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The Best To-Go Cocktails in the DMV Area

Recently, I met up with some bartender friends and we were discussed our recent travels.  Where we had been, where we were planning on going, all that jazz.  Being a part of the larger, national cocktail community can afford some very interesting traveling opportunities and bartenders always have the best travel stories. 

Eventually, our conversation steered towards drinking in airports and how perilous of an endeavor it can be.  For those of you who aren’t douchey, pretentious cocktail snobs like myself, getting a serviceable cocktail in an airport has long been very difficult, if not impossible.  I rarely risk it and stick to beer. 

My cohort of bartender friends started to trade stories about some of our worst airport cocktail experiences, and one by one, counterintuitively, we all shared a recent, POSITIVE airport cocktail experience.  What in tarnation?  We were shooketh.  Had the resurgence of cocktails finally permeated into the greater American culture so deeply that it was now possible to find a good drink at an airport bar?  

Now, granted, I don’t suggest ordering a cocktail all willy nilly at any old airport bar, but the idea that there are good airport cocktails in at all is a testament to how far our small community has come.  This felt like a watershed moment. 

Washington, DC and the DMV area as a whole has been one of the biggest benefactors of the cocktail revolution.   In a not too distant past, each major city around the country had only a handful of watering holes that offered top shelf, well-crafted cocktails.  You had to do a deep search for a good cocktail.  Now, almost the opposite is true.  You can accidentally trip and fall into good cocktail bar or a restaurant with well-made cocktails.  Hell, you can get a killer cocktail in Casper, Wyoming.  That’s no joke!  

Here in the DMV, have world class bars, world class bartenders, and world class restaurants serving world class cocktails.  There are bars popping up left and right.  New restaurants opening up daily, and a higher demand than ever to have a stellar cocktail program.   A good cocktail program is no longer a luxury, but a necessity for any new place.  Its incredible.  The tide has shifted.  You can even get a decent cocktail, if you dare risk it, in an airport!  An airport!

That was until the COVID-19 pandemic.  Bars and restaurants had to shuttered their doors for the foreseeable future.  Everyone, out of self-preservation and the preservation of our neighbors, are now quarantined in their homes.   Quarantine life has been difficult for a lot of people.  Downright damaging for others.  A lot of things that we were once used has vanished. 

I desperately miss sitting at my friend’s bar and have them whip me up whatever hair-brained idea they were working on.  We can no longer look to our bars and restaurants for experiences and comfort from within their walls.   For a lot of us, a key element of our life has been stripped away.  For some, cocktails were reserved for special occasions.  For others, it was a daily respite from their woes.

What is there to do?   Fear not, for out of the cocktail darkness and into the light!  In March, DC City Council passed an emergency bill that allowed for establishments to sell to-go cocktails as long as it is accompanied by food.  This is my insider list of the best bars and restaurants selling to-go cocktails in the DMV area!

1.  Columbia Room – Washington, DC

For many, Columbia Room needs no introduction.   For those who have never had the opportunity to visit their beautiful space in Blagdon Alley, the team at Columbia Room are crafting some of the best drinks, period.   In 2016, they were rated the best cocktail bar in the country!  Need I say more? 

columbia room washington dc

Their ala carte menu is fantastic, but they are known for their tasting menus.  Columbia Room execute incredibly inventive and thoughtful tasting menus that transport you and take you on a journey.  To date, CR’s tasting room is my favorite bar experience in the entire country.   Unfortunately, you can’t go in and experience this first hand, but bar director Paul Taylor and his team are still delivering world class cocktails directly to your homes, but this time with delicious hero’s!

Taylor is heading up Columbia Room’s new Be Hero Get a Hero program.  The concept is simple:  buy an incredible hero sandwich and Columbia Room with donate and hero to medical works, first responders, and those in need.   While you’re snagging a sando, be sure to try one of their award-winning cocktails.

What I am drinking and eating: 

  • Franky Sees the World, a boozy, spirit forward cocktail that has Armagnac, PX sherry, mezcal, amaro, cherry, salt, and bitters
  • The Ham Jam Hero, with Parisian ham, salted honey butter, blueberry and red wine jam, served on a soft roll

How to order: www.exploretock.com/columbiaroom

2.  Bresca – Washington, DC

There aren’t many people in this city making better cocktails than Will Patton and his team down at the Michelin-starred restaurant, Bresca.   Most everyone is familiar with Chef Ryan Ratino’s incredibly seasonal and creative menus that are responsibly sourced and environmentally conscious. 

The food is unreal and they have a coveted Michelin star to show for their hard work.  Patton leans into the seasonality and creativity and approaches his cocktails using unique ingredients and challenging, advanced techniques.  They are complete, complex cocktails that are downright crushable. 

It’s Mother’s Day weekend and the team at Bresca are offering an amazing food and drink special on Sunday, May 10th!  You get an incredible meal with a delicious cocktail while celebrating the most important people in our lives. 

What I am drinking and eating

  • Summer Is Coming, a tropical cocktail that well help you escape the confines of your quarantine that has Rum, pineapple, sage, citrus, gentian.
  • The Bee Home Mother’s Day special with lamb shoulder, cucumber salad, green goddess, sugar potatoes, and hyssop.

How to order:  www.brescadc.com/menus/#beehome

3.  The People’s Drug – Alexandria, VA

For our next spot, we are venturing out to Alexandria to visit our friends over at The People’s Drug.  The team over there have been killing the craft cocktail game and have some tremendous talent.  I don’t leave DC very often, but when I do, it is to snag one of their tasty sandwiches and an expertly crafted cocktail at The People’s Drug.  What every you do, don’t sleep on their brunch!

the people's drugs virginia

They are currently offering a full menu of cocktails a daily from 12-9 PM for curbside or in store pick up.  On Saturday and Sunday from 12-4 PM they have a brunch menu featuring individual frozen Irish coffees and many others.   Frozen Irish coffees may quite possibly be my guiltiest of pleasures. 

Pro-tip for at home bartenders, if you want to turn the dial up to 11 on your frozen Irish Coffee, then float a shot of Green Chartreuse on top.  Most of you don’t have Green Chartreuse at home so thankfully the team at The People’s Drug adds it for you!

What I am drinking and eating

  • Frozen Irish Coffee. It has Powers Irish Whiskey, brown sugar, 10,000 Villages fairtrade coffee, Chartreuse and mint whipped cream.  I mean, come on.  It’s so good. 
  • Cuban Mojo Sandwich with braised pork shoulder, prosciutto, pork belly, Swiss cheese, cornichons, truffle mayo, and mustard on a ciabatta.

How to order: www.thepeoplesdrug.com

4.  Service Bar – Washington, DC

service bar dc

Whenever I have bartender friends come to town, the onus is always on me to show off what DC is all about.  The first question they ask me is “Where are you taking us?”  The DMV has a wealth of riches when it comes to restaurants and bars, so I never know exactly how to answer that question.  The only thing I tell them is “I don’t know, but we are ending our night at Service bar.”

The bar team at Service bar, ranked one of the top bar teams in the country, knows how to throw a party (hence the ending of the night there).  They are the masters at creating an energetic environment and making highbrow, elevated cocktails come off as fun and approachable.  It truly is an art form.   If more people could do it, they would. 

Also, don’t sleep on their food.  Hands down some of the best fried chicken in the city.  In March they lauched FRIED, a fried chicken sandwich pop-up that partnered with chefs around the city, starting with Kevin Tien’s Sichuan hot chicken sandwich.  They are currently working with Opie Crooks from A Rakes Progress. 

hot lola's fried sandwich

What I am drinking and eating

  • The Zombie Punch.  This is a delightfully tropical cocktail with a medly of ingredients, but drinkers be weary, this thing packs a punch (hence the name).  It has 15 year rum, jamaican rum, menehune pineapple overproof rum, falernum, absinthe, green chartreuse, combier d’ orange, luxardo maraschino, grenadine, fresh pineapple, lime, grapefruit, bitters. 
  • FRIED Chicken Sandwich from Opie Crooks of A Rake’s Progress – It’s a fried chicken sandwich drenched with hot sauce butter, griddled bun with buttermilk dressing, dill pickles and greens.  A touch of chili oil adds a mild lingering heat.

How to order:  www.servicebardc.com

5.  Patterson Mansion + Ampeer – Washington, DC

In recent news, Jose Cox, bartender extraordinaire formally of minibar and The Gibson, took over the bar program at Patterson Mansion + Ampeer.  Never heard of it?  Me neither.  Patterson Mansion + Ampeer is usually a hoity toity membership only joint, but because of COVID-19, they opened their doors to the public.  The rich loses their exclusivity, and the public gains one of the brightest minds in the DC cocktail scene.  You don’t want to sleep on this.

Jose Cox is known for his use of difficult techniques and science driven spectacles.  Not only are they impressive on paper, but they taste even better than they sound.   If you have ever been to barmini, than you know what I am talking about!  Service is for takeout only and they have a strict no less than 6-foot policy.  Tabard Inn chef Cliff Wharton lends a hand on the food side of things and is making spring rolls, kale salads, vegetable pancit, and other Filipino street foods. 

What I am drinking and eating

  • Flower Girl Punch – It has a blend of aged rum, lavender cordial, lemon, and clarifying milk.  The clarified milk gives the cocktail beautiful body with out any of the creaminess of milk.  It’s unreal. 
  • I’ll have some vegetable pancit – you can’t go wrong.   

How to order:  Call ahead at (202) 851-3100 or (202) 227-8098

6.  Chaplin’s and Zeppelin – Washington, DC

Ari and Micha Wilder, brothers and co-owners of Chaplin’s and Zeppelin, have always been at the tip of the spear with regards to cocktail trends.  One of the biggest trends in recent years has been draft cocktails.  They were doing draft cocktails long before it was in vogue, and doing them well.   And in order to put cocktails on draft and have them not suck; one needs to become an expert at pre-batching.  The practice of making a cocktail beforehand, but in much larger quantities. 

The same principles that are being put to practice for all the to-go cocktails you are seeing today.  They are a tried and true, and and perfected the method long before the rest of us dipped our toes into those waters.  The best part is you get to pick up some fire ramen or sushi along with their delicious cocktails. 

If you have never been to Chaplin’s, it a 1930’s silent film themed ramen bar that is the best neighbor spot you will ever find.  It will instantly be your Cheers.  It has been an institution in the Shaw neighborhood for years.  Their cocktails, food, and environment will have you coming back, over and over again until you know every single person who works there on a first name basis.  Zeppelin is their gorgeous, new(ish) restaurant and bar that serves up sushi and yakitori along with cool, creative Japanese cocktails and sake.

What I am drinking and eating

  • Heartbreaker (From Zeppelin)– It has Sombra Mezcal, Choya Plum, Yuzu Kosho, Passionfruit, Lime, and Sansho Arbol Salt. 
  • Miso Ramen – It has ground pork, pork butt chashu, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, onion, scallions, and nori. 

How to order:  www.chaplinsdc.com and www.zeppelindc.com

7.  Capo Deli – Washington, DC

Rohit Malhotra and the team at Capo Deli have had a stroke of genius.  They took something like the daily briefs of the now immortalized Dr. Fauci, and packaged it in the most nostalgic thing you can think of; Capri Sun pouches.  My friends, I give you the “Fauci Pouchy.” 

fauci pouchy

It’s the perfect escape for the DMV during a crisis of this magnitude.  It takes two things that DC people love; a nerdy icon in the venerable Dr. Fauci and 90’s nostalgia.  There is even a cocktail called the Tiger King that features El Silencio mezcal you can order in one of your Fauci Pouchies. 

You got to get your hands on one of these cocktails.  It’s the perfect relief one needs during these trying times.  While you’re at it, sink your teeth into one of their fantastic Italian sandwiches.  They are to die for. 

What I am drinking and eating

  • Fauci Pouchy Painkiller – This classic tropical (not topical) cocktail is a mix of Don Q Rum, Pineapple, Orange, and nutmeg.  You will immediately be transported to beach.  Just let it happen.
  • The Capo Special – Premium Imported Italian Sopressata, Mortadella, and provolone with lettuce, tomato, onion and homemade Italian dressing.

How to order:  www.capodc.com

8.  Neighborhood Restaurant Group:  Iron Gate, Hazel, and Bluejacket – the DMV Area

Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG) restaurants and bars have always been up to some cool stuff cocktails wise.  That is in large part to their cocktail wizard Nick Farrell.  Nick has quietly been making some of the best cocktails in the city at restaurants like Iron Gate and Hazel.  If you had a chance to visit Iron Gate while they were doing their Valentine’s Day menu some two years ago, then you will know what I am talking about.  Elite cocktail crafting.   

NRG is offering a lot of cool options cocktail wise with over 10 selections to chose from!  The best part is they are selling literally anything you need.  The set up an online market called Neighborhood Provisions, and you can get almost anything you need there.  You can also donate meals to those who need it the most. 

What I am drinking and eating

  • Pineapple “Chartreuse” Rickey – A Tropical twist on DC’s official cocktail, the Rickey, made with pineapple, lime and house made “Chartreuse.”
  • Iron Gate’s Caramelized Ricotta Gnocchi – It has pork sausage ragu, calabrian chili, parmesan cheese.

nrg provisions gnocchi

How to order:  www.nrgprovisions.com

Written by Deke Dunne.  Deke grew up on a farm in small town Wyoming, where he first fell in love with Washington, DC after reading Steven Blush’s deep dive into the tribal nature of the US punk and hardcore scene in American Hardcore.   Fast forward 10 years, Deke had bartended his way through college and finally found an opportunity to move to Washington.

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He transitioned full time into the food and beverage industry at Drink company. From there, he bartended at the James Beard award winning Indian restaurant Rasika, revamping their bar program and eventually going on to help build a new bar program at DC’s oldest modern speakeasy, The Gibson. 

He’s currently the bar supervisor at Allegory, which since its inceptions has risen to the top of the DC cocktail scene, receiving accolades from publications all around the world.  Click here to follow him on instagram!

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