From Rum & Coke to Infusions: The Evolution of DC's Cocktail Scene

By Olga Boikess  |  July 1, 2014
Credit: Daniel Swartz

When Angel Cervantes (pictured) began bartending in 1988, “just make it red” — i.e, add cranberry juice — was the MO when a customer asked for an unfamiliar cocktail. There was no internet to bring mixology lore to your fingertips, and few, if any, recipe books were stashed behind the bar. It was assumed, usually correctly, that the customer didn’t know any more about the drink than the name.

Of course, the DC cocktail scene has changed dramatically since then. Bartenders are now akin to chefs, busy in the kitchen crafting mixers and using high-tech equipment to create awesome new effects. To learn more about how our cocktail culture developed, and where it's going next, we talked with Cervantes, a longtime talent, now at the elegant Rye Bar in Georgetown’s Hotel Capella, as well as younger turks like Todd Thrasher, whose cocktail-only speakeasy PX was a game changer, and Derek Brown (Columbia Room,The Passenger), who opened Mockingbird Hill with his mixologist wife, Chantal Tseng.

The Beginnings
For Cervantes, the cocktail revolution really kicked off when Mark Miller’s Red Sage (1992-2006) brought DC amazing talents, and fresh ideas that were copied nationwide. Miller stocked some 75 different kinds of tequila and mescal. This was a revelation to an industry that normally had two or three brands at the bar. The restaurant quickly became a tequila destination. People started drinking flights, and Cervantes among others began “playing with flavors,” using fresh juices and bitter accents to “tame mezcal’s earthy taste” for the local palate.

Todd Thrasher credits another influential restaurant, José Andrés' Café Atlantico/Minibar, where he started working in 1996, for stimulating the use of fresh products, herbs, innovative techniques and then-unfamiliar spirits like pisco and cachaca among modern bartenders. “Looking at the kitchen for inspiration” has been key, he says, adding, “People who are scared of gin may try a drink if there’s basil” in it.

Curiosity and an adventuresome spirit got Chantal Tseng “looking up old recipes." For her, and her (now) husband, Derek Brown, exchanging ideas with a coterie of local bartenders made the mid and latter part of the aught years an exciting and innovative time. Brown remembers the “organized chatter” on different blogs and the success of pop-up “underground” venues like the uber-cool speakeasy, Hummingbird to Mars.

Media and Technology
Magazines like Food Arts provided new ideas and linkages to the work being done by established and young bartenders in NYC, San Francisco and elsewhere. For example, Cervantes had spent some time in San Francisco where the use of bitter and herbal liqueurs like Fernet Brancaand Luxardo — things that Americans found hard to drink — and dark spirits made a strong impression on him. 

The Food Network transformed chefs from “blue collar workers to superstars,” says Thrasher, and it also brought fresh, young talent to the bar business. Tseng points to role models like Dale DeGroff creating respect for the industry, and an image that bartending wasn’t “just slinging drinks.” Moreover, the food shows encouraged bartenders to cook and develop infusions and other drink components.

More recently, the internet "changed everything,” says Cervantes. It made being a cocktail aficionado fashionable. Brown notes a “growing curiosity” and knowledge about drinks that drives new business. ”Fifteen years ago,” Thrasher explains, “people would start dinner with a glass of champagne, now they are more apt to try a cocktail.”

Technology has also played a part in transforming the bar scene, says Cervantes, citing different kinds of ice and tech that's used to smoke ingredients. Brown agrees that its explosion has affected the culture in ways both small (there are now many different kinds of bar spoons) and large ($5,000 evaporators).

Current and Future Trends
So where are we now and we are we going? “White liquors” — especially vodka — have been replaced in popularity by dark spirits like rye. Women who used to order Cosmos have gotten into more complexity, says Cervantes. Tseng agrees that the smoked Old Fashioned is having its moment, thanks to Mad Men. “Old things are new again,” she says. Shrubs, infusions with herbs and inventive combos of spices, smoke, and brown liquors and gins are important elements of the current scene. Tiki drinks and new styles of aromatically complex spirits like sherry, vermouth and Madeira are trends too, according to Brown. He also cites new ways of adding acidity to drinks, like using blueberries or verjus made from grapes. As for the future: look for hyper-locality, foraging and a continued culinary focus. 

Tipplers who want to learn more about the modern cocktail culture can sign up for one of Cervantes' popular classes at the Hotel Capella where they’ll sip and snack as he explicates and demonstrates his techniques. Afterwards, they can enjoy a cocktail paired dinner. Go here for details. Brown will restart his classes at Mockingbird Hill in the early fall; check here around Labor Day. Thrasher holds monthly classes; find out more here.

Where to Find These Pioneering Talents, and What to Order When You Do:
Derek Brown: Columbia Room
Dry Martini (Plymouth or Tanqueray 10 Gin, Dolin Dry Vermouth, orange bitters, lemon peel zest to be sprayed on drink and discarded)

Angel Cervantes: Rye Bar
Gold & Grain (absinthe glass wash, smooth amber dry whiskey, lemon juice, simple syrup, orange shrub )

Todd Thrasher: PX
Eamonn’s Cocktail (Yuzu Juice, Nash’s Irish Red Lemonade, John Powers & Son’s Irish Whisky and Yuzu Air)

Chantal Tseng: Mockingbird Hill
"Shazerac" (Old Overholt Rye Whiskey, Gonzalez-Byass “Nectar” PX Sherry, Peychaud’s bitters, St. George Absinthe, lemon peel)