Never a teetotaling town, D.C. has always had bartenders who play a key role in stitching together the city’s social (and political) fabric. So Washington’s top watering holes strive to hire, and retain, the top talent behind the rail.
These men and women haven’t just stumbled out of a sports bar; they’re consummate professionals who know their craft. More important, they can hold their own on any topic, with anyone.
Here, The Hill introduces the people who do the martini shaking for the movers and shakers of Washington. From wide-eyed tourists to hardened political operators, inebriated interns to single-malt connoisseurs, they’ve seen it all and still make it look easy — which it certainly isn’t.
Jim Hewes, Round Robin Bar at the Willard InterContinental Hotel
“There’s something about being around history,” says Jim Hewes, an attitude that makes him the perfect barkeep for D.C.’s most historic hotel. A book collector and Washington history buff, he owns a handwritten copy of Henry Clay’s recipe for mint julep, which happens to be the bar’s signature drink.
Hewes has even played a part in the hotel’s history, having worked there since it reopened in 1986. (He was the last employee hired.) He has been in the business since he was 17, mostly behind the bar, although he’s done stints in operations and taken time out to build and open a bar at the Buxton Inn, Ohio’s oldest country inn.
“You can make more money in Washington as a bartender than as a manager — and work less hours,” says Hewes, who has lived here since 1977. “I would like to think I could work anywhere in Washington. Not everybody could say that.”
Favorite drink to serve: The Anapolitan, his own creation of Ketel One vodka, Cointreau and bitters
Most famous person served: Soccer star Pel�
Republicans or Democrats? Republicans. “I’m a strong believer in Reganomics. Bartending is the ultimate example of supply-side economics.”
John Boswell, Off the Record Bar at the Hay-Adams Hotel
“This is the best bar job in the world,” says John Boswell, the affable weeknight bartender at the venerable Hay-Adams’s upscale basement retreat. “It’s small, but we get the most interesting people … heads of state, Hollywood activists, musicians performing” across the street at the White House.
On two occasions, he says, the subjects of questions on “Jeopardy!” — which Boswell leads his guests in playing — have actually been sitting in the bar.
Just because the bar cultivates a reputation as the place “to be seen and not heard” doesn’t mean it’s apolitical. In fact Boswell, who was born only a few blocks away at George Washington Hospital and has kept bar in downtown D.C. for 24 years, is wise to the ways of Washington. “John’s a great moderator” between Republicans and Democrats, one patron says.
But his true passion lies outside D.C. Every year for the past 10, he’s spent his two months’ vacation in Southeast Asia in an attempt to document with his camera all the ethnic groups of Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. He’s assembling a book of his photographs for publication.
Favorite drink to mix: “Whatever’s closest.”
Most famous person served: Every president since Nixon
Republicans or Democrats? He won’t say. “Our bar is off the record.”
Colin Perkins, D.C. Coast
A longtime veteran of D.C.’s taps and tonics, Colin Perkins didn’t set out to be one of K Street’s favorite bartenders. After graduating from American University, the Annapolis native took a job as a paralegal. “But then I started doing this because it’s a helluva lot more fun,” he says.
That more enjoyable vocation has taken him from Stetson’s on U Street to Sequoia on the Georgetown waterfront, where he served all manner of celebrities during an inaugural party for President Clinton hosted by Elle magazine.
From there, he took his act downtown to the venerable Occidental Grill, where he spent 10 years. He landed at his current home, D.C. Coast, five years ago, where he can be seen shaking martinis for the most powerful names on K Street — all of whom are friends after 6 p.m., of course.
Favorite drink to serve: The Tuaca Sidecar, a mixture of brandy, triple sec, Tuaca liqueur and sour mix
Most famous person served: Stevie Wonder “He changed tables to be near a window.”
Republicans or Democrats? “No comment.”
Nick Wineriter, Signatures
Often called the “dean of Washington bartenders,” Nick Wineriter has been at it in the city since 1974.
A fixture at the bygone Duke Ziebert’s at Connecticut Avenue and L Street, he worked at the popular political hangout until it closed in 1994. That year, he was inducted into the Bartenders Hall of Fame, and he remains Washington’s only representative in the hall.
After a stint in the Oval Room, across from Lafayette Park, Wineriter landed at Signatures, the Pennsylvania Avenue favorite of Hill staffers and lobbyists, where he now holds court Monday through Friday nights.
A native of Salt Lake City, he’s not a Mormon but a devout Catholic, serving as a Third Order Franciscan, which he describes as a lay deacon.
He’s a purist behind the stick as well. A fan of traditional cocktails and spirits, he much prefers serving gin martinis and old-fashioneds over newer, fruitier concoctions.
“This isn’t fraternity row; this is Pennsylvania Avenue,” he says.
Favorite drink to serve: The sidecar “Classic cocktails are coming back.”
Most famous person served: John F. Kennedy Jr. “He had a ginger ale. It was about one and a half years before he died.”
Republicans or Democrats? “Republicans tip better.”
Michael Brown, Degrees Bar at the Ritz-Carlton
Michael Brown calls his tenure behind the bar at Degrees “a long, happy ending.” After coming east to study at Howard University, the Los Angeles native began serving the late-night crowd at Dream Nightclub. After two years there, construction of the Ritz in Georgetown was complete and he jumped at the chance to open its glitzy new bar.
“I have a chance to talk to people here instead of lip reading,” he says. Plus, “here it’s more martini time” instead of shots and Red Bull-and-vodka drinks.
But perhaps best of all, his seniority lets him control his schedule. Working open to close Tuesday, Friday and Saturday allows him to spend time with his wife and small children.
But not to worry: His four days off don’t diminish his sharpness. One frequent guest says, “I can not go in there for two months, and when I come back he remembers exactly what I had.”
Favorite drink to serve: The Fahrenheit 5, a blend of Malibu rum, Grand Marnier, pineapple and cranberry juice
Most famous person served: Rappers 50 Cent and Missy Elliott at Dream
Republicans or Democrats? “We get more Democrats in here.”