As the mercury rises, your cocktail choices should change along with your wardrobe: Put the neat whiskey and old-fashioneds on hold until it’s time to bring the denim jackets out of the closet.
The one downside is that simple and refreshing cocktails can also be boring and predictable. Order a classic Dark and Stormy at many counters, and you’ll get a measure of Gosling’s rum in a glass full of Gosling’s Ginger Beer. Yawn.
Fortunately, bars across Washington are putting their own spin on classic summer sips, some of which you might even enjoy more than the originals. (Tiki drinks fall into their own category, so they’re not included here.)
Are you always ordering the ...
Try the Apricot Spritz at Opaline.
The Sofitel’s bar puts a French twist on a classic Italian aperitif, adding Giffard’s Abricot du Roussillon liqueur to Aperol and using Perrier instead of soda water. This version has a bright orange scent and a big, juicy apricot flavor that meshes well with the Aperol’s herbal bitterness. It’s not as dry as the original, but not too sweet to enjoy again.
806 15th St. NW. $11.
Try the JFK on Vacay at Truxton Inn.
The classic daiquiri is so simple — rum, lime juice, simple syrup — that it practically begs bartenders to come up with their own signature version. Sadly, simple drinks can quickly become convoluted when too many “novel” ingredients are added.
Truxton Inn’s JFK on Vacay reimagines the daiquiri with a grassier, funkier body, thanks to rhum agricole, and a richer sweetness from pineapple liqueur and passion fruit. A dehydrated lime garnish adds visual and olfactory interest. Settle into a leather chair and enjoy.
251 Florida Ave. NW. $12.
Dark and Stormy?
Try the Koji Nnamdi at Cotton and Reed.
Casual cocktail drinkers might think “Dark and Stormy” refers to any mix of rum and ginger beer, but that name is a trademark of Gosling’s Rum, which claims to be the only rum suitable for the cocktail. Still, that hasn’t stopped bartenders and distillers from using a similar formula to create something new.
The most intriguing version in Washington is at Cotton and Reed’s bar near Union Market, where the house Mellow Gold rum — a white version that spends months in used whiskey barrels — has been paired with a series of sweet-potato-based ginger beers prepared by resident mad scientist Lukas B. Smith. Flavors change “whenever a good fruit is in season,” Smith says.
The latest iteration adds watermelon, and it’s reminiscent of candy — sweet and seasonal — but not cloying. Toasty vanilla notes come through from the rum, the sweet potato provides earthiness, and a splash of singani, a Bolivian grape liqueur, adds fruity aromatics. In short: Although the primary ingredients are rum and ginger beer, it’s a far cry from the familiar boat drink.
As for the name: Yes, it’s a tribute to the WAMU-FM radio host, but also the fungus (koji) used in the fermentation of sake, shochu and sweet potato ginger beer.
1330 Fifth St. NE. $12.
Gin and tonic?
Try the Spanish-style Gintonics at Estadio.
The gin and tonic may have been created by British officers in India in the 19th century, but the Spanish have been revolutionizing the “Gintonic” in recent years. The new iteration looks strikingly different from its forebears, served in tumblers or round, wine-style glasses, and topped with handfuls of herbs, edible flowers or slices of fruit.
The Spanish Gintonic “is all about being very thoughtful about what tonics you pair with your gin and what garnishes you’re going to use,” explains Adam Bernbach, who crafts housemade tonics at Estadio near Logan Circle. Take one of his newer creations, which finds Monkey 47, a peppery German gin with sharp lingonberry notes, mixed with a strawberry-coconut tonic that accentuates the sweetness of the fruit flavors. Gintonics “are so much fun,” Bernbach says. “There’s so much going on visually and aromatically.” Expect to find new combinations at the Spanish restaurant throughout the summer.
1520 14th St. NW. $13-$16.
Try the Mayahuel at Espita.
Most margaritas are made with tequila, not mezcal. And although Espita considers itself a mezcaleria, not a tequila bar, general manager Josh Phillips knew customers were going to ask for margaritas. His compromise is a cocktail that uses the margarita’s signature flavors as an entry point to the world of mezcal. It’s savory, with mezcal’s signature whiff of smoke, swirled with sunny orange citrus and the sweetness of raw agave, balanced by the sting of sal de gusano, a fiery salt made of agave worms.
1250 Ninth St. NW. $13.
Or the house margarita at Mezcalero.
On the other hand, the Mayahuel might be a little too out-there for the classic margarita drinker. That’s okay! Head to Mezcalero on 14th Street NW. The cheerful house margarita can be made with either mezcal or tequila; summery variations, including prickly pear and tamarind, are also available.
3714 14th St. NW. $8-$10; $6 at happy hour (3 to 6 p.m. weekdays).
Try the crushes at Coco Beach.
Little Coco’s co-owner Gordon Banks loves going to Ocean City with his family, and he’s developed a love for the Orange Crush, the city’s trademark cocktail, made by juicing a fresh orange into a pint glass with vodka, triple sec and lemon-lime soda. “You go into a dive bar, ask for a Ruby Red Crush, and they juice it right in front of you. It’s so fresh,” Banks says. “Then you ask for a margarita, and they reach for bottled lime juice and sugary sour mix.” So when Little Coco’s decided to bring a taste of Ocean City to its upstairs bar, Coco Beach, Banks and the staff decided to create a full crush menu to match the thatched-walls-and-beach-chair decor: “We were like, ‘Can we put mezcal in a crush? Will that change it?’ ”
The mezcal crush — a savory and spicy drink with bird’s eye chiles, Thai basil and the juice of a lime — has been one of the most popular cocktails on the menu, over variations with strawberry, black pepper and lemon; ruby red grapefruit with cinnamon; and the classic orange version. Banks still enjoys the original, but “people are looking for something different. You’re elevating the drink without going too crazy.”
3907 14th St. NW. $7-$9. $6 all night on Mondays.
Try the piña colada at Colada Shop.
Too sweet, too rich: Too many of the piña coladas shaken up in bars are as welcome as repeated plays of a certain Rupert Holmes song. That’s not the case at Colada Shop. Its dreamy piña colada is as light as air, allowing the flavors of pineapple, coconut, white rum and a kiss of lime, and the aroma of coconut from shavings, to shine through.
1405 T St. NW. $8.
Try the Maracuyá Sour at China Chilcano.
The smooth and refreshing pisco sour is a simple cocktail designed to show off the flavors of pisco, a Peruvian brandy. China Chilcano puts a fun and summery twist on this South American drink with its Maracuyá Sour. Fresh passion fruit puree and light, fruity Macchu Pisco combine for sweet and vibrant flavors, while the shaken egg whites add froth and a silky texture.
418 Seventh St. NW. $12.
Try the Turmerickey at Dram and Grain.
In 2011, the D.C. Council issued a proclamation naming the rickey “D.C.’s Native Cocktail.” The concoction of bourbon, soda water and the juice of half a lime was invented at Shoomaker’s, a bar near 13th and E streets NW, for the famous lobbyist Col. Joe Rickey in the 1880s.
Since 2008, members of the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild have hosted a “Rickey Month” competition, creating variations on the simple original. Last year’s victor, Andy Bixby of Dram and Grain, has passed the baton to new bartender Alison Hillard: Her sparkling Turmerickey is an earthy, savory mash-up of coconut-fat-washed Wild Turkey 101, a turmeric-and-black-peppercorn soda, honey, and both lime juice and makrut lime tincture. Col. Joe wouldn’t recognize it, but you might ask for another.
2007 18th St. NW. $13.