Capitol Hill’s bar scene is changing rapidly. With some barflies still reeling from the 2013 “revamp” of the Hawk & Dove, this year the Lil Pub, Remington’s and the Pour House have vanished from Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Then, in April, a “Southern bourbon bar” called Barrel replaced the shuttered 18th Amendment on the same strip.
Those who remember the dark, divey 18th Amendment — a hangout for LSU alumni and Hill sports teams that closed last summer — won’t recognize the place. Where 18th Amendment sported huge mirrors and chrome, Barrel is stripped down to brick walls and exposed boards. Tables are arranged in the new bay windows, and a wide wooden bar snakes the length of the building. Cheap domestic drafts have been swapped for a mix of 16 local and big-name American craft beers, which start at $6. Bottles of flavored vodka have been replaced by shelves holding 50 bourbons, 20 ryes and about 20 Scotches and Tennessee whiskeys. Some sell for $8; rarer pours fetch $70 to $80.
Matt Weiss, a partner in Barrel and the owner of the Hill’s Union Pub and 201 Bar, says the inspiration for his new venture came from places he visited with friends in Charleston, S.C. “I fell in love with what they’re doing there,” he explains, pointing to “inventive cocktails, bars making their own ingredients, the great food . . . but also the laidback nature of the places. They’re very welcoming.”
Last year, Weiss approached 18th Amendment owners Mike Schuster and Mark Mernard about bringing the bourbon bar concept to the building that held their bar, which needed a reboot. (As Weiss politely says, 18th Amendment “had run its course.”) New bars on this stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue were going after a more upscale crowd — see Beuchert’s Saloon, Hank’s on the Hill, the new Sona Creamery and Wine Bar — and Weiss thought it would be a prime location for his spot, “but more Capitol Hill and neighborhoody.”
Weiss and partners have created a comfortable space with plenty of good drinks, even if Barrel’s focus on whiskey and craft beer doesn’t put much daylight between itself and such competitors as Southern Efficiency (Shaw), Bourbon (Glover Park and Adams Morgan) and Dry 85 (Annapolis). Barrel’s prices are typical: You’ll pay $9 for a glass of Four Roses Small Batch, $10 for the E.H. Taylor Small Batch and $12 for Noah’s Mill or Michter’s. Flip over the “Brown Water” menu and you’ll find a special “Reserve” list with some familiar names: Pappy Van Winkle 23-year ($40 per ounce), the new Parker’s Promise of Hope from Heaven Hill ($35 per ounce) and the Elijah Craig 21 year old ($30 per ounce).
In the back is the Lab, where bartenders experiment with aging cocktails in small barrels. Bulleit and Peychaud’s bitters, for example, were aged together for three to four weeks for use in the Barrel Aged Sazerac. (The absinthe is added before it hits your glass and doesn’t spend time in the wood.) I appreciate the smoothness of the Aged Jack Rudy, though the name is a little misleading: It’s a gin and tonic made with barrel-aged Tanqueray gin and fresh Jack Rudy tonic syrup, though the name implies the tonic syrup is aged along with the gin. In any case, the hope is that the barrels will “cascade” with repeated uses, so eventually a rum will wind up in a barrel that previously held bourbon and hopefully will pick up some of whiskey flavors.
Chef Garret Fleming (formerly of the Pig and Lincoln) is supervising the kitchen, making fried chicken with sausage gravy and biscuits, fried pork chop sandwiches topped with gruyere, large bowls of macaroni and cheese and a salad of morels, ramps and chanterelles in a beurre blanc. Prices are in the $10-$15 range.
The most interesting space in the building is the low-ceilinged basement bar, called Elixir. The cozy hideaway sports rough wooden tables, a jumbled collection of old cupboards and sideboards and a few stray full-size barrels. Most of the light comes from “the dispensary,” a glass-doored vault of Pappy Van Winkle, Elijah Craig and other pricey bourbons. Weiss plans to host beer dinners, pop-up dining experiences and other events down here, but if there’s nothing scheduled, Elixir will follow the same hours as upstairs. One thing to remember: There’s a separate drink menu downstairs, with fewer aged cocktails and half as many beers. But it’s quiet and offers easy seating at happy hour.
Speaking of happy hour, Barrel may not appeal to interns on a budget: The $5 drink menu consists of a pint of Devils Backbone Vienna Lager (the 2014 Beer Madness winner), a cocktail made with Hochstadter’s Slow and Low Rye and a two-finger pour of Johnny Drum bourbon. But the food offerings will make you forget about another bar’s wing or taco night: a pair of flour biscuits served with a pot of savory honey butter and a pile of Benton’s ham ($5) or two Andouille corn dogs with a creamy dipping sauce ($7).
With an increasing number of bars offering rare bottles of bourbon, Barrel’s mix of whiskey and Southern food might not be enough to entice people to travel across town. But innovative spirits, a decent happy hour and that cozy basement bar make it a place that cocktail fans will want to know about if they find themselves on Capitol Hill.
613 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-543-3622. www.barreldc.com.