On a recent trip to Washington DC, I visited the National Archives. After viewing the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights, I sat down to listen to a seminar. The topic was history—cocktail history, to be precise. This year, the National Archives Foundation presented a series of seminars curated by Chief Spirits Advisor Derek Brown. In tandem with this series is a special exhibit documenting American cocktail culture through the ages, just a few doors down from where the Charters of Freedom rest behind glass. The session I caught was called “Tiki & Exotic Drinks.” Naren Young, a professional bartender and journalist from New York, moderated a colorful discussion of how Tiki came to be a trend in cocktails. Jeff Berry from Latitude 29 in New Orleans, the recognized authority on the subject, was there to oversee mai tais being mixed by David Chan, a bartender from the original Trader Vic’s.
After the lively, informative seminar wrapped up, we headed to the Shaw neighborhood to taste what’s new in DC’s cocktail scene. Our first stop was Mockingbird Hill (1843 Seventh Street Northwest), a smart spot celebrating the Spanish love affair with sherry and small plates. Here, sherry is served by the glass, by the bottle, and in a variety of cocktails. It may be a leap of faith to choose sherry over your usual martini as an aperitif, but rest assured you will be in the best possible hands at Mockingbird Hill. The food menu is designed to pair perfectly with a number of different sherry styles. The ‘pan con tomate’ and Spanish almonds are particularly good complements.
Next door is Southern Efficiency (1841 Seventh Street Northwest), whose name is derived from former President John F. Kennedy’s observation of the capital as having “Southern efficiency and Northern charm.” Here, picks include a variety of mint julep options on draft.
Nearby, Eat the Rich (1839 Seventh Street Northwest) is another worthwhile spot for clever cocktails fusing rock n’ roll and oysters. There is a menu of oyster shooters, cocktails by the pitcher, and a lovely negroni variation made with Calvados in place of gin.
Tyler Hudgens is the bar director at The Dabney (122 Blagden Alley Northwest), owned by Chef Jeremiah Langhorne and General Manager Alex Zink, both formerly of McCrady’s in Charleston. “Our cocktails are classically inspired, but we riff on them with local and seasonal ingredients. We live in an area that produces incredible products, and we’re committed to honoring the rich history of the region and showcasing all it has to offer,” Hudgens explains.
“One of our sous chefs was working with Carolina Gold Rice, which has these striking baking spice notes in it. He mentioned it would make a great Horchata. We chose a gorgeous rum out of Rhode Island called Thomas Tew and now we’re joking about getting a toddy stick for the hearth, so that come cold winter nights we can plunge it red-hot into flips. Warm Horchata Milk Punch on a freezing day? Yes, please.”
Also in the Shaw neighborhood is the cocktail bar 2 Birds 1 Stone (1800 Fourteenth Street Northwest), where guests can enjoy excellent liquid creations, chosen from a hand-drawn menu, in a laid-back environment. In Northeast DC, Union Market (1309 Fifth Street Northeast) is an indoor collection of thirty-two food and beverage concepts under one roof. There are grocery purveyors, a liquor store, and a cheesemonger, but the pick of the bunch is Buffalo & Bergen (1309 Fifth Street Northeast).
Opened in 2012, Buffalo & Bergen is best explained by its owner and cocktail “mixtress,” Gina Chersevani. “The inspiration was a 1930s dinette with a working soda fountain for cocktails.” A bustling scene on weekends, the house bagels and a variety of fillings pair well with Chersevani’s cocktails like the Quince is the New Apple; a cocktail made with brandy, honey-poached quince, rosemary, and lemon. Or, the Rebirth of Ligeia featuring gin, fig, licorice, bitters, and absinthe. Chatting with Chersevani, it becomes clear that the capital is enjoying a fresh bloom of cocktail appreciation. “Over the last few years, people have started to meet for cocktails at one of the now many good bars before heading to dinner at a separate location. This pre-dinner drinking ritual would never have happened without the increase of great bartenders, sophisticated drink programs, and social media helping to spread the word.”
from Gina Chersevani of Buffalo & Bergen
Speaking of social media, the most Instagrammable cocktails can be found at José Andres’ aptly-named ‘minibar’ (855 East Street Northwest) next to the also popular ‘barmini.’ Try the margarita with salt ‘air’. Or if whiskey is your thing, you are in luck. Like most of America, the DC bar scene currently favors shelves stocked with whiskey bottles, and the most impressive set of shelves can be found at Jack Rose Dining Saloon (2007 Eighteenth Street Northwest) where 2,390 bottles of whiskey reside. If you develop a rapport with your bartender, they might even tell you about Dram & Grain, the speakeasy inside the bar. Others worth a mention include Masseria, Provision 14, Lincoln, and Iron Gate. If you head across the state line into Alexandria, Virginia, then head straight to Bar PX.
My final tip to those of you visiting DC for the first time and seeking one quintessential experience: Head to the roof top at the W hotel (515 Fifteenth Street Northwest). There, you can peek into the neighboring White House grounds while you sip on your martini—A capitol drinking experience if there ever was one.