The Whiskey Boom

Georgetown pub honors Irish presidents and global whiskeys

Although its family of painstakingly renovated restaurants technically fit the definition of a chain, each Rí Rá property is custom-tailored to the community the lively pub is to serve.

Which is why when it came time for the cross-Atlantic crew to flesh out the sprawling, two-level space they’d carved out for themselves in Georgetown (3125 M St. NW), two things immediately came to mind: whiskey and politics.

The core restaurant had its debut earlier this winter. But the newly christened Whiskey Room just opened to the public Jan. 24.

The gorgeously appointed and generously stocked lounge is, in fact, sibling to a pre-existing whiskey room concept developed at the Burlington, Vt., location. But D.C. did get a little something extra: the aptly named Presidential Room.

The semiprivate space is divided into two rooms tucked away at the far rear of the ornate upstairs bar. The first section features splashy portraits of past and present commanders in chief rendered in a Warholian fashion.

The specifically commissioned tributes add mad dashes of eye-popping colors to the likes of:

Chester A. Arthur

George W. Bush

Bill Clinton

Ulysses S. Grant

Benjamin Harrison

Andrew Johnson

John F. Kennedy

Richard Nixon

Barack Obama

Ronald Reagan

William H. Taft

Harry S. Truman

Jimmy Carter (coming soon)

Regional manager Andy Christie said the portraits were inspired by the prominent bust of JFK in the inner sanctum of the politically themed den — a conversation piece Rí Rá co-founder Ciaran Sheehan became obsessed with during a trip to Las Vegas. Per Christie, Sheehan saw the massive head-and-shoulders piece while browsing in an antique store and immediately made it his mission to secure the ’60s homage for the restaurant.

According to Christie, the funky portraiture pays tribute to any president with credible ties to the Emerald Isle. Information about presidents of Irish-American descent varies wildly; some online outlets boast that as many as half of the American presidents to date could claim Irish roots, while others maintain that the fraternity of those with true Hibernian ancestry numbers less than a dozen.

What is not in contention are the quantity and quality of whiskeys (and whiskey knowledge) Christie has installed behind the bar.

Learning Together

The Whiskey Room is overseen by Scotch maven Rachael Ewing, who became entranced with brown spirits while attending the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and Dublin native James Costigan, the bar’s resident Irish whiskey guru.

Ewing, who spent the past year at the whiskey-loving Jack Rose Dining Saloon, said she looked forward to helping Rí Rá build on its expansive, but highly selective, carte — 251 scotches, Irish whiskeys and bourbons (and counting).

“We don’t just want to have a large collection. We want to have a focused collection,” she asserted.

Some of the rarities they’ve procured so far include a 34-year-old scotch from the now-defunct Port Ellen distillery, as well as an Irish whiskey created by Knappogue in 1951, which subsequently spent nearly four decades soaking in sherry casks and was bottled in 1987.

The duo is hoping to stir up interest in whiskey appreciation via an evolving roster of thematic tasting duels. Currently the 10 head-to-head matchups are:

Barrel-aged vs. unaged ($12): Buffalo Trace White Dog Mash #1 vs. Buffalo Trace Bourbon (white dog mash has a medicinal scent and tastes like pure fire; the barrel-aged bourbon smacks of charred wood and caramel).

Port casks vs. sherry casks ($15): 12-year-old Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban port cask vs. 12-year-old Glenmorangie Lasanta sherry cask

Sparring of the ryes ($15): Bulleit rye vs. James E. Pepper 100 proof rye

Single barrel standoff ($15): Rock Hill Farms vs. Four Roses

Irish peat vs. Scottish peat ($18): Connemara single cask malt vs. Ardbeg Uigeadail single malt (Connemara displays hints of honey and leather; Ardbeg produces a super smoky start but smooth finish)

Antrim vs. Cork (aka North vs. South; $25): 21-year-old Bushmills single malt vs. 18-year-old Jameson single malt (Bushmills is mildly buttery and pleasantly fruity; Jameson displays vanilla and oak)

Atlantic vs. Pacific ($30): 18-year-old Highland Park vs. 18-year-old Yamazaki

Very rare vs. extra rare ($30): Midleton Very Rare vs. Crown Royal Extra Rare

Battle of the 30-year-olds ($165): Balvenie vs. Macallan Fine Oak

Top-shelf vs. bottom-shelf ($180): Knappoque Vintage 1951 vs. 12-year-old Knappogue

Ewing and Costigan are already at work crafting custom duels. Until then, Ewing can’t wait to have patrons pick her brain about what to whet their whistle with next.

While she has learned over time a few “cheats” about drinking habits — beer drinkers tend to prefer bolder whiskeys from the Highlands area, red wine aficionados gravitate towards the mellower pours that flow out of Speyside — Ewing firmly believes whiskey selection is a deeply personal process.

Price points, flavor profiles and social standing certainly all come into play. But, in the end, Ewing says all that really matters is that you enjoy what’s in your glass.

In D.C., she’s found that the majority of scotch drinkers line up behind 18-year-old Macallan (as opposed to the 10-year-old Macallan she poured for patrons across the pond). “I think that speaks to the affluence of this area,” she said, adding that D.C. consumers “are very incredibly educated.”

“They know their regions,” Ewing said.

Whether you’re a whiskey novice or a connoisseur, Ewing looks forward to welcoming you into the Whiskey Room fold.

She urged first-timers to start off with an easygoing blend such as Tullamore Dew. “You get the fruity and nutty element to it ... but you’re not overwhelming anyone with that single malt flavor,” she counseled.

Ewing said she’s particularly fond of turning more seasoned drinkers (like die-hard Macallan fans) on to lesser-known contenders. She touted a single-malt Glenrothes as one such revelation. “They haven’t always heard of it,” she said.

The 15-year-old GlenDronach Revival is another personal favorite. “It pushes that citrus flavor forward on your palate. It’s an absolutely beautiful spirit,” she said of the sherry-spiked wonder.

“I’d really like it if you came in and asked me to build you a flight,” she said of her hands-on approach to whiskey evangelization.

The Whiskey Room at Rí Rá Georgetown: 3125 M St. NW; 202-751-2111; rira.com/georgetown. Average entrée: under $12 ($). Open for dinner and late-night dining daily.

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