From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com
When most of us visit a bar, we either order a familiar drink of choice – maybe an Old Fashioned or a Cosmopolitan – or we revert to the bar’s preset cocktail menu as a guide. But what happens if there is no menu and the bartender’s sole mission is to tailor a drink to your tastes?
Last Saturday night, I found myself grappling that question at the upstairs bar at the Gibson, the venerable U Street speakeasy owned by Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation, the Eighteenth Street Lounge and neighboring Marvin.
While the downstairs section of The Gibson offers a menu, the upstairs is a free-wheeling cocktail carnival. Like a painter’s canvas, the Gibson offers a safe space to explore what good drinking can and should be.
What makes a great cocktail? Well, not surprisingly, it’s similar to the elements that make great food – a balance of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter – and quality ingredients. In the case of a cocktail, that means top-shelf liquor, fresh-squeezed juices, and house-made bitters and infusions.
This is not the time or place to order everyday drinking fare. Let the types of flavors you prefer in foods inspire you. It’s also a good opportunity to choose a type of liquor that you might be curious about. And if you have a drink you cannot part with, it can be re-invented with a fresh palate. A good mixologist will be willing to collaborate with you to create something exciting and drinkable.
When the Gibson’s bartender asked me “what are you in the mood for?” I initially thought of my love of peaty scotches and asked him to create a cocktail with lots of smoke. He immediately pulled a bottle of Laphroig of the shelf, adding Chartreuse and simple syrup. The result was surprisingly light – reminiscent of smoky scotch without the bite. Perfect for a summer evening.
For my second round, I branched out of my comfort zone. Spotting a bottle of rye whiskey, I thought it might make an interesting base for something with sour notes. A discussion with the bartender ensued as he asked for more thoughts on what I was looking for. What came out the other end of this creative process was absolutely fantastic – ginger, champagne, lemon juice, and habanerno bitters adding a kaleidoscope of flavors to that rye base. I am still thinking about this drink days later; it was that good.
Not everyone is open to this type of experience. I watched some patrons around me struggle with what to order (one young man told the bartender: “I have no idea what I like. All I ever drink are gin and tonics”). I initially try to assist with ideas, but the problem is, a patron who can’t think outside the box is not going to appreciate these drinks regardless of how well they are made. If that is you, save your money and head to the local dive. For all others, don’t pass up the chance to allow some of the most talented mixologists in DC challenge your palate at a place like the Gibson.
The Gibson: The Details
- Where Am I Going: The Gibson, 2009 14the Street NW (black door just past the corner of 14th and U)
- When Am I Going: Open every night after 6 pm.
- Paycheck Pain: Specialty cocktails priced at $14.
- Say What? The atmosphere is cozy and quiet.
- What You’ll Be Drinking: Splurge on something creative.