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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

The Sally's Rickey on the Row // Photo: Mynor Ventura

The Rickey: A Distinctly DC Cocktail

A city with a heated climate – literally and politically speaking – the rickey is a cocktail to cool them all down. From a bourbon-based drink to one that utilizes gin, the simple ingredients leave much room for experimentation for DC’s mixologists.

Summertime in the nation’s capital brings out all the jokes about DC’s swamp-like qualities, so it’s no wonder July was dubbed Rickey Month in the District.

“We’re one of only two cities that has our own identified cocktail,” notes Hunter Douglas, bar program manager of Hank’s Oyster Bar and Hank’s Cocktail Bar.

“The rickey is up there on the pantheon of drinks that cocktail bartenders in DC really care about. Everyone has a good way that they like to make a rickey.”

The first-ever rickey was sipped in the District and has remained a distinctly DC cocktail ever since. Shoomaker’s Saloon is credited with mixing up the first one in the late 1800s – the local bar stood where the current JW Marriott is downtown. Named for Colonel Joe Rickey, the original libation mixed bourbon with lime juice and sparkling water – a simple enough drink that gained popularity with the substitution of gin for bourbon. These days, say “rickey” and the latter is what comes to mind for most.

The leap from bourbon to gin seems understandable, but the addition of lime foam, cumin or pickled lime? These days, the drink has been elevated with mixologists putting their own stamp on the classic. From more understated additions to some rather unexpected ingredients, bars are continuing to transform the drink further.

“The rickey, first and foremost, should be refreshing,” Douglas continues. “It should be able to cool you down. It should be a light, refreshing drink while you’re in 90-degree weather.”

Douglas manages the menu and team behind the recently relocated cocktail bar (now in Dupont Circle) from the Hank’s brand. Among the nearly 40 cocktails on the menu, the Rick Rolled presents itself as a slightly fresher, sweeter upgrade to the classic. Aviation Gin infused with dehydrated cucumbers works as the base upon which lime and honey are layered on top. Shaken and strained over fresh ice and soda water, it’s “light, refreshing and not overly sweet, and you get these cool herbal, floral notes from the citrus oil, honey and cucumber.”

Just down the street from where the original was created, The Occidental’s version from mixologist Frankie Jones adds earthy notes with coriander, turmeric and white pepper. The spices provide an unexpected flavor that plays well with the gin. The I Only Had A F.E.W. Rickeys is an off-menu item, and can be ordered as Jones had intended or customized to any guest’s palate.

“I just ask people, ‘What kind of flavor are you into?’” Jones says. “Literally, I can make a rickey with anything. Choose bourbon or gin. If you want a fruity rickey, we can do that, too.”

The rickey is a blank canvas of sorts because of its simplicity.

“It leaves so much room for experimentation and the addition of flavors and textures, so it’s quite fun to play around with,” Jones adds.

His former stomping ground, 14th Street’s The Gibson, has been in operation for a decade, and the team is well-versed in making the rickey.

The Gibson’s creative director Julia Ebell notes, “We are so classically focused here. It’s a place where you can come and get a really fantastic standard rickey or Colonel Joe anytime, year-round.”

The DC heat makes the rickey a bit of a necessity come summer months, but that doesn’t stop the team from having a little bit of fun with it.

“We have an outdoor space, so rickeys are a formula we love playing around [with] here,” Ebell says.

The speakeasy’s latest iteration, made just in time for Rickey Month, was born of a multilayered conversation between staff members about everything from Rick and Morty to Little Women to realizing how much they “love putting pickled and preserved product into our drinks.”  The Beth’s Cure: A Pickle Rickey features Brooklyn gin, turmeric and pickled lime and ginger soda over ice and garnished with a pickled lime.

On why the drink remains as popular in the District as it has for so many years, Ebell notes, “It’s kind of spirit(ual) air conditioning. DC is warm and muggy, and just having something you can drink outside without feeling like you’re drowning yourself is fantastic. It’s something that comes out of the place where it was born. It’s as much DC as go-go is.”

From a non-DC resident’s perspective, Pyramid Hotel Group Director of Restaurants Davide Crusoe points out that very few cities have a signature cocktail, and the draw comes from the rickey’s history and unique DC character.

“[The rickey] will be forever and always on our [menus].”

He designed The Sally’s cocktail menu, located in Dupont Circle’s The Fairfax at Embassy Row, which includes the Rickey on the Row made with Hangar 1 vodka, kaffir lime, Plymouth gin, The King’s Ginger, lime foam and egg. The cocktail is intended to be “a fun play with a lot of different things that we think are cool.”

Of all the elevated versions and plays on the original, Crusoe says, “It sort of morphed over time with people’s palates. The rickey has grown up with time and it’s stayed synonymous with the city.”

For some bars, the key rickey ingredient comes from an unexpected source: bubbles. Micah Wilder, mixologist and partner at Zeppelin, explains how the Shaw newcomer’s program is focused on Japanese spirits and bubbles.

“The Toki Highball is a really great example of a whiskey rickey: just super classic and simple,” he says of his rickey concoction.

Zeppelin is able to increase the fizziness of the cocktail by nearly freezing it using a special machine, which helps retain carbonation.

“The way the temperatures are working with the machine, it’s just really amazing.”

Made with Roku Gin, Italicus Rosolio Bergamot Liqueur, grapefruit, lemon and baller bubbles, Zeppelin’s Kabuki Springs cocktail is “a little bit more of a signature gin rickey [that tastes] like you’re drinking this Japanese soda.”

Wilder adds, “It’s super simple and good, and really what it’s supposed to be.”

No matter how it’s shaken, stirred or garnished, Jones says the rickey is still “the perfect cocktail for our weather.”

“It’s just this refreshing thing that you can drink fast and it cools you down a bit,” he elaborates. “And if you have enough of them, it’ll probably warm you up but you won’t care about the humidity anymore.”

Despite differences (political or not), DC denizens can all agree on one thing: the rickey belongs to the District.

The Gibson: 2009 14th St. NW, DC; www.thegibsondc.com
Hank’s Cocktail Bar: 1624 Q St. NW, DC; www.hankscocktailbar.com
The Occidental: 1475 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; www.occidentaldc.com
The Sally: 2100 Massachusetts Ave. NW, DC; www.thesallydc.com
Zeppelin: 1544 9th St. NW, DC; www.zeppelindc.com

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