It’s a Thursday afternoon around 4:30, and a long line of lucky people not at work is already queueing up outside Mockingbird Hill. I watch people walking down the street, pointing out the bars’ cherry blossom-painted windows and peering inside to see a virtual world come to life while commenting to their companions “check it out--this is the place I was telling you about.” Looks like Drink Company is at it again.
On the heels of the wildly successful reboot of their Christmas-themed bar Miracle on 7th Street, followed by a pop-up that paid homage to Netflix’s 1980s-set science fiction-slash-horror series Stranger Things, the company that runs Shaw bars Mockingbird Hill, Eat the Rich, Southern Efficiency and Columbia Room (including partners Derek Brown, Angie Fetherston and JP Fetherston) recently launched a bar inspired by D.C.’s annual festival of the arboreal gifts from Japan in 1912. Dubbed Cherry Blossom Pub (hashtag: #CherryBlossomPub) and running through April 15, each bar dedicate its space to an iconic Japanese theme. Southern Efficiency is awash in Japanese art and design elements including pink and white cherry blossoms by D.C. artist Maggie O’Neill, a collection of maneki-neko (Japan’s famous lucky “waving cats”) and a chandelier adorned with origami cranes and draped in pink and white silk ribbons. Mockingbird Hill plays the nostalgia card with an ode to one of Japan’s most famous pop culture exports--Super Mario Bros.--with animatronic mushrooms, piranha plants disappearing into green tunnels, glowing mystery boxes hanging from the ceiling and other elements from the Nintendo game that’s stirred people to press start + A since the mid-1980s (an instruction, by the way, that’s also the name of one of the current drinks.)
I sat down with senior bar manager Paul Taylor to talk about how the latest concept came about, while Instagram-loving imbibers took photos with the eclectic and colorful backdrops. We grabbed two stools in the back bar--a special area reserved for the game’s super villain, King Koopa--to taste through most of the drinks on the menu, which took around a month and a half to create and source all of the ingredients. One drink, I Call Yoshi!, a fresh and aromatic sip with sake, Midori, Green Chartreuse, melon and cucumber, is topped with a matcha marshmallow made by Hello Kitty; the bar initially ordered 4,000 of them, which won’t be enough for the bar’s full run. Another sip, It’s A Me, Amario, with sweet vermouth, spicy ginger ale and Don Ciccio & Figli Carciofo Aperitivo, is served with a red- and white-straw with a black cardboard moustache attached that as you sip, you appear to be wearing; the bar all but cleared out a Midwest Etsy shop owner’s inventory.
“The menu has depth and complexity; we want people to leave saying they had fun,” Taylor said to me. Not surprisingly, the cocktails lean heavy on Japanese ingredients including Suntory Toki Japanese Whisky, sake and Midori, and are often served in authentic glassware including a teapot for the communal Amontillado Flower Power, with Amontillado Sherry, brandy, rum and clarified milk and a white ceramic Maneki-neko cat for the Neko Colada, made with miso-infused rhum agricole, falernum, coconut and citrus. (Seventy cats were stolen during the bar’s opening week, necessitating staff to now hold onto the driver’s license of anyone who orders one.)
There are surprises on the menu, too, like As They Say in Brooklyn, Bonsai, which Taylor has deemed the least ordered drink so far. Its combination of rustic Armagnac (versus its more polished cousin Cognac), banana liqueur, sesame-infused orgeat, lemon and black lemon bitters has an enticing savory flavor and a silky mouthfeel. And the King Koopa Cup, a Whisky Sour riff, gets its base from Johnny Smoking Gun, a corn and rye whiskey from Detroit that’s crafted to compliment the umami found in Japanese cuisine’s pork and fish broths; it also gets a touch of earthiness from genmaicha tea--sometimes referred to as “popcorn tea” as it’s mixed with brown rice kernels that tend to pop during cooking.
All cocktails are served at each of the pop-ups three bars (a thousand or so per evening). But for guests finding themselves scratching their heads at the ingredients and flavor combinations, the well-trained staff (dressed either in Mario or Luigi overalls on the Mockingbird side, or in D.C.or Japanese attire in the Southern Efficiency cherry blossom side) are ready and able to help navigate the menu, by discovering what spirit or cocktail category penchant someone has and then suggesting accordingly. Taylor told me that while 80 percent of the pop up’s staff is temporary, all underwent three days of intense training plus received ample training materials before finding themselves behind the stick.
“Drinks are designed to span a spectrum of flavors and broaden the demographics of who is walking through the door,” Taylor told me. “We want to connect you with an experience and our personality.” After the last cherry blossom has fallen into the Tidal Basin (which may be earlier than expected due to this late-season snowstorm), #CherryBlossomPub will still be bringing a taste of D.C.’s annual spring tradition to Shaw. Drink it in.
Cherry Blossom Pub runs through April 15 each day from 5 P.M. until closing. Entrance is at Mockingbird Hill, 1843 7th Street NW, 202.316.9396. Reservations are not accepted.