Illustration by Molly Jacques for Oh So Beautiful Paper
DC is a very boozy city. Together we work hard and we… drink a lot. We’ve got some great beer joints and wine bars (DC tops the nation in per capita wine consumption), but it’s increasingly easy to find amazing cocktails here too. This is in large part to DC’s cocktail renaissance, something that’s been unfolding over the last few years, led by such luminaries as Derek Brown and Katie Nelson of the Columbia Room, Todd Thrasher of PX, or Jeff Faile of Fiola. I’m sure we’re leaving a few really great places off this list, but that’s not a slight against them – there are too many to list in one post. – Andrew
The Passenger & Columbia Room
The Passenger – the creation of Derek Brown, DC’s King of the Cocktail, and his brother Tom – is one of our favorite bars with a very casual vibe. Don’t limit yourself to a glass of wine or a beer, the Passenger employs some of the most talented bartenders I’ve ever met who can whip up just about any cocktail you can think of, from classic pre-Prohibition cocktails with obscure, hard-to-find ingredients to something created on the spot to suit your tastes. There’s literally no menu; it’s up to you and your bartender to figure out what you’re having tonight.
Inside the Passenger is a bar-within-a-bar, the Columbia Room. Entering the Columbia Room is like being inducted into a secret order of bartenders – through an unmarked door in the often boisterously noisy Passenger, you enter a serene and elegantly styled speakeasy where Derek and some of his top bartenders will ply you with some of the best and most lovingly-crafted drinks you’ll ever taste. You can order a la carte or enjoy their three-course tasting menu, but either way the drinks will be great. Just as importantly, the bartenders will walk you through each drink – its origins, its ingredients, the best way to make it, and more. The Columbia Room also offers classes on Saturdays; these are musts for cocktail enthusiasts. Make reservations or sign up for classes early, as these fill up quickly.
In addition to serving amazing food, Fiola has one of the best bars in DC. Head bartender Jeff Faile has put together a cocktail menu that features many classic cocktails, but along with new drinks and variations on old ones that incorporate Amari, or Italian bitters. Trust me on this one: even if you don’t like Amari, or have never tried them, these drinks are great and will broaden your taste horizons in surprising ways. Jeff has a great team of bartenders who love a challenge and are happy to whip something up for you on the spot to suit your tastes or ply you with some of their newest experiments and homemade liqueurs.
The first time I walked into Biergarten Haus, one of H Street’s best spots, I felt like I had been transported straight to Bavaria in southern Germany. This is definitely the closest I’ve ever come to recapturing the spirit of that amazing land. Biergarten Haus serves up an array of fantastic German beers on tap, which you can order in a manageable half-liter glass or a gargantuan, German style liter stein (I recommend the latter). There are no reservations, so be prepared to swoop in to grab a seat at one of the barrels that serves as a table (or better, a section at one of the long, communal tables) outside as soon as someone gets up to leave.
PX is, like the Columbia Room, something of a modern speakeasy. Located just outside of DC in Old Town Alexandria, PX lays behind an unmarked door with only a tiny blue light to indicate when it’s open. Once inside, you’re treated to a vibe of 1920s decadence and some really fantastic cocktails invented by our local mad scientist of mixology, Todd Thrasher. One of the best things to do here is watch the cocktails being made as Todd or one of his bartenders adds, drop by drop, homemade bitters and other ingredients to made some really fantastic and inventive drinks. This is one of the first places I went that helped me fall in love with cocktails, and I still remember some amazing drinks that I don’t think I could replicate at home, like an Old Fashioned flavored with pecan water. Reservations are a must.
Photo Credit: ChurchKey (right); William Couch (left)
Upstairs from Birch & Barley, ChurchKey is probably the best beer bar in DC. It has an amazing rotating selection of bottles and beers on tap, most of which you will never have heard of before. You might even want to bring a notebook to write down the names of your favorites if you hope to remember them the next day and order them again sometime. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll understand why Beer Director Greg Engert has won pretty much every beer award that has ever been invented. (Also: why don’t high school guidance counselors ever tell you about careers like “Beer Director”?) Check out their website before you visit, because ChurchKey often hosts special events and tastings for rare brews and cask-aged beers.
One reviewer called The Gibson a temple to cocktails. Another of DC’s speakeasies, the Gibson is a reservations-only bar hidden behind an unmarked door in DC’s U Street neighborhood. Here you’ll find, as with PX or the Columbia Room, some fantastic and lovingly made drinks, old and new. The inside is dimly lit, decorated in dark woods and embossed leather, a fantastic atmosphere to savor a cocktail or three.