The most common complaint about the Miracle on Seventh Street pop-up holiday bar wasn't the line or the crowds: It was the cavity-inducing sweet cocktails. Granted, you might expect candy-sweet drinks from a Christmas bar serving cookie dough-infused vodka drinks garnished with cookie dough, or salted hot chocolate topped with thick whipped cream.
But not everyone got the memo.
“The drinks are really expensive and really sweet,” a customer warned Express reporter Sadie Dingfelder, who said four cocktails led to “one roaring headache later.”
The same sentiments kept popping up in Yelp reviews:
“The drinks here are cute, but ridiculously sweet. As sweet cocktails aren't exactly my style, I found them amusing but not exactly memorable.”
“I was more disappointed in the drinks than anything. I tried several and they were all pretty gross and way too sweet.”
“We left with stomach aches.”
“I could see how some people could see [some drinks on the menu] as too sweet,” says beverage director Paul Taylor. “But it was Christmas. Those are the kind of drinks we thought worked so well the last two Christmases.”
For the annual Cherry Blossom Pop-Up Bar — which opens Thursday with tens of thousands of paper blossoms overhead, a room full of butterflies and a mural of a Japanese streetscape next to a 10-foot-tall animatronic Godzilla — Taylor decided to change the menu to steer guests to — or away from — the sweeter drinks. The Bee Key, a pictograph on the menu next to each cocktail, rates each drink's sweetness from one bee (“Not Sweet”) to three bees (“Sweet"). “We want to make everyone happy,” he says. “Even if it's 5 percent of guests, let's make the Bee Key” to help them out.
But a menu key ranking drinks by sweetness is something one might expect to find at the Cheesecake Factory or T.G.I. Friday's — not at a watering hole run by the owners of America's best cocktail bar. It feels like a compromise: Taylor and the Pop-Up Bar crew are going to keep making elevated cocktails, with unusual spirits and house-made juices. The target audiences at these bars, however, are not the same as at the Columbia Room. It's more about the experience — photos, cool garnishes and glassware, exploring the various rooms — than asking the bartender about the ingredients in the “Cherry Blossom G&T” or what the heck quinquina is.
To build the ratings, Taylor created the 10 drinks for the menu, using Japanese ingredients and flavors to craft “our interpretation of Japanese-style drinks.” Then he assembled a panel that included Columbia Room bartenders and Miracle on Seventh bar managers and had them taste the cocktails blind before ranking them by sweetness. The score shown on the menu is the average.
The only drink to receive three bees is the Beana Colada, a thick piña colada with Plantation rum, coconut and red bean paste, an ingredient frequently used in Japanese desserts. “I wouldn't say it's polarizing, but you definitely have to like red bean paste,” Taylor says. Served in a ceramic maneki-neko (“Lucky Cat”) tiki vessel, it has a grainy texture and strong tropical flavors — pineapple, coconut and caramelized fruit — that warrants its trio of bees.
But during a preview tasting this week, the level of sweetness still seemed uneven. The two-bee Calpico Fizz, for example, uses Calpico — a yogurt-like Japanese soft drink — and strawberry grenadine in a riff on the creamy Ramos Gin Fizz. It's sweet and creamsicle-like, down to the Hello Kitty marshmallow garnish.
A God, An Alpha Predator, Godzilla is also rated as two bees, but the blend of unfiltered sake, quinquina, fresh honeydew juice and shochu was by turns earthy and delicate, with a dry, slightly bitter finish. It was less sugary sweet, despite the vibrant honeydew, which included two melon balls atop the drink.
How did these two wildly different cocktails end up with the same bee rating? “We tried not to go the full 10 bees,” Taylor says. “Some will go high 2s, some will go low 2s.”
If you don't like sweet drinks, stick to the simple, one-bee drinks. Love Crazed Monster Crushes World, which takes its title from a tagline on the original “Mothra” film poster, is basically a Manhattan with Suntory Toki whiskey, vermouth and a mix of oolong and bergamot teas, which supplies orange and dry vegetal notes. More easy-drinking is the Yuzu Sour highball, which finds Suntory with a Yuzu syrup, supplying grapefruit notes and citrus sweetness, while allowing the dryness of the whiskey to come through.
Of course, you can always just forgo the cocktails: There's sparkling rose (pink, to match the blossoms) and other wines, a menu of Japanese sake and whiskey, and craft beers, including Stillwater's Extra Dry “sake style saison.” The best deal, though, is probably the sake bomb: a pint of draft Kirin Ichiban beer and a shot of sake for $8. You won't even have to worry about how sweet that one's going to be.
Cherry Blossom Pub, 1841 Seventh St. NW. Open at 5 p.m. daily through April 29. Cocktails $13 each.