George B. McClellan served as general-in-chief of the Union Army during the Civil War, and commanded the Army of the Potomac at Antietam. He may have been beloved by his troops, but "Little Mac" doesn't seem like the kind of guy who'd inspire a new cocktail bar, especially when you know that he discouraged the drinking of whiskey.
But that doesn't matter to Matt Weiss and Joe Englert. The two partners have turned the former Veritas wine bar into a new lounge called McClellan's Retreat, located a few blocks south of the 1907 bronze statue of McClellan at Connecticut Avenue and Columbia Road NW.
"Joe roped me into it," Weiss says. "[Earlier this year, when] he knew he was going to wind down Veritas, we spitballed some ideas and we came up with McClellan's Retreat, because of the statue. And it's a nice double entendre, because he was famous for never leading his troops into battle." (Defeats at the Seven Days Battles dented the notoriously attack-shy McClellan's reputation; his failure to engage the Confederates after Antietam led to President Lincoln removing McClellan from command.)
Weiss and designer Molly Allen wanted to "make the bar look and feel like the general's retreat, where he'd have his officers in to relax," Weiss explains. "But with electricity and running water." Large iron lamps hang from twisted iron poles on the bar, and tintype photos of the McClellans hang next to illustrations from Harper's Weekly magazine on the walls. Keep an eye out for cool details, like the buttons in the cushions, which are reproduction Civil War uniform buttons.
Megan Barnes, late of the Columbia Room and Compass Rose, is in charge of the cocktails, and she's creating modern twists on Civil War-era cocktails, such as Sangaree, the Madeira-based forerunner of modern sangria; and Sherry Cobbler, which Barnes calls "the most popular cocktail of the Civil War." Her version, served in an ice-cold julep cup, mixes sherry, cognac, gomme syrup and lemon, topped with raspberries. It's rich and silky smooth.
There will be a weekly punch special, served from a large, ornate silver punch bowl at the end of the bar; Barnes also plans on making house cocktails "for the table," using a comically large 40-ounce cocktail shaker that can make four to six drinks at a time.
Of course, it's not all recreated classics: Barnes and fellow bartender Rob Tinney both worked at the Columbia Room, and they're planning on putting that training to use. The Gin & Pine cocktail contains gin and pine liqueur and is topped with fragrant smoked pine needles, but the flavor gets its balance from house-made mandarin gastrique, a vinegar-based shrub of mandarin oranges that cuts through the forest of flavors.
McClellan may have groused about the intoxicating effects of bourbon, but his namesake bar has a strong selection of bourbon and rye whiskey. Instead of a massive list, like you'd find at sister bar Barrel, or a few blocks away at Jack Rose, there are just 15 bourbons and 15 ryes on the menu, with most for $8 to $14 per glass. There's also an "Officer's Reserve" list with Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year ($18 per ounce) and Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye ($15 per ounce).
There are no draft beers; a short list of 10 craft bottles and cans, strong on porters and stouts, includes Devils Backbone, Great Lakes and Victory, averaging $7.
While the bar doesn't have a kitchen, there will be food. Former Belgian Embassy chef Jan Van Heute will cater a short menu of quiches, mini sandwiches on pretzel rolls and charcuterie. Weiss describes the selection as "not really dinner -- more snacks" and says items will cost $4 to $12. He expects to regularly host pop-up dinners at some point in the future.
McClellan's Retreat opens Wednesday at 4 p.m. It will open at 4 p.m. daily after that, with happy hour until 7 p.m.
McClellan's Retreat, 2031 Florida Ave. NW (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-265-6270. www.mcclellansretreat.com.