BY CRYSTAL BAILEY
I am an insufferable geek when it comes to cocktails. So when I was invited to critique Republic‘s signature cocktails I jumped at the chance, if anything because it would guarantee me a seat in the always-pleasantly-crowded bar.
I have been pleased as punch (so to speak) to see the arrival of several new dining establishments in town over the past few years–and none more so than Republic. One of the Black group of restaurants (which includes Black Market in Garrett Park, Addies in Rockville, and several others), I thought it might bring some “hustle and bustle” to our sleepy downtown strip.
On a cold winter afternoon at 5:30 (happy hour is 4:00 – 6:00 PM weekdays) a friend and I were greeted by bar manager Brett Robison. He was gamely arranging the “drink things” (shakers, strainers, and other wonderful bits and bobs) in preparation for our tasting. Robison has been with Republic since they opened. Bearded and sporting ample tattoos, he presided over the bar with the stern but beneficent energy of someone who not only enjoys but also has ownership of what he is doing.
Intellectual tattoo – bar manager Robison is inscribed with a quote about the fleetingness of existence. It translates approximately to “life in the moment,” he says.
All four menu drinks that we sampled were Robison’s own inventions, especially designed to incorporate the city’s culture and past (“The Fascist Killer got me the job,” he says). Many of the ingredients used in the drinks are locally sourced, and most of them are used skillfully according to bar orthodoxy. The four drinks on the menu we tasted were the Localist ($11), the Primitive American ($11), the Fascist Killer ($12), and the Sammie Abbott ($12).
Local ingredients for The Localist.
First up was the Localist–so named because its ingredients are produced in DC and southern Maryland. To make it, Robison combined Green Hat Gin, house-made Bee George Honey syrup, and lemon juice in a glass. These were shaken vigorously and strained over ice into a rocks glass. He then applied what on the menu is called the “orange flame”–really a high-tech version of a classic bar technique wherein citrus peel is squeezed into a drink and its essential oils ignited by an open flame.
In Brett’s version, an atomizer filled with high-proof rum and Orange Bitters is sprayed above the lit flame, creating a flamethrower effect over the rim of the glass (a nice spectacle!). He then artfully perched a garnish of candied grapefruit peel on the side, explaining that drinks should touch the senses in a variety of ways all at once: the smell of the burned citrus oils, tartness from the drink itself, and then sweetness from chewing on the candied garnish.
Bar manager Brett Robison makes a spectacle.
Though I definitely give this drink high marks for presentation, when I tasted it I found that the citrus (i.e. lemon) dominated the mix, giving it mostly an acid flavor. Certainly, eating some of the grapefruit peel mitigated this, but it was too tart for my tastes, and I’m not used to actually relying on the garnish to balance flavors. The following drink, however, more than made up for any mild disappointment.
Primitive American ingredients.
Next up was the Primitive American, a lovely boozy cocktail created from Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye (another locally produced product), Smalls American Gin (from Oregon), and an exquisite dry curacao from France, along with lemon juice and sugar. As with the Localist, these ingredients were shaken and strained into a chilled coupe glass (in my opinion the most beautiful of bar glasses, reputedly shaped after Marie Antoinette’s breasts!).
As a mixture of rye and gin, this tawny brown beauty was rather unorthodox. The genius of it was how each of the ingredients–exquisite on its own, in fact–was deliberately sourced to work together in complex and interesting ways. The intense, oily herbaceousness of the Smalls Gin played perfectly with the dry curacao and the spicy-sweetness of the Rye. This drink alone was worth the trip–one of my favorites.
Fatal to fascists.
Moving in a slightly darker direction, we came to the last two drinks on the menu, the Fascist Killer and the Sammie Abbott. A drink with a lot of potential (crafted from Averna Amaro (a bitter Italian liqueur), Green Chartruse, and Bulleit Bourbon), I found the Fascist Killer was weighted too much toward the Averna, and that the light qualities of the basil and Chartreuse were lost among so many monster ingredients.
Mixings for a Sammie Abbott.
The Sammie Abbott was a beautifully drinkable version of a Sazerac, which is a classic New Orleans cocktail (typically made from Rye, Absinthe, and Peychaud’s Bitters). Republic’s version hearkens back to the more “traditional” Sazerac which was actually made with Brandy, and adds in Suze (a lovely, tart-bitter French liqueur) which works wonderfully.
Adept use of the julep strainer.
But the real drink that knocked my socks off wasn’t even on the menu: the People’s Punch, available daily for only $8 a glass. A nod to a growing trend in mixology circles toward the use of “drinking vinegars” (mild vinegars flavored with various botanicals and fruits that are chilled and sipped as a beverage), the People’s Punch is a blend of fruit juice, vinegars, sugar, and spirits.
People’s Punch in the background with mint leaf. Our reviewer Crystal Bailey holds a Sammie Abbott. A Fascist Killer lurks in the foreground with a Primitive American behind it. The Localist is on the left. Of course.
To make it, Robison cuts up the used bar fruit, mixes it with sugar, and after allowing it to “work” for a day or so, mixes it with appropriate spirits and a couple of different vinegars. It is served in a small glass over crushed ice, with a mint or basil garnish. I thought the balance of sweetness and acid was absolutely exquisite–the perfect refresher for a long day at work. Furthermore, in all my visits to other cocktail spots in the DC area, I have yet to encounter anything remotely like it. Plus, it’s a great way to re-use bar fruit that in other establishments might be thrown out. It was a delightful, unique surprise and I highly recommend it.
Bar fruit sustainability.
It also bears mentioning that I have returned twice on my own since that first visit, and in both instances ordered a simple Manhattan (in my mind, the ultimate litmus test of whether or not the place is really up to snuff). I am happy to report that it’s among one of the best I’ve had anywhere. I like my Manhattan to have a strong sweet vermouth character, and Robison hit the balance for this squarely on the head.
Our reviewer Crystal Bailey approves.
Lastly, a word about the food, which overall was excellent. While there aren’t too many vegetarian options on the entree menu, their “small plates” include several veg options, and are actually quite filling (I especially recommend the Beluga Lentil caviar).
In conclusion, though Republic may not fill the role of the top cocktail haunt in the DC region, the bar is run and managed with skill, efficiency, and most importantly, with heart, and is a great addition to our community. I look forward to the next time I can step through the doors, pull up a chair, and enjoy. I hope to see you there!