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.
Elli Benchimol is never without a wine key, maybe two. Sometimes three. This can cause problems with airport security. Or, it can save the day! Either way, she laughs it off. It’s a chilly afternoon, and she thoughtfully pours me some hot tea as we sit down to talk about her background and learn about the beverage program she manages at AGAINN, downtown’s new “British Isles Bistro.”
Fellow author and photographer Samer has come along and can’t stop salivating at the wall of scotch. But we’ll get to that soon! I had previously stumbled onto AGAINN one night not having a clue that they had a brilliant cocktail program, and was instantly smitten. The bar is beautifully lined with fresh ingredients, garnishes and brown bottles, a selection of bitters, exotic tinctures of vanilla rooibos.
“Some people have added the syrups to their fish and chips by accident,” Elli smiles.
But I’m sure they would never be made to feel intimidated about such a mistake here. It’s a friendly environment, with the affectionate camaraderie between Elli and her staff immediately obvious.
Maybe that’s part of the West Coast style. Elli is a transplant from the laid-back land, someone who (like our first profile Josh Volz) was profoundly influenced by the San Francisco cocktail and wine scene. She’s part of a tradition of culinary professionals who believe that bar and kitchen should go hand in hand, and that quality is worth the wait.
“In San Francisco I learned that waiting for ten minutes for a cocktail is the true test,” Elli says, getting ready to line up some of her favorites. Samer and I lean forward like eager students.
As beverage director, Elli oversees the entire drinks program including wine, beer, cocktails, and spirits – this last featuring an extensive scotch selection. She’s well up to the task, with ten years in the industry, including a start working at San Francisco’s Fifth Floor, for “the Prince of Burgundy” himself – renowned sommelier Rajat Parr. She credits his constant quizzing of her as she ran bottles up and down as “the best way to learn – from someone with passion.”
Most recently she served as Wine & Spirits Director for Stir Food Group (Zola and Potenza). Currently she’s studying for her third level for the Court of Master Sommeliers, with a few awards under her belt like the bronze medal for the South Eastern Region for the Young Sommelier Competition of 2007, as well as the bronze for the North Eastern region in 2006. Of course I find this out from her bio, not from her directly – like many of the people I’m interviewing, Elli’s modest about her accomplishments.
As she lines up some cocktails for us to sample (AGAINN’s cocktail program was created by Scott Baird and Josh Harris of the Bon Vivants, also of San Francisco), we chat about the peculiarities of DC patrons. I’m always fascinated to get the behind-the-bar view on what people want in our city. “People are coming in for the whisky mainly,” she says, wielding a shaker, “they’re eager to learn, and they want to be able to say they found it first. Digestifs are getting more popular, herbals like Averna.” The city seems to be focused right now on deals and values more than quality of product, so more education is needed about the importance of taking time and using fresh ingredients. This is where a knowledgeable staff comes in – Elli calls her team “lifers – professional bartenders with a passion, chained to the bar” - one of my favorites here is Rachel Sergi, always eager to help you understand the cocktail craft.
So let’s dive into a few first, then hit some scotch.
We start out with three gorgeous drinks, involving all the senses – you admire the look, you inhale the aroma, you enjoy the taste. My favorite, as it was the first time I tried it, is the Bare Knuckle Boxer – an amber hued concoction that warms you up instantly. With madras curry infused John L. Sullivan Irish Whiskey, a bit of apricot and Peychaud’s bitters, this is a drink I could sip all winter long – aromatic, spicy, oh the curry! The Pimm’s Cup wins Samer over. “Not the biggest Pimm’s Cup fan, but this I could get used to,” he says, enjoying the sage and cucumber. Dutch Courage shows off those house-made tinctures with rosemary syrup complementing Bols genever, yellow chartreuse, lemon, and a foamy egg white topping.
“They’re not meant to be gulped,” she reminds us with a twinkling eye. Right. I get back to being ladylike with a Lady MacBeth (which both Elli and I can’t actually say, as old theater habits die hard!), “a bit too ethereal” for Samer but I was delighted by the Hendricks gin matched with rosewater, topped with a tiny rose – perfect for a snow queen. Then there’s the Haig & Peaches, highlighting the oldest distilled whisky paired with peach lambic and that delectable vanilla rooibos tincture. Aperol keeps it from being too cloying.
We’re enjoying sipping the cocktails when Elli starts lining up a scotch flight.
Elli’s goal is to get the bar to 100 whiskies by March. Currently there are around 80 varieties with 47 scotches, all available in either .5 or 1.5 ounce pours. The .5 ounce pours are a fantastic way to learn more about scotch, allowing you to splurge on something more expensive which might be beyond your reach normally. Her favorites are the “feminine, dessert style finishes, like a Sauternes, showing the wine notes in whisky” – and she aims to stay away from the dominating brands and go for more obscure, small batch producers as much as possible. “It’s all about the history and the culture, not about the brand,” she says, and as we inhale the flight and sigh, she smiles. It’s so apparent she loves to share her passion.
My favorite of the three she’s chosen for us is the Ardbeg Uigeadail, a single malt scotch from Islay. It’s delicate smokiness instantly makes me think napping before a peat fire. I’m hooked. There’s the Glenmorangie Signet from the Highlands, with the dessert finish Elli favors – it’s an unbelievable special treat to taste this one. The Compass Box Peat Monster, a blend, knocks me off the bar. By the time I get to the Auchentoshan Three Woods from the Lowlands, I’m reeling at the levels of complexity one finds tasting a scotch flight. It’s incredible.
Elli is still smiling at us as we “ooo” and “aah” through the glasses. She’s made more converts to the world of whisky.
“What’s the biggest seller so far?” I ask.
“The Balvenie 12 Year Double Wood,” she replies, “it’s approachable. Not a peat bomb. Usually we ask people what level of smoke they would like, and take it from there.”
So far AGAINN’s patrons are willing to experiment and take chances. Elli says the scotch lockers, 130 of them at $500 a year, have been rented out for the most part by people in the neighborhood, many refilling every other week. The program is definitely popular, and I think it must have a lot to do with the approachable air of Elli and her staff.
I suddenly realize while hallucinating all these peat fires in Scotland that I haven’t even gotten to the beer or the wine! Over 40 beers by bottle, 15 by draft – showcasing the British Isles and again keeping to smaller producers like Rude Dog, rotating seasonally. The beer list features one of my favorites while I was travelling through Ireland – Kilkenny Cream Ale. And then there’s wine – nearly 100 bottles. My head began to swim thinking of how exciting and daunting a job like Elli’s really is, the incredible challenge of crafting a good beverage program. She has to juggle multiple lists and expectations, match them to the food menu, and make it all look effortless.
“It’s all about balance,” she says simply.
Pulling together and then maintaining an extensive program like AGAINN’s is definitely a balancing act. But it’s one that Elli approaches with a smile and a twinkling eye.
And an extra wine key, just in case.
Many thanks to Elli Benchimol for letting us sample her beverage program for our fifth We Love Drinks profile, and to Lindley Thornburg for making the introduction. A special thanks to Samer Farha for joining in the fun. And Donna and Katie have the food menu covered!