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
I have been itching to visit Black Whiskey, 14th Street’s newest watering hole, since its opening in early May, and I finally got my chance one rainy night this past week. As I sampled a shot of bourbon at the upstairs bar, I realized that every assumption I had about the place was wrong.
Wrong Assumption #1: Black Whiskey is owned by the Bethesda-based Black Restaurant Group, owners of BlackSalt Restaurant, Pearl Dive Oyster Palace/Black Jack, Black Market Bistro, Black’s Bar & Kitchen, and Addie’s. Nope — actually, despite the “Black” in the name, Black Whiskey is the brainchild of the team behind Kushi — Ari Kushimoto and Darren Lee Norris. The friendly bartender taking my whiskey order set me straight right away on this basic fact.
Wrong Assumption #2: Black Whiskey is a typical DC whiskey destination bar. I admit, I had expected Black Whiskey to resemble Jack Rose, Againn or Bourbon both in atmosphere and in breadth of whiskey selection. Wrong again. Black Whiskey has a smaller, more intimate approach, and — ready for this — it doesn’t even have a whiskey menu!
You have to either rely on the bartender to make a recommendation or have very good eyesight to read the labels on the bottles on the wall behind the bar. It’s a little frustrating not to be able to peruse the selection in an easy to review format, but the non-structured, free-spirited approach seems to be part of the vibe that Kushimoto and Norris are trying to create at Black Whiskey. Still, I wouldn’t mind a menu.
Wrong Assumption #3: A night at Black Whiskey will set you back a pretty penny. I have this assumption about all whiskey-focused bars, because – well, let’s just state the obvious – good scotch and bourbon are an expensive habit. But hats off to Black Whiskey for keeping its prices at reasonable levels. Most of the shots I sampled were between $7 and $8, which is not bad for a good bourbon. What is hugely annoying, however, is that you have to ask the bartender for the prices because (again) there is no menu to guide you in that department.
So I walked away with the sense that Black Whiskey, at least in its infancy, is catering to a more casual young party crowd rather than the moneyed whiskey aficionado set. Not that this is a business problem, as the Black Whiskey appears to be doing quite well in its first six weeks. The atmosphere is vibrant, and there is no shortage of customers, even on a rainy Monday night.
Note that the downstairs space (capacity of 250) is still under construction, but marked for a “concert venue and gallery space.” The team also plans to build an outdoor deck addition to the top floor for expanded dining options. Currently, Black Whiskey serves a limited menu of carved meats and bar bites designed to soak up the alcohol, but a more food-centric approach may be in the bar’s future.
At least, I assume that is the case as Norris is known as a first rate chef, having worked at the Oval Room, Red Sage, and Ridgewells Catering, and was named Washingtonian’s 2011 Restaurateur of the year. However, I remind myself not to make any more assumptions. Black Whiskey will be what it wants to be, never mind my expectations.
Black Whiskey is at 1410 14th Street NW. It is open Sunday through Thursday from 5 pm to 1:45 am; Friday and Saturday from 5 am to 2:45 am; and closed Mondays.