I never thought I’d say this, but I first heard of The Fountain Inn from TikTok. My colleague, who is far hipper than me, shared a short video clip of a mixologist making a cocktail using fancy tools and expert movements. The words Fountain Inn were overlaid on the digital short. I was intrigued.
The Fountain Inn has quite the backstory. The original Georgetown tavern was founded in 1783 by John Suter, a hotelier, and hosted many of the early nabobs of the grand American experiment. Thomas Jefferson was a patron, rumored to have been impressed by Suter’s ability to source fine sherries and Madeiras. George Washington ate and slept there in 1791, the same day he first saw the surveyor’s plans for the Federal City, which would later bear his name. The tavern also saw spirited debate between two candidates for president in 1800: Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Adams. When the venerable Suter himself died in 1794, his tavern faded into memory.
The Fountain Inn, Reborn
The idea to resuscitate The Fountain Inn came from Viyas Sundaram, owner of the building where the Inn sits, on a barrel picking trip to WhistlePig distillery in Vermont. Sundaram, along with several other high-end whiskey collectors, envisioned a small tavern alongside an intimate tasting room focused on bourbon and other whiskeys.
“It’s not a late night, tie-another-one-on type of place,” Sundaram tells me.
Sundaram aims to highlight cocktail service and whiskey tasting as a shared experience among guests, much like what his fellow whiskey connoisseurs — and presidents of old — might have experienced sharing a bottle of fine whiskey.
“We owe it to the name and to the space to develop this kind of atmosphere,” he says.
To bring this idea to fruition, The Fountain Inn needed some industry heavy hitters. Day-to-day, the joint is headed up by Morgan Kirchner, a veteran wine and spirits professional who’s held senior beverage roles at both Imperial and Jack Rose Dining Saloon. Behind the bar she’s backed up by Dakota Hines, a technical and experienced mixologist from Asheville who’s adept at the creation of tonics, bitters and syrups.
A Charming + Cozy Experience
I am their guest early on a Wednesday, and upon entering I’m quite charmed by the darkened interior and cozy settings. It truly is intimate, with room for probably 20 guests at the most. Grated cages line the wall, holding precious amber liquids. I’m seated at the bar, the lower lining reminiscent of a cryptid’s armored skin. Soft, low lights remind me of candles at a worn oak table.
My first order of business in any bar is scanning the liquor collection to see what they’re working with. You can tell a lot about the expertise and creative impetus behind a bar by what they choose to stock. Here, I’m spotting top-shelf bourbons like George T. Stagg, WhistlePig, various expressions of Weller and the insanely sought-after Pappy Van Winkle. Dozens of other labels stand out to me as spirits I known and love. They’ve got fancy rums from far-flung corners of the world and a host of gins and vintage offerings, too, like a 45-year-old amari like Cynar and aged vermouths.
“We’ve intentionally created a well-rounded spirits program, something to interest both cocktail novices and more tenured drinkers,” says Kirchner, pouring drams of mezcal for guests to my right. “Each guest is an individual and we strive to [tailor] the experience. It doesn’t matter if they order a $685 per-ounce Japanese whiskey or a beer.”
I ask if there’s any spirits they’d like to serve but haven’t yet been able.
“We’re pretty spoiled,” Dakota says, scanning the libations behind him. “We can pretty much get whatever we want.”
That’s quite the privilege and not common. When I was buying spirits professionally, we couldn’t get our hands on half of the stuff we wanted due to shortages, distributor politics and budget constraints. And that’s not even touching the rare whiskey market, which is fraught with its own competition, restrictions and sky-high prices. The fact these two can source anything they wish really speaks to the level of prestige and pull of The Fountain Inn.
Hines and Kirchner explain that the cocktail menu is created to reflect both pre-Prohibition drinks with pre-Revolutionary cocktails, the latter of which include ingredients such as egg whites, honey, boiling water and brandy. Modern methods like foaming wines and custom ice gives these archaic beverages a modern twist.
I had a few of these cocktails, naturally — the syllabub, a mix of Belgian white beer, sustainably-produced lemon reduction, averna and white wine and spices; as well as Hines’ own Rebellious Old-Fashioned, a custom take on a classic using a house-made, Madeira-rich simple syrup.
Hines is deft behind the bar, mixing and stirring and foaming with ease. Guests will enjoy watching this performance, as mixology is not just about chemistry and physics but showmanship and enthusiasm. Combine this élan with an unlimited library of rare spirits and The Fountain Inn proves it’s the place to go for haute mixology.
Some spirits are best enjoyed neat, however — plain and without ice. One might be tempted to add a few drops of distilled water to open up the flavors, but many of the special offerings that constitute The Fountain Inn’s rare spirits library are far too fancy to be mixed. Customers can purchase these exceptional drams by the ounce. The list is significant, but not over-the-top.
“We have a wide variety and something for everyone,” Kirchner says, “but we’re not trying to manage the 3,000 bottle list Jack Rose has.”
Still, they’ve got quite the list. I always enjoy sampling unusual spirits, so I finished the evening with a 50-year-old Cinzano rosso vermouth, which was frankly a bucket list experience. Vegetal, woody and surprisingly aromatic, this fortified wine has been mellowing in the bottle since the Carter administration. I know of no other merchant, restaurant, bar or collector who has stuff like this.
The Fountain Inn is moving ahead in a direction uniquely theirs, inspired by the rich history of its namesake — but not fettered by overwrought tradition or goofy historical tropes. The space is elegant, intimate and the expertise is unmatched. Just like the proprietor of old, The Fountain Inn should be recognized as well for their ability to bring in rare spirits and bottles you won’t find anywhere else.
I think John Suter would be proud.