The most important holiday cocktail ingredient: nostalgia
As soon as the bartender at Bourbon Steak set a mug of the new ... & Everything Nice toddy in front of me, I took a deep breath and smelled Christmas.
Every holiday season when I was a child, my brother and I would help my mother make pomanders, poking holes in lemons and oranges and studding the fruit with cloves. We put them around the house to make it smell more festive, and even now, a whiff of citrus and spice can take me back.
"That's the thing," says Duane Sylvestre, who creates the cocktails for the Georgetown restaurant's bar. "Much like food, drinks can remind you of a moment."
With the arrival of cold temperatures and holiday lights, bars have been filling their winter drink menus with concoctions designed to remind us of happy memories from holidays past.
Trevor Frye of Jack Rose drew on his own childhood nostalgia when creating the saloon's fall and winter menu. His grandmother's gingerbread recipe was the inspiration for a cocktail syrup using cinnamon, allspice, sugar and fresh ginger. He combines it with bourbon and bitters into a delicious cocktail evocative of fresh gingerbread men, then garnishes it with a piece of candied ginger.
"I drink that drink, and it reminds me of my grandma, and being on the farm," Frye says. For him, that's the perfect recipe for a holiday cocktail: "It has to jog you back to good memories. For me, it's gingerbread. It's different for everyone, but it's another one of those connections we can have with our guests."
Rachel Sergi, the veteran bartender in charge of cocktails at Lincoln, says that at this time of year, the success of a seasonal drink "comes down to muscle memory. It needs to remind you of fall, when you were going back to school or setting out on new adventures. And the holidays are coming. The drink needs to feel like a big hug."
At Bourbon Steak, Sylvestre turns to spices to add flavor to his warm drinks, but he doesn't want to do too much. "When I approach hot drinks, it's more than that it just has to taste good; it has to feel good. You should say 'Ahhhhh' after it goes down."
Whether you prefer drinks that warm your belly or warm your soul, there are many good holiday cocktails available at Washington bars right now. These five make spirits especially bright.
Bourbon Steak's ... & Everything Nice
Duane Sylvestre has been in charge of the cocktails at Bourbon Steak since the restaurant opened in 2008, and he knows what drink will sell the most come winter: the Hot "Buttered" Rum, which is actually two kinds of rum with allspice, ginger and a mountain of sweet dulce de leche foam. "It's the rock star," he says with a chuckle. "If people come in and they want a hot drink, they'll probably get that." When Sylvestre wants to have some fun, he introduces a new hot toddy, preferably with rum. "I drink that a lot in the winter," explains the native of Trinidad. "Just rum and hot water."
This year's model is called ... & Everything Nice ($16), because it contains a healthy amount of sugar and spices: sweetness from Mount Gay's rich, butterscotchy Black Barrel Rum and punch from allspice dram, cloves and ginger. The perfect final touch is the garnish: a strip of orange peel studded with cloves. It serves double duty, adding oil to the cocktail for flavor and providing a wonderful holiday aroma as you sip.
Jack Rose Dining Saloon's Bakersbread Man
Jack Rose bartender Trevor Frye says that when he was growing up, his "grandma used to make really awesome gingerbread around Thanksgiving." Her recipe, acquired from his mom, is the inspiration for the Bakersbread Man ($13), though the cocktail takes its name from the Baker's Small Batch bourbon that gives it a surprising kick. Frye's gingerbread syrup, heavy on allspice and cinnamon, really is reminiscent of cookies, and the sweetness of cherry bitters and the vanilla and caramel notes of the Baker's are perfect complements. The garnish is a piece of candied ginger, which should be saved for last.
It's worth noting that this drink is only available over ice. "It really didn't stand up" as a hot drink, Frye says.
Lincoln's Mason-Dixon Manhattan
The ingredients in Lincoln's barrel-aged Mason-Dixon Manhattan ($12) change seasonally, but they always include Fighting Cock bourbon and are washed with bacon fat to add richness to the mouthfeel of the cocktail.
The main ingredients this time of year are apples and pears, steeped in bourbon for weeks before they're served. The cocktail is wonderfully savory because of the smoky bacon, and the flavors of juicy Bartlett pears and tart Braeburn apples aren't front and center with each sip, though they're definitely noticeable. Bartender Rachel Sergi says the downtown restaurant uses Fighting Cock because it has an assertive amount of spice and pepper: "You know you're still drinking a bourbon" despite all the other flavors vying for attention.
Macon's Harvest at Macon
Although Evan Cablayan has only been in charge of the bar at Macon Bistro and Larder for less than a month, his seasonal cocktails are turning the Chevy Chase restaurant into a destination for liquid pleasures. The most unusual is the Harvest at Macon ($12), which takes its orange color from a mixture of fresh persimmon puree and apple cider. Bulleit rye, cinnamon and bitters add spice and body to the sweet, lush persimmon flavors, and it's garnished with an apricot that has soaked in brandy and honey for a week. "Persimmon is in season, and most people have never had persimmon," Cablayan says.
The drink is about as fresh and local as one can get. Soon after the drink went on the menu, Cablayan met two neighborhood customers who have a persimmon tree in their yard. "They had no idea what to do with them," Cablayan said, so he struck a deal with the couple: They bring him persimmons and he pays them in cocktails.
Persimmons aren't the only winter ingredient Cablayan is experimenting with: A revamped cocktail menu, arriving in the next few weeks, will feature five or six new drinks with seasonal ingredients, including kumquats with mezcal and apricots with apple cider.
Room 11's Spiced Cranberry Apple Cider
If you're going to be sitting around the roaring fire pits on Room 11's patio this winter, you'll want a hot beverage in hand. Glogg, a Swedish-style mulled wine, has been the go-to for years, but the new spiced cranberry apple cider ($9) gives it a run for its money. It's an incredibly simple drink: Fresh cranberries are simmered with farm fresh cider and mulling spices, and the resulting concoction is served with fruity 8-year-old El Dorado Rum. (General manager Jessica Woods says bourbon is available on request, but I'd recommend sticking with the rum.)
What makes it a winner is the addition of cranberries: Their tartness is a perfect way to balance the sugariness of rum and cider. "We didn't want it to be too sweet," Woods says. They're definitely onto something. Also worth checking out: The hot toddy of the week, which changes every Thursday.
Bars with fire pits
When temperatures fall, some people head for a dark, warm pub where they can perch next to a fireplace. Others choose to brave the elements, huddling around blazing fire pits with hot beverages serving as hand warmers. For the more intrepid among us, here are the best places in Washington to pair fire pits and warm cocktails.
The two cauldron-like iron fire pits in the Hotel Monaco's secluded courtyard turn Poste into a winter hot spot. They're two of the only wood-burning fire pits in Washington, meaning the flames deliver satisfying crackling and popping sounds while you luxuriate in the heat. (Downside: Sitting directly downwind of the fire means that your coat will smell like smoke for days.)
Show up on a weeknight and you might get your pick of seats; on weekends, the all-weather chairs that surround the fire pits are frequently filled, and latecomers may have to make due with a couch or lounge chair under a warm brazier. Either way, there's a special menu of hot cocktails for the outdoor seats, including the Appleton of My Eye, which combines aged rum and a salted caramel apple cider, and a Maple Bourbon Toddy, with Maker's Mark and maple syrup in hot black tea.
Iron Gate Restaurant
Candles and wisteria-covered walls make Iron Gate's patio one of the city's most romantic summer dining spots. This week, the restaurant unveiled its Winter Garden with a pair of gas-burning firepits and tables and lounge furniture surrounded by overhead heat lamps. The chairs and couches are first-come, first-seated, making the Dupont Circle restaurant a destination for happy hour or pre-dinner drinks. (Tables are available for dinner reservations.) A short list of hot cocktails - three drinks, $12 each - is headed by the Bourbon Diversion, a toddy mixing whiskey with Fernet, absinthe and creme de cacao.
There are two gas-burning fire pits on the cozy Columbia Heights bistro's patio; if they don't give off enough heat to keep you warm, stacks of fleece blankets and cups of tummy-warming glogg should do the trick.
There are two things to know about Room 11's patio: To keep neighbors happy, the outdoor spaces close at 11 p.m. during the week and midnight on Friday and Saturday; and the fire pits are available based on demand. If it's cold enough that no one wants to sit outside, there's a good chance the staff will close the patio early, especially on weeknights. But on weekends, a seat by the fire is one of the most popular places in the neighborhood.
The courtyard of the Four Seasons Hotel has several tables that become gas-fueled fire pits with the touch of a button. Most of the seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis, though it's possible to reserve a table, which seats six to eight people, if you agree to spend at least $500. (Even with $17 hot drinks, that's a lot of booze.) If the fire-pit tables are filled, there are other seats near heat lamps, and the restaurant offers blankets for borrowing.
The metal tables in A Bar's courtyard are popular for summer brunches, but they have a secret: In cold weather, they become gas-burning fire pits.
The one hot drink on the menu is cider spiked with rum, cinnamon syrup and Apple Pucker, the sweet green stuff people used to put in appletinis. Think you can concoct something better? Check out the DIY hot chocolate and cider bars. Pick your drink for $5, then customize away: Add peppermint or thick whipped cream to the chocolate; put nutmeg or cinnamon in the cider. Then, for an extra $6, fortify your creation with bourbon, Irish cream, rum or, if you have the hot chocolate, peppermint schnapps.
The menu is available Monday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.
Warm up with s'mores
For a pure shot of nostalgia, it's hard to beat s'mores over an open fire. Start roasting marshmallows and chocolate, and even if you're sitting on the patio of a posh hotel, you'll flash back to family camping trips or scout outings. Here are three places to pair gooey snacks with hot drinks after work.
Grab seats around one of the patio's fire pits and ask about the free s'mores setup. Pillowy house-made marshmallows are the star at Poste: Grab a metal skewer from a ceramic vase and toast away as a rolling cart topped with jars of graham crackers and chocolate makes the rounds. The results pair particularly nicely with the Holey Moley, hot chocolate spiked with tequila and spiced with cinnamon and chili peppers.
Hope you're free between 6:30 and 7 p.m. That's the 30-minute window the upscale Georgetown hotel offers free French toast s'mores around the lobby's large wood-burning fireplace. (The staff brings s'mores around on a tray, so you don't have to worry about cooking them yourself.) Apple cider and cider-based cocktails also are available.
Get a seat at one of the two fire pits on A Bar's courtyard patio, where you can order a s'mores kit with marshmallows, dark chocolate and graham crackers for $5.