One can find a cocktail in most places that serve booze. Sometimes they’re nothing more than a bottom-shelf gin and tonic from a barside soda faucet, and sometimes they’re intentional, crafted, liquid poetry, conjured by a top-notch mixologist.
One such expert is Mick Perrigo, of Left Door and Columbia Room fame. He’s the driving creative force behind Hook Hall’s new cocktail experience program. Hook Hall is relatively new on the scene, opening in 2019 in the 3400 block of Georgia Avenue Northwest. The place is humongous — billed as the “largest event space in D.C.” Spacious inside and out, Hook Hall is decked out with generous outdoor areas festooned with yurt-style tents, funky lighting fixtures and furnishings reminiscent of a camp along the Silk Road. Indoors, a modest service bar is nestled against a wood-plank wall, dwarfed by the rest of the cavernous space, complete with tables and a lacquered dance floor several times larger than the square footage of my modest apartment.
But I’m not here for the line dancing — I’m here for the cocktail experience. Mick Perrigo, the maestro of this elite mixology program, provides guests with three handcraft specialty cocktails, complemented with ambiance and, according to the website, “unexpected moments.” I have been in the industry for quite a while and frequented a healthy number of bars in D.C. and across the world, so not much is unexpected anymore. Still, I’m intrigued as I sat for this experience during prime time on a Friday night.
Upon arriving, I’m shown through the massive space to the edge of the service bar and beelined to a large wooden wall. With the swipe of the host’s hand, a secret section of unfinished wood planks opens into a tiny space. The interior is quite intimate: two tables and one bar and a 12-seat total capacity. The décor is a funky blend of “Clue” mansion and Elvis Jungle room, with the bar lined with hammered copper mugs, plants and spooky knick-knacks.
Prior to coming, I filled out a survey indicating my cocktail preferences and learned I’m pretty set in my ways. While yours truly considers himself an omnivore of distilled spirits, I’m not a fan of sugary drinks nor do I particularly like bitter liqueurs like Sambuca or anisette. I mentioned I love drinks that involve fortified wines like Madeira, sherry and Port. It’s one of the few times I’ve had “homework” to complete before a night of drinking; the prerequisite for designing a tailored experience.
As I’m seated at the bar, in walks Mick, the Babe Ruth of the D.C. cocktail scene. Originally scheduled to spend a year in West Virginia, he was lured away from the Blue Ridge Mountains to breathe life into this special program at Hook Hall. He’s entertaining me on the second week of service and we dive, almost immediately, into a lively conversation.
A WORD WITH MICK
District Fray: Mick, this isn’t your first rodeo. Can you tell me about what drew you here? Why this place, why here and why now?
Mike Perrigo: Anna, the owner, discussed the space with me, and I was re-inspired to work for the bar. We do hospitality first, serving delicious cocktails, in a beautiful space.
I’m struck by the contrasting visual style — this place is far different than what’s outside. What went into this?
Anna’s idea was “industrial nautical.” The wooden planks are nautical, the pipes on the wall are industrial, and we’re tucked away in a private spot, not unlike a stateroom. A lot of this stuff is borrowed from other bars, like Left Door, and this (he points to a wooden box that once held TNT) is my girlfriend’s.
What’s it like to bring an idea like this to life?
It’s a lot of work. Right now I’m making “The Captain’s Log”: a bi-weekly and bi-monthly catalog of motifs, working with staff and collaborating to make each experience special and unexpected.
You use the word unexpected a lot. It’s a word that’s, well, unexpected in the cocktail industry, where folks work hard to standardize recipes for familiarity. So why that word?
For us to deliver the unexpected, we wish to keep developing surprising, more interesting and more crazy experiences. One motif we have coming up, “Puzzles and Treasures,” will feature me playing puzzles with the group.
Can you elaborate on motif?
“Motif” is the theme for our cocktail flight, [that involves] a more multilayered theme. For example, this months’ [Editor’s note: the interview took place in October 2021] motif is “Ghosts and Ghouls”.
How do you decide what the next flight will be?
It’s a complex process of flavor discovery that is a bit like composing a song. Sometimes the music just flows right away, and other times we need to do several edits before it’s perfect. In each case, the inspiration may come from a single ingredient or idea, or it can be a meeting of multiple concepts blending together. We change them every two or three weeks, depending on holidays and seasons.
Well, in the registration, customers are asked to give preferences. But the cocktails seem prescribed. To what extent does that survey matter?
If you have a flavor profile that you like that works with our cocktails, we can adjust the mix. For example, recently a customer said she liked smoky and spicy drinks, so I used Chacho aguardiente instead of gin.
I saw you’ve got a lot of other local spirits here like Cotton & Reed and Catoctin Creek. Are there any new or interesting spirits you’re looking forward to testing out?
We are getting in some very limited single village mezcals very soon and excited to delve into some wonderful expressions of terroir within the agave world of Oaxaca. We’re also trying some new craft aquavit and absinthe that may end up playing a role in one of the future motifs.
DOWN TO BUSINESS
On to the cocktails — we’ve got three. The first up is “Hunted or the Hunter?” consisting of a delicious mix of Cotton & Reed gin, housemade lime cordial, black cardamom, blackberries and Peychaud’s bitters. Served on vintage glassware, this beverage is rimmed with botanical gin salts to give a salty and sweet libation a nice balance, with a strong dose of lime. It’s a delicious retreat for folks who like sweet, silky lime drinks.
By the way, it’s important to highlight the role of cocktail bitters in a beverage. Typically 50% ABV and made with herbs and botanicals, bitters have a wide range of flavors — orange, chocolate, mint, lemon, hibiscus, lavender, walnut, fig, anise, mole and hundreds of others. They could be tangy, herbal, or in the case of one of my favorites, 18.21’s “Spicy Creole,” face-meltingly bitter.
Next up is a riff of an old Columbia Room staple – the “Corpse Reviver #2” Traditionally, this is made of gin, Cocchi di Torino vermouth, Cointreau, lime, but Mick turns it on its head with a dose of white rum from D.C.-made Cotton and Reed, paired with lemon juice, Carpano Antico dry vermouth, Luxardo triple sec, blue algae, Peychaud’s bitters and a bay leaf. This cocktail has the look of blue Kool-Aid and is a surprising (there’s the “unexpected” again) mix of herbs, sweetness, and a refreshing warmth that hits the belly nicely.
Finally, we have “Sleepy Hollow,” a blend of Catoctin Creek Rye whiskey, lemon and tepache — fermented pineapple in brown sugar and spices. Served in a Tom Collins glass with a metal straw, garnished with the pulped pineapple and ice, this polished, balanced and savory blend is rounded and mellow. It’s perfect for fans of spiced pears and woody drams of rye whiskey.
I hope to see more establishments creating these types of cocktail clubs. It’s a great way for mixologists to explore new spirits and themes while simultaneously providing a private, intimate setting in which to educate consumers. As I nurse my final cocktail, savoring each delicious sip, I watch Mick make cocktails for the other guests. He’s got great presence and bar-side manner, like the doctors of old, creating tonics and elixirs to heal what ails us and separates us from the reality that lies outside that wooden plank door.
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