Plenty of observers (we’re looking at you, New York Times) still think of Washington, D.C. as a meat, potatoes, and bone-dry martini kind of town. Those people are wrong (still looking at you, New York Times).
Just as a booming ramen scene exists alongside steakhouses in the Nation’s Capital, so too do truly innovative cocktail bars exist alongside the $24 drinks at the Trump International Hotel.
From the Columbia Room, the newly minted “Best American Cocktail Bar,” to the whiskey nirvana that is Jack Rose, D.C. has something for every taste.
To be clear: this is not an ordered ranking of D.C.’s best bars, but rather a rundown of our favorite cocktail joints in the city.
So, here we go…
124 Blagden Alley, NW (Shaw) // columbiaroomdc.com/
Think of Derek Brown’s flagship bar as a series of concentric circles. On the outer edge lies the Punch Garden, an al fresco redoubt of large-format drinks and bottled cocktails. Head inside and find yourself in the Spirits Library, where you can sample decades-old Chartreuse or Cognac from Napoleon’s time. But the centerpiece is the Tasting Room, a reservations-only, five-course seasonal menu that pairs ambitious drinks (think Vouvray, cascara tea, watermelon molasses, and seawater) with small plates.
Jack Rose Dining Saloon
2007 18th St NW (Adams Morgan) // jackrosediningsaloon.com/
Owner Bill Thomas, one of the country’s foremost bourbon collectors, has amassed a 2,000-bottle-strong list here—and that’s just the whiskeys. You can kill some time with the menu on the main floor, or make a reservation at the tiny Dram & Grain bar in the basement, where you’ll find some committed drinks makers, as well as Thomas’s stash of pre-Prohibition bottles.
2800 Pennsylvania Ave NW (Georgetown) // bourbonsteakdc.com/
In the Four Seasons hotel, this bar is one of Georgetown’s top places to be seen. But it isn’t all about the, er, scene. It’s also about the 25-page menu, full of spirits, flights of rare whiskeys, tiki drinks, and classics. The wagyu burger isn’t bad either.
804 N. Henry St (Alexandria) // captaingregorys.com
In New York, PDT famously put an exclamation point on the neo-speakeasy era by setting up shop in the back of a hot dog joint. Captain Gregory’s tries to go one better by doing its thing in the back of a donut shop. The name, in fact, is a nod to the inventor of the donut, a Cape Cod sea captain. Besides donuts, they also make bitters, amari, sodas, vermouths, and tinctures in house.
1432 Pennsylvania Ave SE (Capitol Hill) // dcwisdom.com/
If you like cheap Gin and Tonics, head to a Capitol Hill fundraiser. For something more inspiring, head to the outskirts of the Hill. Wisdom is the brainchild of a former satellite expert for the Air Force, who turned his attention to gin. Here, you’ll find several expressions of genever, house-made tonics, and just enough curveballs (shaken Martinis, ingredients like dehydrated peanut butter) to make things interesting.
501 9th St NW (Penn Quarter) // minibarbyjoseandres.com/barmini
An offshoot of Minibar, Jose Andres’s famed temple of molecular gastronomy, Barmini turns drinking into a science experiment. The 100 cocktails here are the product of centrifuges, smoke, gelatin, and even cotton candy.
728 King St (Alexandria) // barpx.com
As Robert Simonson points out in A Proper Drink, the first serious cocktail bar in D.C. wasn’t really in D.C. at all. It was a few miles south in Alexandria. Taking some cues from Milk and Honey—rules on the wall, dress code for men, reservations only—Todd Thrasher planted a flag for proper drinking in the National Capital area. Expect classic techniques, plus occasional flourishes like foams and fire.
2 Birds 1 Stone
1800 14th St NW (U Street) // 2birds1stonedc.com/
In the basement of the pan-Asian Doi Moi sits one of the city’s most inviting bars, with white brick, wall murals, and cozy alcoves perfect for date night. The drinks don’t hurt either: head barman Adam Bernbach hand-draws his menu, which keeps him busy, because he changes things up every couple weeks. Expect a house punch and twists on classics like a Mezcal Paloma with pickle brine and housemade spicy grapefruit soda.
717 8th St SE (Capitol Hill) // rosesluxury.com/
Amidst all the accolades and presidential visits, it can be easy to overlook the cocktail program at Rose’s second-floor bar. Don’t. First off, they mix well-balanced, interesting drinks, usually with only four or five ingredients. Secondly, if you’re lucky enough to score a stool, you can order off the full menu—the one everyone else is standing in line for.
1201 U St NW (U Street) // archipelagobardc.com/
D.C.’s only full-time tiki bar sports a DIY aesthetic, but you’d be hard pressed to DIY some of these drinks, which include items like olive oil-infused rum, aloe, and Chinese oranges. Don’t pass up the “Pineapple of Hospitality” for two, its ingredients listed only as rum and “secrets.”
709 D St. NW (Penn Quarter) // thepartisandc.com/
This dark, graffiti-flecked bar exists at the back of a butcher shop, so there’s already a lot to like. Namely: meat. But lest your mouth get too salty, you’ll find dozens of well-curated beers, hundreds of wines, and several rare bottles of Buffalo Trace and Willett whiskeys.
1734 N St NW (Dupont Circle) // irongaterestaurantdc.com
This romantic restaurant is a love letter to the Southern Mediterranean cuisine of Greece and Italy. But grab a stool at the open-air carriageway bar, and you’ll find much the same inspiration in the drinks, which are full of amaro, pistachio, walnut, and pomegranate.
1539 7th St NW (Shaw) // passengerdc.com
Everything you need to know about this reborn, relocated version of one of D.C.’s first touchstone cocktail bars can be summed up in three words: Chartreuse. On. Tap.
1250 9th St NW (Shaw) // espitadc.com/
There are two ways to geek out on agave here: 1) Sample the cocktails, which blend mezcal with the likes of walnut liqueur, batavia arrack, and spiced grenadine; 2) Call for one of the Master Mezcaliers (they have two on staff) and order up a flight of small-batch booze that rarely makes it north of the border.
1110 H St. NW (H Street) // copycatcompany.com
Martinis. Manhattans. Fixes. Toddies. Mules. Juleps. Smashes. If you want to get a handle on classic, foundational drinks, then this is your place. Complete with hand-drawn flowcharts of cocktail taxonomy, the menu isn’t just educational; it can be overwhelming, as you realize just how many permutations of a sour are out there. Bonus: once you’re done drinking, head downstairs to the quick-serve dim sum bar.
2031 Florida Ave NW (Dupont Circle) // mcclellansretreat.com/
Named after the much-defeated Civil War general, this dark and brooding room looks like the kind of place Ken Burns might conduct an interview about the battle of Bull Run. And it specializes in dark and brooding liquors, too. You’ll find flights of Whistle Pig, a reserve whiskey list, and all the Manhattan variations you’d care to try.
1340 4th St NE (Union Market) // www.masseria-dc.com
Don’t let the size of the indoor/outdoor bar (five seats on either side) at this Michelin-starred spot fool you. The full cocktail menu is also available at their low lounge tables that come complete with fire pits. You might expect some cocktail creativity from a Quebecois bartender named Julien-Pierre Bourgon, and you wouldn’t be disappointed. Unless beet-infused Campari and black walnut–infused glycerin smoke are the kinds of things that disappoint you.
725 T St NW (Shaw) // allsoulsbar.com/
Billing itself simply as “a corner bar,” nothing here gets too complicated. The 26 drinks on the menu are listed “No. 1” through “No. 25,” plus the house cocktail, the “All Souls”—which is a glass of sparkling rose and a shot of Makers. If you want food beyond nuts and olives, well… you’d better bring it in yourself.
1200 16th St NW (Downtown) // jeffersondc.com/dining/quill/
Hidden in back of the Jefferson Hotel, Quill is the kind of classy hotel bar you don’t find much anymore. Yes, the bartenders wear vests and yes, there’s a piano player. Apart from well-mixed classics, they’ll also pour you themed “progressions” of three cocktails or, befitting the hotel’s namesake, a shot of Madeira from the 1700s. If you have to ask how much it costs…
Petworth Citizen Reading Room
829 Upshur St NW (Petworth) // petworthcitizen.com
Picture two rooms. In one room: a bar. So far, so good. In the other room, a free library. Also good. But on weekend nights, the two combine forces, as bartender Chantal Tseng crafts “literary cocktails” inspired by books, authors, or literary movements—everything from Homer to Ian Fleming to Robert Burns.
2009 14th St NW (U Street) // thegibsondc.com/
The Gibson was one of the first speakeasy-style bars in the city, and apart from the unmarked door, it’s still one of the least pretentious. On its two floors, expect to find a large drink menu that changes seasonally, full of whimsical names (“1-900-DRUNK-TEXT”) and simple, straightforward mixology.