporting creative outlets here.”

Allegory drink (Photo - Trent Johnson)

Photo: Trent Johnson

2666 from Allegory
Pechuga mezcal 
Reposado tequila
Sherry 
Creme de cacao
Mole bitters
Chocolate-covered fig made in-house 

Eaton Workshop: 1201 K St. NW, DC; www.eatonworkshop.com

 


Alejandra Martin 2 (Photo - Trent Johnson)

Photo: Trent Johnson

Alejandra Martin

Bartender + Manager, Gaslight Tavern

Alejandra Martin credits her family with her love of the food and beverage industry. Her parents owned a Mexican restaurant in California, and she says the restaurant world has always been in her blood. A bartender of 11 years, she joined the team at Shaw’s Gaslight Tavern when it opened last January.

“It’s been great to have been here from the beginning,” she says of the Art Deco-inspired bar. “We base our cocktails on the setting, so a lot are classic cocktails or spins on them. We stick to that time period but still get creative with them.”

Martin’s creativity shines in drinks she creates outside of the pantheon of classics, too. She crafted a current special called the Mezcalito, an homage to her love of the spirit. She keeps the retro feel with a float and an ornate glass.

“I like it because it’s a little different and it’s layered, with a fernet float on top. It’s cute and flavorful – a complex yet simple cocktail.”

The warm and inviting space is filled with – as the name would suggest – fireplaces, and its location sees locals stopping in to be guided into the arena of old-school drinks by Martin.

Mezcalito (Photo - Trent Johnson)

Photo: Trent Johnson

Mezcalito
Mezcal
Agave syrup
Pinch of salt
Fernet float
Dehydrated lime
Fresh-squeezed lemon

Gaslight Tavern: 2012-2014 9th St. NW, DC; www.gaslight-dc.com

 


Columbia Room (Photo - Daniel Lempres)

Photo: Daniel Lempres

Suzy Critchlow

Head Bartender, Columbia Room

Suzy Critchlow has risen to the top of the industry thanks to her curiosity, creativity and initiative. Despite reverence for the history of the craft, change is part of the ethos of Columbia Room. Critchlow and her team are constantly reimagining and refining their menu at the award-winning Blagden Alley spot, pushing the boundaries of classic cocktails. Their current menu Distortion is no exception.

“We’re distorting ingredients, flavors, visuals and sound,” she says. “Another menu I really loved was one called Women Rule. It was all inspired by female chefs, mixologists and bartenders. Pretty much as soon as we release a menu, we hit the ground running designing a new one.”

And although there’s no shortage of innovation in her current role, she says DC’s fast-paced drink scene keeps her on her toes and always challenges her to be even better.

“There are new places opening all the time, [which] challenges you to make sure that you’re still keeping your standards very high because there are so many people out there who are so talented and have a lot to bring to the table. It gets better [in DC] every day.”

Columbia Room_drink (Photo - Daniel Lempres)

Photo: Daniel Lempres

The Prose Punch
Gin
Fino
Pear
Roses
Whey
White vermouth

Columbia Room: 124 Blagden Alley NW, DC; www.columbiaroomdc.com

 


Erin Adams (Photo - Courtesy of AC Hotels)

Photo: Courtesy of AC Hotels)

Erin Adams

General Manager, AC Hotel National Harbor

On Tap: Tell us a bit about the offerings at AC Lounge within the hotel.
Erin Adams: AC Lounge is our bar area where guests can enjoy local craft beers, expertly made signature cocktails such as locally inspired gin and tonics, specialty wines sourced from around the world including Spanish Albarino and Rioja, and a curated selection of tapas-style small bites.

OT: Any mainstays or customer favorites on the drink menu?
EA:
To kick the evening off, we offer a nightly ritual of passing the porrón – a tradition started because of our Spanish roots. The porrón is a traditional glass wine pitcher filled with wine and tipped directly into mouths as a conclusion to the work day and kickoff to the evening.

OT: Why should local drink enthusiasts visit the lounge?
EA: AC Lounge is unique from other National Harbor bars as we highlight our Spanish roots and culture in the experience. Our bar shelves resemble National Harbor’s picturesque sunsets, and the space offers floor-to-ceiling window views of the destination as well as an outdoor terrace that can be enjoyed year-round.

AC Hotel cocktail (Photo - Courtesy of AC Hotels)

Photo: Courtesy of AC Hotels

Cherry Blossom Sour
Sloop Betty Vodka
St. Germain
Simple syrup
Cherry brandy
Oloroso sherry
Lemon juice

AC Hotel National Harbor: 156 Waterfront St. National Harbor, MD: www.marriott.com/hotels

Daniel Lempres contributed to this article.

 

Photos: Trent Johnson

Behind the Bar with The Peoples Drug’s Jon Schott

Jon Schott is a rare breed of professional, the kind of person whose brain is never really turned off. From coming up with some of his best cocktail ideas while walking his pups in the woods to making every orgeat and tincture on his expansive drink menu from scratch, he brings a level of enthusiasm and thoughtfulness to his work that seems unparalleled. The best part? He’s completely unpretentious about the art and consumption of craft cocktails. His creations are jotted down A Beautiful Mind-style in an old-school notebook that he’s happy to share with cocktail nerds, and he loves nothing more than to answer questions from customers about some of the more layered or complex concoctions on his menu.

Enter The Peoples Drug, the retro-inspired, neighborhood cocktail bar and food spot where Schott wears many hats as both beverage director and general manager. The Old Town, Alexandria locale modeled after the nostalgic local drugstore chain of the same name has steadily picked up buzz since opening last summer, with rotating seasonal and classic cocktail menus from Schott and a brand-new food menu launched earlier this month. We caught up with the man behind the well-crafted drinks about the labor of love that goes into each new creation and the casual, community vibe of his bar, among other cocktail-related things.

On Tap: You’ve got a lot of cleverly named cocktails on your winter menu like the Schrute Farms Margarita with spiced beet agave and Pistachio Mustachio with pistachio orgeat, to name a few. What’s your creative process for naming them?
Jon Schott:
I like people to step a little bit outside of their comfort zone, and I think a great way to do that is to have a clever or comforting name. We get their guard down a little bit and then get a new drink in their hand, and now they’re trying new things. And who knows if that sparks this whole new journey of them trying new drinks and stepping outside of their comfort zone, which is the fun thing about food and drink – there’s infinite possibilities.

OT: As someone who grew up here and has worked in the bar industry for nearly two decades, how do you think NoVA’s cocktail scene has shifted in recent years?
JS:
Everything seems to have shifted toward [being] more casual, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality or atmosphere. Just because you want a good drink doesn’t mean you have to make plans to do it. That’s what we were hoping for here, where you’d see everyone come in – whether you’re dressed up and on your way to a date or running errands and still in your sweatpants. We’re always open to the public. We never do reservations. You just walk in.

OT: Why do you think Old Town is the right location for Peoples?
JS:
People in Old Town know good food and they know good drinks. They’re a really tight, really cool community. We’re a nightcap or before-you-go-out, happy hour [spot] because we’re casual. Come in here, let your hair down, relax and [enjoy] the good vibes.

OT: Walk me through the classic versus seasonal menus, and how you came up with the concepts.
JS:
I like balancing a list with classics. If you know cocktails, you can look at the classics and see we know what we’re doing. It lets people know you can get good classics here and we’re following script.

OT: What about going off script for the seasonal menu? What inspires those selections?
JS:
It’s really important for guests to have a well-crafted and constructed cocktail, because it’s built with love. Time and energy goes into these, totally. We juice citrus every morning. Everything you see on the menu – like an orgeat or tincture or fusion or syrup – I made it myself. If it’s a syrup or an orgeat, I’ve made it within the last [few] days. Like the dehydrated fruit, I do that in my house and bring it in. That’s why I love the seasonals. These are all things that we have made [where] I started with a thought for a drink and as a team, we knocked it down into a really fun, well-balanced and creative drink. Enjoy yourself and don’t be pretentious about the cocktails.

OT: Does the classic menu stay the same or is it dynamic?
JS:
I change it every season because there’s certain classic cocktails that I think fit certain seasons. This season, they’re big because it’s winter. There’s a lot of Manhattan- and martini-style drinks, and spirit-forward ones. I also do barrel-aged [cocktails] where I age the cocktail in an oak barrel for 32 days and then bottle and serve it. I spy on people when they have a sip of their drink to see their first reaction. That will [tell me] the most honest feeling they have about the drink.

OT: What seems to be the customer favorite right now?
JS:
The most popular one is the Schrute Farms Margarita. People relate to the name of it and the color of it is super bright.

OT: Can you give us a sneak peek of the spring menu?
JS:
There’s one drink I dedicated to my mom. She told me, “If you’re going to succeed in this industry, you need to appreciate gin, and that’s when you’ll get all the real drinkers.” And she was right. So [this cocktail] plays with gin, tea and fresh things like orchids, lavender and roses. I’d love to introduce cucumber bubbles. It’s a way of stacking up bubbles. I can layer them on top of the drink. You know what I’m really excited for? [My] team to submit original ideas [they’re] working on. I love to open the menu up to the whole staff. It has to be a team effort.

OT: What about funky ingredients? What flavor profiles are you intrigued by at the moment?
JS:
I love playing with orgeats, so any syrup with any type of nut in it. I’m looking forward to playing with cedar and gin and sage [on the spring menu]. Those things together remind me of walking in the woods. And then maybe sneaking an amaro in there.

OT: Any food options you recommend pairing with cocktails?
JS:
We have a lot more sharable snacks [on our new menu], like finger foods. I think the truffle fries go well with any cocktail. A little bit of salt also helps all the flavors pop. Our sandwiches are really tasty too.


[HEADER] Photos - Trent Johnson

Wasabi Martini
Tito’s Vodka infused with wasabi
Snow pea and sea salt tincture
Domaine de Canton


Learn more about Schott’s classic and seasonal cocktails and the spot’s revamped food menu at www.thepeoplesdrug.com.

The Peoples Drug: 103 N. Alfred St. Alexandria, VA; 571-257-8851 www.thepeoplesdrug.com