We Love Drinks embarks on a series where we look behind the bar, profiling the many people – from mixologists to bartenders, sommeliers to publicans – who make your drinks experience happen.
“The coolest winter I ever spent was a San Francisco summer,” Josh Volz quips as he mixes up… a San Francisco Summer cocktail. A bartender who can quote Mark Twain is high in my books. He’s a man in total command of his sometimes chaotic bar, flooded by loyal regulars and dandies alike. Always in motion, befitting the vibrant and constantly shifting scene of Marvin, he’s rustling up a hand-crafted cocktail with no pretension and no intimidation.
“What’s the one thing people would be surprised to learn about your job?” I ask.
“That it’s easy,” he replies.
This I find hard to believe, watching him juggle multiple drink orders from both the bar and the servers at one of the busiest spots in DC. Not to mention, this is a man who came to cocktails relatively late – his first taste of liquor wasn’t even until the age of twenty-five. But it’s a fitting job description for someone who strives to run an inviting, approachable bar. He’s got a wry sense of humor and a balanced, classic cocktail style. I genuinely enjoyed sitting at Marvin’s downstairs marble bar getting to know him and his regulars better. Isn’t that the best part about going to a bar anyway?
Josh grew up in the kitchen and loves to cook. Raised Mormon, he had plenty of bad liquor experiences when he did begin to drink in his mid-twenties. Initially it was discovering how to pair wine with the food that he loved which became essential to him. Then he had his first “proper cocktail” – the Sidecar – inspiring him to learn the trade.
It was in San Francisco that Josh hit cocktail culture and began to delve into the history behind the classics. The drinks culture there suited his style. “You can get a low-key, bad-ass drink for $10 served up by a guy with tattoos and no attitude,” he explained, “a good bartender who says – come on this ride with me.”
So as a bystander, Josh learned how to make cocktails. The Sidecar is still one of his favorites to make and his “litmus test” for a good bartender. His is one of the best I’ve had in DC. The Sazerac is another, and he doesn’t even particularly like drinking them! But folklore and mystery appeal to him, the fact that many cocktails have disputed recipes and origins – “guestimations” revolving around regional pride. It makes sense then that he has a strong admiration for one of the great contributors to cocktail lore – Earnest Hemingway. Most of all, he appreciates the similarity between crafting a good cocktail and cooking a good meal.
All of this comes through clearly in his cocktails. Even when experimenting with interesting ingredients like yuzu fruit, the style is classic, balanced and elegant.
But mastering the craft of mixing drinks is one thing. A bartender also serves. It’s a distinction that Josh is passionate about – he doesn’t call himself a mixologist, for example. “Bartenders need to be able to read people,” he says, “you have to be a psychologist, know how to talk to various types of people. It’s a skill that translates to daily life.”
Taking the time to talk to people and to draw them out is especially important to Josh. He sees the bartender’s job first and foremost is to provide a service and make people happy. “If you can expand their minds about cocktails as well, great,” he says, “but it can be intimidating. People don’t want to feel foolish, so they may not ask for something different.” That’s where the psychologist aspect of bartending kicks in – he’ll spend some time talking about what they like, and encourage them to try something new.
Josh sees this as sometimes hard in DC, where people too often are defined by what they do and therefore are unwilling to reveal their knowledge gaps. “What makes living here palatable is the life underneath Official Washington, like the music and arts scene,” he says, “But it’s a tough place to take a chance now. We need to lower the cost of living and open minds here. If you aren’t easily definable, people can’t deal. Always looking over your shoulder for the more important contact.”
Which is why he loves living in LeDroit Park, with its eclectic mix of people. This organic neighborhood of beautiful Victorian architecture may have vibrant urban energy, but it’s still out of the fray. He can go home and get away from it all without having to live in the suburbs. And that translates right back to the bar – “I want you to be as comfortable at my bar as you would be at my house.”
So where does Josh like to go when he’s not at Marvin? Not too surprisingly, he ends up entertaining in his own kitchen a lot. Beyond that, he’s a fan of both the food and the bar at Palena, and thinks Rasika is well-executed. I thought perhaps working often at Marvin he wouldn’t be fond of eating there, but he spoke so highly of the daily specials – “go beyond the chicken and waffles” – that I had to try the delectable veal sweetbreads one night.
In the end, Josh’s philosophy is simple: “Share the knowledge and the passion for making good cocktails.” Can’t argue with that. I’ll be back for more.
Many thanks to Josh Volz for letting me shadow him for the first We Love Drinks profile feature and to Ben Eisendrath for making the introduction. A special thanks to photographer Sam Vasfi.