A Love Letter to D.C.’s Cocktail Culture
December 2, 2021 @ 12:00pm
Drinking is an art form and D.C. is no longer hyper-focused on being the little city that could paint a canvas that measures up. Rather, it’s transfixed on elevating an already exceptional cocktail culture. The District’s can’t stop, won’t stop temperament (in all things) is the reason why transplants like me — who aren’t D.C. born, but D.C. bred — root so fiercely for it.
Driving the growth of the scene are mixologists and beverage directors attuned to the need to invent well-crafted visionary cocktail recipes — savory, sweet, surprising, shocking and everything in-between — and pair it with curated experiences that speak to the individual tastes of seasoned cocktail aficionados and novices, alike, without being too avant-garde.
The act of sipping an expensive, yet satisfying, classic cocktail in a darkened speakeasy or basement of an upscale hotel isn’t going anywhere — it’s simply one option, among many.
Gone are the days of sticking to the script. In addition to the influx of riffs on classics proliferating menus, local patrons, more than ever, are encouraged, even pushed, to articulate what speaks to them, even if that “what” is the choice to dial-back or forgo the alcohol all together: enter the low-abv/zero-proof community. There’s an embarrassment of riches.
And my love of imbibing in D.C. has only blossomed over the course of 2021. I’ve remembered that nothing compares to the earthy and smoky notes of a good mezcal or scotch-forward creation; fallen in love again with the punch delivered by ingredients that add spice and heat: chili powder, habanero, jalapeno — give me all of it; discovered the complexity and added aroma offered by absinthe; and been absolutely giddy about the fun and awe yielded by house-made mixtures and forward-thinking infusions (Rye whiskey washed with duck fat, yep).
Among the most memorable drinks I’ve had, Thirsty Crow’s “Pisang Pinang,” its divine banana-infused Manhattan, Mercy Me’s “South Paw Manhattan,” with caramel smoke, raisin and nutty spice notes or anything on the Allegory, Left Door or Morris American Bar menus have stayed with me.
As someone who’s fairly new — nearly five years — to the coffee bandwagon, I’m also surprisingly excited for the rise of espresso martinis and uptick in the use of versatile cold brew ingredients; its earthy, bitter, slightly sweet notes pair well with rum, mezcal or any dark spirit.
Of course, anyone who knows me knows I’m a fan of gin. In fact, each year Negroni Week returns to D.C., it conjures up all the familiar feels, reminding me why I love the drink’s simplicity: equal parts gin (or rum, or mezcal, or bourbon), campari and vermouth; it definitely shined this fall.
Last, but not least, has been the elevation of dive bars. Once seen as second-class citizens among their bar brethren, they’ve proven that there’s enough creativity to go around. As many spilled onto sidewalks in neighborhoods like Mt. Pleasant with the prevalence of streateries, they gained more notoriety and garnered more appreciation. The final words here are: Long live the underdog.
10 Drink Experts to Know
Founder, Disco Mary
At the forefront of the zero-proof / low abv movement / curated experience movement is Maria Bastasch. Batasch is a sommelier, philanthropist, educator and the mind behind Disco Mary: a pop-up that makes its home inside of one of the District’s most illustrious cocktail bars, Columbia Room. Disco Mary: 124 Blagden Alley NW, DC; discomary.com // @findingdiscomary + @mariabastasch
Datta, formerly of Rasika West, Columbia Room and Elle, is a rising star in D.C.’s beverage scene. The co-owner of Daru is known for his use of unusual ingredients and focus on infusing drinks with South Asian flavors. Daru: 1451 Maryland Ave. NE, DC; darudc.com // @dantedatta + @daru.dc
Andra “A.J.” Johnson
Partner and Bar Director, Serenata
Johnson has achieved near-legendary status in her time on the scene. As co-founder of DMV Black Restaurant Week, partner and bar director at Serenata in the Union Market District’s La Cosecha market, and a staunch and outspoken advocate for diversity, equity and race conversations within the service industry: She’s a powerful force. Serenata: 1280 4th St. NE, DC; serenatadc.com // @dmvbrw, @serenatadc + @whiteplatesblackfaces
Beverage Manager, Allegory
According to Deke Dunne, the esteemed beverage manager and bartender at Allegory, Princess Johnson is poised to make a big splash. Johnson calls herself “your favorite bartender’s bartender, who has mixed drinks about feelings.” Johnson is also the founder of mobile drink company Free Spirited Cocktails. Allegory: 1201 K St. NW #1, DC; allegory-dc.com // @allegory_dc + @yopjay
Mixologist, Hook Hall
Perrigo, formerly of standout local bars Left Door and Columbia Room, is the architect of Hook Hall’s newest endeavor: a personalized cocktail experience. Perrigo is stylish, a maestro behind the bar and described by one Fray writer as the “Babe Ruth” of the D.C. cocktail scene. Mixologist: 3400 Georgia Ave. NW, DC; hookhall.com // @hookhall_dc + @whiskeyfrisky
Co-founder, Chocolate City’s Best
Robinson is the co-founder of Chocolate City’s Best, a trailblazing platform that enables bartenders of color to showcase their immense talents. The initiative offers access to a variety of opportunities, such as competitions, networking events, educational classes, panels and much more. Chocolate City’s Best: chocolatecitysbest.com // @chocolate.citys.best + @kapri.possible
Jean Paul Sabatier
Owner, Jane Jane
A Puerto Rican native and general manager/owner of Jane Jane, one of the newest and coolest kids on- the-block, Sabatier is a seasoned veteran of some of D.C.’s most acclaimed establishments, including Maydan and Compass Rose. He’s a also man that enjoys good food and hospitality. Jane Jane: 1705 14th St. NW, DC; janejanedc.com // @janejanedc + @supergayp
Founder, Booze Free in DC
Silverman is another leading voice driving D.C.’s zero proof/booze free/sober curious movement. As founder of Booze Free in DC, she combines her love of travel and passion for sobriety and wellness. She’s constantly on the cusp of what’s happening among like-minded makers and residents in the DMV. boozefreeindc.com // @boozefreeindc + @wearesober
Lead Bartender, Silver Lyan
Tateosian is the lead bartender at the award-winning Silver Lyan, one of D.C.’s swankiest and ingenious subterranean cocktail bars. Tateosian got her start at the Gibson, an O.G. of the local beverage community. She’s no stranger to fame, previously named one of the area’s top bartenders by the Chilled 100. Silver Lyan: 900 F St. NW, DC; silverlyan.com // @bacchanalaureate + @silverlyan
Founder, Your Only Friend
Taylor, partner and beverage manager at Columbia Room, is the founder of the soon-to-reopen sandwich/beverage concept Your Only Friend. Offering a mouthwatering menu of sandwiches and a curated selection of beers, dips, chips and more, Taylor is sharing his love of unexpected flavors and nostalgia with the masses. youronlyfrienddc.com // @paultaylor703 + @youronlyfrienddc
10 Watering Holes to Visit
This llama-themed Chacho Distillery has made fast friends in the District since its opening in May 2021. It specializes in aguardiente (roughly translated as “firewater”) liquor, a spirit distilled from sugar cane and mixed with alcohol, water, and anise, a spice that tastes like black licorice. The Columbia-themed establishment is becoming a treasured community hub. 6031 Kansas Ave. NW, DC; chachousa.com // @chacho_usa
The New Orleans-themed bar anchored in D.C.’s CityCenter development aims to strike a balance between old and new. Its beverage program offers classics such as the Sazerac and Hurricane, and riffs on other cocktails like martinis. It’s a beautifully designed jewel, replete with plant life. 1110 15th St. NW, DC; dauphinesdc.com // @dauphinesdc
The new cocktail-centric bar and restaurant is only 80 feet from the famed Exorcist House — but the only thing scary about this location is how satisfying it is. Its 12-seat bar offers both classic and inventive cocktails and a rotation of 10 Japanese whiskies. Need we say more? 1232 36th St. NW, DC; fitzgeraldsdc.com // @fitzgeralds_dc
Hopscotch Bar & Grill
If you’re seeking your new neighborhood bar, look no further. Hopscotch, nestled in the heart of Bloomingdale, is cozy and intimate. It also features a pleasing variety of beers, strong cocktails and entrees. Even better, it’s open late. We love this place. Our only request: Don’t spread the word to too many people. 1837 1st St. NW, DC; hopscotchbargrill.com //@hopscotchdc
L’Annexe is a pioneer of sorts in the local scene. The cocktail bar’s innovative, unusual and at times shocking foray into infusions is something to behold. They weave the class of fine restaurants, the hospitality of a dive bar and the chemistry of a science lab into a truly unique tapestry. 2917 M St. NW, DC; lannexe-bar.com // @lannexedc
True to its name, it’s the kind place where you’ll never want to leave before the last call. Tucked in a corner among the towering buildings of D.C.’s exploding Union Market area, this intimate dive has an elevated menu of sandwiches, voodoo chips (yum) and well-crafted cocktails. Cue Semisonic’s iconic “Closing Time.” 1301-A 4th St. NE, DC; lastcallbardc.com // @lastcallbardc
Mercy Me, indeed. If you’ve been seeking a glimpse into the future of D.C.’s West End corridor, stop here. The “sorta South American café, restaurant and bar,” emerged from the minds behind Timber Pizza and Call Your Mother. It’s a hip coffee/cafe by day and a coveted dinner locale by night. One sip of the south paw manhattan and you’ll understand why it’s so beloved. 1143 New Hampshire Ave. NW, DC; mercymedc.com // @mercyme.dc
We’ve been singing the praises of this gem of a cocktail bar since the day it opened. I previously called it the neighborhood speakeasy Mt. Pleasant deserves, and I stand by my assessment. Expect a climb up a single flight of stairs to reveal a cozy space that’s home to some of the warmest, most congenial, talented and nimble bartenders in the city. With a menu that changes every day, you’re always in for a surprise. 3165 Mt Pleasant St. NW, DC; okpbdc.com // @okpbdc
Suns Cinema’s Cocktail Streatery
The artsy, hospitable, little theater has a secret: It’s no slouch when it comes to creative cocktails. Known by locals for its DIY model where you can see classic ‘90s favorites like “Jumanji” and “Speed” in what feels like the comfort of your own home, Suns Cinema also makes a mean negroni. Oh, and their streatery is pretty chill, too. 3107 Mt Pleasant St. NW, DC; sunscinema.com // @sunscinema
I wouldn’t wish the task of replacing the long-beloved (and now sadly shuttered) Meridian Pint on any establishment. Yet Thirsty Crow more than returns that loving feeling we lost in April of 2019. Attached to the delicious Makan restaurant, its banana-infused Manhattan and Jungle Bird cocktails are must-haves. 3400 11th St. NW, DC; thirstycrowdc.com // @thirstycrowdc
This Must Be The Place
One of my favorite imbibing memories is spending Fat Tuesday at Morris American Bar in the times before the pandemic. I’m one to frequent a good cocktail alone — and not because I enjoy drinking by myself, but because these experiences pull me out of my comfort zone. It’s the same reason I spent a week alone in Madrid years ago, eating and drinking my way through the city.
What I remember most about that evening is the last-minute decision to go, though I never anticipated how connected I would remain to that moment. And I can’t recall what I enjoyed more: the live piano performance, the cozy atmosphere, the memories of my first and only visit to New Orleans, or the chance to get more acquainted with what’s now among my favorite places to imbibe.
More than anything, it reminded me how committed individuals in the beverage and service industry are to genuine hospitality and gave me the feeling of having found a place where I always feel welcomed.
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