Skip to content

Mug Shots: An Expert’s Adept Pour

Mixologists Savor the Art of The Perfect Sip

As the holiday party season gets underway, the bartender may be the most popular person in town.

[IMGCAP(1)]Though as area restaurants begin to offer cocktails like the “Jealous Wife” (available at Firefly) and the “Barefoot Russian” (from Circle Bistro), slinging drinks has become a bit more complicated. Gone are the days when bartenders spent most of their time pouring wine or beer, or shaking up a simple martini. Today, it takes an adventurous spirit and a flare for the creative to be a truly great bartender.

“Perfecting a drink is all a matter of personal taste and making sure that your concept of perfection is something that is going to compliment your final destination,” Cory Eckstein of Brasserie Beck said via e-mail.

Eckstein, who created the cocktail menu at the Belgian restaurant, is part of a new wave of bartenders who are increasingly referred to as “mixologists.” Part bartender, part chef, a mixologist is responsible for coming up with concoctions that please the palate and take the edge off of a rough day.

The trendy term, however, has its skeptics.

“I will confess to having some difficulty with the word ‘mixologist’ or ‘mixology,’” Scott Worsham of Art and Soul said in an e-mail. “It feels a bit pretentious. A great bartender is a great bartender.”

Worsham first began bartending at a British pub in Sonoma County, Calif., in 1988. Today he acts as assistant general manager at the newly opened Art and Soul on Capitol Hill, where he is responsible for a cocktail menu that includes such drinks as the “Margarita, Perfected” (Patron Silver Tequila, fresh-squeezed lime juice, Fee Brothers Orange Bitters and lime zest) and the “Rickey Ricardo” (Plymouth Gin, fresh lime juice and cilantro simple syrup).

Each bartender, of course, has his own process of creating a drink. Some start from scratch, while others take a classic cocktail and try to add a fun new twist. Worsham prefers the latter.

“While the wild, new inventions can be fun, they’re invariably not something I can drink more than one of,” he said. “Whereas if you take a classic drink like a Manhattan or a Sazerac or a Rickey, you could drink those all night — if one was so inclined.”

Eckstein agreed that he turns to classics when he wants to get creative.

“This menu is meant to compliment the food and business so when creating these drinks, a twist on the classics seemed more fitting,” he said. “Creating the twist is just a matter of combining flavors that you think may work well together.”

Dave Anderson of Oyamel in Penn Quarter said his own ideas for drinks can come from anywhere. “It could be extra fruit that we have in the kitchen, on an exotic Mexican fruit, liquor or tequila that we were able to find from a supplier, anything,” he said.

After bartenders pick the ingredients, they have to determine whether the tastes actually work. There are two keys to doing this correctly. First, all bartenders advise imbibers to take tiny sips — the goal is to taste, not to get intoxicated. Second, it’s important to have a few people on hand to decide what changes need to be made.

“All of the drinks here at Oyamel have been a team effort,” Anderson wrote in an e-mail. “Even if I don’t agree [with a suggestion] or am unsure, I will try it. These ideas may lead me in another direction that will make the cocktail even better.”

While chefs go to culinary school, mixologists do a different training route: experience, experience, experience. While mixology schools do exist, many bartenders learn their craft through years of on-the-job training. For instance, John Eddleman of the Renaissance M Street Hotel got his start in bartending at Disney World.

“I was the bar cart guy on the golf course at the then-Disney Inn,” he said in an e-mail, adding that he first began mixing drinks as part of his pledge duties at his college fraternity. “What I love about it is the camaraderie I’m allowed to have with guests. Making people smile and forget life’s challenges for a short while is rewarding.”

Eddleman said he began creating drinks of his own because he didn’t know the recipes for many standard drinks. Over time, he grew to love experimenting with different spirits and now has a “full bar lab” at home.

Anderson says much of his knowledge behind the bar comes from observing those around him at Oyamel. “The knowledge of the people working around me is incredible,” he said. “I learn something new almost everyday. If I ever have a question about flavors, cooking or how to get a more consistent result out of something, it’s easy to find the answer.”

In the end, Eddleman said, mixology isn’t as hard as it seems.

“The art of creating cocktails is something that anyone can do, if you are not afraid to be adventurous!” Eddleman wrote. “And remember that friends will love to be the testers!! The response is warm, the creative outlet is never-ending and the result is delicious — 99% of the time.”