The owner, Bill Thomas—who also operates two locations of the bar Bourbon as well as Breadsoda in DC’s Glover Park—said we were standing in what would be, when it opened, the area’s definitive repository for spirits. Most restaurants store their liquor in a multi-shelf space behind the bar. By contrast, three walls of the dining room at Jack Rose have shelving units for liquor in addition to the 60-foot-long wall behind the bar.
“Impressive,” I said.
“This is only the main bar,” Thomas said. “We’ve got four more.”
Thomas, 41, hatched the idea for the place four years ago. The success of his previous ventures, he says, coupled with the emergence of a “real spirits culture” in Washington, emboldened him to conceive of Jack Rose on a grander scale.
Most good bars in the city, Thomas says, carry 60 to 100 bottles of booze. Even the two Bourbons, among the region’s best-stocked bars, carry only about 250 each. This is a time when bartenders dub themselves “mixologists,” make their own tonic water, and compete to devise cocktails that might take their place alongside the lime rickey, Sazerac, and Manhattan. Washington is a locus of the craft-cocktail movement, with serious bartenders and a public receptive to new things. The city deserved a bar, Thomas thought, that would honor the movement. And the moment.
This is a golden age for spirits. New technologies have made it possible for distillers to make better booze, and public demand, fueled by information sharing, has encouraged them to concentrate on smaller-batch expressions, which tend to have more character and complexity.
No spirit has undergone a greater renaissance than Scotch. There are better whiskies—and more choices—than ever. They are limited editions, which increases their value, especially for the collectors and traders, like Fry. Competition is fierce.
Thomas envisioned a place that would be the city’s preeminent destination for the most interesting spirits the world has to offer. The opening-night figure was 1,400 bottles, with more to come—the largest stockpile of liquor of any bar or restaurant in the city—maybe in the country. “If you come in here and order a Manhattan,” Thomas said, “our first question is going to be ‘Rye or bourbon?’ If you want bourbon, well, okay, you’ve got your pick of 350 different brands.”
Thomas had invited me to walk through the space with his “team”—Steve King, Roberto Cofino, and Fry. As we trooped upstairs to the second and third floors, the team was animated by anticipation—it was about to spring something big.
On the second floor, we stopped at an outdoor bar with a view of 18th Street and Florida Avenue. The Washington Monument loomed in the distance.
“The way I see it,” Thomas said, “this place, if it succeeds, is going to be here a hundred years from now. That’s the way we’re thinking. This isn’t about right now.”
“We want,” Fry said, his gravelly, South Texas rumble gathering steam, “to blow people’s minds.”
Next: Understanding the complex mind of Harvey Fry