Two weeks ago, I had the chance to visit Washington, DC while on a business trip. I didn’t have a lot of time while I was in the area, and I needed to get up early every morning, but I still wanted to get out and try at least one or two of the many cocktail bars that I had heard about in the area. David Wondrich’s write-up on the best bars in Washington, DC last summer made The Columbia Room sound like a good first stop, and I was fortunate enough to be able to get a reservation. I arrived a bit early for my reservation though, and I also needed to eat, so I visited another bar from the same owners that is just down the street: Hogo.
Most people have probably not heard the word “Hogo” before and have no idea what it means. At least in cocktail and rum circles, it refers to the funkiness that is unique to rum spirits. The amount of hogo varies across different varieties and brands of rum, and if you want to better understand what this flavor is about then I suggest you try Smith & Cross Navy Strength Jamaican Rum. Now that you know what the word means, I’m sure it is apparent that this is rum bar, and like most rum bars it has a tiki influence.
Hogo is not a tiki bar though, at least not in the same way as most tiki bars that I’ve visited. For starters, the menu seems to be entirely original cocktails and most of these cocktails appear to be constructed using classic rather than tiki principles. I see multiple sour-style cocktails and, at least as written on the menu, it appears that most of the drinks use only four or five ingredients (many tiki drinks use many more). How unusual for a rum bar not to serve a Navy Grog or Zombie!
To be clear, originality is a good thing and I liked what I tried at Hogo. Because I was heading to the Columbia Room immediately afterward, and I knew that I would be served three cocktails as a part of their tasting menu, I only tried one cocktail at Hogo: the La Rosa de La Isla. This was refreshing sour-style cocktail that brought the flavors of the rum forward nicely. Exactly what I wanted as an apertif.
After eating and trying a drink at Hogo, I headed over to The Columbia Room, which is a speakeasy-style bar in the back of another bar, Passenger. I chose to do the tasting menu, which features three cocktails that I’m told change weekly and are influenced by the seasons and the availability of various ingredients. It was a Tuesday night, and apparently a large party that was supposed to be seated at the same time as me cancelled their reservation. So, surprisingly, it was just me and the two bartenders for most of the hour and half that I was here.
The cocktail that opened the tasting menu is pictured above and was called the Mason-Dixon. This was definitely a winter-inspired cocktail featuring Cruzan Blackstrap rum, apple cider, and sorghum syrup. The rum has a very strong maple flavor, which paired very nicely with the cider and the earthy flavors of the sorghum syrup. Next fall, I definitely need to get myself some of this syrup.
I didn’t record as much information about the remaining cocktails. The second cocktail, which I forgot to take a picture of, was called Maine Remembers and is a variant of the classic cocktail Remember the Maine. This cocktail used Vieux Pontarlier absinthe and opened with a surprising bitterness and had a sweet finish.
I only have images of my third cocktail from the tasting menu and a fourth that I ordered ala carte. For the third, I asked for a Fernet cocktail that used Fernet Angelico. For some reason this cocktail included a large ice cube in a cocktail glass, and while different I can say for certain that this is not a good idea. It makes the cocktail tricky to drink as you get to the end. I asked for a sherry cocktail to finish, which included Cynar, Linie aquavit, amontillado sherry, and Fee Brothers peach bitters.
The best part of being at the bar without any other customers was that I was able to get informed opinions on where I should visit the next day on my last night in the city. They suggested a number of places, including Barmini, Rogue 24, and Mockingbird Hill (a sherry bar operated by the same owners as Passenger, Hogo, and The Columbia Room). Barmini in particular was given a strong recommendation, so I decided to visit there the next night.
Barmini was definitely the right choice. First, it’s important to know that Barmini is the bar attached to Minibar, a very upscale molecular gastronomy restaurant. As a result, the bar has access to a lot of unique equipment that is not typical, and they make use of this to make a variety of interesting cocktails (coincidentally, the brand new Juniper & Ivy restaurant in San Diego has a similar situation). The food menu is also very interesting. If you have the opportunity, make sure to stop here.
One of the other things that makes Barmini unique is its concept. Barmini is designed to look exactly like you’re sitting in a friend’s modern kitchen drinking at the counter. It is bright, everything is white, and the bottles are stored on shelves around an island in the middle of the bar. I haven’t seen another bar like this except at my house, and my kitchen doesn’t look nearly this good.
I tried four cocktails at Barmini, starting with the Veruka Salt (pictured above on the left). This cocktail is a great example of what is possible when you have a great kitchen behind your bar. It features a peanut rum, which was described to me as being created by mixing rum with a peanut purée and then redistilling the result. I’m not sure that’s an accurate description, because it sounds illegal, but nonetheless the result is an absolutely amazing cocktail. It a cocktail created in the sour style, also featuring pineapple juice. The pineapple and peanut flavors pair amazingly. The second cocktail I tried was a variant on the Fernet Flip called the Palermo. I don’t have any additional notes on this cocktail, but it was good.
My third cocktail was a variant on the Three Bitters Cocktail created by Derek Brown, one of the owners of the previously mentioned Passenger, Hogo, and Columbia Room bars. I was told this version incorporated equal parts Gran Classico, Fernet Branca, Amaro Montenegro, and orange juice. Having made it myself since then, I’m not sure if that is quite the right formulation, but the version I got here was great. I finished up with a classic Sherry Cobbler (pictured above on the right).
I took pictures of the food and snack menu at Barmini, which I’ve included below:
Overall, I was very impressed with the three bars that I visited. I’m really looking forward to returning to DC at some point in the future, so that I can try a few of the other places that were suggested. I’d like to thank all of the bartenders who served me, and also apologize that I didn’t remember their names to include in this post.