The pork chop sandwich from Barrel restaurant is served with sugary beans and home-made chips.
Flipping a dive bar into something more respectable can be inherently risky. (See: Hawk ‘n’ Dove.)
Regulars often retreat as payback for fiddling with their favorite watering hole, while newcomers might keep their distance out of fear of the unknown.
But sometimes the new concept and the surrounding community instantly click, which appears to be the case at the rapidly blossoming whiskey den Barrel (613 Pennsylvania Ave. SE).
Gone are the ratty booths, flavored vodkas and ho-hum pizzas that accommodated cash-strapped Capitol Hill denizens who looked to the former 18th Amendment for sanctuary. The renovated space boasts exposed brick walls and better lighting and features reclaimed wood nearly everywhere you turn, including the ceiling.
The vision of a swanky liquor lounge an 18th Amendment barkeep shared several years back has finally been realized by Elixir Bar; the nattily appointed subterranean lair (So long, dank Keyhole!) welcomes guests to a handful of high tops, a clutch of larger tables and a miniature bar, all facing a glass-enclosed cellar stacked floor to ceiling with the establishment’s mounting collection of “brown water.”
According to Brad Ingwell, area director for the Capitol Hill group that oversees 201 Bar, Union Pub and Barrel, there’s no “magic number” the owners are trying to reach in terms of their diverse bourbon, rye, scotch and whiskey holdings. “One hundred and fifty just happened to be the number we landed on,” he said of the current catalog. “If there’s something we want to add, we’re just gonna do it.”
That built-in flexibility has allowed management to amass everything from standard bearers (Laphroaig 10-year-old scotch) and cult classics (Pappy Van Winkle) to up-and-comers (Balcones Distilling out of Texas). It also allows Ingwell to evangelize a bit — as he’s wont to do when discussing his current favorite bourbon, produced by Breckenridge Distillery.
“I think its absolutely unbelievable; just the right amount of spice, just the right amount of burn. I’m just surprised how many people don’t know them,” he said of the relative unknown.
What’s been even more astonishing is the zeal with which locals have embraced the signature barrel-aged cocktails.
Per Ingwell, the powers that be presumed that traditional liquor and craft beers would be their bread and butter. But the cask-aged beverages have proven to be a huge hit.
“We’ve actually sold more of the barrel-aged cocktails than we ever thought we would,” Ingwell shared.
Though the project has already exceeded expectations, Ingwell admitted it was somewhat jarring watching staff dump bottle after bottle of pricey Brancamenta (an imported, mint-flavored liqueur) into that first round of barrels. “We probably dumped a little too much money into one batch,” he opined.