Shaking up the cocktail scene

JP Caceres, mixologist at Againn DC, shows you how to make a Genever Sour step-by-step, with a few flourishes along the way.
By Fritz Hahn and Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post staff writers
Friday, November 19, 2010

A few years ago, if you wanted the best craft cocktails in Washington, you headed for Gina Chersevani's bar at Rasika, or you made reservations at PX or the Gibson and then prayed you'd actually get face time with cocktail gurus Todd Thrasher or Derek Brown.

Fast-forward to 2010, and it seems that someone let the secrets of cocktail-making -- the do-it-yourself bitters and liqueurs, the eyebrow-raising ingredients like green chiles or basil, the semi-secret stashes of obscure spirits from around the globe -- out of the bag.

No longer do just a handful of bars pour all of the extraordinary drinks in this town. Yes, we still bow down to the masters, but this year a spate of excellent young upstarts surprised us with cocktails that proved there's still plenty of room in our glasses for new perspectives in drink-making.

At Brown's bar the Passenger, Alexandra Bookless cooks up light, refreshing flavors on the fly to satisfy any customer request; JP Caceres has made an inspiring climb from would-be lawyer to busboy to Againn's charming, encyclopedic mixologist; and at Tryst (yes, that Tryst), David Fritzler is whipping up punches and twists on the classics good enough to make you skip your reservations elsewhere.

Just in time for the fall cocktail season, we introduce you to five local mixologists on the rise.

Check out their recipes for an Old-Fashioned Paradise, William Tell Routine and Winter Solstice to help you look like a pro at your next party. And watch these videos where they explain how to mix a Genever Sour and which cocktails should be shaken, not stirred.

Alexandra Bookless, the Passenger

Bookless has one of the toughest jobs around. She has the weekend shift at the Passenger, a bar with a huge selection of rare spirits and liqueurs and no cocktail menu, save for a few suggestions on the chalkboard behind the bar. Instead, Bookless makes custom cocktails for customers who ask for "something tart, with gin" or "a bourbon drink for a rainy day." The 29-year-old is usually spot on, often coming up with an interesting flavor combination we've never tried.

She's not bad with creating recipes, either: Her Root of All Rickey cocktail, made with a fizzy jicama and ginger soda, gin and bourbon, beat 26 drinks in a area-wide competition this summer.

Calling card: Bookless's biggest asset is her ability to create drinks on the fly, armed with only a couple of adjectives from the person on the other side of the bar. "You have to have a good imagination, and you have to know what everything tastes like," Bookless says. "If I can't think of something right away, I have a base of drinks in my head - sweet gin cocktails, boozy gin, sour gin - and I can go through and change things based on what they want."

Sometimes she gets out-there requests, such as the customer who asked for "a cocktail that's like holding hands and skipping though a field on a spring day."

"Last week, someone said, 'I want a Pat Benatar cocktail,' so I made something with Aperol [an Italian aperitif], grapefruit bitters and added a grapefruit cut in the shape of a heart. It's sweet, a little tart and punky. That reminds me of Pat Benatar."

On the menu: At the Passenger, the sky's the limit, but Bookless loves creating variations on Manhattans and experimenting with drinks with bitter Italian liqueurs. "I'll be drinking Negronis made with Gran Classico," an earthy, orangy aperitif.

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