If you order a Long Island Iced Tea at a serious cocktail bar, chances are most bartenders will cringe or laugh—if they don’t refuse to make the boozy mess altogether. Now DC’s most serious cocktail bar, Columbia Room, is actually putting one on the menu.
The worst cocktail hall-of-famer will be part of a four-course “so bad, it’s good” menu in the acclaimed Shaw bar’s tasting room from Aug. 6 through October. (Tickets, $85, available here.) It’s the first seasonal menu from Columbia Room’s new beverage manager Paul Taylor, who previously oversaw the cocktails for Drink Company’s many themed pop-up bars. (JP Fetherston, who previously had the role, is still with the company but currently working on his PhD.)
“We’re going to take cocktails that are generally thought of as bad or dated and we’re going to transform them into something delicious and refined,” Taylor says. “It’s to challenge the perception of these beverages—with a touch of irony.”
The tasting will start with a play on Zima—the clear, flavored malt beverage that became a hit in the ’90s thanks to its ridiculous commercials. Columbia Room’s version incorporates an amped-up lemon-lime soda, which is boosted by a citrusy-petrol riesling, earthy Siembra Valles Tequila, and angelica root. The result is a zippy, high-acid beverage served in a bottle, which is presented in a beer bucket. The drink will be accompanied by “Thai caviar”—paddlefish roe with a coconut milk gel, Japanese white cucumber, and tomato caviar from Reverie chef Johnny Spero (who’s also Culinary Director of Columbia Room).
Next up: a reinvented appletini. Columbia Room’s stirred & boozy take has more orchard apple notes than Jolly Rancher flavor. Rather than vodka and sour apple green liqueur, the drink uses Calvados apple brandy, juicy Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, clarified Granny Smith apple juice, and a house-made apple vermouth. The latter is full of aromatics like chamomile, sweet woodruff, and fenugreek.
Taylor isn’t skimping on the neon green color. His version, however, gets its hue naturally from a combination of beta carotene and blue spirulina. As for that bright red cherry? It’s replaced by cinnamon sphere that tastes like Fireball and bursts in your mouth.
The drink is paired with another sometimes-maligned steakhouse staple: the wedge salad. In this case, the iceberg lettuce is dressed with buttermilk blue cheese, dehydrated beef heart, Idiazabal cheese, cured egg yolk, lemon zest, and chervil oil. Fresh cracked pepper will be available from a comically large pepper grinder.
Now, let’s talk about that Long Island Iced Tea, which Taylor says was the most difficult to tackle. Interestingly, his interpretation has more types of alcohol but half the quantity of booze (1.5 ounces vs. 3 ounces).
“In our minds, a request for a Long Island Iced Tea can be something of a red flag for a bartender. It definitely border lines on too much alcohol to serve one persona at one time,” Taylor says of the mix of gin, tequila, vodka, rum, sour mix, triple sec, and Coke.
The goal is melody rather than mayhem: St. George Terroir Gin adds a piney flavor; green pepper-blended rum hints at tequila without the tequila; Rojo vermouth contributes “tannic notes of tea;” amaro brings some spice,; and vodka helps stabilize the fresh lemon-lime sour mix. Instead of topping the drink with Coke, Columbia Room makes its own effervescent, spiced cola.
“The other ones we’re just completely reimagining what the cocktail could be,” Taylor says. “This one, we’re really focusing on the details of each of these ingredients that would be in a Long Island and saying, ‘How could this be better? Let’s make this a great drink.'”
The low-brow libation comes with a low-brow snack: chicken nuggets. Or rather, “chicken nuggets.” Dill pickle-brined croquetas come in a fast-food to-go box with burnt miso honey mustard in little packets.
To cap off the tasting, Taylor took on the Midori sour using real honeydew instead of that glowing green melon liqueur. Taylor also wanted to highlight honeydew’s underlying flavors of rice and oats with High West Oat Whiskey as well as a sake-fortified tea made of shio-koji, a rice ferment, and oat-soaked water. Lactic acid gives the drink some creaminess, while aquafaba (the liquid in a can of chickpeas, which is often used as a vegan alternative to egg whites) adds some body.
The final bite: a riff on a molded Jell-O salad with mandarin and finger limes with honey cream and decorative flowers.
Like all Columbia Room’s tasting menus, this one can also be made non-alcoholic with advance request. Yes, that’s right, you can even get a booze-free Long Island Iced Tea. The cola-heavy drink incorporates vodka-free sour mix and a tea with spices from the amaro, green pepper, and woodsy flavors from the gin.
“I prefer it with the spirits in it, but you can have just as much fun if you wanted to do it spirit free,” Taylor says.
Columbia Room. 124 Blagden Alley NW. 202-316-9396.