Archive for the ‘D.C.’ Category

December 15th, 2010

I drank Repeal Day

When Prohibition was repealed on December 5, 1933, do you think people gathered in cocktail bars and discussed the finer points of a 2:1 gin Martini? No. They grabbed hold of whatever wretched rotgut was most accessible and poured it down their gullets with wild abandon. I was merely reenacting that moment, then, when I went to the Washington D.C. Repeal Day Ball, sucked down Kamikazes in the ’80s Room and danced on the shoulders of Eastern Standard’s assistant bar manager.

I was fortunate to be invited down to the Capitol that weekend by the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild, which throws the annual bash, and Melanie Asher of Macchu Pisco, a boutique producer of Peru’s storied grape spirit. Together, they hosted an 11-person Boston contingent that also included Kevin Martin (above), Jackson Cannon and Nicole Lebedevitch of Eastern Standard; Brother Cleve, who programmed the tunes for the event’s Tiki, ’60s and Prohibition rooms; Misty Kalkofen of Drink; Alex Homans of Russell House Tavern; April Wachtel of The Gallows; Robert Hoover of Upstairs on the Square; Corey Bunnewith of the Citizen Pub; and Liza Weisstuch, freelance drinks writer extraordinaire.

The ball was set up like a swanky house party in the Maison Biltmore, with seven differently themed rooms for our cocktail pleasure: 1800s/Punch, Highballs, 1920s/Prohibition, 1960s/Mad Men, Tiki, 1980s and the Future. (In the future, apparently, we will enjoy Rum & Coke Foam and Blue Hawaiis solidified into those little dot candies you peel off of paper.) Attendees donned their finest vintage threads and partied well into the night. D.C.’s top ‘tenders and a few of their Philly brethren, plus celeb mixologists from around the nation, put their skills on display. Then there was an afterparty with even more punch in a massive space that seemed to suddenly materialize in the back of the Passenger.

Amazingly, all but the few Bostonians who had to depart early rallied, bleary eyed, on Sunday to join Garrett Peck’s illuminating Temperance Tour of Washington D.C. After the tour, Peck, who recently wrote The Prohibition Hangover, joined us for patties and Yuengling at the Burger Joint. Next, our group livened up a Sunday evening at Brasserie Beck by depleting its menu of Belgian beers, following that with a last call of Macchu Pisco Sours back at the Passenger. Phew! Here are some pics.

Not just a tux, but a tux with tails. Jackson Cannon working the Highball Room. “Let me put you into a Mamie Taylor.”

Who else but a top-hatted David Wondrich would be working the Punch Room? Seen here with his just-published book Punch: the Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl, serving a hot potion out of a vintage, early-1800s Crock Pot.

The fabulously flapperesque Phoebe Isabelle Esmon of Philadelphia serves bathtub punch in the Prohibition Room. If you’re in Philly, go see her at Catahoula Bar & Restaurant.

Misty Kalkofen lounges with Brother Cleve as he spins exotica in the Tiki Room. If I had to pick the evening’s winning room… (then again, see top photo).

Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the apostle who introduced us all to the Gospel of Tiki, serves delicious ’40s-era potions in the Tiki Room. Do I remember what they were? No. But they were delicious.

Corey Bunnewith, April Wachtel and Kevin Martin made the ’80s Room theirs. Seriously, ask them about it sometime.

The next day, we got some learnin’ in. Garrett Peck begins his Temperance Tour on a blustery day in front of D.C.’s Temperance fountain, of which there were once 50 nationwide.

And since it was Sunday, we went to church. The famed Calvary Baptist Church, that is. It’s where the Anti-Saloon League, which wrote the book on pressure politics, had its first national convention in 1895. Those poor souls. The presence of our group of bartenders, hungover from celebrating the anniversary of Repeal Day, surely had them rolling in their dry graves.

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Posted in D.C., Events | 4 Comments »

December 3rd, 2010

Nips – 12/3/10

I think the sign says it all. What with the holiday season upon us, I’ve been hoarding a recycled shopping bag full of nips for you, so let’s get cracking.

» Repeal Day Ball. Well, it seems I have truly arrived. I am part of a Boston contingent being whisked down to Washington D.C. this Saturday for the third annual Repeal Day Ball at the Maison Biltmore, courtesy of the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild and Macchu Pisco. This shindig started amid the hoopla over the 75th anniversary of Repeal in 2008 (which Eastern Standard celebrated in great style right here in Boston) and quickly became one of the Capitol’s great parties. Jeffrey Morgenthaler (aka the Morgenblogger) of Portland, Oregon, MCs the affair, which features themed rooms manned by renowned innkeepers from the D.C. area and elsewhere. Sure, there’ll be punch and Prohibition-era cocktails, but, frankly, I’m making a beeline for the 1980s room starring Dale “King Cocktail” DeGroff. Line up the Woo Woos, baby!

» Book of punch. Speaking of punch, David Wondrich was in town last month to promote his new book, Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl, at Drink. Delights and dangers were both in abundance, with nary a cocktail shaker in sight — just the gentle ladling of spirits, citrus, spice and sugar into little cups, over and over again. Oh my, that was fun. Read C. Fernsebner’s and B.C. Burroughs’ terrific interview with Wondrich in the Bostonist, with a longer version available on their blog, Dudekicker.

» High West. Also in town recently was David Perkins of the High West Distillery in Park City, Utah. A former biochemist who is part laconic scientist, part droll cowboy, Perkins hosted a tasting of his exotic whiskies at Trina’s Starlite Lounge in late October. We tasted his Silver Western Oat Whiskey, an unaged whiskey made with 85 percent oats and 15 percent barley malt; Rendezvous Rye, a blend of straight rye whiskies (including a 16-year-old Fleischmann’s — paging Man Men!); and Bourye, “the world’s only bourbon and rye marriage.” These whiskies are popping up in a few Boston bars — they’re very much boutique offerings, with the price tag to match, but well worth a sip when you find them.

» Nolet’s gin. I was introduced to Nolet’s Silver gin recently at a cocktail dinner at Eastern Standard. Intriguing. This is one of those newfangled gins, albeit produced by the very old Nolet’s distillery in Schiedam, Holland — best known in the U.S. for Ketel One vodka — where generations of the same family have been producing spirits since 1691. Its primary botanicals are Turkish rose, white peach and raspberry. If that trio makes you envision a cross between Hendrick’s and Stoli Raz, stop yourself right there. The stuff is quite dry, as brightly aromatic and balanced as a really expensive perfume, and verrrrry smoooooth. In fact, one of our cocktails was simply Nolet’s Silver in a heavy rocks glass over one very large ice cube. Quite nice, especially considering the stuff is 95.2 proof. This is an exclusive spirit, launching in only six states and costing $50 per bottle. We were also treated to a dram of the even rarer Nolet’s Reserve, a lightly aged gin whose pale straw color comes from saffron (or should I spell that $affron?) and which is also flavored with verbena. It was ethereal — which it would need to be at $800 per bottle. Allemachtig!

» Banged-up bartenders. What a coincidence. The night before Robert Simonson’s NYT article on the injuries related to craft bartending came out, I was at a gathering of female bartenders who launched into a conversation about their job-induced aches and pains. (Coincidence #2: one of those women is quoted in the article.) One woman wakes up with pain in her wrist, another is plagued by a sore shoulder. One’s husband has to pry apart her clenched “shaker hands” as she sleeps. Another had the rest of us hold her wrist as she rotated it to reveal what felt like loose ball bearings. The main culprit was the constant, vigorous use of shakers, often with larger, denser ice than the norm, that is pretty much mandatory in craft cocktail mixing. Other culprits were similar to those mentioned in the article:

“Bartending has never been an easy job. But in the past, tired feet, an aching back and possibly a bent ear or two were the standard complaints. Today’s nonstop bar-side ballets have caused the pains to creep northward to the wrist, elbow and shoulder.

“Most professionals deal in some repetitive motion or other; bartenders contend with several. They tilt heavy bottles into a shaker each night; they smack ice with the bowl of a bar spoon to get the size and shape just right; they unleash the suction of a shaker with the palm of their hand, jolting their wrist again and again.”

Sheesh. Does anybody predict that punch is about to get a whole lot more popular?

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Posted in Books & resources, D.C., Gin, Nips, Punch, Whiskey | No Comments »

February 25th, 2010

I sipped D.C.


It’s true. I really only took a sip of D.C. compared to other cities of which I’ve drunk deeply, e.g. Portland and Seattle, Miami Beach, San Francisco and L.A. But what a fine sip it was.

There was a dual purpose to my short trip to our nation’s capitol: booze and poetry (not an unheard-of combination). My drinking buddy Jill McDonough is a poet who received the prestigious Witter Bynner Fellowship, which the U.S. Poet Laureate bestows each year upon two unsuspecting, rising talents. That’s right, you don’t apply for it; you’re just chosen. Being chosen means that you get to read your poetry in front of an audience at the Library of Congress, make a recording for posterity, and meet the poet laureate, who is currently Kay Ryan.

mcdonough-witter-bynnerSo, I gathered with Jill’s family and friends at the LoC and listened to her read poems about legal executions, car accidents, and captured terrorists. (“There’s no money in that,” a cab driver helpfully pointed out to one of Jill’s friends on the ride in from the airport.) Her work is not as dark as it sounds — she writes and reads in a compelling, frank, non-polemical way. After the reading, we cheered Jill on and, that night and the next, celebrated in some of D.C.’s best restaurants and bars.

The Tabard Inn. A real, old inn whose cozy dining areas serve deliciously executed homestyle fare like goat ragu bolognese, lump crab cakes and seafood gumbo. Bartender Chantal Tseng, who is married to another D.C. bar celeb, Derek Brown (see below), started us off with a round of perfect Sazeracs.

The Gibson. A great-looking, speakeasy-style bar that occupies what looks to have been an early-20th-century, second-floor apartment. The bar itself is in a narrow room at one end of the space, and a hallway leads to two separate rooms with vintage chairs and couches. Jill and the other Witter Bynner fellow, Atsuro Riley, and their entourages (it’s true, poets have entourages) took over one of those rooms and ordered a few rounds of well-made cocktails. Jill’s missus, Josey Packard, and I decided on Seelbachs and were not disappointed. I know we’re all supposed to be sick of speakeasies, but I live in Boston, where we don’t really have those, and I thought it was cool.

josey-jill-roundrobinThe Round Robin. Have I ever told you how much I love historic hotel bars? Sure they can be touristy and stuffy, and the quality of the drinks is often lacking, but their sheer character makes up for all that. The Round Robin resides in the Willard Hotel, a stone’s throw from the White House and the site of the 1861 Peace Congress that failed to defuse the Civil War. Abe Lincoln, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens — they all drank there. And so did we. In the afternoon, naturally. Mint Juleps, Bloody Marys and Hearsts, the last being an obscure classic which Josey cleverly ordered as “gin Manhattans.”

PS7’s. Named after its accomplished chef, Peter Smith, and the restaurant’s address, 777 I St., PS7’s is a chic restaurant with a bar to match, a space serving craft cocktails to the D.C. smart set. Jill ordered a Gina’s Gibson with a pickled ciopollini onion the size of a quail egg, and I had a Master & the Margarita (presumably named after Bulgakov’s book) with Milagro tequila, lime, apricot, marigold tea and citrus salt. Very tasty. I capped dinner with a glass of Madeira, which paired like a honeymooner with a pungent, taleggio-like cheese from Vermont.

The Passenger. We wound up at Derek and Tom Brown’s spare, dark, crowded, hip-but-not-too-hip bar, which serves a well-crafted cocktail if you want it but quietly suggests that straight spirits and beer are the cooler choices. We introduced ourselves to Derek, who helped launch the Gibson and writes a regular cocktail column for the Atlantic Monthly (which, as you may remember, moved from Boston to D.C. a few years back).


While Tom runs the raucous main bar, Derek, who admits to not totally cringing if you call him a mixologist, teaches cocktail classes, hosts small groups and concocts vermouth, bitters, etc. in a small bar in the back called the Columbia Room. He stowed Jill, Josey and me back there with a bottle of Yamazaki scotch from Japan, a bottle of Weller bourbon and a few cans of Oskar Blues beer while he stood in for the doorman out front. Occasionally, he’d check in on us, and we’d prod him to tell tales of making drinks at White House cocktail parties. Later, Tom joined us and offered us a taste of some funky, citrusy rum he bootlegged out of Guatemala. A fun pair, those Brown brothers.


Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian. OK, it’s not a bar. I mention it not only because it’s a piece of Americana from Cambridge, MA, but because its fridge has a sticker from one of Somerville’s most famous restaurants: eat. The scene of my dirty Bombay Sapphire martini years, eat is long gone, and so is Julia. But she liked the place, and dined there in the early 2000s before leaving Cambridge for California in her sunset years.

Thanks, D.C., for wetting my whistle. I’ll be back.

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