When you raise a glass of craft whiskey to your lips, you’re not just sipping some potent amber alcohol. You’re also consuming centuries’ worth of history, countless aroma compounds, and the immeasurable fruits and labors of a hard-working distillery.
And that bottle of sake you’re drinking alongside your California roll? It’s way more than the sweet results of fermented rice. Rather, it’s an ancient liquor steeped in Japanese tradition with roots in religious ceremonies. And don’t even get us started about what’s going on in your favorite bottle of wine.
The takeaway? You sure do drink a lot. And also: For the layman, this alcohol stuff can be complex.
Which is why we set out to find D.C.’s preeminent authorities who could answer our burning questions and demystify our favorite types of alcohol. And did we mention they all happen to be women?
Along the way we learned the best way to mix a martini (James Bond is wrong!), how hot your sake should be (trick question: It’s best served cold) and whether you should buy wine from Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods (sorry, Two Buck Chuck).
Sherry Pro, Mockingbird Hill, 1843 Seventh St. NW; 202-316-9396, drinkmoresherry.com. (Shaw-Howard U)
Mockingbird Hill, the ham and sherry bar Tseng co-owns with husband Derek Brown in Shaw, prides itself on being transparent in its mission to bring good sherry to the D.C. market. “We’re not subtle about what we’re doing,” she says. “We’re like, ‘Hi, we’re a sherry bar, come on in!’ ”
Tseng, who has been bartending in D.C. since 2000, admires sherry for its versatility. “You don’t want to manipulate it too much. But at the same time, it’s super adaptable. Sherry makes any cocktail better.” She’s amassed 102 different sherries for the bar, and serves them in flights with small bites inspired by La Venencia, a popular Madrid wine bar.
“This is something that’s been around 3,000 years for a reason,” she says. “It was the ‘IT’ drink during Shakespearean times and in Colonial America.”
What to pair with sherry (besides ham): “Miso soup — especially with a nutty Amontillado sherry. Most table wines clash with miso dishes, but Amontillado and miso are a match because they share an earthy, or ‘umami,’ flavor profile.”
How long does a bottle last: “Manzanillas and finos are meant to be enjoyed fresh; even a week is pushing it. Dessert-like sherries like Pedro Ximenez can last longer, thanks to sugar, but finish a bottle off before the
Tiffany Dawn Soto
Master Sake Teacher, sake2you.com
Soto is a “super taster,” meaning she has more taste buds than the rest of us. Good thing, because the aromatics in sake are far more delicate than those in wine, requiring a palate attuned to subtlety. “There are about
20 kinds of squash I can identify in sake,” Soto says.
The Howard County, Md., resident is the only non-Japanese female kikizakeshi (master sake teacher) certified in brewing, service and education. She acquired the title after collecting four certifications from the Sake Service Institute, taking additional courses and completing two brewing apprenticeships.
Through her business, Sake 2 You, she runs “sake safaris” to Japan, teaches a class geared toward business professionals called “Sake for Success” and is working on a book about incorporating sake into everyday life. “I’m trying every day, all day to make people feel like it’s less bourgeois,” Soto says.
What sushi haters can eat with sake: “My favorite pairing is a pulled pork sandwich with a very bright ginjo (the second-highest sake quality level). But there are about 18,000 different sake varieties, so you can pair it with anything.”
What makes her shudder: “Besides sake bombs? When people microwave sake to temps above 100 degrees. It kills off the original alcohol, requiring grain alcohol to be added back in. It’s not even sake at that point! So stick with the cold stuff.”
Whiskey Sommelier, Ri Ra Georgetown, 3125 M St. NW; 202-751-2111, rira.com/georgetown
While enrolled as a student at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland in 2008, Ewing showed up at The Grill Bar, one of the city’s oldest and most celebrated pubs, and asked for a job. “I knew nothing about whiskey, but they gave me a chance,” she says.
Ewing had planned for a career in international development, but she chose a different path after discovering she had a great palate. Her current position allows her to work with a unique challenge: She’s severely dyslexic. Ewing says it’s satisfying to find a career that rewards her sensory perception skills: “I’m very observant, which helps me behind the bar. My mind just picks up on things like body language because I’m trying to find my way around words.”
Now at 25, Ewing is one of 1,300 certified Scotch experts in the world, according to the certifying body, The Scotch Whisky Experience.
The best Scotch for beginners: “Glenrothes was my gateway whiskey. I use Scotch and whiskey interchangeably because Scotch is whiskey distilled from malted barley. Also, don’t be afraid of water. If that’s what it takes to get you to honor the art form and drink it straight, do it!”
Gin Goddess, The Gin Joint, 2317 Calvert St. NW; 202-234-4110, newheightsrestaurant.com. (Woodley Park)
Hassoun started at The Gin Joint — an 11-seat bar below New Heights — in March 2010 as a bartender, with only a shot of gin knowledge.
“There was literally no training,” she says. “In my first few days I found myself pretending to need more ice only to dash in the back to pop open a book to find recipes.”
Now as manager and beverage director, Hassoun possesses enough knowledge to play gin matchmaker with guests who need a little guidance. “Only one in 300 people come in and know what they want,” she says.
Beyond gin, Hassoun’s true passion is tonic. With help from Mom, she makes her own under the moniker Chronic Tonic (thechronictonic.com).
Shaken or stirred? “Stirred! Never ever shake a martini. It bruises the liquor and turns it a milky white. Stir it 35 times instead, and it will be just as cold and more pure.”
How to make a good drink at home: “Stay away from sugar. Use fresh fruit juices instead.”
Master Sommelier, kathymorganms.com
Morgan, the 19th female to be named master sommelier in North America by the Court of Master Sommeliers (there are 135 master sommeliers in North America), was exposed to vino at an early age by parents who liked to entertain and didn’t believe in a kids table.
The sommelier track caught her eye while she was working as a cocktail waitress on dollar beer night in college. “Once I understood wine wasn’t just for stuffy old French men, I realized it’s the coolest job in a restaurant,” Morgan says.
As a consultant, she helps restaurants like Bryan Voltaggio’s Aggio build creative wine lists, and organizes private events for oenophiles.
How to get a good value: “Lesser-known varietals are likely to have a lower markup. If you like the new oak and concentrated fruit taste of California cabernet, try Aglianico from Southern Italy.”
Better grocer for wine: Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods Market? “Whole Foods. They have staff to guide you.”