A hard-to-find sanctuary on H Street
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, April 22, 2011
The buzz: The attractions of H Street NE are legion, but amid the rock concerts and burlesque shows and European Union of pubs, it's nice to find a place where you can bring your date, sit in a dimly lit room and talk over a well-made cocktail. Lately, my refuge has been Church & State, a small quasi-gothic bar hidden on H Street's most buzzing block. Sipping a perfect martini from antique glassware certainly has its charms, as does exploring a cocktail list where all spirits are American-made and primarily from craft distilleries, and a good portion of the ingredients, from the vermouth in the martini to the grenadine in the daquiri, are made by the bartenders.
Church & State is the brainchild of Erik Holzherr, the bartender behind the cozy Wisdom and the South American-inspired Fruit Bat, which sits beneath Church & State. Each has its own theme: Wisdom's menu categorizes drinks on four flavor profile scales, Fruit Bat allows customers to pick their own spirits to craft an individualized drink. Church & State, on the other hand, shows off the best of the American craft liquor movement.
It’s long struck me as funny that diners and bar-goers expect to find microbrews on tap or cheese from local producers on menus, but that’s rarely the case with spirits. At Church & State, the house gin is the clean, citrusy Leopold Bros., distilled in Denver, and patrons can sample rye whiskey from Virginia's own Catoctin Creek, or 4 Orange Vodka from Florida, which will leave you asking "Stoli Who?" (The most familiar name on the shelf is Bacardi Rum, which comes from Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.)
The strict all-American ingredient list means compromises had to be made for the Bill of Rights, the bar's menu of a dozen classic libations. When head mixologist/bartender Josh Berner couldn't find a U.S.-made vermouth that he liked, he had to make his own from a California wine. The resulting dry (white) vermouth gives Berner's cocktails a richer flavor.
Combining it with that Leopold gin makes for an amazing martini. The menu offers the cocktail Wet (3 parts gin to 1 part vermouth), Regular (5 to 1) or Dry (11 to 1); I always go for it Wet, but the dry's pretty good, too. (Those who like olive brine can also order it "Dirty" or even extra dirty as "ODB.")
Berner's handiwork is all over the menu of classic libations, though there are plenty of necessary substitutions: His wonderfully tart Chuck Yeager is a tribute to the Aviation, though this gin cocktail gets its subtlety from his own lavender bitters instead of the French-made creme de violette, and his orgeat syrup is a nice base for a sunny mai tai.
A section of the menu called the Seven Deadly Sins allows him a freer rein, with such creations as the Rooster, which pairs Sriracha hot sauce with citrus and basil.
The scene: I'll admit there are some things about Church & State that I know people will find cheesy or kitschy: There's the church theme, which extends from a faux-stained glass window overlooking H Street to the chairs, benches and even the kneeler under the bar, all purchased from old churches. One cool touch: Hidden next to the bar is a small room called the Confessional. It has a couple of small couches and space for six to eight, and a screened window facing the bar from which to order and receive drinks.
Also, like a number of other cocktail-focused bars, Church & State doesn't have a sign (or a Web site). You just have to know to go to Fruit Bat and then, as you pass through the door, head through a velvet curtain and up a flight of stairs. (There's room for less than 50, however, so a bouncer may ask you to wait in Fruit Bat if it's full.)
It's easy get past these small hangups and enjoy the sampling spirits, chatting with bartenders at the six-seat bar and getting a group together.
Whitney Haynes, a consultant who lives down the street, says she comes to Church & State at least once a week with her boyfriend because "it's a quiet place. It's a great neighborhood bar with these great cocktails."
Her tipple of choice is the Moscow Mule, a vodka cocktail with a homemade lime-ginger ale, while her boyfriend prefers the house daquiri. "I know," she laughs. "My boyfriend, who's the most masculine man in town. But it's not the usual daquiri," thanks to grenadine that's not overly sweet. "It's something a man can stand behind and not be ashamed." When we talked on a Saturday night, she sold most of her group of girlfriends - and me - on that daquiri with just one sip.
On your plate: Church and State does not serve food, though you can head downstairs to Fruit Bat, which offers a menu of pork and veggie tacos, plantains and griddle cakes.
Price points: Cocktails range from $10-$13. A small selection of American beer is $5-$6.
Need to know: As at Wisdom, Church & State offers a variety of cocktail classes. They're limited to five people at a time for a more interactive experience. See www.gintender.com for dates and prices.