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Talking ’Bout a Revolution
Jeff Dufour | Photo: Greg Powers | May 29, 2013
DC is having a whiskey moment, and Bill Thomas holds most of the bottles.
Bill Thomas is obsessive about whiskey. This he’ll happily concede, as he savors a snifter upstairs at Jack Rose Dining Saloon, the expansive and decidedly high-end ode to brown liquor in Adams Morgan.
But really, the admission is unnecessary. In fact, it can be the only explanation for what he’s managed to achieve. If you haven’t checked in on Thomas and his Jack Rose stash since its prestigious launch two years ago, now is the time.
The venue recently became just the third bar in America authorized to sell from The Scotch Malt Whiskey Society’s bottling collection, giving Thomas access to hundreds of additional labels. “There was no better fit than Bill and his team,” says the society’s Lauren Mayer. “They’ve been members for some time, and they have a personal passion.”
If you duck into Jack Rose this summer, you can now expect to see the largest publicly available collection of whiskey in North America—more than 1,600 different kinds. “There’s nobody even coming close” to Jack Rose, says Raul Mejia, a local wholesaler at Craft Wine & Spirits.
Three walls of the soaring main dining room and bar are stacked to the ceiling with shelves of whiskey. Three other bars contain more bottles still—not just from obvious places like Kentucky and Scotland, but from Utah, Illinois, India and Japan, even from now-defunct distilleries that haven’t produced a drop in 20 years.
All of this bronze nectar stands apart from the two locations of Bourbon bar Thomas owns, and from his own personal collection. The latter is primarily bourbon, mostly stacked in boxes around his house, although a few choice bottles of pre-Prohibition American whiskey find their way to Jack Rose’s private downstairs speakeasy. “I probably have the best bourbon collection in the U.S.,” he says. “I should just start a museum.” Although he’d have to catalog it all first—a feat he says is “on my short list.”
Among whiskey sellers, Thomas is on their short list when it comes to pitching their brands. “If you’re in the whiskey business in Washington, you’ve met Bill,” says Mike Cherner, managing partner at Ledroit Brands, which represents Redemption Rye and Willett Bourbon, among others. “And the community has found that if they like whiskey, they’ve been to one of his bars.” He adds that Jack Rose has become a place for aficionados to sample high-end whiskey before deciding whether to stock it at their own bar at home.
Which is what Thomas is most proud of. “The love of what we do is sharing what we’ve collected and learned along the way,” he says. “There are endless whiskey expressions in the world, and there is a whiskey out there for everyone.”
DC’s Whiskey a-Go-Go
Over the long term, “whiskey has been very popular” in DC, especially in the mid-20th century, says Garrett Peck, a local author and liquor historian. “Then it just fell off a cliff in the 1970s.”
But now that we’ve emerged from two decades of flavored-vodka dominance, whiskey is back. Raul Mejia of Craft Wine & Spirits, a local distributor of several small-batch whiskies, says craft distilling was a logical outgrowth of microbrewing and small wineries; plus you had the “whole mixology trend pushing the craft distillers.”
Take Derek Brown, for example, perhaps DC’s most visible cocktail ambassador. He says, “Whiskey is ascendant for the simple reason that flavor is all the rage. We’ve gone from a nation of TV dinner and canned-soup eaters to debating the merits of arugula versus spring greens.”
Here are three more places where you can experience DC’s whiskey resurgence.
“When we started in early 2010, we had the modest goal of getting into Virginia, Maryland and DC,” says Catoctin Creek founder Scott Harris. With that milestone in the rearview mirror (last year, the distiller sold 40,000 bottles—most of it the flagship Roundstone Rye—in nine states), Harris and his wife have their sights set on bigger things—namely, a historic building in downtown Purcellville expected to open this month. The 1920s-era building will not only allow them to quadruple their current production, but also open a full-fledged tasting room and conduct regular tours. Catoctin Creek, 120 W. Main St., Purcellville, Va., 540.751.8404, catoctincreek.com
When the owners and managers of the new Capella Hotel in Georgetown were looking for a bar concept, they saw a niche in the market that wasn’t being filled: American rye whiskey—so they opened The Rye Bar. “Rye is the new hot liquor on the market,” says manager Will Rentschler. After they began serving a house-blended, barrel-aged Manhattan with Dad’s Hat Rye from Pennsylvania, the first barrel lasted only eight days—and patrons keep coming for more. The Rye Bar, The Capella Hotel, 1050 31st St. NW, 202.617.2400, capellahotels.com
Bartenders at the W Hotel have recently taken to pushing around a roving whiskey cart on the lobby-level living room. And while they’re happy to pour you vodka cocktails, the focal point is American rye and bourbon. “The bourbons [this summer] are all special reserve, so once they’re gone, they’re gone,” says General Manager Ed Baten. Indeed, they’re pouring six whiskies from the Van Winkle family collection, including the ultra-rare Pappy Van Winkle 23-year-old, which will set you back $95. The W Whiskey Cart is available after 6pm. The W Hotel, 515 15th St. NW, 202.661.2400, wwashingtondc.com