Introducing 202 Proof, a new recurring series in our magazine that dives deep into the ever-changing, ever-innovating world of D.C. cocktails and mixology. In such a world, things seldom standstill — it seems every month, we’re seeing old familiar spaces reborn with new looks, menus and décor. Homegrown chefs and visionaries are turning shuttered mainstays into new and vibrant concepts, and cocktail entrepreneurs immersed in the science, business and soul of mixology are using their wealth of knowledge to blaze new trails. It’s not enough to have a fancy new space; inspiration and hard-earned experience are required to truly deliver. This column seeks to find those new and persevering bar programs and spotlight them for the community. We’ll also provide a more technical angle to mixology. As a certified bar mixologist through Pernod Ricard, I’m hoping to touch on chemistry, production methods and the way differing ingredients harmonize with one another before they touch your lips. For our first iteration of 202 Proof I traveled to the West End, a part of D.C. long regarded as a food and drink desert where one’s only source for a tipple is high-end wine bars, establishments such as Blue Duck Tavern, and corporate hotel lounges full of lobbyists in boxy suits.
Enter Micah Wilder, a famed D.C. mixologist who got his start in San Francisco in the graphic design and visual effects industry. He founded Wilder Brothers with his brother Ari, developing his own bitters, herbal tonics and ginger beer. They moved to D.C. where they’ve developed quite the resume creating cocktail programs for Robert Wiedmaier restaurants (along with D.C. legends such as Dean Myers); managing their own spaces at Fed on 18th Street and Chaplin; and developing the beverage lineup for 14th Street haunts like Black Jack, Pearl Dive Oyster Bar and Zeppelin in Shaw.
Not one to stand still, Wilder always wanted to build a hotel bar. He joined up with the team behind Timber Pizza Company and Call Your Mother, Daniela Moreira and Andrew Dana, to create a “sorta South American” spot led by then head chef Johanna Hellrigl, who has since moved on to other projects, and chef pâtissier Camila Arango of Union Market’s Pluma.
The space, dubbed Mercy Me, is inspired by the founders’ cultural influences as well as Wilder’s own extensive travels to América del Sur.
Wilder’s trips through South America would make Indiana Jones envious. His sojourns to Colombia, Peru and Argentina inspired unexpected connections, like discovering off-the-wall Buenos Aires bars and on-draft vermouth bars like La Fuerza run by hipster Millennials. He also toured Colombia seeking inspiration to combine a tropical, Caribbean vibe with aperitivos, finding unexpected uses for bitter spirits like artichoke Cynar and Italian Amari such as Fernet.
All of these elements converge on a meandering yet polished space in the West End: an eclectic combination of leafy greenery, French cabaret furniture, and cabana styling. The bar itself is the centerpiece of the space, a smooth quadrangle of earthy sandstone and rivers of jasper running the length. Everything is purposefully planned yet delightfully organic, and I regret leaving my white linen suit at home.
Mercy Me was launched just before the pandemic. As Wilder and his team pivoted to a social-distancing model, they made a crucial discovery: They could forgo time-consuming cocktail mixing and make the cocktail program pre-batched.
“Batched’’ or “pre-batched” are terms used to describe cocktails made en masse prior to the day’s service, delivered from a bottle, keg or cooler. While a big part of mixology is fancy bar work and showmanship (trust me, they do that too), the philosophy behind batched drinks is straightforward; Wilder prefers to spotlight the quality of ingredients, the consistency of flavor and the “extras” — garnish and ice — as the main attraction.
For Wilder, this was crucial. He wanted his staff to deliver crafted libations properly while also freeing up bar staff to make the garnish right, present the cocktail and discuss ingredients without being too distracted to connect with customers.
Bitters + Barkeepers
I’m seated in front of the service bar taking in the lovely aroma of mint from the infusion station when I’m offered an interesting cocktail from Hunter, one of the bartenders. It’s actually a frozen blend of two Caribbean drinks on their menu. Hold the “Margaritaville” jokes because this is serious:
Rendered coconut fat
A blend of lighter rums
…swirled together with….
Strawberry Guava Daiquiri
Rum (typically light rum is used)
Guava strawberry puree
…the secret proportions of which become…
Kept super-cold and served from one of those movie theatre slushie machines, this blend is refreshing, full of fruit and just a bit tart. Pisco and lime, two ingredients most recognizable to fans of Peruvian cocktails as the base of a pisco sour, add the tartness that I find most welcome. It provides a bit of an “edge” to the usual fruity, sweet presentation of these drinks.
Blending rums is another important element of this cocktail: All rum is essentially sugarcane molasses or juice, fermented and then distilled into a spirit. However, there’s quite a wide variety of rum — everything from funky Jamaican rums made in pot stills to deep, heavy blackstrap rums to more fruity, light rums. They range from thick and syrupy to light and delicate.
Wilder notes viscosity is an important element he considers when blending drinks, and by creating his own precise mix of rums he’s able to prevent the cocktail from being too light, too syrupy or too heavy. And the Miami Vice is actually perfect, retaining some silkiness from the coconut fat with just enough sugar from the rum to complement the salt and keep it balanced. Plus, unlike some actual slushies, you don’t need a spoon for this. The garnish is a slice of dried blood orange, perched on the snowcap of colada.
Full disclosure: I had several cocktails and some delicious food from the kitchen and everything was fantastic. But another standout worth noting is a technical masterpiece called a Kitty Claw. It’s a clarified cafe milk punch made in-house. Alcoholic milk punch might sound like an odd innovation, but it’s actually a traditional method dating back to the mid-1700s England where it was a popular style for centuries. Queen Victoria herself was quite a fan and employed a royally designated blender to keep Buckingham Palace supplied with the stuff.
The Mercy Me team spends three days making the Kitty Claw. To start, they use spent coffee from the Yours Truly lobby, mixed with Ten-One and Ron Zacapa No.23 rum, blanco tequila, chia concentrate, lime juice, kosher salt, crushed Aleppo peppers, and house-made panela sugar — which is then whisked together and left to steep for a minimum of 12 hours.
Next, the team warms up whole milk and folds in the steeped mixture, allowing the milk to curdle with the alcoholic compounds. They let it steep for another 12 hours, then strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve with a commercial-sized coffee filter into a wide, four-quart container. Once completely filtered, which typically takes about 4 to 8 hours, the remaining beverage is transferred to a clean container and served over ice and a dash of expressed orange oil.
The result is a sublime, savory concoction which strikes a precise balance of sweet, silky and earthy. You wouldn’t know there’s a ton of booze in there and the acid from the coffee gives the cocktail just enough tang to invite another sip. It’s an experience that truly escapes words — do yourself a favor and try it. I can only imagine how much trial and error and recipe adjustments it took to arrive at the final beverage.
We’ll Take It Neat
It’s quite impressive how much is made from scratch, decanted and manipulated using fancy tools. All these cocktails are blended, strained, shaken, mixed, chilled, kegged and nitrogenated for ease of pouring. Despite this effort, Wilder insists that the finishing touches are what makes the cocktail.
Cue the showmanship: the presentation of their smoked Manhattan was quite impressive, with a jet-powered bong-looking device pumping smoky goodness to the glass beneath an upturned saucer holding a truffle.
Fancy bar work and elegant glassware only go so far, though. At its core, a cocktail program is only as good as the technical expertise of the staff. Wilder and his team have shown they’ve done the research, traveling abroad and returning with ideas perfect for a South American escape in the West End. From the intense amount of effort required to make pre-batched cocktails at scale, to the elegant garnishes and unique recipes, it’s clear Wilder and his team at Mercy Me are true cocktail professionals. I can see Mercy Me becoming a star of the West End and I am excited for what’s next for Wilder — and this space in particular.