Step onto the rooftop Punch Garden at Washington DC’s Columbia Room this summer, and the stems of straw yellow, pink and ruby might make you think you’re at a wine bar. Look again, head bartender JP Fetherston and his staff have have created cocktails that are not only inspired by some of your favorite wines, but made to look like them as well. Find out how these white, rosé and red “wines” were created and get the recipes, too.
How did the team come up with the idea for these drinks?
Last summer and fall, we had a different drink on the menu at Columbia Room’s Spirits Library called This is Not a Rosé that was kind of a cross between a happy accident and opportunism. Jake Kenny, one of our bartenders, was working on a spirit-forward drink with mezcal and rosé vermouth infused with lapsang souchong [a Chinese black tea] and bell peppers. It turned out to be funky and savory, but still quite fruity and approachable. He noticed that it looked really pink and suggested serving it like a rosé, but saying on the menu that it’s not. So that was the seed.
This spring when we were sketching out our menus, we thought these drinks would work perfectly in the Punch Garden, because they are batched ahead of time and actually improve as they mingle. So we decided let’s just do the whole thing out there.
What kind of testing and experimenting did you undergo before deciding upon the final menu?
Basically, I told the team what “wines” we were doing (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, rosé, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon), gave them a general outline with the aromas and flavors we should be going for, and asked them to sketch it out. They did the heavy lifting and had a lot of fun with it. The challenge was to make it clear enough for people to know what we were doing without having to over-explain it.
What exactly are you trying to hit on with these drinks: a wine’s appearance, aroma, flavor?
These cocktails are not meant to exactly mimic a wine. It’s more like the flavors of these wines gave us the guide to building the drinks. The appearance is obviously key, because you walk out here in the middle of service and it looks like a wine bar. Getting the color right with the two white wines was really challenging. The nose is also important, and batching the cocktails helps meld aromas and flavors.
But you can’t overthink it. Take [the drink] This is Not a Chardonnay. We needed a little more fruit, but if we had actually added pineapple, it would have been too overt and obvious. We tried to keep it simple and tweak it, and then eventually those notes come out by itself. When we started putting these together, it blew my mind how expressive they were on the nose, because I don’t normally think of cocktails like that. In This is Not a Pinot Noir, rhum agricole gives that funkiness, and you pick up the signature forest floor and earthiness found in Burgundy from the pu’erh tea. That’s definitely my favorite.
Did any of the drinks evolve differently than you originally anticipated?
This is Not a Sauvignon Blanc was originally called This is Not a Sancerre. Then I thought the bigger, expressive flavors wouldn’t be accessible to some guests, while others might be disappointed that it didn’t taste exactly like their favorite Sancerre. A few months ago, [head chef] Johnny [Spero] had leftover herbs and micro-greens from Little Wild Things, an urban farm in DC. so he threw them into a bottle of gin. It was fascinating how much flavor there was. Now, we infuse the herbs into blanche Armagnac, Meyer lemon and gooseberry jam give those underripe passion fruit notes, and sodium bicarbonate adds that chalky minerality.
What have been the most popular options with guests?
The Cab does well, and rosé sells a lot, too. You’re on a patio, it’s crushable.