We Love Drinks continues our series where we look behind the bar, profiling the many people – from mixologists to bartenders, sommeliers to publicans – who make your drinks experience happen.
Charred rosemary? Curried pumpkin seeds? Beet juice? Not to mention the bubbling pots behind the bar… what’s going on here?
You might think you were in some mad scientist’s laboratory, except that the guy torching a “lollipop” of tightly wound orange peel is actually extremely laid-back. This is Jason Robey, mixologist at New Heights, a native of southern Maryland back in DC by way of New York and North Carolina. His return is thanks to the recession, and that may be the best thing the economic downturn has done for our city. His drinks have just the proper blend of alcohol and aesthetics, with only as much flash as is absolutely necessary.
Jason strikes me as a perfectionist, but without any uptight vibe. His bar preparation set-up takes two hours. His infusions take anywhere from one to two weeks. There’s an evident amount of care and dedication that goes into the background work before your glass even hits the bar. Not afraid to experiment, Jason still manages to maintain a very practical style in what is after all a warm and inviting bar.
And like the best bartenders, he has a self-deprecating wit. I’m beginning to think that’s part of the job description. He was planning a cocktail riff on the classic Maryland crab boil the night I visited. It took a minute to realize he wasn’t actually joking. If anyone could pull that one off, it would be Jason.
“You know how I think of all these drinks?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“In the shower.”
Jason strives to match the philosophy of the slow food movement to the drinks he creates. “If there’s a beet salad being served upstairs in the dining room,” he says, “you’ll find a beet cocktail downstairs in the bar.” This means he’s always keeping up with what’s in season and what’s on the food menu at New Heights. This links the downstairs bar, which could easily feel isolated from the upstairs dining room, to the restaurant as a whole.
I was a little wary of said beet cocktail, the Borracha Remolacha, having a strong aversion to taste of the root vegetable. But the color, a strikingly bold reddish purple, was breathtaking. So the aesthetics of the drink convinced me to try this concoction which also includes El Tesaro tequila and agave nectar – and I was won over by the unusual taste, still vegetal but only slightly.
I’m also a sucker for pyrotechnics. Torching the orange peel “lollipop” garnish for this drink isn’t about flash without substance, though. It provides a very specific flavor that enhances the drink both to the palate and to the eye.
“I’m very much about aesthetics when it comes to drinks,” Jason says as he prepares the garnish for The Cringer – a cranberry spiked with charred rosemary leaves. One of the reasons I think he takes such care with his garnishes is that you smell Jason’s drinks before you taste them. Involving multiple senses – sight, smell, taste – pumps up the slow food correlation. But these are simple additions, not overwhelming, just right. The Cringer also highlights Jason’s love of using infusions – the base is cranberry and ginger infused Stolichnaya vodka. This is a very pretty drink, no mistake – but with the charred rosemary hitting your nose first, then the cranberry tartness, then the ginger – it’s pretty complex as well.
Infusions are definitely Jason’s forte. I almost went mad tasting his spiced rum – the scent made me want to crawl into the bottle and take a bath in it. His grandmother’s spiced apple cider recipe was equally delicious, so perfect for the cold season the next time I get the sniffles it’s off to Jason’s bar to be cured. The spiced rum forms the base of his show-stopper cocktail, Pumpkin “The Great” – a gorgeous mixture including pumpkin puree and a crazy rim of crushed graham crackers and red curry spiced pumpkin seeds. The combination of curry and pumpkin punches the flavor up and away from being cloying.
It’s the small details that really make or break a cocktail for me, and observing Jason it became quickly apparent that he really takes the time to think these touches through. As I was sampling How to “Make” an Apple I noticed flecks of black. “It’s Tahitian vanilla bean,” he explained, “I use just a little in a simple syrup for the base.” It’s a very subtle detail in a bold drink where apple and Maker’s Mark bourbon are the strongest flavors – but it does really make an apple, black vanilla bean specks mimicking apple seeds. You might not even notice the smallest of details like that, but that doesn’t mean he’d omit them.
It’s not all cocktails at New Heights, of course, the downstairs bar doubling as the Gin Joint featuring an incredibly diverse selection enabling patrons to delve in to different styles with just ice or several kinds of tonic. Jason’s also passionate about tequila and is almost religious on the subject of the Margarita. “My rail is Patron,” he says with a twinkling eye. It’s no surprise though when I ask him how he likes to approach his customers and he replies, “How would you prefer it made?” After all, this is a bar where everyone who arrives is instantly treated like a member of the family in a comfortable and relaxed vibe, with courtly owner Umbi Singh hovering proudly.
The first time I visited New Heights to write about gin flights, Jason was out. I think it’s a testament to his skill and friendly, open personality that the entire night everyone, from the bartender covering him to the patrons and the owner, kept talking about him with true affection. Dedication, attention to detail, and a culinary approach to cocktails are the hallmarks of Jason’s style, and I encourage you to pull up a barstool and watch him work some magic.
Many thanks to Jason Robey for letting me shadow him for the second We Love Drinks profile feature, and to Sangeetha Sarma for making the introduction. A special thanks to New Heights owner Umbi Singh.