The idea of “Halloween cocktails” is usually enough to frighten me away from a bar. Too-sweet drinks garnished with candy? Blood red “vampire” shots or concoctions served in smoking test tubes? No thanks — I’d rather get my treats elsewhere.
So when I saw drink menus that drew on “Beetlejuice” and Stephen King’s scariest novels for inspiration, I was wary — they could easily have been as cheesy and cliche as a “Friday the 13th” sequel. But in the skilled hands of bartenders at Left Door and Truxton Inn, they’re an excellent way to get into the spirits of the season.
Left Door, 1345 S St. NW. Cocktails $12-$18.
This intimate drinking den, located mere steps but seemingly worlds away from the crowded 14th Street NW strip, has a history of creating new menus for Halloween. (Last year’s theme was “Alice in Wonderland.”) Die-hard “Beetlejuice” fans on the staff suggested using Tim Burton’s 1988 film as inspiration for this Halloween, but co-founder and bar manager Mick Perrigo was worried about overdoing it. “My whole idea is that [the bar] wouldn’t be overly decorated, so the focus is on the cocktails themselves,” he says. So while you’ll see a giant inflatable sand worm rearing on the small balcony above the front door, and a vintage Beetlejuice doll keeping watch over the dimly lit bar, that’s about it.
The drinks, meanwhile, are playful and delicious, with names that will have “Beetlejuice” fans exchanging knowing looks. (They’ll be available through early November.) My favorite is the Miss Argentina, a twist on the classic Corpse Reviver #2. Blue Curacao gives it a lovely blue color — a nod to the skin of the undead beauty queen-turned-receptionist in Beetlejuice’s Netherworld — while stripes of Peychaud’s bitters are reminiscent of the “little accident” that sent her to the afterlife.
More unusual is the Beetlejuice! cocktail: The bartenders infused vodka with cochineal — the insect pigment that once gave Campari its signature crimson color — and added lavender, honey, smoked salt and Yellow Chartreuse to create a drink that’s sweet but not cloying. And it’s hard not to start humming Harry Belafonte after ordering the Tally Me Banana, in which banana liqueur and walnut bitters add balance to woody rye whiskey and pineapple rum.
(It’s worth pointing out that “Beetlejuice” has been a popular choice for bars: McClellan’s Retreat has created a “Handbook for the Recently Deceased” menu, which runs as long as the “Beetlejuice” musical is at the National Theatre.)
Because Left Door only has 35 seats, it can border on impossible to get in on weekends, but “Sunday through Wednesday are still easy,” Perrigo says, as long as you arrive before 7 p.m., or after the after-dinner rush.
Truxton Inn, 251 Florida Ave. NW. Cocktails $12-$14
When the team at the Truxton Inn was kicking around ideas for Halloween, they thought about drawing inspiration from “The Shining”: “We have a library,” general manager Brian Nixon says, “and people always tell us they think it feels like a warm hotel lobby, so we thought we should go down that path.” But before long, the idea expanded beyond one book to Stephen King’s entire oeuvre.
The shelves in the lounge area contain copies of King's novels, sitting next to a vintage typewriter (a la “Misery”) and a single red balloon (representing “It"), while bathroom decorations invoke “The Shining.” It's just subtle enough that you might wonder why a certain framed photo is hanging on the wall.
Nixon and the bar staff worked backward from the theme to create the half-dozen cocktails, which will be available through mid-November. “We had to do something called a ‘Redrum,’” he explains, “so we thought, what ingredients would help represent it?” They settled on a base of overproof rum with cognac, a bittersweet aperitivo and Ancho Reyes Ancho Chile Liqueur. The result, which is an appropriate blood-red color, is smoky up front with a lingering spicy heat.
The Pennywise is more of a classic cocktail, combining Old Forester bourbon, herbal amaro and bitters, with a strong citrus aroma. The twist is that a boozy dark red cherry is floating above your glass, speared on a long skewer-like cocktail stick, to represent the malevolent clown’s omnipresent red balloon. (“I wish those bright red maraschino cherries were supposed to be eaten, or tasted good,” Nixon jokes.)
The treats aren’t just in your glass, either: On Halloween night, the bar will host a “Pet Sematary Party” on its patio from 7 to 10 p.m. “We’re trying to get people to bring their pets,” Nixon says, with complimentary punch for anyone who dresses up their pet for a costume contest.