If you live in Washington, D.C., and are an indifferent student, you can go ahead and skip history class in high school and college, wait until you’re 21 and proceed straight to the Round Robin Bar inside the historic Willard Hotel. There, Jim Hewes, who has traced the inner circumference of its small, circular bar for more than 30 years, can tell you all you need to know about Washington or the Willard (just a stone’s throw from the White House, it has long been known as “The Residence of Presidents”) or the corner of the hotel where you’re sitting. It’s been home to some tavern or other since the early 1800s.
According to Hewes, Thomas Jefferson, at loose ends after handing over the keys to the Presidential residence to James Madison, took a drink here while he worked out his next move. The knowledge rests well on Hewes, who is soft-spoken and—with his grey hair, bowtie and spectacles—looks the librarian type. He has been the face of the bar since 1986, when the Willard reopened after being dark for 18 years, following a lengthy restoration. Hewes probably makes more Mint Juleps than any other bartender in the country, using a recipe inspired by 19th-century Kentucky statesman and Julep evangelist, Henry Clay.
Regulars, both famous and not, make it their business to check in with Hewes upon entering the bar. “There’s Jim,” called out a political consultant, dressed in purple blazer, peach-painted fingernails and a gold Ann Hand eagle brooch on a recent afternoon. It was her first drink at the Round Robin in 15 years. Hewes remembered. “Jim’s an institution,” she told me. “I remember, when someone turned that corner and came into the bar, he started making their drink and had it ready before they sat down.”
How did you find your way behind the bar?
“I was working at a busboy at an Italian restaurant in Rochester [New York]. I can cook for 500 people, but I can’t make the sauce for you and me. I was 16 at the time and I used to watch the bartenders. They were old-school guys. One guy taught me how to make a Margarita when nobody knew what tequila was in Rochester. He had worked in El Paso. I go in one day, it’s summer, and they had fired the barmaid—they called them that back then, barmen and barmaids. We didn’t have anyone to do the bar. I said, ‘I can do that.’ They had those old-fashioned placemats that had pictures of the drinks on them and recipes. There were forty drinks on there. The regulars start showing up. I’m the new kid. That’s when I learned what a Red-Eye was. They said, ‘Let’s have one of these; let’s have one of those.’”
What do you think makes for a good bartender?
“You’re not the center of attention. You’re not the catalyst. You’re more the oil that keeps things flowing, or the lubricant of the gentle art of conversation. You don’t need me in your face telling you how cool I am, or ‘Let me make you the best drink in the world.’ No, you need to tell me what you want, and I need to step back and listen to you. Just to listen to people. Just listen. Just because you know how to make a twist and a drink…”
What advice would you give a bartender just entering the field?
“There’s no right and wrong way. You go down to the Waterfront neighborhood and you get these guys taking 15 minutes making a drink. They got all the tools, all the bells and whistles. You saw me make a Julep. I don’t use a muddler, I use this [the handle of a dinner knife]. There’s a reason I do that. When we were doing this 30 years ago and we were cracking ice by hand in a towel—we didn’t have the tools. When somebody sees the knife, they know exactly who made that drink.”
Has bartending changed over the course of your career?
“I feel at times that things have passed me by. You read the trades, you read what’s going on. You try to keep up on things. I look at what my son, Chris Hewes, does on the West Coast. He worked at Library Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel [for] many years. You know, I never taught him to make a drink. It’s interesting.”
What’s an unusual encounter you’ve had with a customer?
“A few days ago, there’s a tap at my shoulder and it’s [former White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of State] James Baker. He said, ‘Jimmy, I told you I was coming back into town.’ He was just popping in to say hi. Very interesting man.
“He told me a great story. I don’t know if you watched the Barbara Bush funeral. Tom Brokaw told a story about James and Susan Baker sitting with George and Barbara. This is the day before she passed away. I asked Baker, ‘Is that story true?’ He tells me the whole story: George goes, ‘Let’s all have a drink.’ It’s cocktail hour, the day before she dies. She’s sitting up in bed and lucid. They all drink vodka Martinis. But she says, ‘No, I’ll have a Manhattan.’ It wasn’t in the papers, but Brokaw mentioned it at the funeral. I asked the Secretary, ‘Is that true?’ He said, ‘She said, I’ll have a Manhattan.’ We had the drinks made. She took a sip and said, ‘You know, I’m about ready to go.’ She died the next day.”