The Royal's corner location at 501 Florida Ave. NW in Ledroit Park means it's flooded with light, whether you're sitting in the giant bay window overlooking the street, or in one of the reclaimed church pews. There are also eight seats outside, and a door that opens accordion-style when the weather is nice. Carlson, who also owns Vinoteca at 11th and U streets, expects a flow of people throughout the day: Early risers grabbing a cup of Counter Culture coffee on the way to work; teleworkers with laptops having lunch while using the free WiFi; and locals stopping by in the evening for drinks or homemade arepas or vegetables fresh off the wood-burning grill.
While I'm intrigued by Colombian food, I'm more interested in the drinks. Carlson tapped Horus Alvarez of Vinoteca to create the Royal's cocktail menu, along with Lee Carrell, a veteran of Vinoteca and Urbana. There are three parts of the menu worth looking at: frozen drinks, vermouth, and classic cocktails.
Like the food, the cocktails at the Royal draw on Carlson's upbringing: His mother is Colombian, and Carlson and his family lived in Guatemala when he was growing up. There, he remembers women pushing around carts with ice shavers, and stopping to get shaved-to-order snow cones. When the Royal began coming together, Carlson said, he knew he wanted an ice shaver for the bar. "I found some online, but they came from China, and they were crazy expensive, especially with shipping," Carlson says. "Then I called a buddy of mine in Guatemala and he was like, 'Hey, I found one for you at the hardware store.'" The punch line: It was cheaper to fly down to Guatemala and bring the machine back than to buy one on the internet.
The antique-looking machine – actually made in Taiwan – sits at one end of the bar. A bartender attaches a four-inch-by-four-inch ice cube to metal prongs, and turns the large crank, which turns a pair of blades and sends shaved chunks of ice into the glass below. The shaved ice is used in four drinks, including the Royal Cup, a tart twist on the Pimm's Cup made with a cucumber-strawberry gastrique, but the standout is the Aguardiente Punch, made with aguardiente, the sugar cane spirit that is Colombia's national drink. "People have misconceptions about aguardiente," Horus Alvarez says, probably because "its name means 'fiery water.'" (Cristal, the brand the Royal uses, is 64 proof, significantly less potent than your average vodka or rum.) But the aguardiente makes for a good blank slate: Alvarez mixes it with fresh blackberry puree and creme de cassis, then a bit of orange and lemon juice to add bright citrus notes to the sweet dark fruit flavors. It's light and refreshing, especially over the shredded ice.
There's more of a tropical vibe to the Ascension: Alvarez takes cachaça, a Brazilian cane sugar liqueur, and infuses it with pineapple. The resulting spirit is mixed with dark rum, hibiscus syrup, fresh orange juice and soda water, then garnished with an edible hibiscus flower. It's far more tart than the ingredients would suggest.
Alvarez is serious about vermouth the way some people are serious about bourbon. Back in February, I wrote about how Alvarez was creating his own vermouth, steeping white wine and herbs in a Copper Fox whiskey barrel on Vinoteca's patio. He's been tweaking with the recipe since, experimenting with different levels of herbs. (It's local, too: The wormwood came from a friend's Bloomingdale backyard.) The current version is light but not light-bodied, with a lemon peel flavor and an appealing bitterness in the finish that you'd look for in an aperitif. "This shows the expression of the spirit the way we wanted it to be," Carlson says. If straight vermouth is too much for some people, it can made into a bracing spritzer, with soda, lemon and orange peels. The citrus and fizz make the drink less dry and cut the bitterness. Like the aguardiente, it's around 60 proof. "I didn't want something that's too boozy," Alvarez says. "What if you want it to be your first drink? You don't want it to be too heavy."
The house vermouth, which costs $9 per glass, is available on tap, flowing from an antique fire extinguisher repurposed as a draft tower. Alvarez "spent hours polishing that thing" to make it shine before putting it into service. The extinguisher only pours cocktails on tap; the five draft beers, which include Hellbender and 3 Stars, come from a different tap tower behind the bar, which was made from an old milk jug. (The draft handles, Carlson says, are Guatemalan slingshots.)
Eventually, Alvarez says, he plans to have vermouth-based cocktails on tap and on the menu. He's also planning vermouth flights, which might involve the house vermouth, a pour of a classic vermouth such as Dolin, and one of what he calls "the new wave of new-style vermouths," including Imbue Petal and Thorn, a dry Oregon vermouth with an aroma of wildflowers, or the dry Uncouth Vermouth from Brooklyn.
As the prices for cocktails around the city continue to climb, Alvarez and Carlson say they're trying to keep drink prices at the Royal affordable. So while you may pay $11 for that Aguardiente Punch, or $14 for the Zombie, a draft tiki cocktail that includes three kinds of demerara rum, falernum, orgeat and a blend of fruit juices, there's also a menu of go-to cocktails, such as the Paloma and Daiquiri, for $10 including tax, while still using fresh juices and avoiding bottom-shelf brands. Not a bad place to start for people who complain how expensive drinks are these days.
While much of the food and drink menu has a South American influence, the classics do not, which Carlson says was intentional. "We didn't want to stick to South American [wines and spirits," he says. "The South American influence is more a representation of our experiences. The cuisine was a big part of that. But as a whole, the philosophy is putting out products that we enjoy drinking. And that's one of the things we're fortunate to do in a small space." So yes, there are Colombian spirits, but also a classic rye Old Fashioned. The wine line includes a Uruguayan Tannat, but "coming from Vinoteca, I really wanted some nice syrahs," Carlson explains. "There's a South American feeling, but we're in LeDroit Park. It's the experience that we're trying to deliver."
The Royal, 501 Florida Ave. NW. 202-332-9463. www.theroyaldc.com. Opens Thursday, June 25, at 7 a.m.