Behind the Bar at Range With Owen Thomson (Video)
Inside the ambitious drinks program at Bryan Voltaggio’s new restaurant.
Walk into Range, Bryan Voltaggio’s about-to-open restaurant on a top floor of the Chevy Chase Pavilion, and to your right you’ll encounter a gleaming marble bar with three neat work stations, each outfitted with a bowl of fresh fruit, a crystal-cut mixing glass, and a stack of metal shaker tins.
Deep enough to allow two staffers to comfortably slide by one another during peak service times, the bar is lined with waist-high refrigerators full of chilling cocktail glasses—there is plenty of room, since the only bottled beers are large format and stored elsewhere. Freezers hold Kold-Draft ice cubes and slow-melting larger blocks for spirits on the rocks. At the far end, prebatched concoctions age in wooden barrels. As carefully organized as a chemistry lab, the bar was designed by beverage director Owen Thomson, who began working with Voltaggio this summer after moving on from José Andrés’s Think Food Group.
As lead bartender for Andrés, Thomson traveled from restaurant to restaurant helping develop menus and making sure each bar program was in top form. It’s a gig most drink mixers dream of, but he found himself missing an important aspect of the job. “I love working service—serving people, talking to them, turning them on to new things,” he says. “In the technological age, food and drink is the last real social activity that people participate in. Getting to facilitate that on a nightly basis is kind of awesome.”
Over the summer, Thomson hung out at Voltaggio’s flagship restaurant Volt in Frederick, Maryland, where he was heartened by the hospitality-driven staff and the open and experimental attitude he found there. The environment helped inspire him to take a new approach to choosing the bottles at the Range bar. “I started thinking not ‘What do I have to have?’ but ‘What do I want to have?’” says Thomson. He recruited bartenders Sam Babcock—who recently set up the bar at Bandolero—and Ben Wiley (formerly of America Eats Tavern), and embarked on a three-day blind tasting in all the major spirits categories: vodka, gin, mezcal, rum, whiskies—breaking the tasting up into Scotches, ryes, bourbons, Scottish, Irish, etc. The bottles you see lining the Range bar are the results of that tasting, and include surprise hits like Finlandia vodka (“that one threw me for a loop,” says the bartender), as well as established favorites like Glenlivet scotch and mezcals from Del Maguey.
With these spirits, Thomson and his team of ten bartenders are creating drinks that introduce guests to new ingredients but are also accessible and unpretentious—he wants to see bar programs rise to the level of food and wine. “You don’t assume that you can walk into a restaurant and say, ‘I see your menu, but I really just want a chicken salad sandwich.’ We still get that a lot,” he says. The bar is always going to be more flexible than the kitchen, says Thomson, “but there’s an assumption that, at one point a sour apple martini was popular, so every bar should now forever be able to make them.” That drink might not be on the menu, but there’s one called the I’ll Have a Chocolate Martini, a riff with Cynar, almond, brandy, and rye. A Vegan Sacrifice features “beef ice,” made with clarified veal stock. The many whiskey drinks complement Voltaggio’s protein-driven menu at Range; a selection of punches are served in wine bottles and presented at the table in the same manner as a Riesling or Merlot. The restaurant even created custom labels for concoctions like Revoked Celebrity (gin, apricot, lemon, and verbena) and Formerly Southern (vodka, tea, citrus, and whey).
While Thomson plans to tweak the menu seasonally, he says customers can expect a lot of experiments in between as he plays around with the kitchen tools and gathers new techniques and ideas from his colleagues. “I don’t have any hobbies,” admits the bartender. “When I’m not at work, this is what I’m doing.”
Range opens December 18 at 5355 Wisconsin Avenue, Northwest.