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Cocktail Kings Shake Up Bar Business

By Thomas Heath
Monday, January 5, 2009

My three vices in life (at least the ones I am willing to talk about) are fireworks, cigars and cocktails. And swanky hotels. Oh, and politically incorrect food like foie gras, and heart-stoppers like sweetbreads. Butter. Traveling first class. Sharp hats. Okay, so there are a lot more than three.

I gave up fireworks after nearly blowing myself up celebrating Fourth of July. I am down to about one cigar a month (I smoke a house brand from Nat Sherman's in New York.) Call it a concession to my health.

But I still search for the Great American Cocktail. I love a well-crafted potable. Sometimes I love them too much.

My cocktail search recently took me to Bourbon, a restaurant and bar in the District's trendy Adams Morgan neighborhood, where several skilled "mixologists" were holding a seminar on how to make holiday drinks. I watched these masters blend such classics as a Tom & Jerry, a Holiday Mojito and Baltimore Egg Nog, but the real takeaway was an introduction to a cadre of young men and women bartenders creating complex and original drinks at several destination bars around the Washington region.

At 38, Todd Thrasher is a godfather to the young craft bartenders around Washington. He owns a part of Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria, where he bartends. He and partners also own PX, his creation on King Street that seats 32. Eight seats at the bar are for walk-ins; the rest must be reserved.

Thrasher charges $11 to $19 for a cocktail.

"My drinks are expensive," he said.

For that, you get homemade cola for your rum and Coke. Quinine is shipped in weekly from a health-food store in Carson City, Nev., for his tonic. Thrasher even makes his own ginger ale. You get the idea. There are no canned juices or canned mixers. PX's bitters -- the cocktail equivalent of a spice rack -- are homemade and plentiful, including a special cherry bitters.

You also get more expensive booze. He pays $24 for a bottle of high-end gin, compared with $6.25 for the cheap stuff. He calls PX, which has been open two years, the cocktail version of fine dining but without the expensive overhead.

Cocktails normally have high profit margins. That means if you charge $6 for a drink in your average bar, you make $5 or $5.50 after the cost of the alcohol and the ingredients.

So, how do places like PX make money when they are spending more on ingredients and ambiance and are employing craft bartenders?

Thrasher's answer: hammering down his costs. His experience enables him to make homemade tonic water in half the time it took five years ago. Same with the cola and everything else. He shares his mortgage with the profitable Eamonn's fish-and-chips restaurant downstairs, which he also partly owns.

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