D.C.’s Cocktail Culture in 2020
March 8, 2020 @ 5:24pm
Washington’s cocktail culture is unique, mature and truly our own, highlighting the diversity of the city. To see what’s on the horizon for cocktails in 2020, we asked local bar industry professionals what they think will define DC’s drink scene this year.
A Focus on Health + Mindful Drinking
We saw the growth of low-ABV and zero-proof cocktails last year. Bar programs don’t just offer one or two nonalcoholic options anymore. We’re seeing more of these options on menus and some that are even entirely built on zero-proof drinks.
Chris Mendenhall, lead mixologist of Quadrant Bar and Lounge in the West End, says, “One trend that continues to stay relevant is the desire for low-ABV beverages. Consumers seek balance, and while they are not willing to give up alcohol entirely, they are looking for cocktails that have a lower ABV.”
Paul Taylor, beverage manager at Blagden Alley’s Columbia Room, agrees.
“Low [and] no ABV has been included on trend lists for a couple of years and will continue to be, as people become more mindful of what they are consuming.”
This extends to a general consciousness of health overall – not just for patrons, but also for industry professionals.
Jake Kenny, bar manager of The Royal in Shaw, says, “I find bartenders taking better care of themselves and exercising more. Now, bartenders are just as likely to post pictures of them[selves] deadlifting or going for a run as they are of new cocktails they created or guest bartending promotions.”
Alternative Ingredients + Ferments
A cocktail’s complex flavors are the result of the careful balance of its various components. Increasingly, the source of a drink’s various elements come from outside the typical ingredients usually seen.
At the new Silver Lyan in Penn Quarter, head bartender Andrea Tateosian expects to see people paying closer attention to “ingredients they have been taking for granted, like sugar.” Recently, she’s seeing uses of alternative sugars in cocktails.
“From raw honey to sorghum to palm sugar, people are looking to adjust the base ingredients in cocktails to learn what complements what, and what flavor they would like their syrups to add.”
Will Patton, bar director of Bresca on 14th Street, thinks the utilization of culinary techniques behind the bar will also be embraced.
“This is seen in how we try to use techniques to maximize flavor while maintaining a minimal amount of ingredients. Fermentation is a good example of this with D.C. bartenders employing lacto-fermentation and koji yeast to add different dimensions to their cocktails.”
Chad Spangler, co-owner of Service Bar in Shaw, sees the use of all things fermented as both good and bad.
“It will yield some amazing stuff by those devoted to it, and it will yield some rather nasty stuff from those less focused. I think this trend will rise and fall quickly in breadth and popularity, but the best players will hold on and utilize ferments to create the best new drinks in 2020 and beyond.”
Julia Ebell, creative director of The Gibson on 14th, also sees more bars focusing on alternative ingredients for a variety of reasons.
“Cocktail trends in 2020 are going to be strongly skewed by new tariffs and import laws affecting products your favorite cocktail bars already rely on. This may cause a turn back toward a more culinary style of bartending focusing on ingredients bar programs can make themselves like shrubs, tinctures and syrups.”
Benito Bermudez, founder of Café Unido – located inside Latin market La Cosecha, Union Market’s new neighbor – sees parallels between coffee and cocktails.
“Just like we are big fans of acidity in coffee, many bars are really dialing the acidity in drinks with concentrated malic, citric and other acids so as to not depend on the seasonality of citric fruits.”
The focus on ingredients is also a key part of the move toward sustainable practices that more local bars are embracing. Tateosian says using local, seasonal ingredients to make kojis, shrubs and more will become a feature on more menus and continue to move the sustainability conversation forward.
“Recently, there has been more of a focus on both local ingredients and sustainable practices,” she continues. “I believe those two practices together will lead to a new focus on food preservation techniques.”
Andra “A.J.” Johnson, beverage director at Serenata – also located inside La Cosecha – concurs.
“Restaurants that have solid bar programs are doing a lot of cross-utilization and figuring out ways to be more sustainable.”
Joshua Scott, assistant food and beverage director at Anchovy Social in Capitol Riverfront, is an advocate for the push toward sustainable spirits.
“It is important that we are representing producers and brands that are making an effort to use organic ingredients; finding purpose or innovative ways to use ingredients that were formerly considered waste’ fairly compensating the farmers for the products they are using; or even finding ways to reduce emissions. All of these I continually see more of a push for and am proud to be part of that group.”
Agave Spirits Continue to Rise
2019 saw more mezcal find its way onto menus. This year, expect a rise in mezcal and the addition of another agave-based spirit: sotol.
“I love seeing how much fun bartenders are having with them, whether it be reinventing classics or even creating new and exciting tiki riffs,” Anchovy Social’s Scott says. “We are seeing agave-based spirits everywhere.”
Brian Nixon, general manager at Truxton Inn in Bloomingdale, also thinks we will continue to see mezcal increase its presence as more brands hit the market.
“I’m sure you’ll see a few of the outlier spirits show up on lists here or there, but I think until there’s more knowledge by the general public, they won’t become real mainstays.”
For Henry Gentenaar, owner of Maximo Mezcal – a D.C.-based mezcal – this is good news as interest grows.
“We see continued interest in mezcal, but now also reposado and añejo mezcals as well as other Mexican spirits like sotol. However, there still needs to be education around the newer offerings, which are still relatively hard to find.”
Keep it Simple
Nixon is also seeing a resurgence of simpler drinks, like the highball.
“It’s easy to get at just about any bar, showcases the main spirit and is lower in sugar. It also works well for those who are trying to be more mindful of alcohol consumption.”
Kenny of The Royal is excited about the possibilities in highlighting different styles of a single spirit in a cocktail program – specifically rum.
“Rum very much has its own terroir as you jump around between different islands and distillation and aging techniques. It’s fun seeing talented bar programs using those flavors in new and unique ways. It seems that now more than ever, bartenders are choosing few specific styles of spirits, hyper-focusing on them and really finessing some spectacular drinks out of them.”
Dominik Lenikowski, bar general manager at The Doyle in Dupont Circle, likes to use unique ingredients. But he says that does not mean you need to have a mile-long ingredient list for any given cocktail.
“The key is to really curate a wonderful flavor profile.”
It’s All About The Experience
Cocktail culture in D.C. has elevated significantly in the last few years, and while that means you can get a well-crafted cocktail almost anywhere, it also means they are no longer applauded but expected. As a result, bars need to find other ways to impress guests. Deke Dunne, bartender and manager of The Eaton Hotel’s Allegory downtown, says it’s about the complete experience.
“You now have to look at the other factors that create an amazing overall experience for your guests,” he says. “You now have [to] focus on other things such as service, music, art, lighting and even entertainment. Vibe is essential. You have to create a circular experience for the guests from the moment they walk in [until] the moment they leave. We believe that 2020 will be the year where you start to see the broader D.C. cocktail community embracing that idea.”
Lenikowski of The Doyle concurs about high expectations setting the tone and customers being more informed.
“This means that people aren’t willing to blindly spend money on a mediocre menu and experience. Cocktail bars are responding to this and getting ever more creative.”
Allegory: 1201 K St. #1 NW, DC; www.allegory-dc.com
Anchovy Social: 221 Tingey St. SE, DC; www.anchovysocial.com
Bresca: 1906 14th St. NW, DC; www.brescadc.com
Café Unido: 1280 4th St. NE, DC; www.cafeunido.com
Columbia Room: 124 Blagden Alley NW, DC; www.columbiaroomdc.com
The Doyle: 1500 New Hampshire Ave. NW, DC; http://doyle.bar
The Gibson: 2009 14th St. NW, DC; www.thegibsondc.com
Quadrant Bar and Lounge: 1150 22nd St. NW, DC; www.ritzcarlton.com
The Royal: 501 Florida Ave. NW, DC; www.theroyaldc.com
Serenata: 1280 4th St. NE, DC; www.serenatadc.com
Service Bar: 926-928 U St. NW, DC; www.servicebardc.com
Silver Lyan: 900 F St. NW, DC; www.silverlyan.com
Truxton Inn: 251 Florida Ave. NW, DC; www.truxtoninndc.com