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Behind the Backbar at Washington, D.C.’s A Rake’s Bar

In this round of Anatomy of a Backbar, Corey Polyoka explains his approach to building a bar program focused exclusively on regional spirits and ingredients.

Rakes Progress Washington DC

“No tequila. No Scotch. No pisco. No Cognac,” says Corey Polyoka, the bar director and partner for the newly opened A Rake’s Bar in Washington, D.C. These are just some of the bottles he does without in the name making hyper-local cocktails.

“We’ve really moved the bar in line with the sourcing that was happening in the kitchen,” Polyoka explains. Although the bar is new, this is a journey that he and partner, chef Spike Gjerde, started at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore over a decade ago. While at Woodberry they adopted this approach gradually, at A Rake’s Bar, which is located inside the new LINE DC hotel, they’ve adhered to local-only ethos from conception.

“That means providing cocktails sourced entirely from the mid-Atlantic and incorporating agriculture into the drink,” says Polyoka, who’s gone so far as to omit many basic cocktail ingredients from the backbar. Instead of refined sugar, for example, Polyoka sweetens drinks with honey, maple syrup or sorghum. Rather than use citrus for acidity, he might rely on on verjus—high-acid grape juice sourced from local vineyards—or on anywhere from 15 to 20 different vinegars, kombucha and other fermentables; he’s even called on staghorn, a species of wild sumac noted for its citrusy flavor, which he infuses into bitters “to add a little brightness.” From a spirits standpoint, of course, this also means bottles sourced exclusively from the mid-Atlantic region.

Currently, the spirits list spans between 75 and 100 offerings, which defies the current trend for expansive spirits libraries. “For us, it’s not about having 300 or 500 whiskies,” says Polyoka. “It’s about really looking at the ones that are in the region—and then also going a little bit further and looking at those that are paying attention to how they source.” In other words, a locally distilled whiskey is “a great first step,” but the bar team also wants to select producers that use local grain to make whiskey, whenever possible.

In general, the backbar emphasizes three categories, starting with East Coast rum, which accounts for about 25 percent of the collection. (Some of them are even made from locally sourced raw materials, like High Wire Distilling’s Lowcountry Agricole Rum, which is distilled from pressed South Carolina sugarcane.) Bourbon accounts for another 25 to 30 percent of the collection, with a number of bottlings made in Virginia, and rye whiskey accounts for an additional 15 to 20 percent. “Because we’re in the mid-Atlantic—the actual place where rye was from and made—we’re trying to focus on ryes that are made here, not in Kentucky,” Polyoka notes.

While gin, vodka and vermouth fill out much of the remaining collection, Polyoka is most excited about the local producers making a variety of liqueurs, including amari and aperitivo bitters. “For a long time at Woodberry, I had none of that. They were all made in Europe, some on the West Coast,” says Polyoka, citing in particular a local Curaçao produced by a small Charlottesville, Virginia, distillery, which is made from the hardy orange, a wild-growing variety with a bitter skin and sour juice.

Unlike most bars, you won’t see these bottles arranged on a decorative backbar—instead, they’re secreted out of view and stored in wine racks. The backbar is this incredible 105-year-old milk glass window that’s 20 feet tall,” says Polyoka, who’s decorated it instead with a selection of drinkware, including custom julep cups and antique glassware blown in West Virginia. Even the spirits list itself is bespoke, having been printed and bound by an artisan bookbinder in Baltimore.

“The great thing is that now, after 10 years, I never feel like I’m without; the region produces everything I need to make a great cocktail,” says Polyoka, pausing. “Except tequila.”

A Rake's Bar in Five Bottles

Lyon Distilling Co. Lyon Dark Rum

“They were the first rum distillery to get going in Maryland,” Polyoka says of Lyon Distilling Co., a Chesapeake Bay-area producer, founded by distiller Ben Lyon and former bartender Jaime Windon in 2013. “They do a great, more ester-y, raw rum and add caramel coloring back to it, which gives it sweetness and a bit of funk.” He likes to mix this dark rum into a Ti’ Punch, along with fresh sorghum that Rake’s arranged to have grown locally, pressed into juice at the bar.

  • From: St. Michaels, MD
  • ABV: 45 percent

Vitae Spirits Distillery Orange Liqueur

“This is a new one for us, but I’m excited about it,” says Polyoka of this Curaçao, which is made from the hardy orange, a local variety with bitter skin and sour juice. “I now have orange liqueur for the first time in a decade,” he says. At Rake’s, Polyoka uses this in the Little Jost cocktail (made with rum from Baltimore’s Old Line Spirits alongside hibiscus tea) as well as in classic drinks.

  • From: Charlottesville, VA
  • ABV: 40 percent

Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye Whiskey

This Virginia-based craft distillery recently started making their 100-percent-rye whiskey with grain sourced locally from within the state, says Polyoka, who stocks this as his house rye (and buys it by the barrel). With its notably grain-forward character and flavors of spice and orange peel, this appears in classic cocktails, like the maple-laced Toronto, as well as in original drinks, like the Split Rail, consisting of pressed apple, honey and rosemary.

  • From: Purcellville, VA
  • ABV: 40 percent

The Baltimore Whiskey Company Charles Street Apple Brandy

“What I love about this is it has great clarity and purity to it. It brings that essence of apple,” says Polyoka of this apple-based eau de vie made by The Baltimore Whiskey Company. He uses it in a drink called Hand Full of Diamonds, which is based on the classic Diamondback cocktail (named after the Diamondback Lounge in Maryland’s Lord Baltimore Hotel), which pairs the eau de vie with rye whiskey and Finocchietto, a fennel liqueur made by D.C.’s Don Ciccio & Figli.

  • From: Baltimore, MD
  • ABV: 52 percent

Barr Hill Reserve Tom Cat Gin

Made by Vermont’s Caledonia Spirits, this unusual barrel-aged gin is made with raw ingredients sourced locally: it’s a corn-based spirit distilled with local juniper and raw honey, then aged in American oak casks for three months. “It gives the spirit incredible depth,” says Polyoka. “Wood notes, spicewood, juniper—it’s like sitting up in New England in front of a fire smelling the air around you.” He showcases the gin in the Sun and the Rain cocktail, which also includes apple, maple and brown butter.

  • From: Hardwick, VT
  • ABV: 45 percent

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