The boss threw down the gauntlet as soon as I suggested writing about summer cocktails. “Fine,” he says, “but no Todd Thrasher,” the mixologist at Restaurant Eve and PX, whose place in local media hovers somewhere just below Tiger Woods and Sarah Palin. I agreed to the terms before I fully realized how difficult, and unfair, it would be to overlook Thrasher’s Tomato Water Bloody Mary.
I mean, that drink features only the most anticipated fruit of the summer—and somehow expresses the flavor of juicy beefsteaks in a way that almost defies known gastronomic laws. It’d be bordering on negligence, I thought, not to mention this cocktail. But what are you going to do? The boss is the boss.
Instead, I decided to turn my attention to the future of overexposed bartenders. His name is Adam Bernbach, and his weekly Tuesday Cocktail Session at Bar Pilar was once considered the Lawrence Livermore of mixology. For a price, Bernbach would mix you some explosive libation that he had been testing for weeks, maybe the Orange Whip (a shaken concoction of spiced rum, spiced orange syrup, orange juice, half & half, and egg white) or maybe the Mcglocklin (a stirred combo of bourbon, Amaro Mio, Amaro Montenegro, Bergamot syrup, and old-fashioned bitters).
Alas, Bernbach, like the gifted in any field, decided to walk away from Pilar for a new challenge. Within weeks, he landed at his latest place to summon spirits, Proof on G Street NW, a haunt better known for its fermented, not distilled, beverages. I visited Proof on Bernbach’s second day on the job and ordered what sounded like a superb summer drink: Is That a Cucumber in Your Pocket (aka, the Rickey Schroder), a take on D.C.’s most famous cocktail, the Rickey. By all accounts, the Rickey was invented around 1883 at Shoomaker’s bar on E Street, maybe with an assist from a lobbyist named Colonel Joe Rickey, who apparently used libations to loosen purse strings.
Proof’s Rickey is one of those drinks whose quality you can judge just by sniffing it. An aroma of fresh garden cucumbers and ripe chili peppers tickles your nostrils, refreshing and subtly searing at the same time, the latter sensation courtesy of muddled peppers and a small round of jalapeño skewered onto the straw, like a wedding band on a ring finger. The cocktail is spiked with Hendricks gin and cucumber-infused vodka and yet drinks like lemonade on a front porch in August. I tell Bernbach how much I love the Schroder, and he tells me the bad news: It’s not his. It’s a holdover from sommelier Sebastian Zutant’s cocktail menu.
While I’m still enjoying that libation, Bernbach mixes up a sample of his latest drink, an unnamed potion that seems to channel the dying light of a summer sunset. The drink combines Wild Turkey rye 101, dry vermouth, and Domaine de Canton. Bernbach adds a splash of Tanqueray No. 10 before stirring, straining, and garnishing the liquid with lemon zest. The cocktail packs a pissload of alcohol but goes down so smoothly, likely due to the ginger-infused Canton, a silky and sweet liqueur that has quickly become the modern bartender’s BFF.
To Bernbach, the best summer drinks provide not only refreshment but also a story. So I’m not surprised when he later e-mails to say he has finally named his rye-based cocktail. He’s calling it the Koufax, as in Sandy, that golden-armed boy of summer who became an All-Star only after he shaved a few mphs off his notoriously erratic fastball for better control. “The brilliance of his fastball, mild in comparison to [contemporaries like] Bob Gibson and teammate Don Drysdale, was not its power,” writes Bernbach. “Rather, it was the…suprise of its sudden rise.”
Similarly, Koufax, the cocktail, subdues the inherent wildness of the rye whisky with sweet herbs, spice, and the gin’s botanicals, he notes. The drink, Bernbach surmises, “arrives delicately at a place where it was not predicted, passing without aggression.”
If all this cocktail-mixing business sounds like fun and games, it is. And it isn’t. In my conversations with the area’s top mixologists, I’m constantly reminded how seriously they approach their work. They squeeze their own tomato water. They make their own tonics. They infuse their own spirits. They devise elaborate tales to explain their drinks. They, in short, represent a rare breed of bartender.
For comparison’s sake, just check out some of these new, tricked-out lounges, which boast cocktail lists designed to trip your saliva glands on first read. Few, if any, can actually deliver a drink that lives up to their menu’s silver-tongued descriptions. I’m thinking about the bartender at Policy on 14th Street NW who glug-glug-glugged Champagne into a martini glass, turning what was supposed to be a light “floater” of bubbly into a flood of it; he likewise applied a liberal amount of Chambord into his Libertini, perhaps in the name of servicing his patrons with the anesthetic they so desperately want. The drink, however, is little more than a pink puddle of liquid candy.
Sweetness and bitterness are two of the primary characteristics of summer cocktails. The former is as obvious as the sweet tea poured from countless sweaty pitchers throughout the South. The latter requires some explanation. “These things make you salivate a little bit,” Bernbach notes about bitter and its associated tart flavors. “I guess that it’s the gastronomic version of sweating.” Both qualities can be abused, of course. The Blue Lemon Drop at Eatonville on the U Street corridor, for example, tastes like a glass of simple syrup with a light perfume of blueberries. The Corrupted Passion at Poste Moderne Brasserie in Penn Quarter is a bitter bouquet of tarragon-infused Absolut Citron and Campari.
Over at the Gibson on 14th Street NW, the waits can border on the precious as you plead, prod, and practically provoke the doorman to grant you access to the dark, moody speakeasy. But there’s a reason for the crowds. Derek Brown, Tiffany Short, and others behind the bar understand the art and science of mixology. They also have a soft spot for the hazy, ill-remembered history of D.C. boozing culture, not just the Rickey but also another summertime tipple with a District connection: the daiquiri.
First introduced to America through the Army and Navy Club in D.C., the daiquiri has suffered more indignities over the years than Marion Barry’s girlfriends. But at the Gibson, they treat the drink right, stripping away all the fruity frou-frou excesses to allow the natural sweet-tart flavors to revive you after a long summer day. The bar’s Brunswick Sour daiquiri, in particular, is almost too pretty to drink; a sporty, racing stripe of claret floats effortlessly on the surface, just waiting for you to tip the tart rum through its ruby sheen.
When you finally do and the liquids mix and slide down your throat, a cooling chemical reaction seems to take place, as perfect as an ice cube on the back of your neck after a jog. You suddenly realize the brilliance of our ancestors: In the days before household Freon, these cocktails were our air conditioners.
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