Drinking on the Hill

Liza Weisstuch takes us out in the U.S. capital
By Liza Weisstuch
With the election fast approaching, all eyes are turned to Washington DC."Change" is a buzzword that's being lobbed about like a tennis ball at Wimbledon. But if there's one thing that needs no changing in the nation's capital, it's the vibrant drinking scene. In this city, drinking could be considered a patriotic duty.

Brainy bartenders here can wax rhapsodic about where Thomas Jefferson sat when he paid a visit to the bar located on the site now occupied by the Round Robin, a whiskey bar in the legendary Willard Hotel. Or they can lead you down Pennsylvania Ave, known as Rum Row before Prohibition, and explain how it was once a lively, and we can only imagine, rowdy, strip of bars.

Washington DC culture is not known for its subtlety, so it's not surprising that whiskey hounds will be galvanised to see a catalogue of the city's bars. There's Bourbon, Little Miss Whiskey's Golden Dollar, Irish Whiskey Public House. But rest assured, there's plenty to be found when you dig beneath that in-your-face surface flash. In a city overrun with symbols and monuments that pay tribute to an inspiring history, a well aged drink only seems appropriate.

Irish Public House

1207 19th St. Northwest, Washington DC
Tel: 202 463 3010

Despite the global ubiquity of Irish pubs, Irish whiskey lovers constantly get the short end of the stick. Bourbons just might outnumber Irish whiskeys in a few Dublin bars. Traditional without being kitschy, this tartan-accented, three-story restaurant with exquisite hand-painted wallpaper, steps in to remedy that situation. With more than 50 Irish whiskeys and bars on both the lively downstairs level and the more sedate upstairs level, the Emerald Isle’s finest handiwork is on glorious display.
You can easily spend days tasting the selection, which includes some rarities like Green Spot. Clearly this is not your grandpa’s pub, and the kitchen drives that home with clever spins on Irish staples. Don’t miss out on the corned beef and cabbage spring rolls or the Guinness BBQ shrimp and grits.

Jack Rose Dining Saloon

2007 18th St. Northwest, Washington, DC
Tel: 202 588 7388

Owner Bill Thomas estimates he’s up to 1,300 labels of Bourbon, rye, Scotch, Irish and craft whiskeys at this magnificent whiskey temple. The comprehensiveness and volume of this collection are of cosmic proportions. Little surprise, then, that bartenders need a full-size ladder to reach bottles on the upper shelves behind the elegant wood bar. But wait, there’s more! There’s a handsome roof deck bar where guests can enjoy a cigar pairing, and a cosy ski-lodge-like room set off to the side. They both have their own bars. A world weary malt fanatic can find plenty here to sample for the first time. The supremely knowledgeable bartenders are quick with a recommendation, and they’re more than willing to engage in a casual geek-off about esoteric bottling. They’re equally as quick to offer suggestions to novices seeking a little guidance. Whiskey is an egalitarian school of belief at this temple: everyone is welcomed, there is no wrong way to practice, and yes, a night here is awe-inspiring.

Passenger/Columbia Room

1021 7th St. Northwest, Washington DC
Tel: 202 393 0220

The Passenger is located on a boisterous strip close to several nightclubs. The giant window façade features an image of DC’s flag and the command “God Save the District.” The bar’s name is a tribute to Iggy Pop. Clearly this bar has swagger. Inside there are exposed brick walls, pillars scrawled with graffiti and a modest size bar efficiently crammed with rare and common spirits and sublime glassware. Clearly this bar has substance. Some retreat down a hallway to the Columbia Room, a narrow alcove behind an unmarked door where shelves are lined with jars full of bergamot citrus peels and various roots like some kind of Victorian herbalist lab.
Cocktails are sculptural, built with keen attention to balance. And they’re informed by history thanks in part to owner Derek Brown’s scholarly approach to spirits and cocktails. Consider the George Washington Brigade, an invention by the Columbia Room’s Matt Ficke: Bulleit Bourbon, Oloroso sherry, house orgeat and lemon juice. Clearly this bar has style.

The Pug

1234 H St. Northeast, Washington DC
Tel: 202 388 8554

The Pug might be a serious drinker’s favourite bar, but he or she isn’t likely to admit that in certain company. It’s dark and loud, the stools wobble, police badges are strung up like ornaments, and punk rock posters hang on the wall amid framed news clippings about legendary heavyweight fights. Most of the beer is drunk from cans. There are bartenders who will tell you about the boxing careers of their own that ended decades ago. The Pug is a welcomed reprieve, a boisterous refuge from pretenses and decorum. Rest assured, though: there are diamonds in this rough: ask for Coleraine, an Irish gem.

Round Robin

1401 Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest, Washington, DC
Tel: 202 628 9100

The stately circular bar in the legendary Willard Hotel deserves to be a part of the collection in the nearby Smithsonian Museum. It’s an historic treasure, and when you take a seat, Jim Hewes, the gentlemanly, easy going bartender will remind you of the many reasons why that’s true. But first he gives you a leather-bound menu and tells you: “I have more than 100 single malt Scotches.” Those whiskies are set up behind a second bar in a smaller but equally as elegant nook-like room tucked away up a few stairs. If you stay in the main bar, Jim will regale you with stories about John Taylor, a cousin of Robert E. Lee and an owner of the original hotel on the property, who entertained presidents and introduced the thoroughbred bloodline to the US. Pull up a chair and order a julep.

Smoke & Barrel

2471 18th St. Northwest, Washington DC
Tel: 202 319 9353

Though many Washington residents tend not to acknowledge it, the city is in the South. (Refer anyone who argues to the U.S. Census, which declares that the city is below the Mason-Dixon line.) So mouth-watering barbecue is easy to come by. Few things go better with BBQ brisket than Bourbon. Thus, you have restaurants like Smoke & Barrel. In the interest of food friendliness, the congenial bar manager Heff will recommend a Weller high ball with unfiltered ginger ale paired with any of the rich smoked dishes. The restaurant has walls of knotty, weathered wood. There are dozens of Bourbons and ryes on the bar and a few small barrels sitting on a shelf that hovers above the bar. A blend of white whiskeys is aging in them.