Jim Hewes of the Round Robin & Scotch Bar at The Willard InterContinental
On Tap: What are the holidays like around here?
Jim Hewes: The thing that is interesting about the holiday season is come Monday morning after Thanksgiving, the entire lobby of the Willard, everything, is decorated. We have different choral groups coming in every night up until Christmas. So you have a couple hundred people out in the lobby, drinking cider and singing Christmas carols, but the whole place is decked out. Come downtown and sure, you want to see the lighting of the Christmas tree, but you want to walk through the Willard Hotel because it just gives you that holiday feeling.
OT: Any festive cocktails on the menu?
JH: We do a hot spiced cider and the whole downstairs here fills up with the smell of cinnamon. We also do a jingle bell julep, a variation on the classic mint julep that has all the colors of the season. And then we have a hot buttered rum, a very traditional recipe. We also have a drink called the sugar plum, which is a neat drink, kind of a variation on a cosmo, served straight up, but fruit and kind of a minty flavor to it. And then we have another drink called a poinsettia, which is champagne, framboise and cranberry, very seasonal.
OT: Your job here seems to be part bartender, part historian…
JH: History is my background and education. I walked into the Round Robin and was hired and you know you walk into that room and you realize all the pictures on the wall. If you don’t know what’s going on then who is going to know? So, I started collecting things, even though I always have, but focused on the sidelines of the Willard, what really happened and who these people in the pictures are.
OT: Any cool history facts up your sleeve?
JH: Oh I have lots. The Thomas Jefferson story is a great one. It’s 1809, he hands the keys to James and Dolly [Madison] and they go off to the White House. Jefferson is standing there, it starts raining and he’s like what do I do now? He lives in Charlottesville, but he hasn’t lived there in eight years, he’s been in the White House. The owner of this property who knew Jefferson said ‘hey, why don’t we go up to my place’ and they sat right where this bar is and they drank port. And then Jefferson stayed for like three weeks and didn’t leave.
OT: Favorite holiday memory at the Round Robin?
JH: I think back to 15 years ago or so, there were four generations of a family sitting in the corner of the bar – the grandfather, the father, the son and the great grandson and I walk over and the grandfather goes, “My great grandson has something he wants to tell you.” And I look at him and the kid is about 5 years old and he says to me, “When I’m 21, I want to have my first drink with my dad and grandfather right here.” Fifteen years later it’s the holiday season, and they had in the meantime been coming over the years to the bar, and the boy was now a 21 year old. And in the corner there he was at 21 having a drink with all of them, his dad, grandfather and great grandfather.
OT: You said I was in the “Clooney chair,” so obviously I’m going to need to hear about this…
JH: So George Clooney and his buddy where in here the night before they were going up to the Sudanese Embassy and his back was to people so they couldn’t see who he was from behind, right where you are sitting. Clooney was joking about how he didn’t think his father realized what they were about to get into. And then they come back in again, after the arrest and all and he jokes, “I just spent three hours in a cell with my dad and he wouldn’t shut up!”
Round Robin & Scotch Bar: 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-9100;www.washington.intercontinental.com
Julie Gilkison of Due South
On Tap: Any fun cocktails for the holidays at Due South?
Julie Gilkison: Yes, we get to do our own infusions which is fun because we have a lot of freedom with it. We are offering an espresso bourbon and bacon and bourbon. We have almost 100 bourbons and whiskeys so definitely heavy on the bourbon side of things. I’m not that much of a bourbon drinker though, so I’m always rooting for the girlier drink, so I’m going to be infusing candy canes in vodka and we’re doing peppermint hot chocolate and candy cane martinis.
OT: What is an overused ingredient in cocktails during the holidays?
JG: Apple, especially apple cider during the winter. I really like using pine sprigs, but I think people automatically go to apples for winter. I guess people could say the same thing about peppermint, but I’m just sick of apple cider for the winter.
OT: Holidays are always a busy time at bars, any crazy stories you can share?
JG: My first bartending job was at a college bar in Athens, Georgia. It was really high volume and there was no bar food. New Year’s Eve was insane, all hands on deck, all the time. And one year, we had people sliding down the stairs in garbage cans and people stealing our tip jars. We did catch them after all the madness. By the end of the night, we had missed midnight and didn’t even know it had happened because it was so crazy! So that kind of set the precedent for working at a high volume bar. So now, when it’s crazy at Due South I’m thinking, this is nothing.
OT: Any traditions you have during the holidays?
JG: Christmas for me means going home to Chicago where my family lives. We always do winter sangria and experiment with that, and then always do a champagne cocktail for New Years. I like to do a twist on a kier royal with something different. Last year, we did winter berries and fur sprig with prosecco.
OT: Holidays in Chicago compared to DC?
JG: Totally different but I love it. This was my first Thanksgiving in DC and you know you see a lot more people coming for the holidays — and DC people leave for the holidays. Everyone is happy and its jolly and I like seeing all the decorations everywhere and it’s nice to see people who are usually so serious kind of take a step back and appreciate the season.
OT: What is your favorite holiday/drink combination?
JG: I have such a sweet tooth, so definitely something with cookies. My mom and I always make sugar cookies at the holidays (even though we don’t make them for Santa anymore). So that with a nice glass of wine. There’s nothing like curling up next to the fire with a blanket, cookies and wine. Sometimes it’s not about the cocktail, it’s about the environment.
Due South: 301 Water St. SE, DC; 202-479-4616; www.duesouthdc.com
Brook Vandecar at Succotash
On Tap: Any special plans for the holidays at Succotash?
Brook Vandecar: Well it’s our first holiday season, so we don’t have any traditions just yet, but the holidays are going to be festive here, they’re going to be fun. We try to make the restaurant a bit of an oasis in the midst of all this industrial space. National Harbor is great, but it’s all very planned, so we are trying to make the most of our corner and make it very welcoming. You know the south is warm and welcoming and we want to make sure that as you approach us, you feel that energy from us.
OT: Do you guys pause between Thanksgiving and Christmas or is it full steam ahead?
BV: Come Friday we are ready. There is a lot of shopping going on at the outlet mall up the street and all the people are coming down here for food and it’s great. We’ll do some additions to the menu for Christmas and add some beverages. We are going to keep it simple though. In our experience, when people come to restaurants that change up their entire menu offering for the holidays, you lose your core audience.
OT: Eggnog is a popular beverage this time of year. Any fun twists to this beverage?
BV: I actually have made different types of eggnog by switching up the milk, so one with coconut milk, one with brown rice horchata. I like to do gluten free and vegan eggnogs that taste absolutely amazing. It is possible to do no dairy, but they still have a creamy base.
OT: What are some seasonal beverages on the menu for the holidays?
BV: Two of our signature cocktails are both very seasonal, the Milk Punch and the Kentucky Winter. The Kentucky Winter is a frozen cocktail made with frozen Jim Beam bourbon, almond milk, coconut milk, cardamom and cane syrup. It’s a frozen bourbon slushy. The Milk Punch is probably the most interesting.
OT: That sounds to me like a twist on eggnog?
BV: Eggnog is delicious and creamy but I can only take one sip. With the milk punch we basically infuse five different spirits with pineapple, cinnamon, star anise and a few other ingredients, but then we strain it and then add boiling milk to it. And then we strain that out and let all the solids fall. Then we syphon off the clarified mixture and it’s a boozy cocktail, but it doesn’t taste overly boozy, but still creamy in the mouth.
OT: This sounds pretty involved?
BV: It takes about three days but we want it to be ours, interesting and perfect. It was a long process but it’s amazing. This is my favorite cocktail on the menu by far. The flavor, the complexity, it’s not too heavy. You still get the creaminess and we serve it on a big ice cube with a lemon twist.
Succotash: 186 Waterfront St., National Harbor, MD; 301-567-8900;www.succotashrestaurant.com