The drink had layers of dark turquoise and green. Poured into a clear martini glass with a translucent orange ball-shaped base, it looked a little like a murky swimming pool resting atop the setting sun. "Taste it," the bartender said, pushing it toward us.
We took a sip.
"Too many different liquors."
For the sleek Degrees bar, just two weeks away from opening in the new, starkly modern Ritz-Carlton hotel in Georgetown, the process of creating a signature drink was not going well. A worried Damien O'Riordan, the new food and beverage director, shook his head at the colorful concoctions lined up on the black granite bar. He looked like he needed a good stiff drink himself.
O'Riordan knew that a great signature drink can make a bar. If the gods of mixology smiled just right, the drink could even make history. Think of the manhattan, said to be the namesake of the 19th-century New York bar where it was invented. Or the refreshing gin rickey, named for a lobbyist and made famous in the early 1900s at Shoemaker's bar in Washington. Or even, more recently, the apple martini, reportedly first served as the Adam's Apple Martini (named for the bartender) at Lola's in Los Angeles, and currently a staple in bars on both coasts.
"A signature drink is key for bar business," says Anthony Dias Blue, wine and spirits editor for Bon Appetit magazine and author of "The Complete Book of Mixed Drinks." "Give it a creative name and garnishes and it becomes an attraction. It's something no one else has."
That's especially true today, as the country enjoys what cocktail expert Gary Regan calls "the second golden age of the cocktail." The author of "New Classic Cocktails" and "The Martini Companion" says the period between 1880 and 1910 was the cocktail's first golden age, when many classics like the manhattan and the sidecar were first created.
Today, those old drinks are new again, and for good reason, says Regan. "They're simple combinations that taste good."
For bartenders who want to come up with an easy signature drink, "the best advice is to look at the classics and alter them a little." The best of them use only three ingredients, he says. "Look at the sidecar -- brandy, Cointreau and lemon juice. The cosmopolitan is vodka, triple sec, lime juice and a little cranberry juice for color. The manhattan uses whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters." A simple formula, says Regan, is to use one liquor for the base, a liqueur to sweeten and a little tart juice or bitters to balance that sweetness.
As for that blue drink we tried, it contained Absolut Mandarin (an orange-flavored vodka), plus Midori (a green, melon-flavored liqueur), Blue Curacao (a Windex-colored, orange-flavored liqueur) and lime juice. "Too much going on," says Regan. "And, as a general rule, men don't like to drink blue drinks."
Or pink ones, like the cosmopolitan. Zola, Washington's hugely popular bar near the International Spy Museum, solved that problem with its signature drink, the Zola.
"Basically, it's a white cosmopolitan," says Ralph Rosenberg, director of wine and spirits for the Starr Restaurant Group, which includes Zola and Red Sage. The hip ladies of the TV show "Sex and the City" made the pink cosmo their signature drink, but Rosenberg wanted a white version that men would order as well.
The bartenders at Zola combine a premium, quadruple-distilled potato vodka from Estonia called Mor, plus Citronge (an orange liqueur from Mexico), freshly muddled lime and white cranberry juice. It's garnished with sun-dried cranberries in the bottom of the glass. The fresh lime juice gives it a slightly cloudy look in the delicate, hand-blown martini glasses.
The reaction, says Rosenberg, "has been huge. We sell 30 Zolas on a Monday night when I normally figured we'd sell two. We sold 80 last Thursday. It's not pink and people don't think of it as a cosmopolitan, but it's this great-tasting combination."
The Cardinal, a takeoff on the classic brandy drink, the sidecar, and the Jade, a green margarita made with lemony Nardini grappa instead of tequila, are also among the bar's three top-selling signature drinks.
Rosenberg, who's been in the restaurant business some 20 years, says the right signature drinks "beat the pants off any regular bar drink." They create buzz for the bar.
He spent weeks working on Zola's drink recipes, but he spent even longer choosing the sleek, imported glassware and shakers. "Drinks need to look spectacular in the glass. You want, when the waiter walks by with a tray of them, that people say, 'What is that? I want one of those.' "
That's the idea behind the glittery Goldfinger martini that's the signature drink at The International, the hip '60s-themed bar in the Washington Plaza Hotel, where James Bond movies constantly play on a large flat-screen television and retro dance nights pack the place. The martini is made from Stolichnaya Gold vodka and garnished with real 24-karat gold flakes. It comes in two sizes, five ounces for $9 and 10 ounces for $13.
"Good signature drinks can make or break you," says Andre Priemer, food and beverage director for the hotel. "When you go somewhere, you're drawn to someone else's drink or plate. If you see something really eye-catching, that sets the mood for your visit. A gold sparkling drink really catches a woman's eye."
What makes them catch their breath is The International's $100 Presidente martini. It's actually two, 10-ounce traditional martinis made from small-batch Lithuanian rye vodka, accompanied by an ounce of osetra caviar, toast points and garnishes, served in crystal stemware on a Tiffany silver platter. Though the drink was somewhat of a gimmick in the beginning, Priemer says he's been surprised at how many they've sold, especially on Valentine's Day.
Intriguing drinks can also make up for a bar that's lacking in other amenities. "Have you seen our bar? Not that big, no windows -- the only reason it does so well are our signature drinks," says Manuel Iguina, general manager of Cafe Atlantico in the Penn Quarter downtown.
The big draw is the cafe's own mojito, a bubbly combination of sugar, mint, lime, rum, ice and soda water. Served in a tall, thin glass, garnished with a piece of sugar cane, the bar sells nearly 2,000 a month at $6 per. A new drink, the Florecita -- basically a margarita made with freshly squeezed blood orange juice (instead of lime juice) -- is also doing well.
"Our thing is South American drinks," says Iguina. "That's why people come here. They don't want umbrella drinks or blue drinks or anything too reinvented. We tried our own version of a cosmopolitan, but it doesn't really sell."
The signature cocktail has seen such a revival that woe to the restaurant or bar that doesn't have one. Nick Floulis, general manager of the new Finn & Porter seafood and steak restaurant in Alexandria, discovered that just before the place opened last month.
"We were doing three charity fundraisers. We were working on the menus and discussing what wines and beers would be offered, and the organizers wanted to know what specialty cocktail we would be serving," recalls Floulis.
Thinking fast, Floulis remembered a bar-owner friend in Philadelphia who had once served him an unusual martini. "I took his recipe, tinkered a bit with it, and came up with our Finntini -- citron vodka, blueberry schnapps and cranberry juice with a twist." It's a vibrant red, served in a martini glass etched with the restaurant's logo. Nearly a thousand were gulped down by fundraiser guests.
Chefs are also playing more of a role in creating the bar menu. At 15 Ria in the Washington Terrace Hotel, chef Jamie Leeds offers homemade fruit sodas on the regular menu, and she had a hand in developing the bar's popular fresh berry drinks -- berry sangria, the Blueberry Smash and the pomegranate Margaria.
"The smash is like a blueberry mojito," says food and beverage manager Bradley Moore. "Bacardi Limon, fresh blueberries smashed with fresh mint, over crushed ice. We serve it in a 10-ounce tapered highball glass and you have close to a quarter-cup of blueberries floating in the cocktail." For the sangria, fresh berries are marinated in sugar syrup for 24 hours and then in rum and white wine for another 24 hours. The two drinks were last summer's top sellers, says Moore.
The bar attracts a young, professional crowd. "They're hip, well educated, but they don't have a ton of money. The last thing they want is a $14 or $15 martini," says Moore. To introduce them to some of the classic cocktails, Moore came up with "tiny teenies" -- mini-manhattans and other classics for $9, served in an eight-ounce shaker with a two-ounce martini glass, enough for three tiny cocktails for sharing and sampling.
Moore thinks restaurant managers don't get involved in beverages as much as they should. "They let some slick young bartender name a green martini and think that's it. A lot of cocktail lists are weird just to be weird."
That's exactly what O'Riordan at Degrees was trying to avoid when he originally asked two of the hotel's bartenders to create a signature drink. He was looking for something to reflect the bar's unique location in the historic, art deco-style Georgetown Incinerator, built in 1932 to burn neighborhood trash.
Guests sitting at Degrees' long, black bar have a dramatic view of the huge, 175-foot tall brick cylinder that now is the centerpiece for the movie theater lobby below and the posh, boutique hotel lobby where the bar is located. Specially designed drink glasses with glowing orange bases reflect the building's fiery history.
But the first round of test signature drinks failed to ignite any sparks. In addition to the ill-conceived Blue Curacao-and-Midori concoction, tasters grimaced after trying a cloudy, white vodka drink with a regrettable mixture of cinnamon and pepper. O'Riordan mentally tore his hair and vowed to start over.
Two new bartenders were brought in, along with staff from Ritz hotels in New York and Florida and, finally, the big gun: Norman Bukofzer, legendary bartender of New York's Ritz-Carlton, Central Park. The dapper, soft-spoken Bukofzer has been pouring martinis and manhattans for nearly 30 years. Esquire magazine dubbed him one of "New York's friendliest bartenders" because he likes to introduce the people at his bar to each other.
To come up with a new signature drink, "We must have tried out 30 cocktails," O'Riordan said. The two new Degrees bartenders -- Michael Brown, formerly with the popular D.C. nightclub Dream, and Sierra Lesjack, who has bartended in London and San Francisco -- helped create the final nine specialty drinks.
Lesjack pushed for a sake version of the cosmopolitan. "Sake cocktails are huge in San Francisco. Sake is very light and clean-tasting and it's lower in alcohol," she says. Her pink Zentini, made with sake, cranberry juice, lime juice and a splash of Cointreau, was a hit with tasters.
Brown came up with a rum version of an apple martini, called a DCider, as well as what he hopes will be a new classic: The Metro Car, made with Captain Morgan's spiced rum, cranberry juice, orange juice and triple sec in a sugar-rimmed glass.
Standing back, watching the two young bartenders garnish the drinks, Bukofzer said he approved of the new recipes.
"But you know," he added, "signature drinks, they look good on paper, but it's people skills that are important. The bar is a social event. The bartender needs to be a social director. People will forget the drink, but they will remember the experience."
The zentini, found at Degrees bar in the Ritz-Carlton, Georgetown, is a sake version of the cosmopolitan. It's light, fresh-tasting and, because it swaps sake for vodka, has about half the typical alcohol content. Freeze-dried cranberries, not sun-dried, are the preferred garnish because they float instead of sink.
2 ounces premium sake
1/2 ounce Cointreau
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce cranberry juice
Freeze-dried cranberries for garnish
In a shaker or mixing glass, combine all the ingredients with ice and shake well. Strain and pour into chilled martini glass. Garnish with cranberries.
Florecita, from Cafe Atlantico, is a seasonal version of the margarita that uses freshly squeezed blood orange juice rather than lime juice.
1 ounce tequila
1 ounce triple sec
1 ounce freshly squeezed blood orange juice
Orange slice, for garnish
In a shaker or mixing glass, combine all the ingredients with ice and shake well. Strain and pour into chilled martini glass. Garnish with the orange slice.
James Bond and everything '60s are big at The International bar in the Washington Plaza Hotel, including this cloudy white, vanilla-scented drink.
2 ounces vanilla vodka
2 ounces regular vodka
1 ounce white cranberry juice
Splash of Triple Sec
Splash of fresh lime juice
In a shaker or mixing glass, combine all the ingredients with ice and shake well. Strain and pour into chilled martini glasses.
According to internationally known mixologist Dale DeGroff, as well as other cocktail experts, the rickey took its name from "Colonel Joe" Rickey, a lobbyist in Washington in the late 19th century who regularly drank with members of Congress in Shoemaker's Bar. Interestingly, Rickey later became the first major importer of limes to this country (from "The Craft of the Cocktail" by Dale DeGroff).
11/2 ounces gin
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
5 ounces club soda
Lime wedge, for garnish
Mix all ingredients in a highball glass with ice. Garnish with a lime wedge. (For a nonalcoholic lime rickey, mix 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice, 1 ounce simple syrup, 3 dashes of Angostura bitters and club soda in a Collins or iced tea glass. Garnish with a spiral piece of lime peel.)
From left: the Zola, a white cosmopolitan; the Cardinal, a takeoff on the classic brandy sidecar; the Red Sage martini made with blood orange and passionfruit; the black vodka Black Tie Bawl; and the Jade, a green margarita made with lime juice and grappa instead of tequila.