Andra Johnson dabbles in under-the-radar spirits for modern-cocktail twists this spring.
High-end spirits might gussy up your libation, but astute mixologists like to experiment. And Andra “AJ” Johnson, the mad genius at Macon Bistro & Larder, might as well wear a lab coat. For her cocktail menu, Johnson subs in small batch, lesser-known spirits for mainstream booze. But these bottles are no second stringers; they taste fabulous. Here are a few of her favorites. 5520 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202.248.7807
SANG ET FUMÉE, $15
Swap: Cappelletti red aperitivo for Campari
Johnson’s mezcal-based sip (the name means “blood and smoke”) originally called for Campari for its sanguine color. But after Johnson tasted the similarly ruby-hued and bitterly flavored liqueur from Italy’s Alto Adige region, she was a convert. “It’s less vibrant and drinks much more like a vermouth than either of the bigger name brands,” she says. It works swimmingly in this bitter, smoky and spicy sip.
Swap: Damoiseau VSOP French rum for Zacapa rum
This drink’s name refers to Louis Delgrès, who led the resistance against Napoleon on Guadeloupe. Johnson admits rum can be a hard sell in DC. “I feel like the flavor profiles generally lean too much toward the sweetness, and very few venture out to create a contrasting pair using citrus or savory flavors with dark rum or to highlight the oak on aged rums,” she says. “I wanted to create a cocktail that would be liked by rum drinkers as well as whiskey and bourbon drinkers.”
Swap: One Eight Distilling vodka for Grey Goose
“Buying local will always yield good value,” says Johnson. So she turned to a District-based craft distillery. The drink’s red color represents DC’s stars and bars; the lemon twist garnish incorporates part of the Maryland flag; and long-stemmed glass is reminiscent of the long staff on Virginia’s seal. With this vodka, Johnson says she can “still showcase flavor and balance.”