I know summer is over because DC bars are rolling out their fall menus, which means richer, darker drinks for cooler days. I was thrilled to get observer status at the staff briefing for Bourbon Steak’s new fall cocktails, where charismatic head bartender Torrance Swain has unleashed his creativity to convince us that summer was overrated, anyway.
My favorite creation? Definitely the Tin Kit – Johnnie Walker Black, lime, vanilla, grapefruit bitters and grapefruit soda, shrouded in a mist of Compass Box Peat Monster whiskey. Peaty whisk(e)ys are difficult in cocktails because smoke overpowers everything (as anyone who’s perched by a campfire knows). But the mist of Peat Monster over this citrusy whiskey cocktail toned down its brightness, making it sophisticated enough for a posh autumn breakfast party in the Scottish countryside. Or in Georgetown. My takeaway: I need my own mini-atomizer so I can experiment with microscopic quantities of smoky scotch at my home bar (Amazon says it will be here tomorrow).
If you’re not into dark liquors, Bourbon Steak’s fall cocktail menu also has lots of vodka- and gin-based drinks swathed in berries and spices, like the Rare Essence, named for DC’s premier go-go band. What looks like a gin and tonic in a large brandy glass is actually a mix of Aviation Gin, Manzanilla Sherry and rose water. Aviation is less juniper-intensive than most gins, so it melds easily with the mineral-forward Manzanilla and the rose water, resulting in a crisp, floral-accented refresher. For counterpoint, it is served with a carafe of rich crimson goodness: housemade black current cordial, lemon oleo, Strega and a spring of fresh lavender. This startlingly rich, slightly tangy concoction can be added to the gin drink in whatever quantity makes you happy.
But for seasonality, whiskey is where it’s at when the temps drop. Even Archipelago, whose tiki theme is redolent of lazy weather and rum, is experimenting with whiskey. Earlier this month, Archipelago hosted Virginia Distilling Co. to put their Virginia-Highland Whisky to use – no ‘e’ because they brought over actual scotch from Scotland, added a little local malted liquor (to make regulators happy) and finished it in port-wine casks. The result is a smooth sipper that’s a little sweeter than most scotch (due to the barrel finish), with undertones of holiday spice and dark berries. Weirdly, this goes well in tiki drinks. The winner of the evening was the Virginian’s Downfall: whisky, peach brandy, pineapple, honey and mint – the holidays meet the tropics. In classic tiki fashion, it was deceptively easy to drink and packed a real punch.
While I love whisk(e)y, complex recipes and high-concept headturners, I was reminded of the timeless brilliance of simplicity when I waltzed into The Riggsby for happy hour with the girls – the classic champagne cocktail ($7 at happy hour!) is a glass of bubbles with an angostura-soaked sugar cube. So elegant, so refreshing – the bitters take the edge off the acidity in the champagne, while the gradual dissolution of the sugar cube means the cocktail changes gently over the course of consumption. It’s so easy to do at home, and looks so sophisticated (though you might need to stock up at office supply stores – cubes aren’t very trendy right now and might not be on your grocery’s shelves).
Of course, if you don’t want all the DIY bother, there are lovely bartenders who will do all the work for you.
Archipelago: 1201 U St. NW, DC; www.archipelagobardc.com
Bourbon Steak DC: 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; www.bourbonsteakdc.com
The Riggsby: 1731 New Hampshire Ave. NW, DC; www.theriggsby.com