Members Only: Cocktails Inspired by D.C.’s Private Clubs
During my time as a bartender at the Gibson, one of the complaints I heard most often was that Washington has no “culture.” This is a common refrain I’m sure Washingtonians have heard from people new to the city, or from people from cities like Chicago or New York. The prevailing notion that the District is somehow devoid of a native culture is not only wrong but also blissfully ignorant. In fact, compared to cities like New York, Washington D.C.’s historic culture is very similar. One such similarity resides in the proliferation of private social clubs at the turn of the 20th century. Places like the Cosmos Club, Metropolitan Club, and the Alibi Club all began as havens for Washington’s upper echelon, and continue to define exclusivity and power in the city.
Each club has its own unique history and membership requirements, which allows each to cater to a specific demographic. Instead of simply telling you about each place (which, frankly, Google could do for you) I am going to highlight four clubs — the Cosmos Club, The George Town Club, the Sulgrave Club, and the Alibi Club — and provide one cocktail per club, with the ingredients reflecting distinct elements of each organization.
The Cosmos Club
Incorporated in 1878 by men distinguished in science, literature, and the arts, the Cosmos Club is a rare breed on the social club scene in Washington, D.C. due to fact that its membership numbers are not decreasing. Founded by early members of the National Geographic Society, the club prides itself on being the epicenter of high-powered intellectualism. Catering to individuals of “intellectual distinction,” the club counts amongst its members three presidents, two vice presidents, a dozen Supreme Court justices, 36 Nobel Prize winners, 61 Pulitzer Prize winners and 55 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The Cosmos Club’s emphasis on intellectual prowess, exclusivity, and uncompromising traditionalism (Wi-Fi Internet in the club is referred to as “wireless fidelity,” for example ) calls to mind one of my favorite cocktails: the Perfect Rob Roy. Created in 1894 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, the Rob Roy is similar to a Manhattan, but uses Scotch whisky instead of rye. For my variation, I am going to take the basic tenets of a Perfect Rob Roy (perfect meaning it uses both sweet and dry vermouth in equal proportion), and use High West Campfire whiskey as my base spirit. High West Campfire has long been one of my favorite whiskeys due to its exquisite blend of peated single malt, bourbon, and rye. The result is a whiskey that imbues the taste profiles of each whisk(e)y (smoky, sweet, and spicy, respectively). The combination of three distinct tastes is fitting for a social club home to varied noble pursuits of intellectualism.
- 2 Oz. High West Campfire Whiskey
- ½ Sweet Vermouth
- ½ Dry Vermouth
- 1 Dash Angostura Bitters
(Quick note on measurement: 1 dash equates to 1/6th of a teaspoon or 1/48th of an ounce.)
We’ve discussed the proper way to mix a cocktail elsewhere on Molotov Cocktail, but here’s a quick refresher. Before you start building the cocktail in a mixing glass (a standard pint glass works just fine), make sure to prepare your cocktail glass by chilling it with ice water. Combine all of the ingredients into the mixing glass, add cubed ice (please, whatever you do, do not use crushed ice), and stir for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, dump the ice water from the cocktail glass, and use a julep strainer to empty the contents of the mixing glass into your cocktail glass. Garnish with a brandied cherry.
The George Town Club
Formed in 1966 by Korean businessman Tongsun Park, The George Town Club is a relative newcomer that in 2012 underwent a significant renovation both in presentation and membership recruitment. Originally dreamt up by Park as a place in which influential Washingtonians could be brought together under one roof, the club is currently striking a fine balance between traditionalism and survivalism. Lowered membership dues have attracted a younger demographic (30- to 40-year-olds) leading to a social setting that is not only more vibrant but also more in tune with the changing demographics of the city.
To reflect the dichotomous nature of The George Town Club, I’ve created a cocktail that respects the club’s history and traditionalism, while also paying tribute to the its younger members. The cocktail’s base liquor is Soju, a Korean rice liquor that is the number one selling spirit in the world, according to Drinks International.
- 2 Oz. Soju
- ½ Dry Vermouth
- ½ Sweet Vermouth
- 1 Dash Orange Bitters (Bitter Truth is my favorite, but any will do)
- 4 Dashes Goldschläger
Just like with our Cosmos Club cocktail, make sure to ice your cocktail glass prior to combining the ingredients in a mixing glass. Combine all of the ingredients in a mixing glass, add ice, and stir for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, dump the ice water from the cocktail glass, and use a julep strainer to pour the contents into the glass. Once the cocktail is ready, give the drink an orange flame (throw away the orange peel after) and enjoy.
The Sulgrave Club
The predominant women’s club in Washington, D.C., the Sulgrave Club was formed in 1932 after a group of powerful Washington women, led by philanthropist Mabel Boardman, purchased the club’s building on 1801 Massachusetts Ave, N.W. Prior to the conversion of the property to the Sulgrave Club, the residence was the winter escape of millionaire Herbert Wadsworth and his wife, Martha Wadsworth. While Herbert’s life centered on maintaining family landholdings in the Genesee Valley in Western New York, Martha was ahead of her time in terms of her passions and activities. Not only was she an exceptional horsewoman, but also a talented pianist, watercolorist, photographer, and a rugged outdoorswoman who participated in several wilderness expeditions. The house reflected the pioneering nature of the couple, and contained one of the first internal garages in Washington, D.C.
The cocktail for the Sulgrave Club is the most expressive on the list. It uses Calvados (an apple brandy produced in Lower Normandy) as the base liquor, while also incorporating Genesee Cream Ale to create a festive summer drink. The drink pays homage to the Beaux-Arts design of the Sulgrave Club while also giving it a ruggedness Martha Wadsworth would be proud of.
- 1½ Calvados (Busnel Fine Calvados is a good pick)
- ¾ Blueberry Syrup
- ¾ Lemon juice (use a citrus squeezer and one lemon – do not use store bought lemon juice)
- 1 Dash Lemon bitters
This cocktail is served in a Collins glass, so before making the drink make sure you ice your glassware. This drink also requires the use of shaking tins, which you should have if you want to make cocktails that contain juice, eggs, or dairy. Combine the ingredients into one of the shaking tins (I recommends the larger of the two), add ice and shake for 15 seconds. After 15 seconds, empty the Collins glass, and use a Hawthorne strainer coupled with a tea strainer to pour the contents into your Collins glass. Add ice and top with Genesee Cream Ale. Give it a quick stir to incorporate and enjoy.
The Alibi Club
In my opinion, the Alibi Club is the most interesting of all social clubs in Washington, D.C. Limited to a membership of 50 people, with a new member only being admitted upon the death of an old one, the Alibi Club is the pinnacle of exclusivity. Founded in 1884 by seven disaffected members of the Metropolitan Club, the club’s founding purposes were to foster “mutual improvement, education, and enlightenment.” The ambiguous nature of the club is also reflected in its membership requirements. In 1975 Admiral Jerauld Wright, the second Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic for NATO (1954–1960), told the Washington Post that “the only qualification for membership is that a man be well known to all of the members.”
As an offshoot of one of the oldest private institutions in the city, the Alibi Club’s tipple has its origins in one of the first modern cocktails, the Sazerac. Using rye whiskey as the base liquor, this cocktail is not only one of my favorites, but also one of the most popular cocktails I made during my time at the Gibson. The cocktail I created pays homage to the exclusivity of the Alibi Club while also respecting its origins.
- 2 Oz. Rye Whiskey (Old Overholt Rye Whiskey will suffice)
- ¼ of Maraschino (Luxardo Maraschino is widely available)
- ¼ of Benedictine
- 1 Dash Angostura Bitters
Ice your cocktail glass and combine all of the ingredients into a mixing glass. Stir for 30 seconds. Dump the cocktail glass. The next step is very important and makes this drink. After you empty your cocktail glass, you have to rinse it with absinthe (I prefer Pernod). Also called an absinthe wash, the technique is performed thusly:
- Pour about a quarter of an ounce of absinthe into the empty cocktail glass
- Swirl the glass quickly so the rinse coats the sides of the glass
- Tip the glass so the absinthe reaches the rim, and then slowly turn the glass so the liquid coats the interior sides
- Discard the excess
Once you rinse the glass, use a julep strainer to pour the mixed drink into your martini glass. Enjoy.
Social clubs in Washington, D.C. are an exclusive and expensive affair. While most of us will likely never have the need or opportunity to enter the storied walls of these establishments, my drinks will hopefully bring you a step closer to these epicenters of power in the district. If you really want to feel like a member of the club, buy a leather wingback chair, turn on some classical music, and sip these cocktails while reading the Financial Times. Price of admission? Not much more than the cost of a good drink.
Ruben Gzirian is a pursuer of fine whiskeys, with Michter’s US*1 American Whiskey currently his favorite. He holds an MA from the Monterey Institute of International Studies and enjoys reading World War II history, with a focus on the Eastern Front.
Photo credit: angela n.