It begins with a sonnet or short story and ends in a coupe glass.

That's the short version of how Reading Room bartender Chantal Tseng dreams up a drink that evokes -- and sometimes tweaks -- masterworks like "Macbeth" or "Death in the Afternoon."


Bartender Chantal Tseng mixes sophisticated cocktails with literary themes at Petworth Citizen's Reading Room. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

The long version? "It's all very much like jazz: improvisational and adapting to the era and environment," Tseng says. She begins by reading a handful of pieces by a particular author. Then the free associations begin.

"Sometimes, there is a specific reference to drinking . . . sometimes an author simply writes about a theme that has a lot in common with a classic cocktail that already exists," Tseng says. Sometimes, she just wants to make a hot drink and hunts for a bit of writing that will inspire it. (She read more than 30 Robert Burns poems to find one that would work with a mulled
ale.)

To understand Tseng's process better, we asked her to suggest readings to complement cocktails you can make at home: the Old-Fashioned, the Vesper and the El Presidente. Her answers have been edited for length.

(James M. Thresher/For The Washington Post)

The Old-Fashioned

" 'Old fashioned' used to be more of a way to describe a drink. The first definition of a cocktail [was] spirits, bitters, sugar and water. People began to request a drink made the old-fashioned way, which eventually just became an Old-Fashioned as we know it today. As for a story: 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' by F. Scott Fitzgerald, where the protagonist starts life old then gets young. This is akin to the span of the Old-Fashioned, which after a long life has found itself newly revived."

(Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

The Vesper

"The Vesper is a variant of a dry martini created by Ian Fleming in his novel 'Casino Royale.' It's not the best drink, and personally, I'd rather drink a champagne or champagne cocktail while reading 'Casino Royale,' and the characters drink quite a lot of champagne as well. The Vesper was a plot device, naming a drink for a woman. But after she dies, he never has one again. If you haven't tried one, may as well do so while reading Bond."

(Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

The El Presidente

"The El Presidente can vary greatly depending on your choice of rum and vermouth, but then, it is named after a political office, after all. I would suggest a good spy novel by Graham Greene, maybe 'Our Man in Havana'. "

Read more:

D.C.'s best bar for bookish types is inside Petworth Citizen