Consistency and creativity are the two elements Erik Holzherr strives for in his bars. Add to that the well-deserved cliche of infectious enthusiasm – after just a few minutes of talking to him about his newest venture at the media preview for Church & State, I swear fellow WLDC authors Ashley, Samer and I are ready to go forth and open our own bar! Strike that. We’ll just be content with spreading the cocktail gospel.
Erik already has two popular bars in DC, both serving as outposts in developing neighborhoods. Wisdom was followed by Fruit Bat, and now Church & State is open to the public. Upstairs from Fruit Bat on H Street NE, it’s got such a gothic sensibility I found myself seriously craving a clove cigarette. Next time you feel the need to don the vintage finery, this is the bar to visit. Dimly lit, with reclaimed wood, flickering altar candles, and plenty of stained glass make for a striking effect. Add in an actual confessional room that gave Ashley and I total Exorcist chills, plus a raised alcove with a majestic leather couch that will definitely be fought over, and you have a small temple to the American cocktail.
Why open a third bar, not to mention one so small? Why not just expand Fruit Bat upstairs? Erik laughed good-naturedly at these questions. As a transplanted New Yorker, he loves “niche bars” and prefers cosy one room spots to large spaces. It’s where he’d rather hang out himself, noting that type of bar usually has a more “adult vibe.” He’s dedicated to keeping Church & State intimate – it only seats about 45 patrons, and they’re won’t be any standing around or pushing through crowds. That’s because that level of intimacy is vital when bartenders are carefully crafting cocktails with many ingredients made in-house. They aren’t churning them out here. Even the beautiful antique glasses are individuals.
What’s in those glasses?
The menu details a ten cocktail list called the Bill of Rights, showcasing American innovation in their creation and many house made ingredients like orgeat syrup, ginger beer, and grenadine syrup. Erik is dedicated to working with small batch distillers who are highlighting the American liquor craft, though by necessity there will be other brands as well. Behind the bar as well is Josh Berner, whom Erik shepherded at Wisdom. He’s eager to let him make his own name. Where ingredients are classically foreign, they’ve gotten creative – like with the Chuck Yeager, a take on the Aviation which substitutes their own lavender bitters for the usual creme de violette. These ten cocktails will remain on the menu, and in addition they’ll shortly roll out the Seven Deadly Sins (ah, now I get it. Rights and sins. Church and State) which will rotate frequently to highlight bartenders’ creativity.
We sampled three drinks – the Sophomoric Sazerac #2 (#1 is at Wisdom), the Moscow Mule, and the Mai Tai. The sazerac was my clear favorite, perfectly balanced and actually a very good way to introduce this cocktail to someone who might be just learning or intimidated by the anise flavor of absinthe. With the addition of a heavenly hibiscus liquor to the traditional rye, absinthe and Peychaud’s bitters, it was delightful to sip and had lovely aroma. I think it converted Ashley to the world of cocktails!
The Moscow Mule was also pleasantly balanced with American 4 orange vodka and lime-ginger soda. I’m a big fan of anything with ginger in it, and this had a lightly spicy kick that wasn’t too overwhelming. The Mai Tai had a clever touch with its dehydrated pineapple garnish (which added a very tasty element too) and Josh’s house made orgeat syrup was just ridiculously good. Overall however it was a bit watery to me, (maybe due to the quality of the ice? or is it I’m not a fan of Bacardi rum? not sure), but I have a feeling that Josh won’t rest until he gets it just right. That’s the hallmark of a good bartender.
It’s apparent in talking to Erik that he has an insane amount of energy and he’s a total jack-of-all-trades. “You have to be as a small business owner!” he says, regaling us with a tale of the time they discovered the floating support beam at Wisdom. He’s also passionate about spreading his love of cocktails to the city and extremely willing to share the spotlight by mentoring rising bar chefs. I’m eager to return to Church & State to try all ten house specialties and all seven deadly sins. Maybe not in one setting, and certainly not while hallucinating in that confessional, but I’ll definitely be back.
Church & State is located above Fruit Bat at 1236 H Street NE, Washington, DC 20002.