Tom Sietsema shares the secrets of Washington’s top bartenders

Good cocktails have never been within easier reach in Washington.

It helps to have a talent pool where bar stars have achieved the fame accorded top chefs and are widely known by just their first names. Ask anyone who cares about what slips over their lips to list the leaders of the pack, and you’re likely to hear the names “Todd,” “Adam,” “Gina,” “Jeff” and “Derek” evoked in reverent tones.

Like Adele, those master mixologists are known by one name. And they return the bouquet to the bar crowd when they’re asked to explain the city’s “liquor renaissance,” as Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve declares the scene. Whereas guests of the four-star dining destination in Alexandria used to ease in with champagne, they now toast first with cocktails, he says.

The availability and diversity of good spirits and garnishes have also enhanced the cocktail experience, says Derek Brown of the Japanese-inspired Columbia Room near the convention center. He’s considering ending his long-running class on making bitters because of the ease with which users can now buy the condiment. His sessions, he says, have become “irrelevant.”

If the heightened status of cocktails prompted any doubt, last year’s move by the James Beard Foundation to add a national award for Outstanding Bar Program to its prestigious restaurant and chef honors pretty much — dare I? — liquefied it.

Recently, I (virtually) bellied up to the bars of five of the area’s most prominent cocktail practitioners and asked them to talk about their favorite subject. They poured forth on everything from tipping and rules for drinking to where they imbibe away from home and signs of a top-drawer bartender. Drink up.

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ADAM BERNBACH, Estadio

Favorite drink on your own list: The sherry-fueled El Cazador ($10).

Classic of choice: The sherry-fueled Adonis.

Excluding your own bar, where would you rather be? Room 11 in Columbia Heights.

Biggest mistake lesser bartenders make: Not learning the subject in great detail; not studying.

How to tell if a bartender knows his stuff: If someone can execute a good daiquiri (or other classic cocktail), “I have confidence in everything else.”

Next “it” cocktail: Highballs.

The most important thing besides the recipe is ... Technique: how you stir, how you shake, how you garnish.

Tip per drink: Twenty percent.

Proudest liquid accomplishment: “Whenever I see a sea of gin and tonics at Estadio.”

Personal drinking rule: “No shots.”

Cocktail hero: “No one makes a cocktail like Todd Thrasher does.” His approach is “very culinary.”

Favorite out-of-town watering hole: PDT (Please Don’t Tell) and Pouring Ribbons in New York.

Guilty pleasure: “Wine purchased from liquor stores with bullet-proof glass.”

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DEREK BROWN, Columbia Room

Favorite drink on your own list: Martini ($17 with tax and tip).

Classic of choice: Martini.

Excluding your own bar, where would you rather be? Barmini, JoséAndrés’s culinary cocktail lab.

Biggest mistake lesser bartenders make: “Sadly, not learning the classics”; “No reverence for what came before.”

How to tell if a bartender knows his stuff: “Is the bar clean? Is the bartender welcoming?”

What you wish every drinker knew: “Their taste will evolve over time.”

Next “it” cocktail:Different delivery systems, including kegs for cocktails.

The most important thing besides the recipe is ... The right equipment. “The cut of the ice affects the taste of drinks.”

Tip per drink: Twenty percent. “Those guys work hard.”

Proudest liquid accomplishment: “That I had the patience to learn to make a martini.”

Personal drinking rule: “Always drink water.”

Cocktail hero: “So many. Right now, it’s Tom Bullock,” the first African American to pen a cocktail guide, “The Ideal Bartender,” in 1917.

Favorite out-of-town watering hole: No. 308 in Nashville and Bad Decisions in Baltimore.

Guilty pleasure: The Mind Eraser: Kahlua, vodka and Sprite or soda water, drunk through a straw.

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GINA CHERSEVANI, Eddy Bar at Hank’s Oyster Bar on the Hill

Favorite drink on your own list: “Lucky One,” a beer cocktail made with Jameson, lime, cardamom and ginger ($10).

Classic of choice: Old-fashioned.

Excluding your own bar, where would you rather be? Estadio, drinking a slushito.

Biggest mistake lesser bartenders make: Adding too many ingredients to a cocktail. “A drink, like a dish, needs a focal point.”

How to tell if a bartender knows his stuff: “Cleanliness is godliness at the table and the bar.”

What you wish every drinker knew: How much work goes into a proper cocktail. Instead of slamming a drink, savor it.

Next “it” cocktail: Wine coolers. “Just imagine if Bartles & Jaymes were delicious!”

Tip per drink: Twenty percent. Tipping a buck a round for craft cocktails is “the most insulting thing you can do.”

Proudest liquid accomplishment: “Making fig grappa with my family in Italy.”

Cocktail hero: Charlotte Voisey, company mixologist for William Grant & Sons USA.

Favorite out-of-town watering hole: Dead Rabbit in New York.

Guilty pleasure: Miller High Life.

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JEFF FAILE, Fiola

Favorite drink on your own list: Manhattan ($14).

Classic of choice: Vieux Carre, made with whiskey, cognac, Benedictine, sweet vermouth and bitters.

Excluding your own bar, where would you rather be? The Passenger (co-owned by Derek Brown).

Biggest mistake lesser bartenders make: Poor execution, such as shaking rather than stirring a Manhattan.

How to tell if a bartender knows his stuff: His or her drinks always taste the same. “Nothing worse than inconsistency.”

What you wish every drinker knew: “We’re not doing [the job] because we can’t do anything else.”

Next “it” cocktail: “Basics will make a comeback.”

Tip per drink: “Nothing wrong with $1 a drink — in a sports bar.” But 20 percent is the norm for craft cocktails.

Proudest liquid accomplishment: Smoke Gets in Your Rye, a well-received cocktail featuring rye whiskey, mezcal, sweet vermouth, Averna Amaro (an herbal Italian liqueur), chocolate bitters and habanero tincture.

Personal drinking rule: “Pace yourself. And drink lots of water.”

Cocktail hero: “Adam Bernbach [of Estadio] is probably the best bartender in town.”

Favorite out-of-town watering hole:Angel’s Share in New York.

Guilty pleasure: “Crappy PBR beer.”

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TODD THRASHER, Restaurant Eve and the speakeasy PX

Favorite drink on your own list: Tristan and Isolda, a rum-based drink made with jasmine green tea, honey and dried orange peel ($13 at PX).

Classic of choice: Manhattan.

Excluding your own bar, where would you rather be? Estadio, for a gin and tonic.

Biggest mistake lesser bartenders make: “Too many people just want to be a bar star. The craft takes time.”

Next “it” cocktail: A return to cocktails from the late 1970s, including Harvey Wallbangers.

The most important thing besides the recipe is ... “Balance.”

Tip per drink: Twenty percent. “People forget most bartenders are making $2.77 an hour.”

Proudest liquid accomplishment: Making a Manhattan for his wife. “It solidified our relationship.”

Personal drinking rule: No more than three cocktails per sitting.

Cocktail hero: Jerry Thomas, who wrote “Bar-Tender’s Guide or How to Mix Drinks” in 1862.

Favorite out-of-town watering hole: Angel’s Share in New York.

Guilty pleasure: Captain Morgan rum and Coke with a lime.

 
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