Drinking with NPR’s Ari Shapiro

The James Bond of public radio on his double life as a vocalist for Pink Martini and drinking on—and off—the Presidential campaign trail.

Ari Shapiro’s Instagram feed might as well have been plucked from the mind of Ian Fleming. There are lo-fi filtered images of pool scenes in Palm Springs, #nofilter snaps of London architecture, sunset boat scenes off of Tanzania and amaro-hued shots of him boarding Air Force One. With President Obama.

Slender, handsome (it’s difficult to ignore the chiseled jaw) and both smart and disarming in equal measure, Shapiro is the James Bond of public radio. Since 2010, he’s been the White House Correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR) and spends one week out of three in the White House press basement covering the Obama administration. He started off reporting as an intern in Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg’s office in 2001, eventually becoming the first reporter under the age of 30 to become an NPR correspondent.

Shapiro has always been a high achiever, but he cedes this information begrudgingly and shies from the label “gifted,” offering this anecdote instead: “The first time I got drunk was off of cognac at a Korean karaoke bar in Ames, Iowa.” It was during a high school trip for the Odyssey of the Mind delegation, an enrichment program for gifted kids.

During the lead up to the 2012 Presidential election, Shapiro found himself on the campaign trail following Mitt Romney from swing state to swing state. “You feel like you see the inside of airplanes and busses and hotel lobbies more than you see any actual place that you’re in,” he says. “One of the photographers for AP had an Instagram feed of hotel carpets, and it was just one swirling pattern after another, which is kind of a metaphor for the way we felt.”

This intellectual-cum-man-about-town persona has been a theme throughout Shapiro’s career, and one that sets him apart from many a mundane reporter. (An entire Tumblr called “Fuck Yeah Ari Shapiro” exists in ode to his dandyish image.) When he’s not jetting off on Air Force One, he moonlights as a singer for Pink Martini, a jazzy “little orchestra” that just released its sixth album this fall. The day of our interview, Shapiro was getting ready to appear at the Hollywood Bowl. His Instagram from that date features a backstage selfie wearing a shining, gold smoking jacket alongside bombshell bandmates China Forbes and Storm Large, everyone glancing in the mirror at their fabulously-dressed selves. A far cry from Korean karaoke, Shapiro doesn’t drink before shows, but there’s always a well-stocked bar waiting when they exit the stage.

While a number of his evenings are spent sound-checking at Carnegie Hall or sharing a drinks with fellow correspondents after a day of following Obama around Cape Town, not all of Shapiro’s happy hours transpire in places of note. During the lead up to the 2012 Presidential election, Shapiro found himself on the campaign trail following Mitt Romney from swing state to swing state. “You feel like you see the inside of airplanes and busses and hotel lobbies more than you see any actual place that you’re in,” he says. “One of the photographers for AP had an Instagram feed of hotel carpets, and it was just one swirling pattern after another, which is kind of a metaphor for the way we felt.”

At nearly every stop, Shapiro’s oasis was the hotel bar. At the end of a long day in decidedly unglamorous cities like Cincinnati or Reno, he would find his way into a middling hotel chain bar (think Comfort Inn and Courtyard by Marriott) with nondescript carpet and bad lighting. Surprisingly, almost every time—whether in the belly of the South or the middle of Iowa—he could find a local beer. It gave him a sense of grounding that “was a really refreshing antidote to the sense that every place has become the same.”

Instead of disparaging Anywhere, U.S.A. Shapiro found “that there still exists a local food and drink culture that people are really proud of everywhere—not just in the rarefied niches.”

Never doubt the insight found inside a cold bottle of beer.

Back in D.C., Shapiro doesn’t have a regular watering hole, but he has regular bartenders.  Even after months on the road, he isn’t one to frequent the same bar or restaurant, or even take comfort in ordering the same thing twice. Instead, it’s the character behind the bar that provides him a sense of continuity in a city that can, at times, feel transient and business-as-usual. He likes Derek Brown whom he met at Komi, one of D.C.’s big gun restaurants, and followed to Columbia Room and then again to his current post at Mockingbird Hill, a jamon and sherry bar in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood. Adam Bernbach is another favorite. “I used to visit him at Bar Pilar where, every week, he would do five cocktails on a theme.” Shapiro stops himself and jokes at how very “This American Life” he sounds, a near imitation of the show’s host, Ira Glass: “Each week we choose a theme and put together different stories on that theme.” He couldn’t resist the opportunity to slip in a nerdy radio joke.

While at Estadio, Bernbach introduced Shapiro to sophisticated slushee cocktails—essentially craft cocktails mixed up and thrown into a machine that spits them out as somewhat-elevated frozen drinks. He sums his attachment to certain bartenders up in the same way he might any meaningful social interaction. “It’s a real relationship.” People are the place.

A handful of Shapiro’s Instagrams feature piles of D.C. farmer’s market abundance. Fairytale eggplants, peaches and cornflower-colored blueberries. A lot of it ends up in his house cocktails. Shapiro and his husband Michael Gottlieb entertain often and dinner guests are usually plied with their latest DIY drinking experiments. A Shapiro house staple is homemade Poire Williams, something of a spectacular undertaking in which bottles are attached to the budding branches of a pear tree and left for the course of a growing season. Eventually, the pear grows inside the bottle and, once ripened, is cut from the branch. The bottle is then filled with eau de vie or brandy and the contents are left to their own devices. Over several summers, Shapiro did exactly this with a backyard pear tree and a stockpile of Clear Creek Brandy from his hometown, Portland, Oregon. Now legendary within his circle, the pear brandy makes regular appearances at dinner parties. “If people come to our house, they know that it will usually end with little shot glasses of pear brandy,” he says.

Come winter, Shapiro’s version of preserves is a cabinet full of mason jars packed with summer fruit-infused booze. He likens his cherry and cinnamon vodka to the “lazy man’s cherry pie.” Not unlike the reverence we hold for a specific vintage of wine, an observer might see these vessels as capturing a specific moment put away for another day. Unearthed in a future season—like a snow globe in summer or dandelion wine in winter—those mason jars are filled with the essence of a time and a place, like boozy little time capsules.

They will be more meaningful than ever come January when, after over a decade in D.C., Shapiro’s leaves his position covering White House affairs and moves across the pond to become NPR’s London Correspondent. “I’m told London is a city that enjoys its drink,” he says optimistically. But Shapiro is baffled at how the English manage to drink as much as he’s told without going bankrupt. He balks at the price tag of a regular cocktail converted into British pounds, and is instead focused on finding his own corner pub. “It seems to me that, in Britain, no matter your age or class or wealth, you have a neighborhood pub—like a communal living room.” A place to revisit, and most definitely a notch up from the anonymous hotel bar.

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