Despite its buttoned-up rep, the capital has a long history of loosening up with a tipple or two. At his Mount Vernon estate, George Washington ran the biggest whiskey distillery of his time. (It’s been reconstructed and now produces hooch using the original 18th-century methods.)
Later, FDR mixed martinis—and forbade political talk—during happy hours he hosted at the White House. D.C. even has its own official cocktail—the rickey, a refreshing blend of gin or bourbon, plus lime and sparkling water.
In recent years, several local distilleries have opened, from Catoctin Creek with its signature Roundstone Rye to New Columbia and its popular Green Hat Gin. Their award-winning elixirs often show up in cocktail bars across town where mixologists are getting ever-more creative. Here are six spots pouring extraordinary libations.
When D.C. top toque José Andrés created the salt-air margarita more than a decade ago, it was a revelation of texture and taste. (And it’s still a favorite to pair with the addictive guacamole made tableside at his Oyamel restaurant.) But for mad-scientist sips, head to his Penn Quarter “culinary cocktail lab,” next door to the avant-garde Minibar restaurant. In the all-white space, chefs and bartenders collude on potions that sometimes require special tools and arrive in a billow of smoke.
501 9th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 202.393.4451
A pioneer of the local mixology scene, Derek Brown captured national attention with his innovative 10-seat Columbia Room. Last year, the acclaimed bar moved into a bigger and swankier space in Shaw’s buzzy Blagden Alley. The Spirits Library offers cocktails and rare vintages (think 1811 Napoleon cognac) à la carte, while the Tasting Room features seasonal menus of three or five cocktails that include creations like “In Search of Time Past” (armagnac, sherry, porcini cordial, eucalyptus and “old books”), paired with amuse-bouches. In warmer months, the outdoor Punch Garden makes a lively setting for the namesake drink.
124 Blagden Alley NW, Washington, D.C., 202.316.9396
One of the “50 best bars in America” (Food & Wine) doesn’t even have a sign. But cocktail connoisseurs know to look for the blue light just off Old Town Alexandria’s main drag, King Street. In the elegant second-floor space, Todd Thrasher and crew concoct libations that feature produce from local farmers markets, housemade tonics and often a back story. The drink Thrasher created for his wedding guests? “The Start to a Beautiful Life”
728 King St., Alexandria, Va., 703.299.8385
On hip H Street NE, Barmini alum Devin Gong opened this intimate upstairs hideaway where patrons order classics or build their own drinks using fun, helpful menus that define terms (Manhattan vs. Martini, smash vs. toddy) and give tips for tasty combos. Themed menus sometimes emerge, too, focusing on flavors like bitters or honey crisp apples. If all this whets your appetite for something heartier, you can order Chinese street food—skewers, potstickers, bao buns—sent up from the downstairs kitchen.
1110 H St. NE, Washington, D.C., 202.241.1952
2 Birds 1 Stone
Despite its underground location, this hot spot on the bustling 14th Street corridor is bright and airy, thanks to a palette of white with pops of color. The flight of fancy charms visitors with whimsical bird sculptures, a large mural and quirky, mismatched glassware. For the week’s craft cocktail offerings, check the menu of roughly seven classics and originals, hand-drawn by bar director Adam Bernbach. (And for another adult diversion, check out the bathroom’s naughty wallpaper.)
1800 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C. (no phone)
Dram & Grain
On the edge of Adams Morgan, Jack Rose Dining Saloon offers several appealing spaces for nursing a drink, but the real cocktail geeks head to the secluded basement where talented mixologists take inspiration from the pre-Prohibition era. Because there are only 20 seats, the bartenders have time to not only craft exquisite sips but also share their vast knowledge of cocktail history, ingredients and techniques.
2007 18th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 202.607.1572