Blue curacao — a version of orange liqueur made with blue food coloring — has never really disappeared from tiki bars, such as Archipelago in the District, Lost Lake in Chicago, or Otto's Shrunken Head in New York. While tiki has experienced a wider resurgence in recent years, blue curacao hasn't seen the same success.
Swain, however, predicts it's set for a much bigger comeback. “In D.C., craft bartenders love taking disco-era cocktails that weren't well made and reformatting them into great drinks using today's standards,” he explains. “Why not bring it back with a contemporary edge to it?”
He thinks the color, rather than signifying That Time You Made Bad Decisions in Cancun, is “something that engages guests.” Some customers might remember blue drinks from their original trendy phase, or from the turn of the millennium, when blue cocktails swept through Washington. Younger drinkers may just want to put the beautiful colors on Instagram.
Besides, he adds, “More companies are making it, and making it well.” (Swain prefers liqueurs made by Giffard, a French company, and “when they put out a blue curacao, I knew I could trust it.")
Swain recalls that his first blue drink was a Blue Motorcycle: an unholy mess of ingredients similar to a Long Island iced tea, but with a radioactive glow. At Bourbon Steak, he's going classic.
His signature blue curacao cocktail is a riff on the Blue Hawaiian ($16), which dates to the middle of the 20th century. Swain's version uses two kinds of rum, cane syrup, fresh lime juice and blue curacao, before swirling a layer of frothy pineapple foam on top. The pineapple flavor soaks into the sweet, jewel-tone green drink, making it smell and taste even more tropical. It's perfect for a sunny day at a beach resort, but is just as delicious on a cold February night in Georgetown. “I love tiki anytime,” he jokes. “People have called me Tiki Torrence.”
Swain is working on other deep-blue drinks, too, including a Blue Cosmo and a Blue Margarita, which aren't on the menu yet but can be whipped up on request. The vodka-based Blue Cosmo involves white grape juice and no cranberry. The soft grape and orange flavors shine through the smooth, easy-sipping drink — it's a Cosmo that even ardent Cosmo haters would enjoy, and not just for the glowing blue color. More visually arresting is the Blue Margarita, whose rocks glass Swain covers with black volcanic salt. It's the most complex of the three, thanks to the use of mezcal: Citrus and smoke flavors swirl in the glass.
Still, the Blue Hawaiian, with its floral garnish and eye-catching color, is the biggest hit, no matter the weather.