5 Innovative Bartenders of 2015
January 22, 2016 @ 12:00am
Sophie Szych of Quill at The Jefferson Hotel
On Tap: What was the top cocktail from Quill in 2015?
Sophie Szych: There were a couple. I like to use ginger, but make it seasonal. So for summer I had a hibiscus ginger soda and a rum cocktail with hibiscus and ginger. Then for fall, I did a play off a Moscow mule that was Concord grape and ginger soda that actually worked out super well and was absolutely delicious. We have one on the menu right now, a gin mule, with a ginger soda we make with a toasted cardamom pod and pineapple as well.
OT: Aside from the clear ginger, what were some of your favorite ingredients you used in 2015?
SS: I liked using a sweetener for cocktails that wasn’t just sugar. I loved using maple syrup and made maple water for a tonic base earlier this year that worked out really well. Honey is great, but I wanted to try something a little different. So, I burnt the honey and made a burnt honey syrup, which added more complexity and bitterness than just honey.
OT: Any resolution for 2016?
SS: Honest to god I’ve had the same one for two years now and that’s to finally do Beasty Boys for karaoke.
OT: What song?
SS: Intergalactic. I really want to do that. I practice in the mirror and it’s so terrible. I have yet to unleash it on the world, which is a good thing. But, I’m keeping that resolution.
OT: Something you’re looking forward to this year?
SS: Portland cocktail week. They are doing it in different cities now and I know they are doing one in Baltimore. I’ve never gone to Portland cocktail week and I’m interested in this format. The DC Rickey competition. I will probably try to do it again this year. The DC Bartenders Guild is really coming up with some awesome events.
OT: Nice, any other events you can tell us about?
SS: They have one called the DC Cocktail Queen Competition for female bartenders coming up in a few months and we have some pretty badass cocktail females in the city, so it will be fun to go up against those ladies.
Quill at The Jefferson Hotel: 1200 16th St. NW, DC; 202-448-2300;www.jeffersondc.com
Lukas B. Smith of Dram & Grain
On Tap: What cocktail or ingredient combination best describes your 2015?
Lukas B. Smith: It’s difficult because at this bar we have done a new menu every week. That’s six new cocktails every week. If you do the math it’s almost 250 cocktails last year. So it’s tough. But, it was a really good year; lots of accolades, so I’d probably say my cocktail would be a nice tall glass of Pappy 23.
OT: What are some favorite ingredients that you’ve used in the past year?
LS: The one that got us thinking more ambitiously about ingredients shows up in the Double Dragon cocktail, it’s a bone washed Cynar and Becherovka bitters. Cynar is a famous Italian liqueur, Becherovka is sort of grown up Fireball. We vacuum seal a smoked turkey leg, cook it at 60 degrees Celsius for 24 hour to break down all the connective tissue and wash out all the marrow, then we freeze it, wash all the fat off and get this finish that we are extending in a really incredible way. It’s not a common practice.
OT: What is something that you are looking forward to this year?
LS: My friend Chas Jefferson and I are launching Cotton and Reed in Union Market. He’s the head distiller, and I’m the assistant distiller. We are hopefully opening in March, with a tasting room. So the two most important things for me are going to be that and the expansion of the Order of the Monkey, which includes Secret Monkey Social Club and Tiki Monkey.
OT: Do explain Secret Monkey Social Club for those that may not know…
LS: Secret Monkey Social Club is a punch club and cabaret. We have live music and I try to get the best people in town, to make punch with me. It’s the fastest, best punch service and I think probably the most exciting way to enjoy cocktails in a live music setting. We had that at the Dolcezza Factory, but are moving out of that this year. Tiki Monkey was the last one we had. We are having a Chinese New Year Party on February 8, location TBD. We will do a Cinco de Mono party, since mono means monkey in Spanish. I’m really looking forward to the expansion of the Order of the Monkey because we’ve kept it tucked away and I’m ready to take it center stage.
Dram & Grain: 2007 18th St. NW, DC; text 202-607-1572 for reservations
Gina Chersevani of Buffalo & Bergen
On Tap: If you could describe 2015 as a cocktail, what would it be?
Gina Chersevani: Super effervescent and bubbly, because I gave birth to my Francesca, who is wonderful, it would have a little bit of bitterness, just because a couple of months were a little bit hard, and then it would have a really solid, almost sweet finish, with a little bit of flower to it, like a lavender.
OT: What ingredient did you fall in love with in 2015?
GC: I re-fell in love with persimmons. I really got into hanging persimmons to get their natural essence. It coagulates the fruit, so it makes its own syrup with no sugar or anything added. And that essence is what I forgot that I love the most. It wasn’t the boiling and making and adding the vinegars, it was the pure beauty of what the fruit can do on its own.
OT: Any mixology resolutions for 2016?
GC: My resolution for my bars in general is to pay attention more to the ingredients and not so much to the rule.
OT: I feel like you do that though…
GC: I do, but now my focus is stronger. I’m doing an “Under Pressure,” Queen and David Bowie menu that’s going to be my cocktail list for this year. Every single line of the lyrics will be in there and while the chorus repeats, the cocktails won’t repeat. The ingredient might stay the same but we highlight it in a different way. So, when I say staying true to the ingredient, that’s what I mean.
OT: Wow that sounds intense.
GC: This menu in particular is definitely very stressful, because if you’ve ever read the lyrics, they are very similar over and over, so it will be amazing to see, for example, what does adding cognac and deleting whiskey really change? How much can that change when making everything else the same?
OT: I need to go listen to this song after this interview…
GC: I love this song, and the a cappella version is really inspiring. Unfortunately both men are deceased but it’s really a true testament to time that two people can be gone and still be so relevant in the world of music. It mimics what bars are. Cocktails have been around for centuries, we are still making what was once somebody’s creation. Somebody came up with an old fashioned, somebody came up with a gimlet, and they are still being made and tweaked. There’s a real testament to artistry there.
Buffalo & Bergen: Union Market; 1309 5th St. NE, DC; 202-543-2549;www.buffalobergendc.com
Jo-Jo Valenzuela – VP of the DC Craft Bartenders Guild and Beverage Consultant
On Tap: Favorite cocktail of 2015?
Jo-Jo Valenzuela: Well clearly the Rizal. Whiskeys are definitely the most challenging thing. People are finally falling in love with them, but it’s still pretty tough and not a whole lot of people are well versed on how they can use whiskey. Mezcal at one point was big, but it’s so seasonal. Whiskey just took over the spirits.
OT: What was a favorite ingredient you used last year, something outside the box?
JV: I started using oysters as a garnish. “Oyster Can You See,” is the drink and it’s gin-based with a white pepper syrup, fresh lemon juice and a little bit of absinth, garnished with an oyster.
OT: Jo-Jo’s ultimate cocktail moment of 2015 was…
JV: Definitely winning Rickey of the year and the Margarita Wars. That was definitely a defining moment for me.
OT: Anything you want to focus on more in 2016?
JV: Definitely want to focus on the garnish game. In competitions it’s starting to show when someone comes up with a new garnish that has never been seen before. As far as bar techniques, probably throwing and working flair.
OT: Something you are really looking forward to this year?
JV: I want to open my own bar. I’ve wanted to for a while and now it just totally makes sense.
OT: Predict the cocktail trends for 2016…
JV: I think people are going to be more innovative in different presentations. I’ve been going in that direction myself. In food, before it even hits tables or bars, people say “can I have one of those.” I am going for the same thing when it comes to cocktails.
Justin Hampton of Poste Moderne Brasserie
On Tap: What were the DC area cocktail trends you saw in 2015?
Justin Hampton: I saw low alcohol by volume (ABV) beers popping up everywhere, particularly Stiegl-Radler Grapefruit, which is a grapefruit juice and beer combination with a super low ABV. Another trend was the use of shrubs. It’s been around since the colonial period, but I noticed this year, especially in DC, a lot of people using them. For example, at this year’s DC Rickey competition, you saw at least three entries that had a shrub as their acid source, instead of lemon or lime and I thought that was cool.
OT: What was your 2015 cocktail moment?
JH: My general manager surprised me and rented a slushy machine to play around with. At first, I was apprehensive and it came with high fructose corn syrup margarita mix and I thought this is horrible. But the first thing I tried putting through it was our Poste signature basil lemontini and it came out so good! It was an ah-ha moment that slushies could actually be really well done. I did a frozen Negroni for Negroni week and that came out amazingly well. Now I want a slushy machine behind the bar.
OT: That sounds delicious. Any other big moments?
JH: At this year’s DC Rickey competition, when Jo-Jo Valenzuela won. What stood out to me was when they announced him the winner, he cried, and I thought that was a special moment for the bartenders in the room and showed the passion and drive. It really showed how much it means to all of us to be in the industry and win these local events.
OT: Ingredients you really enjoyed using in 2015?
JH: Vinegar. I started making my own shrubs, made one or two in the past without success and when I got to Poste, I was determined to make something good and I knocked it out of the park on the first one I made here and I’ve been making them seasonably ever since. I think I’ll use vinegar for rest of my life.
OT: Two ingredients you want to work with in 2016?
JH: I want to make my own vinegar. I’m interested in preservation techniques. At work we have a dehydrator so I sliced up a lot of pears and used dehydrated slices as a garnish. I also made dehydrated peppers and was able to use them in ingredients, including my own pepper flakes. Pickling and jamming I’ve done before but I am really eager to keep that going. I don’t necessarily want to use one ingredient, I want to preserve everything.
OT: So if the apocalypse happens, we should really come find you with the preserved foods?
JH: I’ve been really interested in preserving foods. Honey is a good ingredient I’ve been thinking of using too. Honeycomb has antimicrobial benefits, it’s healthy, a good substitute for sugar and it preserves. They found it in a clay pot thousands of years old! Keep your eye out for my beehive. I’m not joking, I want to try it on the Poste roof.
Poste Moderne Brasserie: 555 8th St. NW, DC; 202-783-6060; www.postebrasserie.com