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Dan Searing is used to wearing many hats. He’s been a server and worked at a newspaper, and now— depending on the day and his availability—he’s a musician, DJ, bartender, whiskey connoisseur, and history buff. Did I mention he’s also general manager at Temperance Hall (3634 Georgia Ave., NW; 202-722-7669)? In fact, it’s in his current position as head of this 1920s-inspired bar, where history is seamlessly woven in with the modern, that Searing’s talents and abilities come together.
When not searching high and low for unusual spirits or trying to get together with former bandmates, Searing tries to catch up on his music—he just bought the new M.I.A and Rilo Kiley. Luckily, he also had some time to sit down for an interview.
When did you start bartending?
I got started through my friend Kristaps Kreslins who is the owner of Pharmacy Bar. He thought I’d be good at waiting tables and invited me to work one night a week at his bar. At the time, I was working as City Lights editor at the Washington City Paper. A short time later, I left my job at the City Paper and ended up getting into the restaurant business full-time—at first kind of as a stopgap, as many people do, but I soon found myself making it my career.
You’re the general manager here. Why do you still bartend?
Well, it was kind of the brief I was given when I took the job. One of the owners here is Joe Englert, and one of the thing he likes to have his managers do, especially in the beginning, is have their finger on the pulse of the place and be more actively involved in the daily operations—down to serving drinks to customers.
Sometimes it’s a little difficult wearing the manager’s hat and the bartender’s hat at the same time, but it’s also not an uncommon thing in bars and restaurants throughout the world: The bartender is traditionally a person who has to take care of other things besides making drinks.
Do you enjoy bartending?
I do enjoy bartending quite a bit. I like serving drinks, and I like turning people on to new things. The satisfaction of serving customers directly is a big part of what I like about the job.
What’s your least favorite aspect?
Beyond the obvious, like cleaning up messes and other things that probably any bartender would complain about, one of the things that I like the least is—I’m trying to think of a good way to phrase this—people who aren’t interested in trying new things. There are so many interesting flavors and experiences and cultures represented by beverages that it’s disappointing when people sometimes go for the lowest common denominator and succumb to marketing, buying whatever is on the billboard or whatever their buddy turned them on to in college. One of the things I like most about this business is the incredible variety of experiences you can have.
What’s special about Temperance Hall?
One of the thing we specialize in is rye whiskey. When I found out that the place was going to have a Prohibition-era, speakeasy theme in terms of the decor, I right away seized on the idea of specializing in rye. It’s a small but reemerging category, and it was the more popular spirit in the US at the time of Prohibition. It fell out of favor in the ’50s once people started drinking imported things, and it basically died out in the second part of the 20th century to the point where there were only a couple of brands you could get your hands on in the ’80s, when I first started getting interested in it out of an interest in history and nostalgia.
It’s returning to the public eye, and now there are quite a few varieties. Rye whiskey is a fun thing to turn people on to—it’s part of American history.
Any interesting brands one can find only at Temperance?
I’m working hard to try and have every brand that’s available in the city. Sometimes I’ve had to do a little detective work to find certain brands or how to keep them in stock, because I think the makers of some of these ryes didn’t have any idea that there was going to be a surge of interest in what they were doing and sometimes stocks are low.
Old Potrero, made in San Francisco by Anchor Distilling, has always been kind of a limited product. They make small batches, and I’ve been waiting for more of that to come in for months. I’m down to my last bottle, but that’s one of my favorite ones.
I haven’t seen any other bars in town that carry the Rittenhouse ryes. The Rittenhouse 100 is a particularly nice product. It’s an old-fashioned 100-proof rye that packs a lot of punch in terms of flavor and strength.
What’s your favorite drink to have?
One of the cocktails on our menu of classic cocktails is the Manhattan, and that’s always been a favorite of mine. Cocktail manuals tell you that you can make it with any kind of American or Canadian whiskey, but it’s my belief that it was probably first made with rye whiskey. Supposedly, it was invented for Mrs. Winston Churchill by a bartender in New York.
Your favorite drink to make?
I like serving all of the classic cocktails on our menu. The Sazerac is a fun one to make: It’s a little more labor-intensive than some of the others because you rinse the glass with Herbsaint, an anise-based herbal liquor that was invented in New Orleans, which is where the drink was also invented. It’s nicknamed “America’s first cocktail” and was apparently popular in 19th-century New Orleans. I think they first made it with Cognac and eventually switched to rye.
What’s the crowd like at Temperance Hall?
The crowd is almost entirely people from the neighborhood. We occasionally have people for whom the bar is a destination because they’re interested in our specialty cocktails or rye whiskey or they’ve heard we have the best burger in town. But most of our guests are people who come in, sometimes several times a week, sometimes once a week—people we see very regularly.
It’s very much a cross-section of the people living in the neighborhood, and that’s one of the most exciting things about this place: a very diverse crowd. Because we are the only bar and sit-down restaurant within quite a few blocks, we get everyone from the neighborhood coming here—from people in their early twenties renting a cheap studio apartment up the street to people in their fifties and sixties who’ve lived in the neighborhood for a long time.
You see black and white, gay and straight, all sitting at the bar together, which is pretty remarkable in DC, which in my experience tends to segregate itself into smaller social groups, for better or for worse.
What’s your take on retail giants moving into the neighborhood?
I have mixed feeling about it, as I’m sure many people in the neighborhood and they city do. It’s disheartening to see local business supplanted by giant national or even multinational chains, but it’s exciting to see neighborhoods that were in decline being revitalized, so I think it’s kind of a Faustian bargain. Sometimes you can manage that sort of thing, but other times you end up with city streets that look like shopping malls. Hopefully, some balance can be struck.
Favorite hangout spots in the city?
Pharmacy Bar and the Black Cat for obvious reasons. Pharmacy Bar is owned by a friend of mine, but I also think it’s one of the coolest bars in town. And the Black Cat for its long history of supporting local music and just being a great place to hang out.
I’m a huge fan of Birreria Paradiso in Georgetown—that’s a destination for me because they have such an incredible selection of exotic beer and, obviously, delicious pizza.
What’s playing in your iPod or stereo right now?
Well, I wish that I had more time to listen to music, but I guess everyone probably says that. I still haven’t completely given up on going to the record store and just buying CDs. I probably never will, even though it gets harder and harder. One of my favorite musicians, Lee Hazlewood, died recently, so I’ve been reexploring his catalog and filling in some missing pieces.
Favorite record stores in the city?
For vinyl, there’s Som Records on 14th Street and Crooked Beat in Adams Morgan—those are the two that I go to first, depending on whether I’m looking for records or CDs. I think in this day and age we’re lucky to still have stores like that, and hopefully they’ll continue to survive.
You’re also a musician, correct?
Yes, I’ve played in a variety of local bands over the years. The most recent one was the Saturday People. I also have an ongoing project, Lu, which involves Kristaps from Pharmacy Bar and another friend. Until recently, we were more of a project band because one of the members had moved to San Francisco about ten years ago. But he’s since returned, so we’re exploring the possibility of being more of a real band.
Our second album, Share the Load, actually had some tracks licensed to television shows—Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations is one. I think we were on the Paris episode. And we’ve been on a couple of MTV shows. This is all in the past, mostly in 2005-06, but it’s still kind of cool.
We put the album on this Web site, PumpAudio.com, which allows musicians to market their music to people looking for soundtrack music.
Do you find enough time to balance both music and your work at the restaurant?
Well, not so much since I started working here because the restaurant has taken over every aspect of my life, pretty much. Working as a bartender or server is sometimes and ideal job to have while trying to do something else—something creative like being a musician or an artist. But being a general manager of a bar, which I do in addition to bartending here, is kind of an all-consuming pursuit.
In the year before this place opened, I was also DJing a lot, and that’s another thing I’ve given up to make Temperance happen, but I’m hoping to find more time for all my musical pursuits as this place grows and stabilizes.