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Shaking up the cocktail scene

By Fritz Hahn and Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post staff writers
Friday, November 19, 2010; T25

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.

Go see her: Thursday through Sunday nights, the earlier the better. (It's easier to get creative when the bar is less crowded.) 202-393-0220 or www.passengerdc.com .

JP Caceres, Againn

Caceres was well on his way to becoming a lawyer in his native Bolivia when he quit law school and headed to the United States eight years ago to pursue his dream of entering the culinary world.

For someone with less of a work ethic, it would have been a head-spinning gamble: His first jobs were washing cars during the day and clearing tables at Jaleo at night. And in whatever spare moments he could steal, Caceres taught himself English by poring over newspapers and looking up words he didn't understand.

"Three years later," Caceres, 29, says with only the slightest inkling of pride, "I was the head bartender at Oyamel." It was at Jose Andres's nuevo Latino restaurant that he caught the cocktail bug. In the years since, you might have seen the perennially fedora-clad Caceres at Tryst, where he helped build its blossoming drink program, or at the Columbia Room, where he assists during Derek Brown's cocktail classes.

For the past year, he has been firmly settled behind the bar at British gastropub Againn, where his contributions - such as his eminently drinkable shandy (with Allagash, ginger syrup and the elderflower liqueur St. Germain) and a potent, bittersweet Gran Senor (with Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and the trendy new Swiss import Gran Classico Bitter) - give bargoers reason to bypass the beer selection altogether.

As far as he has come, the back of Caceres's business card reads a message that still makes him laugh: "Sorry but my English, it's not very good looking."

Calling card: For those afraid that "classic" means "bitter" or "strong," Caceres is your man. "You will find my cocktails, they're on the sweet side," he says; his punch on a recent Saturday was nectar flavored with Jamaican almond-scented falernum and dotted with tart blueberries. When one woman asked him to whip her up a cocktail, he skipped the menu altogether and delivered a drink with gin, bitter lemon, quinine liqueur and a strawberry gastrique. (If you're wondering, she adored it.) You can get a glimpse of his encyclopedic knowledge firsthand when, starting in December, he will host his own monthly cocktail "adventures" at the upstairs bar at One Lounge in Dupont Circle. Caceres will be serving classics as well as drinks he has dubbed "medicinal cocktails" - drinks that aim to heal what ails you.

On the menu: Caceres's fall menu includes the Fall Stem, with fall-spiced bourbon, orange bitters and vermouth, and the Gran Senor, but for a real soul-warming sip, try the Jack O Lantern. "The first thing that comes to mind is fall," he says of his drink, which features a pumpkin liquor steeped with coriander, cardamom and sage.

But there's no need to stick to the menu at Againn. "I like to just talk to my guests," Caceres says. "What are you drinking today? What spirit do you like?" Just ask, and he will deliver.

Go see him: Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at Againn, 1099 New York Ave. NW. 202-639-9830 or www.againndc.com ; Thursdays at Bourbon Steak, 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-944-2026 or www.bourbonsteakdc.com ; and on Dec. 16 at One Lounge, 1606 20th St. NW. 202-299-0909 or www.oneloungedc.com .

Jessica Crandall, Bourbon in Glover Park

Seven months ago, Crandall was a barback at Bourbon. Now she's the brains behind one of our favorite new cocktail lists, mixing seasonal fruit infusions with twists on classics. The Georgetown grad spent three years working at the Tombs - "most of my creativity at that point was expressed by blue shots," she says with a laugh - and now she shows her originality at Bourbon by adding a light touch and fresh flavors to what had been a very whiskey-heavy menu.

Calling card: Crandall likes to play around with infusions, which allow for depth of flavor, speed the mixing process and make drinks consistently good, even when she's not the one working behind the stick.

Her wonderfully spicy Indian Summer cocktail, for example, uses a pineapple vodka infused with cayenne and habanero peppers and ancho and green chiles. When it's ordered, the bartender only has to mix it with a house-made syrup and lemon juice.

She also likes to push forgotten classics on her customers. The Last Word, a drink from the '30s with gin and green chartreuse, has been one of the most popular items on her new menu. "I love that people are drinking green chartreuse in my neighborhood," she gushes. "It's really cool."

On the menu: When it comes to fall and winter, "I automatically think of apples, pears and fresh fruit," Crandall says, instead of Baileys or rich, dark liqueurs. The proof is in her Fall Gala: vodka infused with apples and cinnamon, star anise syrup and a bit of lemon. The aroma is like your mom's Thanksgiving pie, with a nice, sharp cinnamon flavor and smoky star anise.

"It's like the way I'll dress in winter - I'll wear a skirt but also warm boots and a chunky sweater. You want to be comfortable but not too warm."

Go see her: Sunday through Tuesday at Bourbon, 2438 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-625-7770. www.bourbondc.com ; Wednesday and Thursday nights at Rasika, 633 D St. NW. 202-637-1222. www.rasikarestaurant.com

Gordon Banks, Jackie's Sidebar

Banks never set out to be a mixologist; his first bartending gigs involved slinging $1.50 Natty Light beers to undergrads in Harrisonburg, Va., and rarely got more complicated than that over the years. But when the 30-year-old found himself behind the bar at the Quarry House Tavern, looking at the growing number of whiskeys on the shelf, "I wanted to be able to make drinks that I was proud of," he explains. Unlike many top-shelf local bartenders, Banks is completely self-taught. He spent his time reading cocktail books, going to well-known cocktail lounges and watching other bartenders, and more important, "lots of experimentation. I love the Manhattan, and from there you go to the Sazerac. Then you just go from there. It's a world that, a few years ago, I didn't know existed."

Now he's behind the bar at Jackie's Sidebar, where a roof garden provides the dill for garnishing cocktails and the lavender that infuses the gin. His current menu is a mix of reverently treated classics and highly original twists.

Calling card: Banks's fall menu reads like a chef's: Order the Russian Bathhouse, and your cocktail -- horseradish-infused vodka, vermouth and fresh dill -- comes with a spoon of black caviar that you snack on while sipping. And the Bebida Morada, a variation on a pisco sour, got its start when Banks got Concord grapes from the chef at Jackie's, made a reduction and then combined them with a marjoram-infused pisco. It's then shaken with bitters, egg white and lemon juice. Don't get the wrong idea: Banks does well with the classics, too. His Ford Cocktail -- a take on a 19th-century mix of gin, Benedictine and dry vermouth -- is jazzed up with the sweet herbal and citrus flavors of Boomsma genever, a traditional Dutch style of gin, and fragrant orange bitters.

On the menu: Banks favors heavier Scotch-based drinks in cold weather, especially the Arnaud's Special, with Balvenie and orange bitters, and the Blood and Guts - a variation on the classic Blood and Sand, but with smoky Ardberg Scotch and ginger liqueur. Next up: bacon-infused bourbon.

Go see him: Thursday through Saturday nights at Jackie's Sidebar, 8081 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, 301-565-9700.

David Fritzler, Tryst

They started turning up the volume on the menu at popular coffeehouse Tryst this past winter: cocktails that sounded like those you'd see in a reservations-only bar, with exotic touches such as house-made bitters and syrups, "peaty" Laphroaig Scotch, balsamic reduction and artichoke liqueur. And if you ordered the Tryst Toddy, watch out; your bartender would finish your drink by setting it ablaze.

Oddly enough, behind the bar was a quintessentially coffee kind of guy: David Fritzler. Tryst's beverage director for years, he says he was inspired to expand the bar offerings when he noticed how much cocktail and coffee cultures had begun to have in common. "Specialty coffee and cocktails really feed off each other," says Fritzler, 35, a soft-spoken former sociology major who has been at Tryst for more than 10 years. And the obsessiveness about origins and flavors is mutual - or it is for Fritzler, anyway. A couple of years ago, Fritzler joined the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild, and at the area's Rickey Month contest this summer, he was named a finalist for a rickey he flavored with both smoked and grilled limes (each drink required so much work that it was a minor miracle when he delivered 200 for the closing party). In coming months, he says, Tryst will expand its bar to further highlight the new cocktail focus.

Calling card: Fritzler likes to layer his flavors, adding ingredients one by one so a drinker never feels pummeled by the pucker of bitters or taste of bourbon or whiskey. A classic example: Cranberry and black pepper subtly balance the sugar-plums-dancing sweetness of his sparkling plum punch.

On the menu: Fritzler mixed up many a classic working the bar at a Portland, Ore., hotel after college, so it's no coincidence that the cocktails populating Tryst's menu have a pre-Prohibition feel. But there are plenty of signs that a mixologist with a modern sense of adventure is at work. The Chi na Mari blends wasabi, soy sauce and sriracha for a cocktail best described as an Asian-fusion bloody Mary. Fritzler also makes good use of Tryst's mind-boggling collection of teas and coffees. Ask for the rye-and-vermouth based Bensonhurst as a toddy, and he'll kick it up with lusciously oaky vanilla-orchid black tea, rather than the standard hot water; for the Voodoo Lady, he pairs rum and hot vanilla chai. Fritzler even put three alcohol-free cocktails on the menu, including the Mary Hunt, with almond-laced orgeat syrup, lime and lemon juices, and bitters he makes without a lick of alcohol.

Go see him: Go see him Monday through Wednesday evenings at Tryst, 2459 18th St. NW. 202-232-5500 or www.trystdc.com .

fritz.hahn@washingtonpost.com ramanathanl@washpost.com

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