As nouveau cocktail culture climbs to new heights, Washington’s old-school barkeeps keep it real.
By Anne Kim-Dannibale
Photos by Tony Brown
JIM HEWES, THE WILLARD INTERCONTINENTAL’S ROUND ROBIN BAR
Run: I started in the summer of 1971, working as barback at a spaghetti house in Rochester, New York. I filled in for a guy who didn’t show. I was 17. I’ve been at the Willard’s Round Robin for 27 years. I was on the opening team when the hotel reopened in 1986.
Signature drink: Southern-style mint julep. It was popularized by Henry Clay who introduced it at the old Willard Hotel. It’s Southern because it adds Kentucky bourbon. Julep is usually made with rum or brandy. Clay was known as the “great compromiser,” and what better way to compromise at the end of the day than with mint juleps?
If I were a cocktail, I would be… an Absolut Elyx martini, straight up with a twist of orange because it’s so cool, so clean and so absolutely sophisticated.
An underappreciated cocktail or spirit? Old Fashioned. There’s so much going on in mixology with infusing drinks — this was an original cocktail with infused whiskey, and the legacy goes back 150 years.
Where is cocktail culture headed? There will be more education around the distribution of locally distilled spirits — ryes, bourbons. Minnesota is making great gins. It’s almost an offshoot of brewing beer. Liquor laws have changed so more people are getting into sustainability and what’s healthy. Some people are infusing sugars with spices and becoming more aware of garnishes, ice, etc.
Favorite story from behind the bar? A beautiful woman walks into the Round Robin bar behind a large man. He asks for a diet coke. I say ‘OK’ and then ask the woman what she wants. The guy gives me a menacing look, but I keep asking. She gets uncomfortable and finally tells me, “A diet Coke.” Turns out she was the queen of Thailand who spoke only through her bodyguard, the large menacing man.
BILLY MARTIN, MARTIN’S TAVERN
Run: I bartended for 18 years almost six nights a week from 1982 to 2000. However, once a bartender always a bartender. I will make guest appearances every once and a while behind the wood here at Martin’s Tavern. Everyone usually says, ‘You still have it!’
Signature drink: I have three: Old Fashioned, frozen drinks and martinis up, and especially a lemon drop martini. I made these with fresh ingredients and a little extra attention. I actually was presented with a framed photograph, signed and inscribed, from a guest who was very well known for his photographs of martinis, saying I was the best martini maker in D.C.
If I were a cocktail, I would be… A Champagne cocktail. Classy and sophisticated yet simple, bubbly and colorful. It’s not watered down, and enjoyable anytime by anyone, day or night.
An underappreciated cocktail or spirit? A classic Sidecar. This wonderfully balanced mix of Cognac with a touch of sweet and sour has been lost to the misconception that it’s a difficult drink to make or that it’s outdated. I surprise guests when I make this for them. It is always well received and given accolades.
Where is cocktail culture headed? In the same direction as food culture with infusions, mixing ingredients that just don’t seem to belong in cocktails and creating artwork out of alcohol. However, that said, as with food, things always come back to comfort, like meat and potatoes. With drinks, it’s martinis, gin and tonics, Scotch and sodas and good old Bourbon. There’s also a big move here with beer. Craft beers are changing the landscape as are wine producers. I think that we will see a lot of small-batch producers (legal moonshiners) popping up and relying on the Internet.
Favorite story from behind the bar? An older Georgetown professor came in and ordered his usual Manhattan(s). He always ordered the lamb chops, but this evening he ordered the steamed lobster. My friends observed the professor eating and were surprised to see his teeth feel out. He didn’t retrieve them so they went over to make sure but they didn’t see any teeth. A short time later, I was called to the kitchen where the dishwasher showed me the teeth. Not knowing that this whole scenario had taken place, I put the teeth into a cup and brought them out to show my friends. They were shocked and started laughing. They told me what had happened and couldn’t wait to see how I would handle this. The professor was dozing off so I walked over, while my friends waited like school boys. I nudged the professor and discreetly showed him the teeth. I asked if they were his. He said yes, reached into the glass and simply slipped them into his pocket.