Opening a bar that serves $14 cocktails and bills itself as a parlour—not parlor, mind you, but parlour—during modest economic times is a risky endeavor. Particularly if the location chosen for said space is an area still very much in the throes of gentrification.
“It’s an uphill battle,” admits Erik Holzherr, the man behind Wisdom, a craft-cocktail bar with both a European and a New York City-style vibe. “Opening an upscale bar in a neighborhood people are unfamiliar with or sometimes scared of is tough.”
Wisdom sits on Pennsylvania Avenue, Southeast, practically next to Joe Englert’s watering hole Trusty’s Full Service, less than half a block away from the Potomac Avenue Metro. It’s only a ten-minute walk to Eastern Market, a neighborhood humorously dubbed “C-SPANistan” by the Washington City Paper because of its many politically inclined, wealthy, white residents. But Wisdom is just as close, if not closer, to Anacostia, a part of town that tends to evoke images of poverty and crime in the minds of many Washingtonians—regardless of whether they’ve actually set foot in the area.
This in-between-ness is perhaps what has made it difficult for people to find the cocktail bar, which has been open since October.
“Even locals from the neighborhood tell me they didn’t know this place was here,” says Holzherr. “I think a lot of people still don’t think of DC’s southeast as a destination.”
For Holzherr, this is just one of the challenges that come with opening a place on your own: “This place, it’s all me. There are no huge investors or big money behind it. Just me.”
Still, the area is quickly developing—a Harris Teeter opened last May, and young professionals are being driven to the neighborhood by its comparatively low rents. Holzherr is working on opening an outdoor patio. He hopes to have a permit by early June.
“Getting the word out is tough, but having the outdoor seating will help,” he says. Laughing, he adds, “I’m also finally working on a sign.”
The sign might be a good idea. Especially now that Holzherr has picked up some serious word-of-mouth buzz after crafting the winning cocktail at last month’s Artini competition, sponsored by the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Holzherr beat 11 local bartenders with the Tortoise and the Bare, a drink he made using an unusual black-tea liquor, vodka, and an aperitif wine.
“I had to have someone pull for me to get me into the competition in the first place,” he says, “so to be the new kid on the block and win against all these big and respected bartenders was quite an awesome shock.”
Victory was particularly sweet for Holzherr, who seven years ago walked away from a career as a pilot to pursue his dream of opening a bar.
“I realized my true passion in life wasn’t launching satellites but instead making really good drinks,” he says. “So I spent about seven years saving money and doing all the research I could, not only learning the trade behind the bar but also learning about general business practices and commercial property.”
At the time of his epiphany, Holzherr was living in Los Angeles, and for a while he considered the idea of opening his dream bar in that city’s downtown. Somewhere in the middle of the process, however, he realized LA wasn’t the right city for what he had in mind.
“I started thinking about DC,” he says. “I had come to the city for the first time in 2001 before pilot training at Andrews Air Force Base, and I kept in touch with some friends who kept telling me about the changes happening—all the restaurants and people moving in and the growing creative scene.”
Holzherr took a couple of business trips, scouting potential spots and neighborhoods. He settled on the restaurant’s current location, drawn by the place’s affordability—and nostalgia.
“It reminds me of where I grew up in Queens,” he says. “It’s eclectic and historic, and I think that more than any other area in the city, here you really feel like you’re in DC. It’s only a matter of time before it catches up to speed.”
Holzherr is cautiously optimistic about his one-man operation: “Someone like me could never do this in Los Angeles or New York City, where there’s so much competition and every square inch has been exploited and tapped out. DC is still exciting, and there are neighborhoods yet to be discovered. There’s nothing but growth in its future. Hopefully, people will be interested in a concept and experience I believe is unique to the area.”
Cocktails are obviously the centerpiece of the drink menu at Wisdom, and Holzherr has created a number of singular drinks as well as some variations on old standbys such as the Sazerac and the Moscow Mule. Integrated into the drink menu is a libation scale created by Holzherr to guide people who are unfamiliar with particular liquors. The scale measures the different elements of a cocktail: taste, strength, and finish. The menu is changed pretty regularly—it’s already undergone three changes in the bar’s five-month existence—but this month’s specials include the 1912, a cherry blossom-themed drink, and the Tortoise and the Bare.
Check out Holzherr demonstrating how to make the Tortoise and the Bare, and be sure to get the recipe below. Also, if you want to know more about Wisdom, check out our video tour of the bar here.
Tortoise and the Bare
1¼ ounces Qi black-tea liqueur
1 ounce Lillet Blanc
1 ounce Skyy vodka
¾ ounce “runny honey” (diluted honey, with a 2-to-1 water-to-honey ratio)
Dash of Peychaud’s Bitters
Dash of Regan’s Orange Bitters
Orange peel for garnish
Combine the vodka, Lillet Blac, black-tea liquor, and "runny honey" in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a chilled martini glass. Add dash of Peychaud's and Regan's Orange Bitters. Garnish with the orange peel.