We were already fans of Frank Hankins’ espresso and wine bar, a neighborhood hangout where groups of Gallaudet University students share space with book clubs, Atlas Theater-goers, and even the occasional bluegrass jam session. With a focus on quality and value, Sova has been brewing Intelligentsia coffees downstairs and serving a dozen wines from a Cruvinet wine system upstairs. All in all, a pretty sweet setup. But this latest development – a craft cocktail program developed by none other than Derek Brown – is a BIG deal.
Last week we sat down with Frank and company to taste some of their handiwork and talk about this new direction for Sova. As Derek points out, there are certainly some coffee shops that have decent wine programs and some decent wine bars that also pay attention to their coffee service, but the concept of a coffee shop and wine bar that also has a top-flight cocktail program is practically unheard of.
Over the course of our conversation, they also filled us in on a week of drinking set to commence this Wednesday – World Cocktail Week. This celebration of American spirituous ingenuity benefits the Museum of the American Cocktail (not to mention those of us who enjoy drinking them).
What’s in store for cocktail lovers at Sova and a run-down on DC’s week of events celebrating World Cocktail Week after the jump.
If Derek Brown’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s one of the central figures in DC’s handmade cocktail culture that has emerged over the past two or three years. Formerly the sommelier at Citronelle and Komi, Brown is a cofounder of the DC Craft Bartenders Guild. He was also one of the three main talents behind Hummingbird to Mars. Now, Brown’s talents are on display at the Gibson, and he also works as a beverage consultant on projects like this one.
So Frank brought in the big guns, and Derek came through with the kind of cocktail list that would be at home at the Gibson, PX or any of the numerous speakeasy-chic venues that have been cropping up across the country. But this isn’t just any upscale cocktail menu – Derek felt the drinks would benefit from a unifying theme, so he took it upon himself to put together a menu that draws primarily from grape-derived spirits (like brandy, grappa, and pisco). This is the kind of beverage program designed to be noticed…and enjoyed. To make sure things are up to snuff, Frank went a step further and brought on Jamie MacBain, one of the founders of the Oregon Bartenders Guild and a recent transplant to DC, to mix the drinks. MacBain’s expertise and his love of cocktails are a great complement to Brown’s menu (and he’s even added a few of his own concoctions to the list).
For our first tastes, we opted to try two of the eight cocktails that will be regulars on the new bar menu. Elizabeth chose the Formosa ($11), a unique blend of Hou Hou Shu sparkling sake, white port, and orange peel. It was light and summery, the kind of drink you would be happy to mix up by the pitcher for savoring on the patio or deck. I opted for the Original Sazerac ($9), whose name reflects the use of St. Remy XO brandy as the primary spirit in the drink – the way it was originally made. This was definitely one of the smoothest sazeracs I’ve had in Washington, and I’ve certainly been working my way through the contenders over the past few months.
As we savored our drinks, we noticed the crystal-clear ice in Elizabeth’s glass. When we asked about it, Derek’s eyes lit up. He told us about the Kold-Draft ice system that they installed specifically to make the cubes for the cocktails. They certainly make an impression as they clink in a cocktail glass. The perfect 1 1/4″ cubes are prized by bartenders for their purity and their density, and, as Derek put it, “these ice cubes melt slower, so they dilute the drinks on your terms.”
To round out our experience, Frank and Jamie set us up with the “Peruvian Pisco Tour” ($14), a sampling of three versions of the traditional Peruvian beverage. Pisco is a clear, relatively neutral-tasting spirit, with varying degrees of astringency and sweetness from one version to another. By tasting through the Cuatro Gallos, Viejo Tonel, and La Caravedo piscos before us, we were able to sample the differences between two acholado (mixed-grape) varieties and one puro organic version. It was a unique experience, and one that is recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about this relatively unfamiliar spirit.
In addition to the regularly available cocktails, which range in price from $8 to $12, MacBain and Hankins will be offering specials and weekly punches that will be inspired by whatever fresh ingredients are on hand. They’re also in the final stages of setting up a menu of cheeses, charcuterie and small plates to accompany their cocktails and wine. Watch for cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery and bread from Lyon Bakery.
Sova will be having its official “Relaunch” party on Saturday, as part of the Washington area’s festivities celebrating World Cocktail Week. All of the events, which will take place from this Wednesday to next Wednesday, will benefit the Museum of the American Cocktail – a cause that Derek and the other members of the Craft Bartenders Guild have been very supportive of. This year, there are events happening EVERY night, so you can pick your battles or you can try to be hero and hit them all. Though we’re not going to attempt it (the idea seems at odds with staying employed), Derek promised a to-be-determined prize to anyone who makes it to all of these events.
Start your planning now:
- Wednesday – The festivities will kick off over the airwaves as Derek Brown goes head to head with PX’s Todd Thrasher in a “Cocktail Cage Match” on NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi show from 1 to 2 PM. They’ll be talking about the merits of classic cocktails and modern ‘culinary’ cocktails. From there, a group will be visiting the grave of George A. Williamson, a legendary DC bartender and the man who created the rickey. The first evening’s festivities will take place at Bar Pilar from 5 to 7 PM, where Adam Bernbach will be serving up Plymouth Gin Rickeys.
- Thursday – Bartender extraordinaire Gina Chersevani will be working with Jason Strich of Rasika and Rachel Sergi from Zaytinya to serve up an “80s Remix” of cocktails that will include “fire, flare and fun” at PS7’s from 5 to 8 PM. This one will feature DJ Brian Miller and will highlight Skyy vodka.
- Friday – Punch Club is making a comeback as Dan Searing of the soon-to-open Room 11 reopens his Warehouse Cafe for classic punches from 6 to 8 PM.
- Saturday – Jamie MacBain and Frank Hankins relaunch Sova with pisco cocktails (including the Bay Area Philosopher) with Melanie Asher of Macchu Pisco from 7 to 9 PM.
- Sunday – Tiffany Short will be serving up classic tiki drinks at The Gibson from 6 to 8 PM.
- Monday – This is the big one: five cocktails and passed hors d’oeuvres followed by a five-course meal paired with five additional cocktails at Proof. Tickets are almost sold out, but you may still be able to get one for the low-low price of $145 (which is actually damn good for the amount of food and drink you’ll be having).
- Tuesday – Sonoma’s upstairs lounge will play host to Justin Guthrie (soon to be at Blue Ridge) as he serves up cucumber milk punch and other cocktails featuring Hendricks gin from 6 to 9 PM.
- Wednesday – The week wraps up with Chantal Tseng’s “Reverse Happy Hour” at the Tabard Inn starting at 10 PM. They’ll be featuring “May” cocktails and putting another World Cocktail Week to bed in style.
If you’re liver’s not speaking to you anymore after this week of celebration, don’t say we didn’t warn you. For more information on the week and the various events above, check out the list at the Museum of the American Cocktail’s event listing.
And if you’re planning to hit up any of these parties, let us know. We’ll definitely be at a few of them…eagerly doing our part to be the great drinkers that these great bartenders rely on.