Wine & Spirits: Q&A with Jon Harris of Firefly

Find out what stirs the man behind the stick at the Dupont Circle casual American eatery.

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, Bar Manager at Firefly in Dupont Circle, doing his thing. (Photo courtesy of Scott Suchman)

I first met Jon Harris four years ago, when he was mixing drinks at the now defunct vegan/vegetarian restaurant Vegetate in Shaw. He was doing amazing things with savory drinks, utilizing fresh vegetables and herbs; I remember a cool cocktail called Pesto that combined Hendrick’s Gin, housemade basil aquavit, Lillet Blanc, a pine nut tincture, garnished with Parmesan. Really creative stuff.

After a long stint at The Gibson, Harris moved last year to his current post as Bar Manager at Firefly, where his menu boasts classics, innovative concoctions, a daily punch bowl and delicious zero-proof cocktails where you will (hardly) miss the alcohol. I caught up with him to taste through his drinks menu and learned what ingredients you’d currently find behind his bar.

Washington Life: What excites you right now, in terms of trends or ingredients.
Jon Harris
: I went to a bar in Chicago recently, The Whistler, that did something cool with salt. The drink combined maple syrup and salt with Bourbon,  like a salty caramel flavor. I recently took up the idea on our new drink menu, with a cocktail called the Spanish Tinge. It uses Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth, bison grass vodka, maple syrup, my own saffron bitters and the brine from a jar of Spanish Arbequina olives. The brine is salty, obviously, with some of the spicy and aromatic flavors from the olives. [It] works wonderfully with the maple syrup and the nutty aroma of the bison grass. The drink itself stems from my obsession to make a respectable, elegant Dirty Martini.  I have a little back and forth with Duane Sylvestre of Bourbon Steak to make good Dirty martinis. We should have a Dirty Martini contest.

WL: Talk about some of the punches you offer for the Daily Punch Bowl. Which are your favorites?
JH
: They’re usually pretty standard, using the 1-2-3-4 punch method. 1 sour, 2 sweet, 3 booze, 4 water. Usually we add some spice or tea for added flavor. It’s amazing what you can do with that simple base—various liquors, sweeteners and spices give infinite punching possibilities. Probably my favorite so far was a recent one, which had light and dark rum, maple syrup and some gingerbread flavored tea from Celestial Seasonings. The favorite changes every day.

WL: Your Zero Proof cocktails are inventive and very creative. Talk a bit about the process for creating them, and how you went about figuring out how to mimic the flavor, aromas and weight of alcohol with other ingredients. Will you be adding other flavors in the future?
JH
: Well, just because you can’t drink doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to participate in the drinking ritual with friends and family. Lots of non-alcoholic drinks focus on teas and juices, which is fine, but common on menus, so I wanted to do something different. The Cosmo and the Gin & Tonic were the easiest to create, although they are the most complex in terms of number of ingredients. It was just a matter of rearranging the flavor structure. For the Cosmo, instead of cranberry juice, I use cranberry bitters; instead of Triple Sec, I use orange flower water and orange juice. For the Gin & Tonic, it was just a matter of creating a soda that mimics a gin profile, in this case, Tanqueray, which contains juniper, coriander, angelica and licorice root, with a little lemon peel thrown in. This tea goes into a soda siphon to mix with Jack Rudy Tonic syrup and lime juice.

The beer cocktail was a lot more difficult (so much so that it’s been removed pending further testing).  The first batch was great, but difficult to execute with a soda siphon. For that, I roasted some barley, and then made barley water (a popular summer beverage in the UK). The barley was mixed with a syrup made with hops and grapefruit juice to get an IPA like flavor.  We added Tapioca Maltodextrin to it as well, which provides “head” on the beer when carbonated. I haven’t thought too much about weight and density, but I will now. I think that’s the problem with the fake beer. I will probably add a martini next, on a Verjus base.

WL: What do you have planned for the drinks menu for the warmer months?|
JH
: We’re building a roof garden, so definitely some interesting things with herbs.

WL: Where do you like to go for a drink in the D.C. area?
JH
: Normally I just drink beer at Bar Pilar or whatever happens to be playing around with. I’ve gotten boring in the past year, frankly, so I don’t go out much. Though I am a big fan of Gina Chersavani’s Buffalo & Bergen in Union Market. I think I had 3 Bourbon Egg Creams and a Pisco Grape “Drank” (to quote [of Jack Rose Dining Saloon]) when I went.

WL: What else do you like to drink?
JH
: Normally just beer in the evenings, maybe with an Old Overholt by my side. Tanqueray & Tonic in the day time, Champagne whenever possible.

WL: Talk about the collaboration between you and Chef [].
JH
: We’ve done pairings for New Year’s Eve, which worked well.  So, going forward, we’ll do pairings for our dessert menu. Half size cocktails to go with your dessert for $6—that’s been fun to think about. They taught me how to use a Cryovac for infusions and I helped sort out the whipped cream siphons for a dish we were working on. And I advised him on some of the ins and outs of a proper Chicago hot dog for our Inauguration menu. And Chef has great books around to peruse.

[The new dessert pairing menu is below:]

Red Velvet Cake / paired with: Skinos Mastiha, Carpano Antica Vermouth, Chocolate Bitters
Persimmon Cheesecake / paired with: Akvavit, Frangelico, Persimmon, Egg White, Dill
Sorbet / paired with: Selected Eau de Vie or Liqueur
Apple Cobbler / paired with: Calvados, Benedictine, Yellow Chartreuse, Angostura Bitters
Rum Raisin Rice Pudding / paired with: Red Wine, Raisin, Neisson Rhum, Skinos Mastiha

Harris shared the recipe for his Fancy Whiskey Cocktail, an easy and delicious riff on an Old Fashioned, for WL readers to try at home. He deems this drink a very straightforward cocktail for the home bartender to make.

Fancy Whiskey Cocktail
2 oz. Old Overholt Rye
¼ oz. simple syrup
¼ oz. Curacao (Harris uses Ferrand Dry Curacao)
Dash of Bitter Truth Decanter Bitters
Lemon peel, for garnish

Add all except garnish to a rocks glass. Add ice, and stir until chilled. Garnish with a lemon peel.

Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter @kmagyarics.

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