Value Added: The Great Cocktail Hunt

By Thomas Heath

My three vices in life (at least the ones I am willing to talk about) are fireworks, cigars and cocktails. And swanky hotels. Oh, and politically incorrect food like foie gras, and heart stoppers like sweetbreads. Butter. Traveling first class. Sharp hats. Okay, so there are a lot more than three.

I gave up fireworks after nearly blowing myself up celebrating Fourth of July. I am down to about one cigar a month (I smoke a house brand from Nat Sherman's in New York). Call it a concession to my health.

But I still search for the Great American Cocktail. I love a well-crafted potable. Sometimes I love them too much.

My cocktail search recently took me to Bourbon, a restaurant/bar in the District's trendy Adams Morgan neighborhood, where several skilled "mixologists" were holding a seminar on how to make holiday drinks. I watched these masters blend such classics as a Tom & Jerry, a Holiday Mojito and Baltimore Egg Nog, but the real take-away was an introduction to a cadre of young men and women bartenders creating complex and original drinks at several destination bars around the Washington region.

Todd Thrasher
, 38, is considered the godfather of local bartenders. He owns a part of Restaurant Eve in Old Town, where he bartends. He and partners also own PX, his creation on King Street that seats 32. Eight seats at the bar are for walk-ins; the rest must be reserved.

Thrasher charges $11 to $19 for a cocktail.

"My drinks are expensive," he said.

For that, you get home-made cola for your rum and Coke. Quinine is shipped in weekly from a health food store in Carson City, Nev., for his tonic. Thrasher even makes his own ginger ale. You get the idea. It goes without saying there are no canned juices or canned mixers. PX's bitters -- the cocktail equivalent of a spice rack -- are homemade and plentiful, including a special cherry bitters.

You also get more expensive booze. He pays $24 for a bottle of high-end gin, compared with $6.25 for the cheap stuff. He calls PX, which has been open two years, the cocktail version of fine dining but without the expensive overhead.

Cocktails normally have high profit margins. That means if you charge $6 for a drink in your average bar, you make $5 or $5.50 after the cost of the alcohol and the ingredients.
My question was this: How do places like PX make money when they are spending more on ingredients and ambiance, and employ craft bartenders?

Thrasher's answer: hammering down his costs. His experience enables him to make homemade tonic water in half the time it took five years ago. Same with the cola and everything else. He shares his mortgage with the profitable Eamonn's fish-and-chips restaurant downstairs, which he also partly owns.

Thrasher says PX is profitable. "I don't want a hobby," he said.

PX is open 208 days a year. It fills up its 32 seats on Wednesday and Thursdays, and averages 90 customers each on Friday and Saturday. At about $25 spent per customer, I estimate PX is grossing over $300,000 a year. Thrasher said profits are rolled into a management company owned by investors.

Thrasher said he is not getting rich. He gets paid a salary and owns a piece of Restaurant Eve as well as PX. That said, his income is less than $100,000 a year. But, he is doing what he loves and building something that he hopes might someday produce a windfall.

He is part of the cocktail couture renaissance, led by places like the Pegu Club and Death & Co. in New York. These modern-day speakeasies are arriving in Washington. It's the distilled spirits version of artisanal bread bakers, specialty cheesemakers or micro-breweries.

We are talking here about local bartenders such as Thrasher, whose mean Grog costs $12. Consultant Derek Brown gets behind the bar at The Gibson on 14th Street in the District, where you can sip a London Special and get a primer on the great drinks of New Orleans. Owen Thomson of Bourbon will mix up Manhattans with William Heaven Hill bourbon at $55 a glass.

Like master chefs, these craftsmen take themselves and their cocktails seriously. No "fake-tinis" where you throw something in a martini glass and call it a cocktail.

"Cocktails are America's original culinary pursuit," said Thomson, 27. "It's a lost art form. I would like to think that what we are doing is to bring back the simple art form."

PX and The Gibson allow only as many customers as can be seated. No standing. Call ahead for reservations. You walk into The Gibson (if you can find it; there is no sign) and if there is room among the 48 seats, you can sit down. If not, leave your number or e-mail and they will buzz you when someone leaves. This is high art. The Gibson uses Kold Draft ice cubes, which are harder and larger than most, allowing the bartender to shake or stir the cocktail harder, which mixes the ingredients without diluting them.

Ambiance is key. Eric Hilton sank around $200,000 into The Gibson, which opened a month ago. The interior was hand-built with lots of woodworking. The bar is covered with embossed leather.

"It's custom-built for intimacy, to look like a place befitting someone coming in and spending good money on a good cocktail," said Hilton, who also owns The Marvin nearby and Eighteenth Street Lounge.

Hilton said he hopes to break even or make a slight monthly profit on The Gibson; his and his partners' usual goal is to make their capital investment back in a year.

"The high-end cocktail bar is a particular labor of love," said Hilton, whose Gibson is named for a local jazz pianist who passed away. "It's not like a dive bar where you pack them in and sell cheap beer and make a lot of money. This is not churn and burn."

The churn at Bourbon is making Bill Thomas a ton of money.

Thomas, 38, comes from a Prince George's County family that has been in the restaurant business for more than a century.

Bourbon has fancy and tasty cocktails, but it doesn't aspire to be a speakeasy like PX and The Gibson. It has 180 brands of whiskey, and its head of operations, Thomson, has created a lively cocktail menu based on American classics like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned.

Owner Thomas (not Thomson) gave me a detailed rundown of his revenues and costs. He has one big advantage over the speakeasies: Bourbon is less selective about the number of customers it allows in. He also makes a lot of money selling run-of-the-mill drinks. There's more money in the masses.

"You always make the most on vodka-soda, vodka-tonic, vodka-orange juice," said Thomas. "You charge $5 and make $4.50."

The Adams Morgan Bourbon (the original is in Glover Park) grossed around $120,000 in November. Thomas pays himself a salary of $10,000 to $20,000 a month. He has his mother and brother on the payroll. He has made enough to buy two row houses nearby, one of which has four rental units. He also bought some commercial space on Florida Avenue. Thomas took $150,000 in profits out recently to open a third bar on Wisconsin Avenue.

It hasn't been a completely smooth ride. Thomas spent hundreds of thousands of dollars -- and passed on salary for several years -- to buy out a partner who disagreed with his business plan.
In the meantime, Thomson labors at turning normal customers into cocktail aficionados.

"I want the customer to pay the same amount as elsewhere, but I want to give them something better for it," Thomson said. "So at $13 or $14, I am going to give you something better. Fresh juice. Original bitters. It's not like they are unwilling to pay $12 for a drink. But they want something more for their money."

They want great American cocktails.

By Terri Rupar  |  January 4, 2009; 8:00 PM ET  | Category:  Value Added
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I enjoyed this piece and immediately felt a strong desire to experience the perfect Martini. At the same time it does bring across the incredible growing disparities between rich and poor (now subsumed into the desperate remains of our 'middle class' for obvious political reasons)

Headed for Hell in a Handbasket my mother observed during the Great Depression, which I experienced and recall. But hopefully with a cocktail to remember this time.

Posted by: SisyphusinSoho | January 5, 2009 9:33 AM

I live in New Jersey and serendipitously came across an establishment that serves refined cocktails for those willing to pay $12 each (sometimes $20 for the truly rarified). Initially there was sticker shock as I, like most I would presume, was accustomed to rail drinks at about half the price; my skepticism and thirst for something different were quenched with my first French 75. I now routinely frequent the establishment and enjoy such treats as the Gin-Gin Mule, the Nixon, and the Bees Knees. With seasonal, fresh fruit being mainstays of these concoctions the menu often brings a new beverage and occasionally a pleasant surprise. If you are ever in New Brunswick stop by Catherine Lombardi's and peruse the menu; after a sample I hope you will agree that Jersey produces more than just parodied accents.

Posted by: nictsiz | January 5, 2009 2:56 PM

Sounds nice and quaint. Maybe, one day, we'll be able to enjoy fine cannabis in such an establishment?

Posted by: rcvinson64 | January 5, 2009 3:28 PM

In New Haven, CT, 116 Crown, a great bar/restaurant opened about a year ago. If you like inventive drinks and are up here, I recommend it. You can see a menu online at The decor is beautiful too.

Posted by: kstickler | January 5, 2009 3:31 PM

Love love love Bourbon. Another new favorite is the bar at Founding Farmers (20th and Penn.) - their passion for local and organic products makes it way to their bar and into homemade infusions for their cocktails. Get there early, though - it's always packed...

Posted by: lawgirlguru | January 5, 2009 3:35 PM

The idea of the custom drink mixes is great. Making one's own cola, ginger ale, and other flavor-building opens up a lot of opportunity for great art.

Unfortunately, this article is written without any epicureal sense at all. The reporter doesn't describe any bouquets, or analysis of the effect of the artisanal drink mixing on actual flavor.

And when the bartender mixes everything himself, that would be an artisanal drink, not "home-made" (unless he were doing it in your kitchen). What about this line: "No "fake-tinis" where you throw something in a martini glass and call it a cocktail." What does that mean? The level of articulateness is about that of someone who got most of his drinking experience in college, but didn't go to enough frat parties to become drink-savvy.

There is so much information about the seating, pricing, business history, but little that reveals how these things might taste versus any Pepsi-and-rail-booze drink.

The level of reporting in the WP, when it comes to anything having to do with food & drink, is really way below its professional standards. It's as if these food & drink articles were spit out by aspiring political reporters in-between politico press conferences.

If papers in cities like Cleveland and Chicago can dig up some fairly culturally-sensually articulate critics and commentators, why can't the Post?

Posted by: AsperGirl | January 5, 2009 3:43 PM

Anxious to try these DC-based places.

For those in NYC, Tailor in SoHo is a terrific example of this type of re-emerging craft mixology.

In Boston: Drink, Barbara Lynch's new space in the Fort Point Channel neighborhood of South Boston is tremendous, as well (no drink menus - order a drink based on your favorite tastes, colors, or even your mood.)

Posted by: MattyG510 | January 5, 2009 3:44 PM

There's a great new cocktail bar on the Hill at 14th Street and Penn SE called Wisdom. Very tasty drinks.

Posted by: mlc5556 | January 5, 2009 3:44 PM

It is completely typical of the DC fauna to WASTE money on overpriced mediocre cocktails in a ritzy lounge in order to feel important.

I have no doubt I'm missing absolutely NOTHING by avoiding these people and their haunts.

I'll pour a fine whiskey at home, thanks, and I'll save the $4.00 upcharge for "atmosphere".

Posted by: onestring | January 5, 2009 4:16 PM

Rather pretentious. Calling ahead to get a seat at a bar that doesn't have a sign, oh puhlese. A good drink can be had at many places. Even at home. We read Eric Felten's column in the Wall Street Journal every week and enjoy that stories that go with the featured cocktail. Some of his drinks we try; sometimes we just enjoy the column. One point Felten made a few weeks ago is that a good bar has a professional bar tender with a wide and deep knowledge of cocktails. He cares about his craft. His goal is to make a good drink for the pleasure of his customer; I don't recall breaking the bank as a requirement. This column is not about cocktails but about people who need to one-up. It's the show, the cost, the exclusivity. Me, I'd rather sit at a comfortable bar and enjoy a good cocktail with my fellow travelers.

Posted by: sue1047 | January 5, 2009 4:24 PM

America's alcoholic past time doesn't have anything to do with $20 drinks. That is outrageous. Men mixed their drinks with ice, if they were lucky, not imported fruit juice.

If you have to spend $20 to tolerate a drink, you are drinking for the wrong reasons. The cutting edge of American drinking is in people brewing beer in their own kitchen and in the myriad of micro brews out there that can knock the socks off any Imbev beer. It's in America reacquainting itself with the terms “regular” and “neighborhood bar.” There is sophistication to be had, but I’m begging you, don’t pay $20 for a drink.

Posted by: Bosco136 | January 5, 2009 4:29 PM

I enjoy a fine drink as much as anyone, and even on my quite limited income wouldn't hesitate to budget for an evening at one of these places every now and then...

...but mentioning "serious" cocktails on the main page of the Post under a photo of a guy wearing a ridiculous ruffled shirt isn't the best way to set the tone.

Posted by: random-adam | January 5, 2009 4:33 PM

It's just Marvin, not The Marvin.

Posted by: pcstorandt | January 5, 2009 4:40 PM

AsperGirl: this is a blog about local business, not food. Perhaps the food writing in the post is less than you'd like, but this seems like an odd target for the criticism. The writer covered the business aspects fairly well, it seems.

Posted by: ccbweb | January 5, 2009 6:12 PM

I long ago found the solution to over priced designer drinks. I drink my liquor neat. If you need to put cola (even shop made) in it then it might as well be rail liquor. Give me a good 12 year old rum, a decent rye whiskey, or a nice ouzo ( ok on the rocks). Saves the overhead, and the knowit all bartenders.

Posted by: crete | January 5, 2009 10:57 PM

I love the comments made about how people would rather stay home and make their own cocktails, or pour their own whisky... clearly these aren't the bars for you and reading your comments makes me wonder why you posted at all? If you read an article and find it not pertaining to you, do us all a favor and skip your sermon. Thanks.

Posted by: mej8h | January 6, 2009 11:40 AM

Bar Pilar - Tuesday coctail night - not to be missed.

Posted by: JohnnyBoy10 | January 9, 2009 3:15 PM

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