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Bar Review: The Trouble With the “Hyper-Local” Cocktail

A Rake’s Bar dedicates itself wholly to regional ingredients, forgoing the likes of simple syrup and citrus. But are the drinks any good?

Corey Polyoka’s new Washington, D.C., cocktail bar, A Rake’s Bar, is housed in The LINE Hotel’s revamp of a century-old former church. To enter, you walk up a daunting flight of steps and pass between towering columns. Behind the bar, which is on the second floor, is an enormous, arched, milk-glass window.

It’s a fitting backdrop for Polyoka’s singularly ascetic approach to making cocktails, which could be termed a religion and might be deemed holy by some. He is one of the leading apostles of sustainable mixology, which dedicates itself to local, seasonal ingredients and low waste. Don’t look for any Cognac or tequila or Scotch, because they don’t make those things in Maryland or Virginia. Likewise, lemons and limes—the brick and mortar of most cocktail bars—are a rarity here. Stepping in to provide acidity are verjus, made by local vineyards, and vinegar. As for sugar and simple syrup, there is none. Instead, maple syrup, honey and sorghum are employed.

The thoughtful, historically minded menu is divided between “northern” drinks (shrubs and rum), “southern” drinks (juleps and bourbon) and, more intriguingly provincial still, “Chesapeake” drinks (rye, and more rye).

“We are very much of a place, creating drinks sourced from the producers of these two regions,” says Polyoka. “Taking their ingredients and focusing them through the histories and drink-ways of the north, mid-Atlantic and south created the first few pages of the menu.”

Polyoka forged his reputation at Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen with the acclaimed chef Spike Gjerde, who also champions the local. They are working together again in D.C.; the bar takes its name from Gjerde’s new restaurant, A Rake’s Progress. The work at Woodberry has an impact on Rake’s Bar, as Polyoka frequently relies on the products of Woodberry Pantry, the canning and preserving arm of the Baltimore restaurant.

Polyoka, in fact, thinks of the bar as having only two seasons, “fresh and preserved.”

It’s an inspiring approach to running a cocktail bar, which can be as wasteful and environmentally punishing an enterprise as any kitchen. And, one wonders while happily scanning the fresh herbs growing behind the bar and delighting over the charming collection of repurposed, vintage glassware, why more modern saloons haven’t trod this less-traveled road. After a few drinks, however, the reason is clear.

There were troubling signs from the first. The “Chesapeake” list is fittingly topped with a version of the Rickey, a drink D.C. proudly calls its own, dubbed the “Rakey.” At the time of my visit, it was made of gin from Vitae, a distillery in Charlottesville, Virginia, a lemon-thyme infusion, verjus and soda water. Nobody ever accused the Rickey of being a fulsome drink, but this one tasted positively hollow, with overly prominent botanicals. Walk the Line, the bar’s take on a Southside, is a juicy-minty highball that typically calls for gin, but here is made with Dad’s Hat Rye. It also leaned on verjus to fill the role of citrus, and was similarly lacking in heart.

Wondering if I’d just had bad luck with my long drinks, I switched to something of the brown-and-stirred variety. Early northeastern America was all about rum and Rake’s has plenty of it. Head Up, made of Vitae’s golden rum, burnt sorghum syrup and sumac bitters, tasted like the best rum Old-Fashioned of 1820, but its funkiness was a bit tough to take in 2018. Forgiveness is the Fragrance, meanwhile, was composed again of the Vitae rum, as well as Mt. Defiance Dark Rum (also from Virginia), a violet vinegar made by the nearby Lindera Farms and a sour cherry syrup. It was described to me as a sort of rum Manhattan, which made the discordant vinegar note hard to figure. Like many drinks I had, it was unbalanced and starved for sweetness. Moreover, the over-reliance on verjus and vinegar lent a certain pinched sameness to the menu. Even the Peach Julep tasted anemic. And a julep should never be that.

Inside A Rake's Bar

Farm-to-table dining programs are relatively graspable propositions. No matter the region, a chef will find farms reasonably close by, growing the vegetables and raising the livestock needed to put together a good bill of fare. Translating that ethos to a bar isn’t as easy. That local distillery may produce a promising bourbon or gin, but often they’re not as richly flavorful as the ones that have been made for decades in Kentucky or London, respectively. The same goes for youthful American attempts at vermouth and amari, which were mastered by European makers long ago, but taken up domestically only recently. And while experiments in alternative acids are all well and good, there really isn’t a true match for fresh citrus when putting together a classic sour.

But ingredients aren’t always the culprit at Rake’s. Sometimes execution fails. Home of the Rye, Rake’s take on the age-old form of sweetened whiskey known as Rock and Rye, should have been an easy win. Polyoka’s clever idea is to have you order a rye brand of your choice and then arm you with a lollipop of rock candy. But the assembly required proved too much. The ice cube in the glass of whiskey was so large that it was impossible to find space for the candy. Frustrated, I removed the ice in order to get to rock into the rye. Even then, though, it made no difference. The drink was far too cold for the sugar to dissolve.

Like Home of the Rye, so much of A Rake’s Bar felt like a failed experiment. The single success I found was the Bird Shot, the bar’s Bloody Mary/Bull Shot riff, which borrowed heavily from the kitchen, buttressing the District Distilling Wild June Gin with Maryland-grown tomatoes, stock from game birds like quail and pheasant and local salt and pepper flakes. Deeply meaty and fruity, it boasted all the flavor teamwork that the other drinks lacked.

By my final visit, I felt so burned by the original cocktails I went rogue. Could a simple Martini be managed? Certainly, the bartender assured me. After some discussion, we settled on Bluecoat Gin, from Philadelphia, and Capitoline vermouth, from D.C., as the best local combination. Instead of a lemon twist, a misting of lemon essence, made from two lemons that were grown in a restaurant partner’s greenhouse, was showered over the drink’s surface.

Ironically, I came to appreciate A Rake’s Bar’s philosophy and herculean efforts more fully through this ad hoc approximation of a classic cocktail than by any of the original drinks on the menu. The result wasn’t what an average Martini drinker would recognize as their regular. But, within its odd, herbal, savory profile, I could discern the outlines of the drink. More importantly, I enjoyed it.

Bars like Prairie School have shown you can go local without turning off the locals. But that Chicago bar hasn’t taken its orthodoxy nearly as far as A Rake’s Bar, and maybe that’s a good idea. Local sourcing and sustainability are issues all modern bars will have to address in the years to come. But crossing that long bridge will be a journey of a thousand steps. To make the leap of faith all at once runs the risk of falling short—and facing rows of empty pews.

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