If this was a normal week for Washington bars, it would be a time for celebration. On Tuesday, the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation announced the regional finalists for its annual Spirited Awards, which recognize the best bars and bar staff in America and around the world. At least one D.C. bar was nominated in each of the six U.S. categories, including Best American Cocktail Bar, Best American Restaurant Bar and Best American Bar Team. Three other categories each had two D.C. nominees.
(Like the food world’s James Beard Awards, the Spirited Awards have a two-step process to announcing finalists in each category. Judges first pick 10 bars in each of three geographic areas; Washington is in the East, which covers Atlantic states from Florida to Maine, all of New England, and West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. The 10 national finalists are announced in May.)
But these are obviously tough times for bars. Barmini, the only local nominee for Best American Cocktail Bar, is closed while owner José Andrés focuses on feeding the hungry from his Community Kitchens. Both nominees for Best American Hotel Bar — the Eaton Hotel’s secluded Allegory and W Hotel’s rooftop POV — are closed until further notice, as are both nominees for Best New American Cocktail Bar — the bar at Shaw’s Lao hotspot Hanumanh and the flashy new Silver Lyan at the Riggs Hotel, which had barely been open for a month before it shuttered.
“It’s definitely an odd time, and we are facing an unprecedented challenge to stay alive right now,” says Chad Spangler, a co-founder of Service Bar. The U Street NW bar earned a nod for Best Bar Team, which recognizes the staff’s dedication to hospitality. “In a way, I think now might be the most righteous time to win this award, for which we are truly humbled. We have begun changing our menu, adapting our schedules, and our operation is tremendously different. It is a testament to our team that we have been able to execute a ‘survival mode’ for now, and what may be for some time to come.”
You may not be able to pull up a stool and toast the bars in person, but it’s still possible to sample some of what judges — expert bartenders, bar owners and spirits writers — found so exceptional about D.C.'s nominees. Here’s what we’d get to go. A reminder: In D.C., you’re legally required to purchase food with to-go drink orders.
Best American Bar Team: Service Bar
Service Bar’s combination of a lighthearted atmosphere and serious drinks comes through on its virtual menu. Cocktails are sorted into categories including “I Got a Zoom Party Tonight” — go for Rosé All Day, a carbonated beverage with foraged gin, herbal infusions and strawberries — and “Drinking to Forget,” where the star is the Blood Orange Sour with Japanese whisky, tequila, blood orange juice, lemon and a 10-spice blend. Spangler, however, would head for the tiki-filled section headed “Pretending I am on Vacation,” and the potent Zombie. “The Zombie is one of few cocktails we have had on our menu since Day One, pretty much unchanged, and it took the team to put it together,” he says. The mix of nine spirits, including four rums, “is one cocktail we almost never, ever drink due to its strength. However, if we are celebrating, we are pulling out a Zombie.”
Available for takeout and delivery. Most drinks served in 32-ounce containers (four people) and cost $30-$50.
The category of “High Volume Cocktail Bar” recognizes bars with capacities of 75 or more that offer menus “with a variety of cocktail styles” and bartenders “who work quickly and consistently under pressure.” Archipelago is making a smaller menu than usual these days, but its Mai Tai — which partner Joe Ambrose says constitutes most sales — remains delicious and potent, especially when it’s served in a full quart container. If the Phone Don’t Ring It’s Me is a fun mix of passion fruit, bourbon and Aperol, even if it’s not served in a fish-shaped glass, but if you have a blender at home, look no further than the Pineapple of Happiness. For $20, this boozy DIY kit includes a frozen cored pineapple and a jar of “rum and secrets.” All you have to do is blend the ice.
These days, the large crowds at Jack Rose aren’t waiting for bar stools, but to buy full bottles of Scotch and bourbon to take home. If you don’t want to drop hundreds of dollars, it’s also possible to buy one-ounce or two-ounce tastes of some of the rarities. If there’s a line, and there often is, you might be told to come back at a specific time to guarantee social distancing. A menu of cocktails from Jack Rose and sister bars the Imperial and Dram and Grain is also available, though availability can vary. Options range from classic bourbon drinks to the Brackish Martini (gin, vermouth, clarified olive juice, clam juice and orange bitters) and the Pearls Before Swine (gin, sherry, cucumber bitters, smoked cucumber and ham fat).
Archipelago: Available for takeout and delivery via Uber Eats. Drinks $10 for a single pour or $45 per 32 ounces.
Jack Rose: Available for takeout. Cocktails $10; Bourbon and Scotch samples vary.
Best American Restaurant Bar: The Dabney
The Dabney’s kitchen has pivoted to serving three-course, $45 prix fixe meals for takeout, and the bar offers a stripped-down menu of five cocktails, each sized for two people and perfect for pairing or as an aperitif. Go for a classic Negroni, made with Ford’s Gin, or a Paper Plane, which matches Old Bardstown Bourbon with the deep, rich Meletti amaro and orangy Aperol.
Available for takeout. Cocktails $24-$30.