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.
Owen Thomson has an interesting tattoo on his arm. His sister points it out to me as we sit at Cafe Atlantico’s bar, while he rustles up a selection of cocktails both old and new. “Abandon Hope All Who Enter Here” scrolls across his forearm, the inscription above the gates of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. Not an atypical tattoo choice perhaps but as the story behind it unfolds, it seems there’s nothing typical about the man now helming the bar at Jose Andres’ “nuevo latino” restaurant.
A native Washingtonian, creator of the cocktail program at Bourbon in Adams Morgan, president of the DC Craft Bartenders Guild, with studies in archaeology and the law under his belt – all this might make you expect that Owen would have a bit of an extreme Type-A vibe about him. But instead he’s completely down-to-earth, with a dry wit and a passion for educating both consumers and restaurants about the glories of fresh ingredients. Fellow WLDC author Samer and I sat down with him one Saturday afternoon to find out more about Owen’s plans for his new role behind the bar at Cafe Atlantico, and what happens when you mix the molecular gastronomy of Minibar with a rare 1950’s cocktail book…
“I want to turn this into a smoke and a fog and they said ‘oh yeah we can do that.’ Cool!”
Curiosity and imagination are excellent ingredients for mixology. Owen’s parents, owners of a small bookstore on the outskirts of Georgetown, instilled this in him at a young age. “Our whole house was a library,” he says. That tattoo? His father gave him Dante’s Inferno for a 7th grade book report. A childhood raised among stacks of books gave him a strong desire to constantly learn and he seems driven by the need to continually expand his knowledge. Not to mention, his parents sound like a secret weapon, scouting out rare books like a Japanese bar manual, circa 1925!
His studies in archaeology and law have also served him well, giving him an aptitude for research and history (he even did a dig in Greece, but “discovered there was a lot more writing involved than digging, and I had to write it all in Greek!”). But in addition to erudite studies, he’s worked in the hospitality industry since he was 17, bartending his way thru college. “The first couple of cocktails I threw together were horrible,” he admits. By investigating old cocktail books and meticulously following classic recipes, he had a revelation with his first true margarita made with fresh lime juice – “it’s so ubiquitous, but once you have a real one, you get it.”
Owen had spread out his own tools at the bar of Cafe Atlantico as he told the story. “You wouldn’t expect a chef to show up without a knife,” he says, and he’s right. There’s a definite desire to elevate the lost art of bartending into the respected profession it once was, and Owen stresses that you have to go back to the classics in order to learn a solid technique, knowing the formulas to balance taste like sweet and sour. Owen’s two rules he abides to this day? Measure everything, and everything is fresh. “The day I build a bar there won’t be a single soda gun in the place,” he says.
I ask him about his previous work creating cocktails at Bourbon. “They said you can’t make cocktails in Adams Morgan, there’s no way it will ever work because nobody wants that, they just want a thousand drinks real fast. I figured we could,” he smiles, obviously relishing a challenge. Owen spent a lot of time in the kitchen there, “cranking out ingredients” for the drinks. Though by his admission the first couple of years were difficult, eventually people got it and Bourbon’s cocktail program became well-regarded and enjoyed.
So why move on? “I’ve made cocktails where they told us we couldn’t, and now I’m looking to learn some new skillsets,” he explained, “I did a week training with the guys up at Minibar, stuff I never had access to before, expanding my repertoire.” At Cafe Atlantico he can dive into the world of Jose Andres’ molecular gastronomy, which is truly exciting. He’ll also collaborate on their popular Farmers Market dinners (watch for the first one in early May), where drinks ingredients will be paired with what’s cooking in the kitchen. Samer and I were lucky enough to get to sample a cocktail he’s working on for that. We watch as he pours out a deep rich green liquid that turns out to be cucumber water – but this isn’t your mother’s spa water!
“Summer in a glass,” Samer sighs as he takes a sip. Featuring cucumber juice, tarragon vodka, black pepper thyme syrup, fresh lemon juice and a homemade spice liqueur – it’s topped off with a tasty baby cucumber and its yellow flower, which Owen saw at Minibar and knew he needed to use in a cocktail. The complexity of the vegetal and spice combination is so refreshing and well-balanced that it’s positively dangerous. Owen’s also working on a cocktail with the rhubarb that just came in to the kitchen, mixing it up with gin, fresh lemon and a homemade ginger ale concoction. I can’t wait to come back next month and see how his cocktail menu has progressed.
He also mixes us up a drink currently on Cafe Atlantico’s menu from Jill Zimorski’s days as beverage director. It’s a passionfruit martini with orange vodka, ginger-jalapeno syrup, passionfruit puree, all topped with a passionfruit foam befitting the molecular gastronomy angle – another exquisite cocktail whose balance of heat and sweet knocks me out. Jill’s been “kicked upstairs” to oversee all the programs for Jose Andres’ food empire, and if her bringing Owen on board is any indication of the other choices she’ll make, I’m really excited.
How will Owen develop his cocktail menu for Cafe Atlantico? Of course it goes back to those old books. He found a rare 1950’s cocktail book called the South American Gentleman’s Companion (author Charles Baker first penned a famous guide called The Gentleman’s Companion) detailing his travels through the region. Owen will use this to provide a historical context to the cocktails while adapting them to new techniques – a nice mirror to the concepts behind the food at Cafe Atlantico and Minibar.
You might think that with all this talent and drive, Owen would’ve left DC for another city with a more established craft cocktail movement, but that’s not the style of this native Washingtonian. “I’ve always loved DC, and my family is here,” he says, “Why move? Why let other cities have all the fun?” He and a band of like-minded bartenders saw the opportunity to create a community in DC and elevate their profession when they formed the DC Craft Bartenders Guild back in 2008. The Guild has been instrumental in promoting DC’s homegrown drinks talent with events like the Repeal Day Ball, and they are eager to branch out into more educational events to continue to show both consumers and producers that craft cocktails are here to stay.
He proves the point with a beautiful classic cocktail called the Jasmine. Deceptively Cosmopolitan-colored, it tasted exactly like a freshly squeezed grapefruit. Except there is no grapefruit in it at all! Aviation gin, Campari, Cointreau and fresh lemon make a delicious deception, the Campari mimicking the bitter pith. “Every bartender needs a lexicon of classic cocktails,” he says as Samer and I swoon over it. If you tell a classically trained bartender a list of ingredients, he explains further, they should be able to approximate the drink based on the formulas and balance out the tastes properly. And having a background of knowledge of the classics means what’s old to you is new to someone else.
Owen shows no sign of resting on any laurels. He loves to learn, and I think that’s the key to him and his cocktail style. He regales us with his experiments with a new cocktail based on old recipe for milk punch, where you intentionally curdle milk with citrus, strain the results to a clear liquid, and mix with a sugar and a spirit. With that kind of technique, it sounds like he will fit right in with Minibar! Soon he will even begin sommelier studies. “Continue to work with people who are better than you,” he advises as the path to success.
Despite all this creativity, Owen tries not to take himself too seriously, noting that “the bar is the part where you can be a little less serious, it’s still fine dining but people will always take more gaffe from the bartender.” He thrives on the human interaction that frankly gets overlooked a lot these days – on his days off you’ll find him at colleagues’ bars as well, just making conversation.
“People bond over food and drink. You can be part of directing that experience, and that’s why we never leave.”
And that’s why we’ll keep heading to the bar, enjoying the continual surprises you create for us with classical knowledge, meticulous care, and a whole lot of daring.
Many thanks to Owen Thomson and the folks at Cafe Atlantico for talking with us and letting us sample his drinks, and to Samer Farha for joining in and photographing the fun.