D.C.’s Cocktail Scene Takes a Rocks-Glass Run for the Money in 2018

With pop-up bars channeling popular TV shows and “grass-to-glass” drinks, mixology in D.C. ups the game.

Absinthe-green street light filters through the marbled stained glass behind the bar at Brothers and Sisters (1770 Euclid St. NW), the new restaurant/cocktail lounge at Adams Morgan’s The Line Hotel. Since the new hotel and dining destination fills a restored 1912 church, it seems fitting that celebrated local mixologist Todd Thrasher has summoned a drinks program that’s one part hymn to historic highballs and two parts innovation. “I wanted things both for geeky cocktail people and stuff that tourists from Nebraska might recognize,” says Thrasher.

Perched on a clubby green leather bar stool in the high-ceilinged space, Thrasher chats about a drinks menu that reads like a lively history/recipe book: an Old Forrester bourbon mint julep comes with an explanation of the concoction’s Washington, D.C., debut at the still-running Round Robin Bar at the Willard InterContinental Hotel. But those spirits savants can also try an “I’m Hip and Very Bitter” made with Virginia Fizz bubbles, locally produced amaro, gin and grapefruit juice.

“I’m Hip and Very Bitter” at Brothers and Sisters

Brothers and Sisters is the freshest sign that in recent years, Washington—always a zone of dimly lit hotel watering holes and Capitol Hill beer dives—has morphed into one of the country’s buzziest mixology towns. Think an intoxicating blend of local distilleries and sophisticated lounges that give booze-mad London or New York City a rocks-glass run for their money.

“I don’t think there’s a better place to drink in the world,” says Derek Brown, the impresario behind bars including Shaw’s James Beard Award-nominated Columbia Room (124 Blagden Alley NW). “You have pop-up bars, really creative cocktail spots and places that specialize in mezcal, cider and more.”

Brown’s esteemed Columbia Room emphasizes a local trend in cocktail crafting, using eclectic “grass-to-glass” ingredients to whip up house-made tinctures and unusual potions. Take a fig-leaf cordial that gets blended with azul blanco, vermouth, curacao and anise hyssop for a subtly sweet “What Absence Is Made Of,” the first cocktail in Columbia Room’s winter three-course drinks-and-snacks pairing menu.

That blurring between dinner and drinks ingredients also headlines at 
2 Birds 1 Stone (1800 14th St. NW, lower level), a bright, semi-secret lair for innovative sips like the “El Cazador” (sherry, Campari, plus local cacao nibs, thyme and honey) and a daily punch. And at Barmini (501 9th St. NW), James Beard Award-winning chef Josè Andrès’ “cocktail lab,” futuristic white counters, vintage glass-ware and whimsical furniture (a “cactus” couch) set the scene for innovative gulps like the “Floral Cloud,” a rose- and hibiscus-scented drink that wafts sweet smoke at you before you down it.

“They have so many toys to play with at Barmini,” says Stephen Corrigan of D.C.’s One Eight Distilling (1135 Okie St. NE), one of multiple newish spirits makers thriving in Northeast D.C. neighborhoods like Ivy City. Like many local distillers, One Eight offers mixed drinks in its tasting room, using the maker’s own made-here gin, vodka and whiskey.

Barmini

But cocktails aren’t just serious business in D.C.; thanks to a bustling pop-up bar scene and a fair share of dives (hey, Senate interns need to get drunk somewhere!), nightcaps or happy hours can also be casual, rollicking affairs.

Brown’s Drink Company also runs seasonal pop-up drinking holes, which have included 2017’s lines-out-the-door “Game of Thrones” one with a smoke-spewing dragon and highballs inspired by show characters. And a slew of “yep, come in yoga pants” joints have recently opened, like low-key Left Door (1345 S
St. NW) with its often-tequila-powered mixtures like the “Release the Kraken” (tequila, honey, lemon) and Service Bar (928 U St. NW), a campy Shaw hang for $7 happy-hour cocktails and a fried chicken- heavy bar-bite menu.

“There’s just a lot of whimsy and fun in the local cocktail scene,” says Brown. “I think we’ll see that blow up in spades in 2018.”

We’ll drink to that.