Dram and Grain, a new reservations-only cocktail bar in the secluded basement of Jack Rose, officially welcomes its first customers Saturday. Here’s what you need to know
Only sixty people get in every week. The cozy room, reached via a locked door and a hallway leading past the kitchen, is open only on Saturday nights. Reservations are made for one of three seatings: at 7, 9 and 11 p.m. Each is limited to 20 people, and lasts exactly 90 minutes. There’s a whole “speakeasy”-style rigmarole to go through: You have to pick up a business card at Jack Rose’s bar. You then text or call the cell phone number on the card to inquire about a reservation.
The cocktails are worth the effort. Jack Rose mixologist Trevor Frye, a fixture in the whiskey room and at the rooftop tiki bar, is joined by Nick Lowe, formerly the beverage director at Acadiana. The two have spent months working on a menu of 15 cocktails, which they plan to rotate every month or so. There are classics, such as the Blood and Sand and Corpse Reviver No. 2, which any cocktail lover will have had before. It’s more interesting to look at something unfamiliar. Take the Brooklyn cocktail. A major component is Amer Picon, a French liqueur with a bitter orange flavor. Unfortunately, it’s not available in this country, so Frye and Lowe made their own version. (They’re happy to explain the process, which is the bonus of a small bartender-to-customer ratio.) The Brooklyn is the cousin of the Manhattan, but with a sharper and smoother flavor, thanks to a little bite of citrus with the rye whiskey.
Also nice to see: Most cocktails are served in small vintage coupes, but they come with a “sidecar,” or small glass bottle, containing more of the drink. Finish what’s in your glass, then add more.
Focus on the unusual. Hoppin Chihuahua is a frothy tequila, lemon and grapefruit drink, shaken with egg white. Nothing unusual there. But why does it subtly smell like … an IPA? And why are whole-leaf hops riding on the meringue-like foam? Lowe explains that he wanted to make a cocktail for beer lovers, so he sourced whole-leaf hops from the homebrew shop at 3 Stars Brewery. An aromatic syrup includes Simcoe, Chinook, Amarillo and Citra hops; bitters are made with Amarillo and Citra. They add piney and tropical fruit notes to the grass-and-citrus sharpness of the drink, and the “reverse dry shake” technique for mixing – again, ask for a demonstration – ensures a satin-smooth body for the cocktail.
Cocktails can double as science experiments. Watching Frye prepare the Ode to Omaha is fascinating. First, he pours a few ounces of Thomas Tew Rum, a blackberry syrup and bitters into a glass orb stopped with a cork. He fires up wood chips in a dry smoker, and the resulting smoke, redolent of a campfire, is fed into a hose, which flows into the bottle of rum. When it’s full – a swirling container of liquid and gray clouds – Frye fixes the stopper and swirls it around. The result looks like something from the Potions class in a Harry Potter movie. When you’re ready, it’s uncorked and poured into your glass.
It’s obviously great theater, but there’s a chemical reason for the process: The smoke fuses with the flavor of the rum, which leads to a rich, lasting flavor. Some other bars char wood to create smoke in the glass, but at Dram and Grain, the taste is much more full, and lasting – it doesn’t dissipate.
Of course, if you just read the cocktail menu, you’d never know any of this: The description of the Ode to Omaha just lists “hickory smoke” as an ingredient. Frye says that’s because he wants people to pay attention to the liquid in their glass, rather than the attention-grabbing way it gets there. “If I [write on the menu] that I’m dry-smoking it, people will just say, ‘Oh, I want that.’ But oh, you hate rum or you don’t like the taste of cinnamon and blackberries? It’s not the drink for you.”
High-rollers should ask about the Whiskey Library. Another bonus at Dram and Grain: Jack Rose owner Bill Thomas is digging into his personal stash of rare spirits. Among the current features are pre-Prohibition bottles of Old Lancaster Bourbon and Monticello whiskey; the Old Lancaster, which hails from Bardstown, Ky., was distilled in 1917 and bottled in 1932. It’ll cost you $175 for a two-ounce pour, but it’s a chance you’re not going to find anywhere else.
Dram and Grain will be compared to the Columbia Room, but experiences are different. The Columbia Room is the gold standard for high-end cocktail lounges. Most visitors to the exclusive bar within the Passenger pay $69 for a tasting menu of three cocktails and a few small plates or snacks. Dram and Grain, on the other hand, offers an a la carte menu with a two-drink minimum. If you just want two drinks, have two. Want to sample three drinks over 90 minutes? That’s fine, too. An evening at Dram and Grain has the potential to be more affordable: The cheapest drinks on the menu are $13 and go as high as $17, so your tab could end up as low as $26 before tax and tip, depending on what catches the eye.
Dram and Grain, 2007 18th St. NW.