Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | April 14, 2014

Dram & Grain Review

Jack Rose Dining Saloon opened in 2011 in a converted boxing gym in Adams Morgan. Prior to the opening, I was given a tour of the space and the plan for each floor. Upstairs would be a roof deck and two private event rooms, with an emphasis on barbecue and grilled foods. The main dining room and bar offered a higher end dining experience and what may well be the largest selection of single malt whisky in the world. Prior to launch, the idea was for the basement to be another, smaller bar. I can’t say the concept was 100% locked in, but in my mind I think it was supposed to be a small beer & shot type space. In any event, the launch was delayed for reasons I don’t know. Periodically I would wonder when it would open up and what it would be, but frankly there was so much goodness on the first and second floors of Jack Rose, it was pretty irrelevant to my thoughts on the bar.

Fast forward to 2014 and the basement bar is now open. It’s called Dram and Grain and it’s a small craft cocktail lounge. I’m sort of over calling such bars speakeasies if they’re not clearly claiming to be such. Nonetheless, they do preserve a sense of mystique and I’m sure would fall into a lot of peoples’ definitions of how a speakeasy might work in the twenty-first century. Reservations must be made by texting a burner cell phone, the number of which is periodically posted on Facebook. There are only 20 seats per sitting and three sittings a night – 7, 9 & 11pm.

Here’s how they describe themselves:

Dram & Grain is a craft cocktail venue located between the vibrant neighborhoods of DuPont and Adams Morgan in Washington DC. The brain child of Nick Lowe and Trevor Frye. While finding inspiration and nostalgia from the pre-prohibition era cocktails, Dram & Grain brings a contemporary and imaginative perspective to both classic cocktails and hand crafted originals.

Everything is in the details for us. From our in-house made syrups, bitters, soda, and even Amer D&G (Picon) to classic stirring, shaking and mixing methods, we promise the most palate appealing cocktail no matter what your taste preference. Along with an amazing cocktail experience, guest can expect to leave Dram & Grain with a sense of gained knowledge about the craft cocktail world and the history that got us here today.

Our venue is a very intimate, reservation only room with three seatings every Saturday at 7:00pm, 9:00pm, and 11:00pm. Each seating will last one and a half hours and is limited to 20 seats. This allows our bartenders to walk every guest through our cocktail list and ensure that any and all questions are answered and top notch service is delivered on a consistent basis. Reservations request can be made via text, please be sure to note the size of your party and which seating you would prefer, and we will do our best to accommodate.

I went this past Friday evening with my wife and two friends. We were in the 7pm seating and were seated at the bar. Though we arrive one at a time, they were kind enough to seat us as we made it through Friday’s rush hour traffic. The space is small and dark, most defined by it’s bold, natural wood bar. It’s gorgeous and pulling up to it I was immediately impressed by it.

Each guest was given a complimentary glass of bourbon punch upon arrival. The menu itself is quite large and with a diverse mix of classic and original cocktails.

Dram&Grain

I started off with the Maiden Voyage.  Made with rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, absinthe, Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, it’s a delightfully creative cocktail. The vermouth, benedictine, and Angostura bitters are served frozen as a large cube of ice. The cocktail essentially starts as a Sazerac and evolves to be a Vieux Carre as the ice melts. It was fun to see this concept in action, though my only complaint was that the ice didn’t melt quickly enough to really have a major interplay of the frozen ingredients and the initial liquid ones.

My wife Lori started with an Airmail, which was just solid. Rum-based cocktails topped with sparkling wine hold a special place in my heart.  This one was no exception – providing a great combination of effervescence and backbone. The Hoppin Chihuahua had probably the single richest foamy texture I’ve ever seen on a cocktail that wasn’t a Ramos Gin Fizz and was definitely a winner. The Ode to Omaha might be the winner for most conversation starting cocktails – it included fresh hickory smoke piped into its serving vessel, which was a small, round beaker capped with a cork stopper once the smoke was infused. I’m generally skeptical of smoke as an ingredient – it’s so very easy to get wrong. But this had incredible balance and ended up offering great depth to already complex rum Old Fashioned.

My final drink was the Mother in Law. Made with bourbon, orange liqueur, maraschino, their house Amer, Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters, it was a bottled cocktail served straight up from the refrigerator without additional ice or water dilution. Bartender Nick Lowe explained the historical concept of wanting to keep some batched and bottles cocktails around in case your mother-in-law showed up and you needed either entertain her quickly or dull your nerves from the stress. The flavors on this were all there, but it was also an example of what I don’t like about bottled cocktails. It started off strong and was less cold coming from the fridge than a cocktail stirred or shaken over ice. In my mind it would have been dramatically improved had it be stirred over ice before being served – the water would have reduced its punch and the cold would have made it a bit more approachable. Being able to make batches of cocktails in advance and bottle them prior to service should save a lot of time down the road. But I’d say it’s worth it to trade some of that time saved back to chill the cocktail and get water in the mix so as to have a better final product.

One thing you may notice looking at the menu is that the price points are a bit more New York than DC. There is good reason for it. Most of the cocktails were essentially over-made for the glass size. You’d get the excess couple of ounces in a small glass bottle back. It was a nice touch that in my mind explains the slightly higher than normal prices.

The only other thing I’d note is that if you go, they have small snacks. The fried chicken skins were absolutely fantastic – basically fresh chicken chicharones. Delicious.

Dram and Grain is a great addition to the DC craft cocktail scene. I highly recommend making a trip and I look forward to going back again soon.

Update:
The Washington Post’s Fritz Hahn has a short review and video, both of which feature parts of me, Lori, and our friends Austin and Arianna from this trip to the bar.

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