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What do top bartenders drink when they’re not shaking and stirring for guests? The answer might surprise you. Rather than turn to one of the inventive concoctions they sling behind the stick, they are known to throw back decidedly less crafty creations with simpler--and often, maligned--spirits, proving that a drink doesn’t always need to have a laundry list of ingredients or esoteric technique to be appealing and delicious. (Images: Courtesy McClellan’s Retreat, Central Michel Richard and McClellan's Retreat, respectively)

D.C. bartenders spill their guilty pleasure cocktails

What do top bartenders drink when they’re not shaking and stirring for guests? The answer might surprise you. Rather than turn to one of the inventive concoctions they sling behind the stick, they are known to throw back decidedly less crafty creations with simpler--and often, maligned--spirits, proving that a drink doesn’t always need to have a laundry list of ingredients or esoteric technique to be appealing and delicious.

Riffing on the notion of these so-called “guilty pleasure” cocktails, the staff of McClellan’s Retreat in Dupont Circle are taking a hard look this month at this cocktail category, with a themed drinks menu of the same name. Inspired by the fact that March is smack in the middle of Lent and the month we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day (when guilty pleasures like Irish Car Bombs, Bailey’s Jell-O shots and cheap green beer abound), the menu that ribs staff members about some of the drinks they like is also a lot of fun, says general manager and bartender Brian Nixon.

“Generally, I feel that a 'guilty pleasure drink' is one that you don’t want your friends to see you drinking,” declares Nixon. Take the often-made-fun-of-and-usually-overly-sweet Chocolate Martini--called the Brian on McClellan’s menu. “I like a Chocolate Martini on occasion, [but] I wouldn't normally admit that,” he says. “The one we're offering is clear though, so you could be drinking it and enjoying all that silky, beautiful chocolate flavor and no one would be the wiser.” Royal Seal--the vodka he uses, has a hint of bergamot that nicely plays off the crème de cacao and the house made dry cacao syrup. The Katie Jane elevates the played out Rum and Coke with local One Eight Vodka, which tempers the sweetness from the Borschi Liqueur, a bittersweet Italian spirit. “To still get all that delicious fruity richness without being sweet was a challenge, but so worthwhile when we were done,” he admits. Next up for the bar? A list of prank drinks inspired by April Fools’ Day--think Vodka Old Fashioneds, Mezcal Naked & Famous, and a Between the Sheets with Rujero.

We asked other area bartenders to weigh in on their guilty pleasure sips:

Juan Coronado (Co-Owner, Colada Shop)
“The Daiquiri is my ‘go-to’ cocktail, but if I spot a Miami Vice on the menu [a rum-based Strawberry Daiquiri / Piña Colada blended and layered drink], there is no way I wouldn’t order it!”

Adam Bernbach (Bar Director, Fat Baby Restaurants: 2 Birds 1 Stone, Estadio, Doi Moi, Proof)
“I never feel truly 'guilty' about anything I'm drinking. All that said, it's definitely a Spiced Rum & coke. I really, really like Coca-Cola ... The ‘guilty’ part here is that I have for the most part cut out soda from my diet. The rare Spiced Rum & Coke is the exceptional treat that I have every few months.”

Sarah Rosner (Lead Bartender, Radiator)
“On a summer day off, my favorite thing to drink at home are Smashes: a simple and fresh combination of citrus, sugar, herbs and a spirit. I’ll head down to my garden and grab whatever fresh herbs catch my fancy. Pineapple sage, purple basil, lemon verbena, and Kentucky colonel mint are among my favorites. Then I’ll grab some lemons or limes, simple syrup, and usually gin or rye and shake up a smash. It’s great for home because you can use any combo of sugars (honey, agave, maple syrup), citrus (limes, lemons, grapefruit, oranges) and spirits. In the wintertime, I always have a tub of spiced butter in my fridge for hot buttered rum. Hot buttered rum is not the easiest thing to make and is hard to find in many bars. It’s so yummy and so decadent, I only want to drink it curled up on my couch anyway.”

Rico Wisner (Bar Manager, For Rent)
“Mine is a simple Gin & Soda. My good friends over at Service Bar even put ‘The Rico’ on their menu, which specifically calls for 2 oz. of Tanqueray, soda water and 2 limes. It's my guilty pleasure cocktail because I can get it anywhere, isn't complicated, and anybody can make it -- as long as they don't mess up and put tonic in it.”

Andrew Larsen (Bar Manager, The Royal)
"Tough one. I do really like a true, well made Cosmo. Vodka, fresh lime, fresh cranberry, dry Curaçao. No added sugar, just tart and delicious. Why is it a guilty pleasure? Sex and the City made it seem like a man couldn't enjoy a pink cocktail, which is false! And after the show popularized the drink, some bars were making them with sugary, artificial ingredients, giving the Cosmo a bad rap.”

Phil Clark (Lead Bartender, Brabo)
"A dirty little secret: most bartenders, myself included, hardly ever drink cocktails during their downtime. Sure, when you're visiting a friend's bar, or a place you've heard great things about, you want to pay your respects and order something from the menu to see what they're up to; but too often, asking someone else to make drinks for you can quickly devolve into the realm of peeking-under-the-hood shop-talk that makes you feel like you're back at work. When I'm looking to unwind, my happy place is a shot of mezcal and an ice-cold Pacifico Mexican Beer chaser. It remains special to me because that first sip is always a blast back to drinking beers and eating plates of fresh ceviche on the palm-tree lined, sun-drenched streets of Tulum with my wife…not a bad escape after a long shift."

Gabriella Toleda (Head Bartender, The Oval Room)
“Pêche Café, with Patron Café, Giffard Pêche, cream and smoked coconut sugar, is as delicious and decadent as they get. I remember years ago shooting Patron XO every time I'd go out. Not something I'm proud of, but drinking the Peche Cafe brings back happy memories.”

Brian Zipin (Wine & Beverage Director, Central Michel Richard)
“The Sparkling Melon Ball. I love beach cocktails and tropical drinks. I can’t drink more than one or two at a time, but they are amazing and perfect for a hot day in the sun…or for those times you wish you were sitting in the sand but can’t get there.”

Heather Coleman, Pete Boucher, Chase Richeson and Morgan Barlow (Bartender, Red’s Table)
"We all enjoy an oldie but goodie: The Mind Eraser! This is an easy drink, but must be done in order with equal parts Kahlua, Vodka, and topped with club soda. Do not stir the ingredients. You want to get a straw, toast to great friendships, and use your straw to take up this tasty drink as quickly as possible."

Kevin Tangonan (Bartender, BLT Steak)
“The Strawberry Mojito is a guilty pleasure cocktail because it's a pain to make--I always feel guilty ordering one because I know they are time consuming. The combination of sweet and tart is so refreshing, especially outside on a patio.”

Terrence Blowe (Bartender, District Distilling)
“My guilty pleasure cocktail is the world renowned Aperol Spritz! I prefer my Aperol Spritz with little to no soda, the finest secondary fermented glera grape, (Prosecco), in a red wine glass with the largest grapefruit twist possible!”

Sparkling Melon Ball
Recipe courtesy of Brian Zipin, Central Michel Richard

  • 1 ¼ oz. Midori
  • 1 ¼ oz. Stolichnaya Orange Vodka
  • 4 oz. fresh orange juice
  • 2 oz. Prosecco
  • Orange wedge, for garnish

Fill a large glass with ice. Add all ingredients except garnish and stir with a bar spoon. Garnish with the orange wedge.

Brian
Recipe courtesy of McClellan’s Retreat

  • 1 ½ oz. Royal Seal Vodka
  • ¾ oz. Giffard Crème de Cacao
  • ½ oz. dry cacao syrup

Add all ingredients to a mixing glass, add ice and stir until well-chilled. Strain into a coupe glass.

Katie Jane
Recipe courtesy of McClellan’s Retreat

  • 1 oz. One Eight Distilling Vodka
  • ½ oz. Borschi Liqueur
  • ¼ oz. Nux Alpina Walnut Liqueur
  • ¼ oz. lemon juice
  • ¼ oz. mulled simple syrup
  • Club soda, to top
  • Lemon wedge, for garnish

Build in a double Old Fashioned glass, add ice and stir. Top with club soda and garnish with the lemon wedge.


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