drams in dc: px

[by john]

both washington dc and i matured since the last time i visited. in the next few posts, i'll tell how i tried to drink it under the table this month. (i lost.)

there are two things fatally wrong about px, the generally agreed upon best bar in dc: they've overshot the idea of a cocktail, and they run a damn poor operation. my experience there nearly drove me to join yelp, just to excoriate it in a more visible forum.

(px is a speakeasy in alexandria. they require reservations to enjoy their apartment-turned-cocktail lounge environment, which is filled with lots of loveseat couches ideal for dates. i brought will, my host, for second opinions on the drinks, witty company, and a betting partner for which couples would last two more dates.)

fatal flaw one: overthinking it. for our first round, will chose the admittedly delicious boris karloff (housemade elderflower liqueur, gin, kaffir lime). but why, i pondered, would one (1) go through the trouble of gathering bushels of elderflowers to make your own liqueur and then (2) hide it behind the citrus while (3) the final creation sports a simple taste profile which i feel can easily be replicated at home? hrm. my drink, the 3rd course, had lots of ingrediental promise (foie gras infused armagnac, huckleberries, marjoram), but fell flat - my immediate thought was that they had poured me sloe gin with foliage sprinkled on top. again, they tried to soar so far beyond typical flavors, only to circle back (unknowingly, it seems) to the simplest tastes.

unfortunately, the bar manager todd thrasher, whose hagiography can be found on the website, wasn't tending bar that night, otherwise he may have been able to justify those nullifying complexities.

fatal flaw the second: running a bad bar. the first slip downward came as the doorkeeper rushed us (past a couple streaks of empty barstools) to our couch in the back room. not a relaxing start to the evening. i was a little edgy that we couldn't be at the bar (despite requesting it on their reservation form), but wanted to give it a chance - my booth-confined milk & honey experience turned out well enough with a knowledgeable server. no such luck. the doorkeeper returned and revealed herself, first, to be our waitress, and, second, to know nothing about the bar menu besides the names of the drinks to write down on her pad. unacceptable - servers must conversant with the menu and have opinions on the items therein. at the very least she was useful in getting us seats at the empty bar after our first round.

once there, i was a bit taken aback - not only was our waitress everybody's waitress, but there was only one bartender as well, who occasionally handed off a drink to his only barback to shake. the bartender was freaking out trying to put out the drink orders. since he wasn't being too engaging, i took a longer look around - the other two rooms were somewhat full, but without many empty glasses. i couldn't understand how a bar that, by its nature, had a self-imposed, well defined maximum capacity couldn't handle this kind of throughput. surely they could afford to hire another bartender with the profits off their $12 drinks.

finally, when he deigned to talk to us, i tried to get him to off menu with a new orleans style drink he might fancy. he produced a dry, bitter mess of rye, cognac, averna, oj, and many bitters that was pretty bad (i noticed he didn't straw-taste it). i didn't have the heart or patience to send it back...a decision which hurt all the more when i got charged an extra $2 for it. completely unprofessional move - i've never been subject to a surcharge for a bartender's time (because it certainly wasn't the special ingredients).

and to add heartache to the insult to the injury, they ruined the avett brothers' latest album for me by playing it through two and a half times during the length of our stay, oblivious to yet another fine point of hospitality.

drams in dc: ps7's

[by john]

both washington dc and i matured since the last time i visited. in the next few posts, i'll tell how i tried to drink it under the table this month. (i lost.)

i sidled up to ps7's swanky, brightly colored bar just around opening. after bantering around with chris, the bartender, for a while, i decided on their ss balvenie, primarily for the way he described the presentation - a whole poached local seckel pear sharing a glass with some balvenie 12 yr scotch. (i was given a fork and spoon to eat it, but ended up using my hands.) i was also curious to try it because scotch is trying to become a cocktail ingredient nowadays. disappointment, alas - the saffron poaching liquid (mixed in with the scotch) didn't come through, so the scotch was just scotch. points for ambition, though, and i appreciate how they brought the small-meal-in-a-drink idea beyond the bloody mary.

i asked for their scorched milk cocktail as a 'nightcap' (it was only a bit past 5 pm...). this drink is borderline brilliant. the process: milk is heated with spices to just below boiling, then chilled and bottled. shake that, some bourbon, and a sweet wine together, pour into a coupe and garnish with fleur de sel and cinnamon. it has a wonderful sweetness that isn't cloying, and unlike its cousin the brandy alexander, it's not heavy and thick.

and just to remind me where i was, the two other guests at the bar were discussing some heavy duty political strategy over their their dirty martinis.


drink to haiti

[by john]

drink is the last place in the world i expect to be handed a cocktail menu. but extraordinary events can lead to extraordinary measures. they're now offering a menu of barbancourt (a haitian rum) based cocktails, proceeds of which will go to doctors without borders.

my guy and i stopped in for two drinks off that menu after 'in the heights'. we were ready for some rum cocktails anyway after all the caribbean themes running rampant through the musical. but of course, this being drink, we had to order off the menu - my guy got a milk & honey creation, a 'right hand' (rum, campari, italian vermouth, xocolatl mole bitters), and i got a yellow chartreuse rum swizzle.

our barkeep even had to laugh about how strange it was to be pushing menu creations. stranger things have happened, though - like a rap musical winning a tony.


drams in dc: bourbon

[by john]

both washington dc and i matured since the last time i visited. in the next few posts, i'll tell how i tried to drink it under the table this month. (i lost.)

if i lost, then it was bourbon that won. it kicked my ass with its energy, creativity, and that 107 proof nightcap of old rip.

i immediately fell in love with their menu - simple 4-ingredient sort of drinks that feel like edgy classics. lots of amaro usage, maraschino, tequila, homemade goodness, and, naturally, bourbon. i jumped on 'the rested fig' (tequila, fig syrup, averna, lemon), and downed it alarmingly fast. the fig didn't come through much besides as general sweetness, but the balance was right on.

the neighborhoody vibe at bourbon was great. young folks, old folks (including the guy next to me sipping woodford reserve - seriously...dozens of bourbons in front of you and you go for woodford?), and 'snakes on a plane' on the tv. overall, a tighter and neater operation that the gibson, with a much more approachable feel.

my bartender patrick was incredibly hospitable - he gave me recs on places to go when he found out i was an out of towner, quite a few tastes of his preferred bourbons, and even introduced me to the unofficial tasting party going on at a table (rye genever...who knew). when i put him on the spot for something he'd been working on, he admitted that he didn't have much because he had a young kid at home to distract him. fair excuse! but while i was diverting myself with his rye version of a bijou from the menu (and samuel l. jackson), patrick slipped me a rum/walnut liqueur/honey/grapefruit creation that was plain blissful. maybe could've used some bitter depth, but a great first pass.

bourbon really hits a sweet spot in the bar world - the beer-and-whiskey neighborhood hangout plus quality drinks minus the craft cocktail solemnity.


drams in dc: the gibson

[by john]

both washington dc and i matured since the last time i visited. in the next few posts, i'll tell how i tried to drink it under the table this month. (i lost.)

for my first drink in dc, i found the unmarked door of the gibson and ordered the stranger on the highway (rye, benedictine, maraschino, absinthe). the buyer's remorse was immediate - because i knew i'd like the new orleans style. and i did - it was delicious. but i didn't come to dc to stay within my comfort zone, so i asked next for something with sherry, an up-and-comer in the the cocktail world, and something i know nothing about.

i asked the bartender (not my original guy) for something with sherry, but he admitted that john (my original guy) was the one playing with it more, and that he'd be back in a bit, having run out to alexandria to pick up ginger essence from px. i thought this was a nice gesture, and when john returned already armed with a pack of ideas and questions, it was hard to contain my smile.

he made a variation on a bamboo (amontillado sherry [lustau], french vermouth, dashes of bitters and absinthe, flamed orange peel). its simplicity let the sherry show its true colors - which are weird. the amontillado starts off with a huge void of flavor, like it's prepping the tongue for the subtle warmth and dry strains of citrus which come later.

we got to talking about the fermentation process, tasting it alone, and then other varieties. apparently amontadillo is the temperamental stepchild compared to its fino and oloroso brothers - it's very dependent on the amount of yeast which forms in the barrels.

after some more back and forth, john remade the bamboo with sweet vermouth for me to try. his intuition was successful - the sweetness started immediately and held my tongue's interest across that would-be void until the dryness came through.


the pleasant bartender interaction was only heightened by the sexy, antiquated speakeasy atmosphere - candles, edison bulbs, dark wood, a leather-topped bar. the menu was fun to read (they sort of assign personalities to cocktails) and well composed, if long - my perpetual criticism, i guess.

however, i would have expected a tighter ship from an establishment of its reputation. the back bar was messy the entire night, a product of the bartenders' experiments on a slow sunday night. (the place must be making bank, because they were making up drinks with full pours of spirits, and only testing the result with a couple sips!) another bit of smugness showed through when the non-john bartender kept jumping the i-got-something-for-you gun: no sooner had i given a hint of what direction i might want to go with a drink, and he'd start collecting bottles without further input. i had to call him back each time so he didn't do something disastrous...like make a drink i'd already had.


two down, two hundred to go

[by john]

i've been doing a lot of traveling lately, which means a lot of new bars to visit. rough, i know.

in my latest trip to nyc, i practically had to drag my guy to two cocktail bars. (with cheap happy hour specials and gimmicks like 5 shots for $10, why pay the equivalent of 75 dumplings for a drink? which is a valid point - despite all the cheap food and booze establishments in new york, why are cocktails 50% more expensive than in boston? suffer on, drink geeks.)

pegu club

'man, i had no idea how asian this place was.' i uttered this to te and steven at some point after noting in the geometric wooden window screens, the waitresses' kimono-esque dresses, and, uh, our bartender. apparently, the place is inspired by an old officer's club in burma.

i got a kill devil (rhum agricole, green chartreuse, sugar, bitters), which was agreed to be 'odd'. my guy got an improved strawberry daiquiri with thai basil (it came through great) and an omniscient-third-person view of a first date. steven stuck with a little italy (rye, sweet vermouth, cynar), which was solid, and apparently a pegu original - surprising since i've seen it elsewhere.

the bartending was slow. inefficient, i would say. we were sitting at the half empty bar, so we saw the slow assembly, one restart (cardinal sin of adding the liquor first and then messing up on the syrup amount), stirring one drink at a time, even though he was using wide beaker mixing glasses, and then letting the stirred drinks sit with ice while the citrus one got shaken. eek! if it weren't for the name on the door, i wouldn't know this is one of the top bars in the world.

overall, unimpressed with the skill and the tepid drink list.


after a wtf moment outside death & co (closed for a private event? on a saturday?!), we rallied and got some vegetarian banh mi before heading to the tequila mecca, mayahuel.

the kitschy (yet somehow believable) glazed tile and wrought iron decor felt cozy, minus the icy blasts of snow whenever someone new entered.

i got a red ant river swizzle (mezcal, sugar cane, absinthe, lime), and my guy continued his variation on a theme with a fresa brava (muddled strawberries, jalepeƱo-infused tequila, and yellow chartreuse). both fine, but not transcendent. no significant complaints, except for the enormous menu, which is almost necessary with such an unfamiliar family of ingredients (except to mike).

but the hipster bartenders commented on my hipster moleskine, so that made it worth the trip.


Cleanliness -Is- Close To Godliness

[by Mike]

I've mentioned fat washing in an earlier post, and while the concept has always intrigued me I had never attempted the technique until over the break. That's a shame, really, because fat washing is perhaps the latest trend most cooperative to the home mixologist; the application is straightforward, fast, and by its very nature cheap.

For the unfamiliar, fat washing is all about hacking booze. When sugars are initially fermented into alcohol, the byproducts are not just ethanol and carbon dioxide. All kinds of molecules can be created, some which give an individual spirit its unique character and others that can contribute off flavors or be outright dangerous. Distillation is all about extracting as much of the desired ethanol and flavor compounds as possible while avoiding those less agreeable to the palette (or health, depending on your priorities).

Careful distillation produces a finer, smoother product at the expense of yield; aging further reduces undesirable compounds at the expense of time. Because both approaches cost money, the end result is that quality spirits tend to correlate with lighter wallets.

Is there any use for the cheaper bottles, then, besides fueling college misadventures? Like so many things in life, the answer can be found in fat. You see, some of those unappealing flavor compounds are highly fat soluble. Once fat has dissolved in alcohol it will start binding with the molecules, particularly those responsible for the astringent vapors so characteristic of bad booze. Removing the fat then leaves a much smoother spirit at a fraction of the cost.

Almost any fat can be used, but easy removal necessitates animal fats that will solidify in the refrigerator and can be simply strained out of the alcohol with a fine mesh. Because fat dissolves so well in alcohol, trace amounts will be left behind no matter how well the alcohol is strained. While flavor neutral fats such as lard can be used to avoid introducing any new flavors, the real magic of fat washing happens when particular fats are used to impart complementary flavors to the spirit at hand.

The most famous applications so far have been with whiskey, utilizing both bacon fat and butter to round out younger bourbons and ryes while adding a rich note rare to most spirits. When considering my own application, however, I reached for unaged tequila with grassy and vegetal flavors complementary to more savory fats. My fat of choice would be freshly rendered duck fat.

Again, the process could not have been more simple. After picking up an inexpensive bottle of Sauza blanco, I added melted duck fat (75 parts base spirit to 4 parts fat) and let the solution sit overnight. The next day I threw the bottle into the fridge and by the evening I was sipping a smooth, velvety spirit laced with the luxurious taste of duck.

An improvement over shots, no?


Ghost of Cocktails Past

[by Mike]

Could you identify this drink? Transparent, white spirits... maybe a martini? Would you guess a margarita?

Yesterday a friend forwarded me a link to Cooking Stuff, the writings of two technically minded staff at the French Culinary Institute who spend their time playing with food science (and rapidly becoming my favorite blog). Reading through a few of the entries I came upon Stupid Simple Agar Clarification: a straightforward, completely vegetarian technique for clarifying all kinds of liquids. I'll leave the details to the original post, but the short story is that technique allows for the removal of solids suspended in any solution to leave a strikingly clear liquid with all of the original flavor.

Besides requiring no specialized hardware and being extremely simple, the agar clarification is fast: you can have a clarified liquid within a half hour. Other techniques, which require on the order of a day to complete, can't be used with perishable liquids such as citrus.

Once I read about clarified lime juice I was sold. Sneaking out of work this morning, I ran down to Chinatown to pick up some agar and began to clarify as soon as I made it home in the evening.

The excitement implied by the Cooking Stuff post and the past few paragraphs may sound hyperbolic, but I cannot overstate how amazing the whole process is. In fact, the only downside is that the clarification is not total. Some opacity remains, and the transparency fades when looking through enough liquid.

The applications are many, and my mind is still racing with the possibilities. After margaritas I threw together a Mexican Firing Squad for my testers (particular thanks to Leo, who also provided photography coaching), a drink that becomes hard to distinguish from one based on rye based on sight alone.

There's just something pleasantly devious about stirring a margarita, don't you think?


Diabetic Shock

[by Mike]

While at Drink a few months ago one of the lovely bartenders was running through the ingredients in one of their tiki drinks, the Jet Pilot I believe. The usual suspects were there, with a twist provided by the inclusion of cinnamon syrup. While the spiciness of the cinnamon proved a nice addition to the drink, I couldn't help but ponder the use of syrup to draw out that flavor. Was the sugar necessary for extracting the flavor? Was there hope for combining cinnamon with sweet spirits?

Over the next few months I became more aware of the ubiquity of flavored syrups. New recipes were dense with the stuff and it seemed as if syrups were quickly becoming the default when a bartender wanted to introduce new flavors. Why was such a popular technique bothering me so much?

Because scientifically the sugar is inconsequential. The water acts as the solvent, if anything the highly hydroscopic sugar would reduce the effectiveness of the water to dissolve flavors into solution. Infused water alone (possibly heated to increase the solubility of any flavors compounds) should provide as much, if not more, flavor without limited the potential applications; the flavored syrups could be recreated on the fly with the addition of simple or demerara syrups bases.

Flavored waters, however, are not without their own flaws. All of that liquid risks diluted drinks, forcing a compromise between the strength of the additional flavor and those already present in the base spirits. What we'd need is a more powerful solvent, something that can extract the desired flavors in much smaller quantities.

That solvent already plays a critical role in the world of mixology, extracting the essence of berries and herbs into gin and caramelized wood into whiskey to name a few. Alcohol, of course, is the prized solvent. Infusing herbs or spices in relatively bland high proof spirits such as vodka or 151 produces solutions so potent that only a few drops are necessary to impart the desired flavor to a drink. Pretty much bitters without the bitter.

To demonstrate the above arguments I put together a test with kaffir lime leaf. Each infusion placed the same amount of chiffonade'd leaves into one of four solvents: (from left to right) 151 rum, water that was them simmered with the leaves, a simple syrup simmered with the leaves, and room temperature water.

The power of the alcohol is immediately visible in the vibrant green of the 151 infusion, and the taste proves no exception. What flavor dissolved into the syrup is, as expected, dominated by the sweetness. With no completing flavors, the kaffir comes through more clearly in the simmered water, although its not entirely welcome; it seems that many of the bitter compounds in the leaves dissolve readily in the heated water, creating a rather unappealing infusion. The unheated water offered hints of flavor but nothing noteworthy.

As academic as this has been, it has proven tremendously useful at least once.

One of my favorite hidden jewels, The Tequila Book (Gorman and de Alba, 1978) compiles a myriad of tequila recipes ranging from offensive shooters to classically designed cocktails featuring everything from orange bitters to egg whites (just imagine how refreshing this can be after reading through every vintage text without seeing one good tequila drink). A particularly intriguing entry, the Spanish Fly called for tequila, Liqueur 43, and a sprinkling of cinnamon. The agave of the tequila and vanilla of the Liqueur 43 would pair great with the cinnamon, but the ground spice would just clump on the surface of the drink and offer little aside from aroma.

With the inherent sweetness of the Liqueur 43, a syrup would be immediately out of the question. Following the arguments above, I procured cinnamon extract, readily available in the baking aisle of any grocery store, and went to work. Indeed, the spicy extract did the trick, providing all of the cinnamon flavor without any unnecessary sweetness or dilution.

Spanish Fly
2 oz reposado tequila
1 oz Liqueur 43
0.25 oz Benedictine
0.25 tsp cinnamon extract
dash xocolatl mole bitters

A lesson I won't soon forget.