The Bum has one thing in common with the U.S. Congress: neither of us can get anything done. But the denizens of the Washington, D.C., cocktail circuit appear to have the opposite problem. They’re addicted not to alcohol, but to accomplishment.
Exhibit A: Eric Felten, author of the book How’s Your Drink? Cocktails, Culture, and the Art of Drinking Well. Currently he’s a radio host on Voice Of America. And writing a weekly column for The Wall Street Journal. And recording and touring with his jazz orchestra. Oh, lest we forget: he’s also writing another book. Since the Bum can barely chew gum and drink at the same time, he was curious how Eric can function with so many deadlines competing for his attention. Eric’s strategy: “I panic early.”
Somehow he found time to lunch with the Bum at Rasika (pictured above), a downtown D.C. restaurant that also serves craft cocktails. Between bites of Raan-E-Rasika (lamb seasoned with saffron, black cardamom, and dark rum, served with a side of tomato-ginger-raisin chutney), we sampled a drink called the Crimson Delirium. Rasika barman Jason Strich’s sly twist on the Negroni mixes gin and Campari with blood orange and dill; it’s actually the least exotic of Jason’s concoctions, which call for such ingredients as sweet potato, fennel pollen, roasted marshmallow, and applewood smoked pear.
After lunch, the Bum joined Phil Greene (pictured below) to prep for “Happy Birthday Mr. Daiquiri,” a Museum Of The American Cocktail seminar celebrating the drink’s centennial. Phil serves as Treasurer of the Museum. He also has a full-time job as a patent lawyer, and another full-time job as Brand Ambassador for Domaine de Canton liqueur. Instead of sleeping, he creates and produces monthly cocktail seminars — and these are not exactly off-the-cuff. For the Daiquiri tribute, Phil assembled a thoroughly researched Powerpoint presentation of the drink’s history, complete with rare vintage photos of Hemingway drinking Daiquiris at Havana’s storied La Florida bar. Phil even managed to scare up a real live admiral from Washington’s Army-Navy Club, where Lucius Johnson first imported the Daiquiri from Cuba back in 1909.
In the audience was yet was another cocktail achiever, Mark J. Plotkin. He’s a tropical drink connoisseur who spends most of his time in the tropics, conducting ethnobotanical research in the jungles of Suriname. That is, when he’s not campaigning to save the rain forest as President of the Amazon Conservation Team. Or making films and writing books about how to cure disease through the centuries-old knowledge of South American tribal shamans.
Hobnobbing with Messrs. Felten, Greene, and Plotkin threw the Bum’s own entropy into question. He even began entertaining thoughts of trying to do something with his life. This simply would not stand. The only solution was to drink heavily, but D.C.’s star bartenders offered no respite.
Apparently, none of them is content to run just one bar: The Gibson’s Derek Brown has just opened a second place, The Passenger, while Jon Arroyo does double-duty as chief mixologist for Farmers & Fishers and Founding Farmers restaurants. Todd Thrasher out-machos them both as bar chef for three Alexandria establishments, PX, Restaurant Eve, and The Majestic.
This was all too much activity for the Bum to process, so he prevailed on D.C. tikiphile Vern Stoltz to map our bar crawl. First up was PX, which Vern had selected as the best of the three venues to sample Todd Thrasher’s cocktails.
We arrived early, before the pirate flag above PX’s unmarked door unfurled — the equivalent of the Bat-Signal for Beltway cocktailians, announcing to those in the know that the speakeasy is open. We waited out the clock down the street at The Hour Cocktail Collections, a store selling Kennedy-era barware that all looked stolen from the set of Mad Men. The only thing not vintage was the prices, which averaged $100 for a set of six highball glasses. If you frequent thrift stores you’ll find the same stuff at one-tenth the price (on the other hand, we doubt that D.C.’s cocktail achievers have time to frequent thrift stores).
The flag flew, and we ascended the stairs to PX. The room was perfect: serene, intimate, and almost pitch black, its dark wood walls lit by antique fixtures. Barry Lyndon would feel right at home amid the 18th-century trappings; we could easily imagine him cheating at cards with Patrick Magee in the lounge (pictured above). Even the view out the window fit the theme: when we leaned a little to the left on our stool, we could frame out the cars and see only the faux gaslight on the sidewalk of Alexandria’s Old Town.
Mr. Thrasher, who happened to be behind the bar that night, told the Bum: “I go to sleep at night thinking about drinks.” Makes sense, as his creations have a dreamlike, ethereal quality. If they were paintings, they would be the work of De Chirico, Chagall, or Delvaux. The drinks we sampled were transcendent, variously incorporating walnut water, apple bitters, tobacco, Madeira fig jam, and a house-made tonic water that is to tonic water what Château Lafite Rothschild is to grape juice.
One drink particularly compelled attention. Melanie’s Pisco Pipe Dream fused pisco with coconut milk, lemon, citrus vinegar, and black pepper to create a flavor that was sui generis, with a mustardy nose that presaged a garden of savory delights.
Our next stop was Farmers & Fishers, where D.C. tropaholic Brian Lopina had reserved a private dining room for the local Tiki community. With midcentury Exotica music piping through the room’s speakers, courtesy of dinner attendee Johnny Dollar’s iPod, we worked our way through the restaurant’s slate of Tiki drinks: Zombies, Mai Tais, Singapore Slings, Hurricanes, and Navy Grogs (the last pictured below). They were all spot-on, and the ideal accompaniment to ahi tuna rollups and Hawaiian marinated ribeye. But what really made the meal were Jon Arroyo’s original signature drinks. The Señor Arroyo zestfully combined fresh pineapple, jalapeño, thyme, and tequila, while the Mule de Fresa was a vibrant mix of fresh strawberries muddled with tequila and sugar, topped with ginger beer — and 6 drops of mezcal, for a subliminal layer of smoke.
As the only joint in D.C. serving haute Tiki drinks, we were inclined to linger at Farmers and Fishers. But Vern would have none of it. Off he whisked us to The Gibson, for a taste of Derek Brown’s customized pre-Prohibition classics. Head bartender Tiffany Short warranted Vern’s sense of urgency. She made us, quite simply, the best Daiquiri we have ever had: a generous measure of Martinique rhum agricole, perfectly offset by the Gibson’s house ratio of Luxardo maraschino liqueur to fresh lime juice. If there is a golden mean for cocktails, Derek has found it.
His Daiquiri — along with every other cocktail we quaffed in our nation’s capital — once again left us wondering if achievement weren’t such a bad thing after all. It was at this moment that we knew we had to get out of D.C. Either that, or run for Congress.