If the fictional high school chemistry teacher Walter White from AMC’s Breaking Bad put his talents toward making cocktails instead of methamphetamine, he’d be Andy Bixby. At a cocktail tasting hosted at Dram & Grain in Adams Morgan, Bixby threw around terms like “spherification” to describe how he trapped applewood-smoked cucumber juice in a bubble using calcium chloride. He often spoke of cocktail “molarity” to illustrate the balance of his craft beverages. Bigsby even gets dehydrators and pressure cookers involved when he’s experimenting with new tinctures, spirits and syrups for the cocktail menu.
I nodded like I knew what he was talking about, recalling chemistry as my worst subject in high school. Had high school chemistry class been directed toward creating fun drinks using the periodic table of elements, maybe I would have paid more attention.
Bixby is the creative director of beverage at Dram & Grain, the speakeasy-style bar that originated in the secluded basement of the Jack Rose Dining Saloon. He is joined by wine director and cocktail collaborator Morgan Kirchner. After a 15-month hiatus, Dram now lives in a much larger, but still intimate, candlelit space down the street under the team’s newest venture, The Imperial. The bar and restaurant opened in November at the corner of 18th street and Florida avenue.
Dram & Grain is the bar to go to to find a cocktail you couldn’t possibly conceive of alone and have literally never had in your life. I’m not sure where else you could come across a drink that combines ingredients like miso, cucumber juice and ham fat “pearls.” Or what Bixby calls the “anti-Blood Mary,” a light and clean crowd favorite that includes toasted mustard seed and tomato water garnished with a strawberry salt-covered cherry tomato.
The former umami-forward cocktail with ham fat beads is called Pearls Before Swine and was inspired by a dish Kirchner had in Copenhagen.
“My background is in culinary arts so taking those things and putting them into a cocktail glass is like, my obsession,” Kirchner says. Its base is tamaro, one of the three house-made base ingredients.
Tamaro pulls flavors from tamari, dark miso, shoyu, lemongrass and ginger. Base potions anisette and baked citrus amaro join tamaro in the foreground of Dram’s cocktail menu. “I wanted to show others the power of a quarter of an ounce,” Bixby explains. “I wanted to make the base the star of the show. Showcase the versatility of how that ingredient works.”
In fact, the cocktail menu is organized by base ingredient, followed by the varying drinks that can be made using it. Currently, all three bases get their chance to shine in three different cocktails each. The menu is designed to show guests how tamaro’s complex flavor profile, for example, works just as well in a vodka-forward martini drink as it does in a tiki-inspired rum one.
Before you make a choice and order a drink, however, the Dram & Grain experience begins on arrival. Every guest is greeted with a “Welcome Punch of the Day.” The current iteration carbonated on draft is a blend of Jamaican rum, PX sherry, black walnut liqueur, red verjus and wine. The rotating draft cocktail serves as a little preview of what imaginative concoctions are to come.
Though such rare and intricate cocktails come at $13-$18 a pop (which isn’t so steep considering the time, science and trial-and-error Bixby and Kirchner put into them), these drinkable creations are about to get a lot more accessible: the bar just launched a happy hour for the very first time.
Starting this week Monday through Friday between 5-7:30 p.m., you can snag one of those detailed, technical-forward out-of-the-box cocktails for $11.
Shareable snacks of note on the happy hour menu include Carroll’s Clam Dip with crème fraîche, horseradish and sea salt lavash and five other delectable dishes.
Dram & Grain offers both reservation and open seating sections, and both tasting menu and a la carte options. The cocktail menu will change every couple of months but remain centered around the three house bases. Reservations can be made through Resy and there is a cozy 24-seat fireplace room available for private events. The bar is open Wednesday through Saturday starting at 5 p.m. For more information, click here.
Dram & Grain: 2001 18th St. NW, DC; 202-299-0334; www.dramandgrain.com