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Belly Up: Jim Hewes of the Round Robin

Belly Up brings you interviews with our favorite area bartenders. Got a suggestion for a great bartender we should interview? Email candrews at washingtonian dot com.

If the Willard Hotel (1401 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-628-9100) is the center of Washington—as it was dubbed by Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 1860s—and its bar, the Round Robin, is the center of the Willard’s social scene, then Jim Hewes, the longest-working bartender there, is the epicenter of DC.

Along with the bar’s famous mint juleps and mojitos, Hewes serves up a dose of local history to anyone who asks. He can fill you in on the history of the hotel and everything you need to know about Washington social conventions of the 1800s. The self-described performer says he lives by the motto “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” After Hours sat down with Jim to hear a few of his best. Read below for more.
How long have you worked here?

I’ve been here since we first opened. Next week it’ll be 21 years.

What’s special about the Round Robin Bar?

It’s one of the oldest in Washington. There’s been a bar on this site going back to the 1800s. And it has a rich legacy in tune with the legacy of the hotel, in that this is America’s hotel. It’s been the center of political, economic, and social activity for over 170 years. There’s always history in the making here.

Also, there’s a circular configuration to the bar. At a round bar, there’s an openness, a sharing of ideas. At a long bar, you know the person on your right and the person on your left and that’s about it. As I like to say, the gentle art of conversation is alive and well in Washington, DC, at the Round Robin Bar.

The bar has a reputation for making classic cocktails. What does that entail?

The bartenders here are known for their savvy and their sense of style in conjunction with the legacy of the hotel. We don’t have a lap pool or all those bells and whistles, but we have a level of service and style that is unmatched in any other hotel. And we like to have that reflected in the cocktails. We like to do things the old-fashioned way. We do the classic cocktails with a lot of style and Southern character.

What’s the most popular drink?

We probably make more mint juleps here than anywhere else in the country other than—I’ll go out on a limb—Louisville during Derby week. We make close to 10,000 of them in a year.

Why is it so popular?

Because Henry Clay introduced it here, and it’s our signature drink. And we do it better than anyone else. We use his recipe. (Read the recipe here on our Best Bites Blog.)

Do you have a favorite drink to make?

I like making old-fashioneds and sidecars—and of course the mint julep. You can’t get away from that.

Doesn’t it get old making them all the time?

No—although one time I hopped a cab home and I noticed the driver was going a different way. I said, “Shouldn’t you be going this way?” and he said, “You know, I could, but don’t you ever just want to something a little different every once in a while?” It dawned on me that sometimes it is fun to do something a little different. Just to break up that monotony.

Like what?

I have a cucumber emulsion I’ve made to mix with Hendrick’s gin, which is a real floral, sweet gin. I mix it like a martini—straight up with a wedge of cucumber. We try to stay ahead of the game in terms of what people are asking for, but we’re very traditional. We’re a scotch-and-martini kind of place.

How often do you come up with a new drink?

All the time. We had a collection of drinks that we did for the Fourth of July. What I try to do when I’m introducing a new drink is make a variation on something that people are familiar with and then try to make it as simple as possible so they can make it at home or order it somewhere else. A lot of times you go into places and order a cocktail, and there are 50 things going on and they’re lighting things up and doing all this nonsense—and you can’t get the cocktail anywhere else. There’s no sense in that.

So you don’t make drinks with a secret ingredient?

A lot of times, the unique things we do here are little things anybody can do. It’s no secret, it’s just that a lot of people don’t. When we make a Manhattan here, we use a dash of bitters. A lot of people don’t take the time do that. When we make a margarita, we salt the outside of the rim. We don’t take the glass and dunk it in the salt. A lot of little things like that. Like making twists properly to get more oil over the drink—you put a good twist of orange on the top of a cosmopolitan and it changes the drink completely. It takes it to a different level. Someone will look at you and go, “You know, that’s really the best drink I’ve ever had.”