Round Robin Bar
Back in the early 1800s, on the site of the current Willard InterContinental Hotel, Sen. Henry Clay had a forceful discussion with British naval hero and author Capt. Frederick Marryat about the proper way to mix a mint julep. Marryat thought you could use rum or brandy with the mint. Clay, a son of Kentucky's bourbon country, disagreed. He provided Marryat with this recipe, taken from his diary, which is now deemed the definitive formula:
"The mint leaves fresh and tender, should be pressed against the goblet with the back of a silver spoon. Only bruise the leaves gently and then remove them from the goblet. Half fill with cracked ice. Mellow bourbon, aged in oaken barrels, is poured from the jigger and allowed to slide slowly through the cracked ice. In another receptacle, granulated sugar is slowly mixed with chilled limestone water to make a silvery mixture as smooth as some rare Egyptian oil, then poured on top of the ice. While beads of moisture gather on the burnished exterior of the silver goblet, garnish the brim of the goblet with choicest sprigs of mint."
That's how they still make their mint juleps at the Willard's famous Round Robin bar, using Makers Mark bourbon (which is sweet and aged in oak barrels) to complement the tangy mint leaves, as well as fresh branch water. The ties to Kentucky run deep here. On Derby Day, the bartenders at the Round Robin probably make more juleps than anyone this side of Churchill Downs. There's also a very proper Southern party, with prizes for "Most Beautiful Bonnet" and "Most Bodacious Bow Tie." And, of course, everyone sings "My Old Kentucky Home."
The other 364 days of the year, the rich, round mahogany bar dispenses gin rickeys, sidecars, Negronis, martinis and other carefully prepared cocktails to politicians, lobbyists, office workers and those who wander through the hotel's beaux-arts lobby to soak up the clubby, tradition-heavy atmosphere.
-- Fritz Hahn (October 2002)
The Scotch Bar
Jim Hewes has been behind the bar at the Willard's Round Robin Bar for 23 years, serving as chief mixologist and cocktail historian. But now he has taken his interest in Scotch to a new level, opening a bar-within-a-bar a few steps from the Round Robin.
The Scotch Bar features more than 130 Scotches, Hewes says, including many that aren't on the menu. All are available in quarter-ounce and one-ounce pours; a quarter-ounce is basically a taste, though you might be able to make it last for a few small sips. There are flights such as the Highland Fling, which Hewes groups by age as well as region, so you can see the difference between, say, a 13-year-old Mortlach and a 13-year-old Tomatin, which are both classified as Highland whiskys but have tastes that are far apart. (The Scottish shortbread cookies served with the flight are excellent palate cleansers.)
It's best, though, to let Hewes be your guide, and even when the bar is busy, he's an attentive and helpful host. Tell him what flavors you're looking for (light and delicate or huge and peaty) and let him choose a few. The point is education and sampling, and the prices probably won't break the bank; quarter-ounce tastes range from $3 to more than $20, while ounces start at about $10 and can go above $120. Once you've found something you like, Hewes says, it's far more economical to order ounces; a whisky may cost $4 per taste but $12 per ounce. You do the math.
The Scotch Bar is tiny compared with the rest of the Red Robin: only four bar stools, a pair of four-seat tables and four tables for two. It pays to arrive early or to visit on a Wednesday or Thursday, when you can get the most attention.
My only complaint (after the first visit) is that the Scotch Bar isn't clearly marked. To find it, make a left at the entrance to the Round Robin and go up the stairs, instead of turning right into the main bar.
-- Fritz Hahn (May 8, 2009)