Bar Mastery at Masseria

photo by Scott Suchman
photo by Scott Suchman

Washington, D.C.'s Masseria is known first and foremost for chef Nicholas Stefanelli's exceptional Italian food, and the restaurant's painstaking attention to detail from decor to quality of service. Hailed as one of the city's best restaurants, and most important new openings of 2015, Masseria offers diners a constantly evolving tasting menu, and a carefully paired and tailored wine program.

Yet, guests to Masseria ignore the cocktails at their own peril, as bar manager Julien-Pierre Bourgon has put together one of the city's strongest cocktail programs. And while a seat at the chef's counter offers a wonderful view, a seat at the bar to watch Bourgon work his magic is equally as immersive and rewarding.

One of Bourgon's signature creations has been The Hennessy Jed. Made with Hennessy VS Cognac, black walnuts, Angostura bitters, and a black walnut-infused glycerin smoke, it's a visually stunning cocktail. Its smoky reveal and presentation in a mammoth snifter is half the fun of ordering the drink. But this is not merely aesthetically-pleasing, the smoke offers robust, hearty aromas which gradually dissipate while still leaving a powerful essence behind. The smoke is so intoxicatingly potent that guests from tables on the other side of the room take notice.

"The idea for the drink was spawned from some my friends who enjoy electronic cigarettes," says Bourgon. "They're 'vape' nerds if you will."

His friends had tried adding peach extract to vegetable glycerin to make their own "e-juice." Bourgon saw an opportunity to go farther, vacuum-sealing fresh peach skins into the glycerin to create a much more authentically flavorful concoction.

"It was at this point I realized that any aroma I could infuse into glycerin could be smoked off at a very low temperature," he explains.

Fumo di Uva, photo by Jake Emen
Fumo di Uva, photo by Jake Emen

"The glycerin base [note: sans-nicotine, of course] is a great vehicle for aroma. I went to a camping store and bought a portable gas burner and a Turkish coffee pot and boom. With just a few seconds of heat the low smoke point of the glycerin is hit and I catch all the smoke in a chilled snifter. The possibilities are endless. The drink that goes inside is typically a seasonally changing brandy Old Fashioned variation but it doesn't always have to be."

The latest version of that cocktail is named the Fumo di Uva, which translates to the smoky grape. This iteration is made with Copper & Kings Brandy, grapefruit oleo saccharum syrup, and grapefruit-infused glycerin smoke.

The rest of the menu stays fresh and seasonal as well. "Some of the cocktail's names don't change, but the flavor does," says Bourgon. "The sorbet cocktail, Pepino di Capri, has changed seven or eight times since we've opened. I work directly with pastry chef Jemil Gadea to create these vodka-based sorbets using a Pacojet. The last sorbet we did had tangerine, Fraser fir that I trimmed from the bottom of my Christmas tree at home and vanilla. Now it's winter spice and blood oranges so we keep it moving."

While he doesn't pair specific drinks to specific dishes, Bourgon does want his menu to work with the food menu, and each cocktail he creates is tasted by Stefanelli, Gadea, and the entire bar team. "I want my drinks to work as well as wine does for drinking with food," he says, while lamenting that he may never be quite that successful. "The grape was put on this planet for one purpose, to be turned into wine or grappa and to be consumed with and after food."

Nothing's Going To Touch You In These Golden Years, photo by Jake Emen
Nothing's Going To Touch You In These Golden Years, photo by Jake Emen

Beyond living up to the lofty standards set by excellent wine pairings, Bourgon was also worried about another aspect of his drink menus. "I was concerned about having to create a strictly Italian-focused cocktail menu," he says. "I like Negronis and amaros as much as the next guy, but I didn't want to solely focus on classic Italy. Turns out, neither did Nick. His cooking style is very unique. He draws inspiration from all over the world while paying homage to his Puglian roots. That's when I said I'll take the job!"

Each drink on Bourgon's menu stands apart as entirely distinct from the others. There's the We Did It All For Don, a citrus-forward tiki-style drink with Smith & Cross Rum, sherry, lime, passion fruit, cinnamon and nutmeg, and then there's the spicy kick of the Nothing's Gonna Touch You In These Golden Years, with Peligroso Tequila, lemon, Sauvignon Blanc infused with kumquat and red chili, and an Angostura fluid gel.

If you haven't noticed yet, these cocktails tend to have names which pique your curiosity. "My previous boss and mentor Todd Thrasher always had a knack coming up with cool catchy names that make the guest laugh," says Bourgon. "I always admired that and try to do the same. Sometimes the names are long sometimes they're short. Sometimes they tell stories, sometimes they don't. I love music so I try to take lyrics or song titles I like and then come up with a drink from there."

We Did It All For Don, photo by Jake Emen
We Did It All For Don, photo by Jake Emen

Such is the case with the I Left My Wallet in Montreal, referencing A Tribe Called Quest's I Left My Wallet in El Segundo while also paying homage to Bourgon's Canadian roots. It's an Old Fashioned riff with George Dickel Rye, maple, Angostura bitters, white peppercorn, and a burnt bay leaf.

Other offerings on the latest menu include the Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, made with Pisco, yuzu, Buddha's Hand citrus, Nero D'avola wine and ginger, and the I Know You Think You Don't Like Grappa But Try This Anyways, with grappa, genepy liqueur, rooibos tea, lemon and Angostura bitters.

Julien Pierre Bourgon, photo by Scott Suchman
Julien Pierre Bourgon, photo by Scott Suchman

Bourgon utilizes spirits and ingredients others shy away from behind the bar, and is comfortable with all sorts of high-tech equipment and innovative techniques. For him, it's all just about dedication to the craft and matching the work ethic he sees from others in the industry, from chefs and pastry chefs, to dishwashers and porters. "The way I see it, these people devote their lives to this so why should cocktails be any different?"

Visit Masseria at 1340 4th St. NE, Washington, D.C. to see some of Bourgon's craft and devotion in action.