While frosé floods the District in warm weather months, the creative minds behind Zeppelin encourage discerning drinkers to sip on something a little bit more progressive this fall. From the brothers behind the extensive cocktail list at Chaplin’s in Logan Circle, Micah and Ari Wilder crafted Zeppelin’s short but heavy-hitting cocktail list with one goal: be approachably esoteric.
“We steer clear of trendy,” Micah says bluntly. “Whatever’s in, we try not to capitalize [on it].”
Their approach at the Shaw newcomer, which opened this spring, is to draw inspiration from experiencing taste and travel. From architectural aesthetics to discovery of an unusual and savory ingredient, the Wilder brothers pride themselves on not acting on things they see everyone else doing.
“[Ideas] don’t just come from our dining experiences,” Ari adds. “It’s not always from other restaurants and cocktail bars. A lot of it is a blank canvas with very little influence from other people and places. That’s what’s always been great about us working together. We can bounce ideas off each other and one thought turns into a whole new direction.”
A large portion of the cocktail list at Zeppelin is dedicated to the highball, a tried and true cocktail that requires only a few basic ingredients: ice, a base spirit and soda water. At Zeppelin, the base spirit varies between whisky, bourbon, gin or vodka. The common denominator? They’re all Japanese and hard to find elsewhere in the city.
While most highballs are meant to be slow-sipping, many fall flat as the soda bubbles dissipate. To create the perfect cocktail, the Wilder brothers asked themselves how they could ensure a drink for sipping and savoring throughout the meal.
“We love champagne,” Ari says. “We enjoy playing with bubbles.”
Enter the Toki highball machine, a device that is able to procure champagne-like effervescence by running water through a coil system that creates small, continuous bubbles. The bubbles pass through a baking soda tablet and finish as a stream. The water pours out slower than a soda dispenser, but the result is long-lasting bubbles.
“It’s like what you see what you’re looking at the bottom of a freshly opened bottle of champagne,” Ari continues. “Bubbles continuously rising, velvety texture. It keeps going and going.”
Rather than just using champagne or a sparkling wine to enhance the cocktails, each libation is finished with highball bubbles so the drinker can enjoy a well-balanced, bubbly cocktail over a long period of time without the effect falling flat. The brothers are proud enough of this finishing touch to include it in the list of ingredients as “Baller Bubbles.”
While the use of a highball machine isn’t the most unusual idea (it’s popular in New York and Chicago), the brothers continue to revolutionize their take on highballs by mixing Japanese spirits with unusual combinations of sweet and savory ingredients.
“We didn’t want a huge, ridiculous scotch program because it doesn’t play with most of our food,” Ari comments. “The direction was to have a smaller, procured program that would focus on newer brands of spirits that aren’t everywhere.”
In fact, food plays a big factor in their approach to Zeppelin’s cocktail program.
“Sometimes you see things that you normally wouldn’t even think to add,” Micah explains. “You take sweet in a different direction. A combination of several ingredients gives us an idea. Food is definitely more of an inspiration than beverage.”
At Zeppelin, Chef Minoru Ogawa influences the cocktail list not by way of menu planning but by providing access to lesser-known ingredients to the expansive sushi menu and Japanese street fare.
“Inspiration is just walking through our kitchens and discovering cool ingredients we’ve never heard of,” Ari continues. “A part of how we’re discovering ingredients is seeing how the chefs use [them] in their sauces. We get to see and test fermented pastes. We ask the chefs about it. We start playing with [the ingredients].”
Fermented yuzu kosho (a fermented paste made from green or red Thai chili peppers, yuzu peel, and salt) and sansho (Japanese peppercorns, which are similar to but more potent than Sichuan peppercorns) are both put to work along with ingredients like pandan, tamarind vinegar and choya plum to create the cocktails on Zeppelin’s menu. The yuzu kosho in particular is the defining ingredient for Zeppelin’s number one bestselling cocktail: The Heartbreaker.
“It really pushes the depth of the cocktail,” Micah confirms.
The brothers take pride in how often regulars will come into both of their locations with questions about hard-to-find spirits and liquors. They’re both emphatic about being an approachable neighborhood restaurant.
“We have a good chef and we love the neighborhood,” Micah says of their Shaw location. “We want to give the neighborhood what it needs.”
Ari adds that their passion is reinforced by people, and “it feels so much more valuable for us to develop such an amazing staff and culture of regulars and neighborhood supporters.”
So the next time you’re at Zeppelin, dive in with questions about the cocktail program. If you’re looking for a certain spirit, the Wilder brothers will most likely source it for you and incorporate it into the next iteration of their drink menu.
“[Our customers] continue to be a part of the decisions we make.”
Learn more about Zeppelin at www.zeppelindc.com.
Zeppelin: 1544 9th St. NW, DC; 202-506-1068; www.zeppelindc.com