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Getting Beyond ‘The Usual’ Drink

When heading out for a drink after a long day at the office, it is perhaps all too easy to fall into a routine when the bartender leans on the counter and asks to take your order. Instincts suddenly kick in and the thirsty bar-goer, perhaps tired from a day full of making difficult decisions, will go with “the usual.”

Jack and Coke. Vodka tonic. A bottle of Bud Light.

It’s called a comfort zone — you go with what you know.

And while it is admittedly hard to step outside of the drinking comfort zone, the Capitol Hill bar scene may be one of the best places to take the plunge and try something a little different. Within a short walk of any Congressional office, thirsty Hillites can easily find local bars that offer an assortment of specialty and signature drinks that are as unique and varied as the political opinions of Congressional leaders.

Perhaps one of the best and most convenient bars for Hillites to explore their drinking tastes is Charlie Palmer Steak, where friendly bartenders like Brad Gamble feel that “a cocktail is more than a drink, it’s a mood.”

Two of Charlie Palmer’s signature drinks are the Surrendré (a sweet mix of Ciroc vodka, pineapple juice, Grand Marnier and Chambord) and the Passion (a stronger combination of sparkling wine, Grand Marnier and passion fruit puree).

Selling at $10 apiece, the Surrendré has a potent pineapple flavor while the sparkling wine of the Passion tends to sink in more to the taste buds. And though these fruit-based cocktails might at first seem like an odd signature drink for a well-known steak house, both are tasty and refreshing, especially on a warm Washington evening.

For a drink with a bit more of a kick, Gamble recommends trying a “dangerous” Charlie Palmer mojito. The combination of freshly crushed mint leaves, rum, sugar syrup and a splash of sour mix creates a very agreeable, and definitely stronger, drink.

“Any of these drinks are for someone who is looking for something a little different,” Gamble said.

Besides signature cocktails, Charlie Palmer might also be a good place to start if you want to expand your wine horizons. With 3,500 bottles of American-made wines stored in a beautifully constructed wine cube, connoisseurs and curious drinkers can select from more than 750 varieties from 48 states. For those looking to try a variety of wines without paying an arm and a leg, Charlie Palmer offers one of the best wine-by-the-glass menus in the city with some 25 wines available and affordably priced from $7 to $24 a glass.

Two other classy locations to check out popular specialty drinks are Signatures, located just off the Hill on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, and the Capitol Hill staple Bistro Bis, on E Street Northwest.

Signatures, with its ever-evolving cocktail menu, might be one of the best places in the city to catch the latest in drink fashion. Two of the most popular drinks that have been available since the beginning of the summer are named in honor of those thirsty twenty-somethings who handle most of the grunt work of Capitol Hill: the Intern and the Hill Staffer.

Both drinks are “deceptively simple,” according to Signatures publicist Bronwyn Jacoby, and they sell for $10 apiece. The Hill Staffer is made with Makers Mark, Cointreau and lemonade and served with crushed candied lemon on the glass. The Intern is a mix of Malibu Rum, pineapple juice and a splash of grenadine that is garnished with a decorative pineapple wheel.

Over at Bistro Bis, the Bis Bellini is the specialty of the house. Made with peach nectar, chambord and Prosecco Italian sparkling wine, bartender Sam Harris called the Bellini “a popular night-cap drink.”

Served in a fluted glass, the bubbly light-pink drink with a definite peach tartness sells for $9.95.

“It’s more of a summery drink,” Harris said, adding that “more women get it than men, but not by a large amount. You’d be surprised.”

But unique cocktails and wines aren’t the only specialty of Capitol Hill — beer drinkers too can find watering holes that offer something a little different within walking distance of the Capitol Dome. The Flying Scotsman on Second Street Northwest sells a unique Scottish brew called the Belhaven Ale, and Finn MacCool’s on Barracks Row is one of only two places in D.C. where you can get a dark Beamish Irish Stout, made in Cork, Ireland.

But the best place to grab a unique beer on the Hill may be Capitol City Brewery.

With six to eight house beers on tap at any given time, this brew pub has been making its specialty beers on the premises since 1996. According to head brewer Mike McCarthy, each year the pub brews some 900 barrels of beer (which works out to about 28,000 gallons of beer a year). In any given year, McCarthy will brew about 25 different types of beer, changing his menu seasonally while always offering a few staples such as the light and fruity Capitol Kolsch and full-bodied Pale Rider Ale.

“On Capitol Hill there isn’t a place that focuses on beer besides us,” McCarthy said last week as he stood among his brewing vats describing the delicate brewing process. “In general, D.C. isn’t a mecca for beer culture … but Hill-type people know what they like and what they don’t like.”

McCarthy, who is happy to chat with customers about different beer styles and will even occasionally give tours of the house brewing process if you catch him when he’s not too busy, says that besides tourists and Hill visitors some of the bar’s most reliable customers are staffers and interns looking for cheap, good drinks. While pints at Capitol City cost from $4 to $4.50, that price drops to $2.50 every day from 4 to 7 p.m. and again from 10 p.m. to closing.

“Hill types know where to go to get the most bang for their buck,” observed McCarthy, who has been making the beers for Capitol City on the Hill for the past year and a half.

As the fall season approaches, McCarthy is getting ready to start brewing his fall specials — the Octoberfest special and Pumpkinator ale. Other beers currently on the menu include a fruity, lighter Heifeweizen and a dark and mild Prohibition Porter.

If you’ve never had a specialty beer from Capitol City Brewery, ask for the beer sampler, which includes five 4-ounce beers, and find a style that fits your taste.

Who knows, if you take a chance you might even find yourself a new “usual.”

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