ArtBar at the Liaison Capitol Hotel is one of those places I wish I could get to more often. Helmed by 2011 ARTINI champion Ronald Flores, it has a quirky vibe at the intersection of tourist and Hill trades, with the added benefit of Art and Soul’s nouveau country menu. Fellow WLDC author Tricia Barba (disclosure: Tricia also works at the hotel’s administrative office), convinced me to stop in and sample their new seasonal bar program, highlighting “modern moonshine.” We sat down with general manager Patrick Chiappetta as Flores walked us through the crafting of three cocktails, mixed and served in jelly jars.
Jelly jars? Very pantry to table.
“Modern moonshine” is just a sexy moniker for un-aged corn or rye whiskey, also known as white or silver whiskey, prepared legally by micro distillers now legitimizing a craft most often associated with bootleggers operating under the cover of darkness. ArtBar is featuring un-aged whiskey like Prichard’s Lincoln County Lightning, infused with fruits and herbs, then mixed up into cocktails highlighting tastes of the transition from winter to spring.
Flores strongly believes the best way to create drinks is to start with seasonal ingredients. He’s attracted to using fruits and herbs, and to better understanding their combinations – always in tandem with the kitchen. “It comes down to creativity,” he says. He relishes the challenge of crafting cocktails that are both artistic and drinkable. It was a pleasure to watch him mix up drinks at an impromptu bar – our dining table – with unexpected tools of the trade, such as a salt shaker used to sprinkle liqueur.
Canning jars filled with fruits like kumquats and figs aren’t just a homey touch. Using them is a practical technique. Flores infuses the white whiskey for a few days to weeks, combining herbs and fruits before mixing the final product up with select liqueurs.
The three cocktails I tried – Mark Up, Baseline, and Mistress – use Smooth Ambler, Prichard’s Lincoln County Lightning and Death’s Door white whiskeys, respectively, as the base for their infusions. Mark Up is like a spring tease, incorporating fresh muddled lime, yuzu juice and simple syrup for a total refreshing effect with a nice sourness at the end. Baseline features an infusion with roasted kumquats and star anise, to which Flores added lime, St. Germain liqueur, ginger beer and a sprinkle or two of Hum liqueur. The combination of the hibiscus in Hum and ginger is killer, with the kumquats giving it all an autumnal depth.
The third drink, inexplicably (perhaps) named Mistress, turned out to be my favorite. I’m a sucker for pyrotechnical garnishes, and this one features a torched dried fig. Here the white whiskey is infused with dried figs and rosemary, an interesting combination that seems to have a special significance to Flores. “Rosemary lives through the winter” he says, “it’s hardy.” Combined with lemon, simple syrup and Angostura bitters, it has a beautiful winter spice flavor. And that garnish has such a fragrant smokiness, like grilling in the snow around pine trees.
Seasonally infused white whiskey cocktails will be featured at ArtBar now and throughout the month of March. Afterwards, a new bar program will debut for the spring highlighting tequila, giving Flores another opportunity to work some creative cocktail magic.
ArtBar is located inside Art and Soul at the Liaison Capitol Hotel, 415 New Jersey Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20001. Closest Metro stop: Union Station (Red line). For more information call 202-393-7777.