Bourbon Steak’s Lead Bartender Talks New Patio Space + Craft Cocktails
April 26, 2021 @ 12:42pm
Since opening its doors 11 years ago, Bourbon Steak has become a D.C. institution, known for their decadent meat and seafood preparations in addition to a cocktail program that has garnered a loyal following amongst the District. Newly minted lead bartender Engi Alebachew, who has been with the spot since the beginning, just launched his inaugural cocktail menu that guests can enjoy at the restaurant’s vibrant new patio space called The Ranch. District Fray spoke to Alebachew about his seasonal libations (we highly recommend the strawberry basil gin and tonic) and the lush green floral ambiance that serves as the stage for his creations this spring.
District Fray: You’ve been behind the bar at Bourbon Steak since its opening 11 years ago. How as the cocktail program evolved? How has the pandemic affected that evolution?
Engi Alebachew: A lot has changed since then. I remember us having these 10 pages of cocktail menus – half house cocktails, the rest classic cocktails. Over time, we decided to take off the classic cocktails. Let’s face it: most cocktail drinkers are not going out to have a classic cocktail, they are coming out to try our creations. Our guests start adapting to the rising cocktail culture in the area. The very sensible approach for us was to be innovative and add more seasonal flavors. For example, Manhattan or old-fashioned drinkers start switching to our barrel aged whiskey cocktails, and people who enjoy Cosmopolitans start noticing some of our seasonally flavored vodka cocktails.
Initially, you planned for this bartending position to be a part time job as you worked towards a degree in bioengineering. When was the moment you realized this was what you wanted to do full-time? Has your background in bioengineering made its way into your cocktails?
At the beginning of my time at Bourbon Steak I was very much doing everything. I was a busser, then a food runner, then started helping behind the bar later at night washing glasses and restocking. While I was working behind the bar, I started getting questions from our guests about drinks, and every time I had to refer them to the other bartenders. Then I decided, why not study the basic techniques? I went home and started researching what I needed to do, then came back and asked my former bosses behind the bar to teach me. I wouldn’t be here without them, and the rest is history.
How does Bourbon Steak stand out from what some expect of a steakhouse, particularly when it comes to the drink menu?
In the past steakhouses only paired their food with wine, that was the “safest” move. But people started discovering beyond wine and started trying spirits; like pairing steak with whiskey or cocktails that are created with either bourbon or scotch. For example, we have a cocktail called “Last Minute Shopping,” made from bourbon and scotch. We use a wood burning grill for our steak, therefore the smokiness from the scotch is a perfect match with our steak. Even having a Manhattan or a nice bourbon neat or on ice can be perfect with most of our dishes. It is up to us, the bartenders [to] help evolve the drinking habit of our guests.
What are some of your favorite ingredients to utilize in this new cocktail menu and where do you get your inspiration for the cocktails?
I try to pick and utilize seasonal flavors, whether it is the lemongrass and quinine in our gin and tonic or the berries infused in our egg white washed cocktail, to matcha flavored and clarified milk vodka drink and the kiwi and mezcal cocktail. My two main inspirations are my guests and the season. I try to listen and observe what my guests like to see on our menu with the seasonal ingredients that are available.
Tell me a bit about the new patio space and how the environment plays into your menu of drinks you are offering guests.
It was a very difficult year for our industry, and we needed to be extra creative to bring back our guests, while ensuring the safety of both [them] and team members. Therefore, we decided to utilize the beautiful, bright space outside by the awning and create The Ranch. From the furniture to the glassware, you feel like you are seated in a ranch. I started visualizing what would go well with that space, both color- and flavor-wise. That is how I created house-made gin and tonics, raspberry flavored cocktails and the champagne cocktails.
How are you visualizing the cocktail program under your experienced watch?
I will be emphasizing finding a balance when creating a menu – ensuring that I have something for everybody that’s coming to my bar [with] a good cross section of spirits and cocktails represented. Hopefully we can get a few exclusive whiskeys on our shelf. [We’ll be] going back to aging more cocktails, making our own bitters, and telling our story through cocktails.
For more on Bourbon Steak and The Ranch, and to book your reservation, visit www.fourseasons.com/washington/dining/restaurants/bourbon_steak/ and follow @bourbonsteakdc on Instagram.
Bourbon Steak at The Four Seasons Hotel: 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-944-2026
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