barmini's Magical, Whimsical World of Cocktails
All photos by Jake Emen.
barmini is the cocktail extension of José Andrés' minibar, a culinary playground that delivers tasting menus loaded with dozens of delicious courses and a hefty dose of theatrics and surprises. The same themes apply at barmini, which boasts 100 cocktails on its menu at any time.
"It's 50-50 classics and barmini signatures," says head bartender José "Chuck" Rivera. "On the menu, a classic cocktail has one line, a signature has two lines," he says, referring to the lines separating each cocktail name from its listed ingredients. Beyond that designation, the menu is broken down into categories showcasing the main spirit of each drink. Far beyond the basics of whiskey, rum and gin, you can also enter the realms of aquavit, sherry, shochu, eau de vie and beer cocktails.
Guests are welcomed with a mini cocktail to get the ball rolling, which proves to be a needed accompaniment as it may take some time to peruse that lengthy menu. With 100 choices, it's intriguing enough all on its own, but the real fun is found -- in keeping with its sibling minibar -- in the tricks these cocktail craftsmen have up their sleeves. And yes, the bartenders dreaming them up are enjoying themselves as much as the guests who order them. "We have fun here," says a laughing Rivera.
Take the Divine Wind, created in homage to Back to the Future day, October 21, 2015, and a corresponding '80s theme of cocktails. "For that we created a play on a blue kamikaze, that turns purple," says Rivera. "There's a flower, the butterfly pea flower, and basically when it touches acid it changes color."
Presented to the guest in its bright blue glory, lime juice is then poured into the drink, instantly shifting it farther down the ROYGBIV rainbow. Don't be fooled by the neon colors, it's a light and pleasantly floral cocktail, and taste is always emphasized more than technique. barmini, though, has a knack for perfectly executing on both fronts.
Another showcase is their peanut-infused rum. They don't just infuse the rum, they use what's essentially a laboratory-grade piece of evaporating equipment to re-distill the spirit. "We distill the rum so it's crystal clear but it has all the flavor of the peanuts," says Rivera. "It's like peanut butter with alcohol." Indeed, take a blindfolded whiff of the rum and the only possible descriptor would be peanut butter. It's used in the Veruka Salt cocktail, also including pineapple grog and crumbled, salted peanuts.
High-tech lab and kitchen gear makes another appearance to produce the Carmen Miranda. Here, a bourbon Old Fashioned is constructed with bananas, cinnamon, sugar and bitters. A whole pre-batched mix of that cocktail is then cooked sous-vide, being served with only an extra dash of fresh bitters. It's indulgent Sunday morning banana pancakes poured up for your Saturday night drinking pleasure.
Then there's the Leatherette, a unique aged cocktail unlike anything being done at bars in any corner of the country. Barrel-aging, what is this, a story on what's hot and trendy in 2013? No, barmini is leather-aging this cocktail. "We age the whole cocktail in a leather bag for 10 days," says Rivera, who uses a traditional leather bota bag for the aging process.
"It was classically used to carry wine," he says. "We finish it with lavender bitters, it's a beautiful cocktail. It gets all of those flavors and leather notes." For anyone who has ever read a red wine or whiskey tasting note before and wondered how in the world a drink can taste of leather, try this cocktail, and the concept of leather as taste will instantly click. It's a deeply earthy drink, carefully constructed and layered with brandy, rye, Spanish vermouth, and Oloroso sherry.
The list could go on. They make frequent use of dry ice, creating what they call "clouds" to impart unique aromas to an array of cocktails. They create "citrus ash" by slow cooking citrus rinds for 24 hours, and then blending the remnants. The LN2 Caipirinha is a frozen caipirinha transformed in front of you with the helping hands of liquid nitrogen, turning the liquid cocktail into a frozen slushy ready to be eaten with a spoon in about two minutes. And of course, barmini staff is also busy hand-shaving perfectly clear cubes of ice.
Sometimes the cutting-edge gear and techniques are put to the side, and the most unique aspect of a particular drink is its memorable presentation. That's the case with the Mohan Travels to Peru and Gets a Haircut cocktail, with pisco, aged rum, walnut liqueur, chicha morada, lime, ginger and vanilla. It's all served over crushed ice in a tiki glass, with a mohawk of rosemary sprigs jutting from the top. Drinking that drink, in some way, you feel intrinsically connected to a character named Mohan who's sitting in front of you.
Other times, a drink is separated by a single standout ingredient. The most expensive cocktail on the menu, at $45, is the Andrés & Cooper, named in homage to Jose Andrés and Ron Cooper, the founder of Del Maguey mezcal.
The two collaborated on Del Maguey Iberico, which took home best new product at the 2014 Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. During distillation, pieces of jamón ibérico are essentially left hanging over the evaporating spirit, offering its meaty wonders to the booze. The drink also showcases sweet vermouth, Amontillado sherry and Cynar, and if it's made with jamón ibérico, then there could be only one worthy garnish to finish it off.
Barmini and minibar are located in a connected space at the intersection of 9th & E St. NW in Washington, D.C. Reservations aren't required for barmini, but are a good bet. Once seated, you'll either find yourself lounging on an array of funky couches and chairs, part decor and part functional seating, or up at the bar taking in all of that magic.