I just want to say, you know, before anyone else says it, that speakeasies (or, rather, bars that pretend to be speakeasies despite the fact that Prohibition has not existed for eighty years) are over. Come on, people, you’re already drinking cocktails so pretentious that you need a degree in film studies from NYU to properly appreciate them, and, well, ok, I am with you on that, fine. But there is no excuse for this weird fetish culture of sleeve-banded bartenders and hidden entrances. Take it to the streets! Go to your local watering hole, the one that’s mostly made of PBR and Jack Daniel’s, and teach them how to make a proper Manhattan! If they don’t have bitters, buy them a bottle of Angostura – hey, at least they’ll remember you. You want the world to suddenly recognize what a good drink is? Well, try not hiding it in an unmarked bar under a fried chicken joint in Brooklyn.
We (and by “we”, I of course mean the internet cocktail community, such as it is) talk constantly about being home (I-can’t-believe-I’m-about-to-type-this-word) mixologists – ARGH – but at the same time we are complicit in this retrograde, high-school-esque mythologization of the bar and bartender as sancrosanct and inviolable. You really don’t have to go to the coolest place in the city to get a good drink (“Um, no, a Pegu Club has 3 dashes of bitters, not 2, god“). There are a million bars in a thousand cities with a bored, curious guy (or girl) behind the bar who wants to talk to you about a drink neither of you have ever had. If you have to tell a secret password to the guy who works behind the counter of a pawnshop and then fight a robot samurai zombie in order to get a drink, you’re trying too hard. Stay home and make your own damn Sazerac.
Anyway, now that I am slightly calmer, let me get to the point. I’ve lived in some of the best cities for drinking in the nation (San Francisco, CA; Washington, DC) and some of the worst (Oberlin, OH; Champaign, IL), and I’ve always been able to get a decent drink. Bartenders, unless they really should be looking for other work, are usually curious people. They’re willing to try new things – they’re bored of making G&Ts and Dry Vodka Martinis. And, sometimes, you’ll find the jackpot. The bar where they have ideas, where they know classic drinks, and yet have somehow failed to attract those guys who want to argue with you about the merits of different types of ice, for god’s sake.
As I’ve moved and no longer have the option of enjoying my own private watering-hole, let me put out this secret. The bar at New Heights, in Woodley Park, in Washington DC, is one of those bars. The perfect bars. Where you can depend on an innovative drink without being forced to debate exactly how much substituting Creme Violette for Creme Yvette detracts from an Aviation. Unless, of course, you want to, in which case Chris, the man behind the bar (with the plan?), will be more than happy to inform you. But not until you ask.