City in a Glass: Washington, D.C.

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City in a Glass: Washington, D.C.

Thirsty? You’re in luck. In Paste’s drinking-and-traveling series, City in a Glass, we mix up a city’s signature swills and slide them down the bar to readers. Grab a stool. This round, in Washington, D.C., is on us.

Washington, D.C.,

has the best liquor laws in the country. Being a federal city, as opposed to a city within a state, bar owners may sell any bottle of booze that has federal label approval. If a spirit is legal in the United States, it has federal label approval. This is great for bottle collectors like Bill Thomas, owner of Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Adams Morgan, who regularly travels the country looking for rare whiskey. He currently has 2,700 bottles on display at his bar. “I can buy things at private auctions, immediately pay an application fee and an extra tax and have it on the shelf the next day,” he says.

In a worldly city like D.C., having a wide variety of spirits on hand is essential. Sure, bars get their fair share of neighborhood regulars, but they are also frequented by crowned princes, diplomats and cast members of House of Cards. “You have to carry all kinds of whiskey because international tastes are different,” Thomas says. Thomas, whose family has operated restaurants and bars in the city since the 1800s, says that up until a few decades ago these important people would actually travel between bars or after-hours clubs via underground tunnels. Even though you can’t access those very cool passageways anymore, Thomas believes this is the best time in American to be drinking. “You have the most educated consumer now than you’ve ever had, and with education comes a better appreciation of quality spirits,” he says.

On this city drinks tour, we’re going to introduce you to three quality Washington, D.C., cocktails, show you where to find them and even how to replicate them at home.


1. The Chief

Where to order: Bourbon Steak at Four Seasons Hotel

The Chief Courtesy Bourbon Steak.jpeg Photo courtesy of Bourbon Steak

Politics are a touchy subject in D.C. That’s why, when Bourbon Steak head bartender Torrence Swain designed an election-themed menu, he kept it candidate-neutral. “At the Four Seasons, we’re in the center of it all,” Swain says. “Oftentimes you see political V.I.P.s in our lobbies or our restaurants. And this political race is charged with a lot of energy. To offer some relief from that and to give a different perspective on it, we decided to talk about some past presidents and how they liked to drink.”

Instead of naming specialty drinks after candidates currently in the running, he named them after presidents from history and drew inspiration from their era. There’s a sherry cobbler, for example, a nod to the drink invented in James Buchanan’s time. And The Chief—a martini made with vodka, white truffle brine and a few white truffle cheese-stuffed olives—honors the legacy of Herbert Hoover. “He loved a dry martini,” Swain says. “We added a bit of our decadence, some of our swankiness to it [with the white truffles].” White truffles also play a prominent role in Bourbon Steak’s fall food menu.

If you order one of the presidential drinks between now and Election Day (November 8), you are also given a vintage-style ballot to drop in the bar’s “republican” or “democrat” polling stations (two full-sized whiskey barrels). When the national election is over, Bourbon Steak will draw a name from the winning party’s barrel and that drinker will be named “President of the Day.” He or she will receive dinner for two at Bourbon Steak and a one-night stay in the Four Seasons’ presidential suite. A portion of the proceeds from each drink sold will be donated to Nonprofit Vote, a nonpartisan organization that encourages voting. So diplomatic.

The Chief

2½ oz. Absolut Elyx vodka
½ oz. white truffle brine (recipe below)
Truffle cheese-stuffed olives (recipe below); can substitute with store-bought olives

Make white truffle brine: Combine ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated salt, 7 tablespoons granulated sugar, 16 ounces truffle oil, 10 ounces truffle juice and 4 quarts hot water in a sealable container. Seal. Let sit for 24 hours. Fine-strain into another sealable container. Seal. Store in the refrigerator.

Make truffle cheese-stuffed olives: Shred 1 wheel truffle cheese and whip using a pastry blender. Add 4 ounces heavy cream. Whip until smooth. Repeat three more times, ultimately adding 16 ounces heavy cream to the cheese, whipping until mixture is smooth. Put the mixture in a pipette or fine-tipped pastry bag. Stuff the cheese into individual green olives.

Make drink: Combine vodka and brine in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake. Fine-strain into a coupe. Garnish with two truffle cheese-stuffed olives.


2. Hideout

Where to order: 2 Birds 1 Stone

Hideout Courtesy 2 Birds 1 Stone.jpeg Photo courtesy of 2 Birds 1 Stone

To stay on top of rotating cocktail menus, most people visit a bar once a season. At 2 Birds 1 Stone in the 14th Street Corridor, they have to visit once a week. Here, proprietor and beverage director Adam Bernbach changes the menu on a weekly basis, always offering seven types of drinks: one punch, two stirred (booze-forward) drinks, two siphon (made with soda) drinks and two shaken (made with citrus) drinks. Bernbach likes the menu to have both nerdy offerings and more straightforward ones. “I try to evenly split them between what I call ‘cartoon drinks,’ things that are out there, not in terms of weird, but out there in terms of bold flavors,” he says. “And then drinks that are more taught and nuanced.”

To come up with that week’s offerings, Bernbach brainstorms with bar manager Lucy Dunning. “The menu is what we’re into right now,” Bernbach says. “We have a good idea of what we’re going to be into going forward, but we both try to be as open to influences as possible and reassess it every week.” Oftentimes something they’ve been eating will work its way into the drinks menu. For example, a recent cocktail included salt-cured, key lime syrup, which was inspired by the Vietnamese tradition of salt-curing limes.

This is also how Bernbach came up with the Hideout cocktail, a play on the classic Boulevardier. He and his wife were cooking Middle Eastern food and when he realized za’atar—the spice blend made from dried herbs like oregano, sumac, cumin and sesame seeds—would go really well with the blood orange-y sweetness of Aperol. “Za’atar has more of a darker spice blend,” he says. “But the blends we bought didn’t work well with the drink.” So he tweaked the spice levels and maked his own blend. He then infused the za’atar, plus lemon zest, in bourbon, and mixed the infused bourbon with local vermouth and Aperol to make the Hideout. The drink probably won’t be on the menu when you visit, but you can bet something else just as curious will be.


2 oz. za’atar-infused Four Roses Yellow bourbon (recipe below)
¾ oz. Aperol
½ oz. Capitoline white (dry) vermouth
lemon peel, for garnish

Make za’atar-infused bourbon: In a blender, combine a 750 mL bottle of Four Roses Yellow bourbon with 1 ounce sumac, ½ ounce lemon zest, ½ ounce dried thyme and 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds. Blend. Let sit overnight. Strain. (Note: Because the sesame seeds contain oil, they will create a film on the finished product. If you do not want the film, remove the sesame seeds from the infusion; once the infusion is complete, fat-wash it with the sesame seeds.)

Make drink: Combine infused bourbon, Aperol, vermouth and ice in a mixing glass. Stir. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an expressed lemon peel.


3. Capital Dill

Where to order: Eat the Rich

The Capital Dill Courtesy Eat the Rich.jpeg Photo courtesy of Eat the Rich

The Chesapeake Bay—a short float down the Potomac River from D.C.—is the largest estuary in the U.S. This brackish body of water is home to the Mid-Atlantic’s famous blue crabs and its lesser-known but also native oyster (Crassostrea virginica), which was all but extinct 15 years ago. These resurrected oysters, along with the drinks that pair well with them, are showcased at Eat The Rich, an old-school oyster house in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood.

Founded by a couple of Mid-Atlantic natives—Derek Brown (who also owns the bars Southern Efficiency, Mockingbird Hill and Columbia Room) and oysterman Travis Croxton (proprietor of Rappahannock River Oyster Company; Eat the Rich serves pitcher cocktails, oyster shooters, mineral-driven wines and salty cocktails to complement the brine-y bivalves. When designing the drinks menu, senior bar manager Paul Taylor has to keep in mind the oysters’ various flavor profiles, which change depending on where they’re grown along the Chesapeake’s watershed. “You can pick up nuances like soy sauce or smoked paprika or kelp,” he says. “All of these things play into the way we develop our cocktails, wine list, beer list and spirits list.”

One of the more unique spirits to appear on his menu is James River Distillery’s Øyster Vit, a Virginia version of Scandinavia’s dill-flavored aquavit. Taylor uses it in his Capital Dill cocktail, a blend of Øyster Vit, local gin, cucumber-dill syrup, lime juice and soda. “[James River Distillery] starts with a 100 percent, non-GMO corn spirit and then vapor-infuses it like an aquavit with dill, caraway, coriander and star anise,” Taylor says. “After that they let the spirit rest on Rappahannock oyster shells, which gives it a little minerality. It all comes full circle.”

Capital Dill

1 oz. James River Distillery Øster Vit
½ oz. Green Hat gin
¾ oz. cucumber-dill syrup (recipe below)
½ oz. lime juice
Cucumber wheel and dill sprig, for garnish

Make syrup: Make cucumber-infused water by combining 216 grams cucumber and 200 grams water. Let sit overnight. In a separate container, combine 432 grams granulated sugar, 216 grams sliced cucumber, 14 grams (10 sprigs) fresh dill and 5 grams coriander seeds. Place mixture in a vacuum-seal bag. Vacuum seal. Let sit overnight. On the next day, open the vacuum-sealed bag and empty contents into a medium-sized saucepan. Add cucumber-infused water to the pan as well. Heat slowly, stirring until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat. Let cool. Strain. Store in the refrigerator.

Make drink: Combine Øster Vit, gin, syrup, lime juice and ice in a cocktail shaker. Shake. Fine-strain into a Collins glass. Top with soda. Add ice. Garnish with a cucumber wheel with a dill sprig threaded through the middle.

Top image: Jonathan, CC BY-NC-ND

City in a Glass columnist Alyson Sheppard writes about travel and bars for Paste and Playboy. She currently resides in the great state of Texas.