Wine & Spirits: Behind the Bar with Steven Oshana

Oshana talks simplicity, why he’s done with bacon drinks, and his invitation to the First Lady.

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BLT Steak head bartender mixes up one of his latest concoctions. (Photo credit Brittany Garrison)

Steven Oshana has been busy barrel-aging cocktails at the downtown steakhouse. Tipples like the Brooklyn (Rye, Amer Picon and Maraschino) and the Bermuda Triangle (anise-infused rum, ginger and lemon) get a little rest in small oak barrels, rendering smooth, approachable sips. But the BLT Steak head barman is also looking ahead to the warmer months when he can play around with fresh herbs and variations on the classic Daisy cocktails. I recently tasted through his new menu, and asked him for his thoughts on liquid trends, preferences and techniques:

Washington Life: What excites you right now behind the bar, in terms of trends or ingredients?
Steven Oshana
: One trend I’ve noticed just starting to take hold and have really been enjoying is some movement away from molecular gastronomy, both in food and in cocktails, back to a more simple approach founded in the classics. I like gels and foams as much as the next guy, but as a lover of classic cocktails I’m happy to see more Last Words and less Chartreuse “airs” on cocktail menus these days. In terms of ingredients, seasonality is always wonderful, but if I had to get excited about one thing it’s that it’s ok to be bitter again, both with life and with Fernet Branca in cocktails.  Like any good bartender, “I’m really into Amaro right now.”

WL: What trends or ingredients do you wish would just go away?
SO
: Bacon. Not everything is better with bacon, and in general I don’t think meat belongs in cocktails. Adding it to everything shows a lack of originality, both in food as well as cocktails. Bacon has become the new ketchup.

WL: You have been doing barrel-aged cocktails for some time now. What have guests’ reactions been to them, and what new ones do you have planned?
SO
: We’ve really had an overwhelmingly positive response to the barrel-aged cocktail program. For BLT, barrel-aging really fits our concept. The simplicity, elegance, and aesthetic effectively capture our ethos of “classics with a modern twist”. It’s really spurred our guests’ curiosity as well—people always ask “what’s in the barrel?” and it gives us a chance to talk about it. It’s a natural fit. We’re currently working on a really great barrel-aged version of the Pegu Club cocktail. I found some Angostura bark a few weeks ago, so we’re making homemade Angostura and orange bitters that will be aged with a gin and orange cordial. Our efforts with the program are geared towards making classic cocktails approachable while paying homage to a great tradition in American cocktail culture, and we believe this will accomplish both those objectives.

WL: What do you think the bar trends will be for warmer weather, and how are you incorporating them onto your menu?
SO
: I think summer cocktails really lend themselves to the continued use of garden herbs. Things like thyme and rosemary do really well with cocktails, and we’ve incorporated those into our upcoming spring and summer menus. I like using local herbs and things people can grow in their own gardens, so I’m hoping next time the First Lady joins us at BLT she can bring us some mint from the White House garden and we can make a Julep or Smash in her honor. As for trends, I’m going to take the liberty and say we ought to make this the summer of the Daisy, the Savoy Daisy in particular.  It’s like a very dandy cousin of the Gin Rickey and perfect for al fresco drinking.

WL: Where do you like to go for a drink in D.C. when you aren’t working?
SO
: I know Dane Cook insists guys never say this, but I really just like to dance. I enjoy making a fool of myself at dance clubs which tend not to be prime drinking spots, so I try to pick places that are at least near good drinking. I like to pop into Bar Pilar in between sets of dropping sweet dance moves at the lower level of Saint Ex; Erin the bar manager is unfailingly kind and always humors me.  Before it closed, SOVA on H Street was by far my favorite place to hang out. As for cocktails, I love the Atlas Room as my neighborhood cocktail bar and think it’s one of the most underrated bars (and restaurants for that matter) in the District. I’ll often stop into Jackie’s Sidebar in Silver Spring on my way to the Metro from wine shopping at Morris Miller. I absolutely love old school, clubby bars, and on the rare occasion I get a date I like going to Quill at the Jefferson Hotel or the Round Robin bar at the Willard.

WL: What do you like to drink?
SO
: Anything from Goose Island‘s vintage ale line. My favorite cocktail is the Brooklyn, but you can’t really get one at a bar (except at BLT of course), so I usually stick with my close second, the Last Word, if I’m in a reputable cocktail bar. The Gin Rickey is probably my go-to anywhere else, and I always take a shot of Partida Blanco for courage before I hit the floor at Habana Village.

WL: Talk about the collaboration between you and chef. What are some of your favorite cocktail and food pairings on the menu?
SO
: Working with Chef Jon [Mathieson] was a big selling point for me when coming to BLT. He’s an amazing chef and has an uncanny ability to do simple things well and make very complicated things seem simple. We spend a lot of time talking about food, flavor combinations, and how to incorporate certain ingredients into cocktails. I love the tuna tartare paired with the barrel-aged Negroni—I think the bitter, salty, and sweet all balance nicely. Chef Jon uses braising techniques better than anyone in the city, and I really love pairing the barrel aged Brooklyn with the braised oxtail and bone marrow polenta. We’re doing quite a bit with ramps right now to pair with his spring menu and we have some pretty neat things working with those.

WL: You mentioned you like to write and are working on a cocktail blog. Can you talk a little bit about that?
SO
: Absolutely. My blog is called “Libation Without Representation”. While the blog will cover a lot about cocktails, I’m really trying to do something a little different and write more about the sociology and economics of the business in a humorous and entertaining way. Bars give us one of the most intimate glimpses into the human condition and I feel like we ought to occasionally look at that from more than just a purely culinary perspective. My background is in Behavioral Economics and we’ll be delving into topics like who’s responsible for bad service in restaurants, the effect of happy hour on insurance premiums, and whether regulars are actually good for business. There are also plenty of standard rants on mean customers, why being a bartender is the greatest job ever, and the many, many virtues of gin. My hope is that someone other than my mother is interested in anything I have to say.

WL: What are a few of your favorite drinks from the new spring menu? Can you share a recipe or two that can be replicated at home?
SO
: My favorite cocktail on the new menu is the Cocchi Monster, a play on a Corpse Reviver #2, but eschewing gin for the smokiness of Bourbon. The recipe is simple and doesn’t require making any reductions or anything, so it can be easily replicated at home. I love the balance, and the cocktail has all the elements of sour, sweet, and bitter.

Cocchi Monster
Courtesy of Steven Oshana, Head Bartender, BLT Steak, Washington, D.C.
¾ oz. Woodford Reserve Bourbon
¾ oz. lemon juice
¾ oz. Cocchi Americano
¾ oz. Cointreau

Add all to a cocktail shaker. Add ice, and shake until chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Steven Oshana’s Cocchi Monster at BLT Steak. (Photo courtesy of Brittany Garrison)

The London Calling is also a favorite and is made with Scotch, muddled banana, homemade vanilla maple syrup, and chocolate bitters.  It’s like banana pancakes in a glass, and what I imagine a proper gentleman should have as part of a balanced breakfast.

London Calling
Courtesy of Steven Oshana, Head Bartender, BLT Steak, Washington, D.C.
2 oz. Ballantine Scotch
½ oz. vanilla maple syrup (see Note)
1 slice muddled banana
4 dashes chocolate bitters

Muddle banana in cocktail shaker. Add remaining ingredients and ice, and stir until chilled. Strain into a rocks glass without ice.

To Make Vanilla-Maple Syrup:
Combine 8 oz. rich maple syrup, 8 oz. hot water and ½ teaspoon vanilla paste.

Steven Oshana’s London Calling at BLT Steak. (Photo courtesy of Brittany Garrison)

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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