Washington is home to some excellent tequila and mezcal bars, including newcomers like dLeña Roja in Mount Vernon Square and Maïz64 in Logan Circle. But area bartenders and distillers are exploring Latin spirits that are lesser-seen around here. Here’s what they are and where to find them.
Homesick Puerto Ricans can match mofongo with moonshine at Qui Qui, a new bar/restaurant atop the Passenger (1539 Seventh St., NW). Jessie Marrero sources pitorro—a sugarcane moonshine that dates back to the 1700s—from Frederick’s Puerto Rico Distillery (1341 Hughes Ford Rd.). “We don’t carry ‘the real stuff,’ because that’s illegal,” she says, alluding to the backyard variety that’s common on the island. “But this is very good.” Try coconut pitorro in her light colada made with fresh pineapple juice and club soda (or just opt for flavored shots).
It’s a surprise to encounter Bolivian-brandy cocktails at an American fried-chicken joint. But that’s part of the fun for Roy Boys (2108 Eighth St., NW) barman Luis Bernard, who loves sourcing South American spirits. His favorite: Rujero Singani, a small-batch brandy made from Andean grapes that he likens to vodka or gin for its versatility. His drinks run the gamut from rich and potent to crisp and refreshing. Bernard also mixes cocktails at Casa Kantuta (@casakantuta on Instagram), a traveling speakeasy from fellow La Paz natives Carla and Juan Sanchez.
If you think pisco is only for sours, head to Causa (920 Blagden Alley, NW), Shaw’s Peruvian destination from the Service Bar team, opening in November. There, Glendon Hartley has amassed one of the largest collections of the Peruvian grape brandy in the US and is eager to show off the beauty and variety of what he calls “the purest spirit in the world.” Pisco’s flavor is largely determined by grape varietal, harvest, region, and distillation—Peruvian pisco isn’t seasoned in barrels—so it’s often light and floral but can also be spicy or salty. Sign up for Hartley’s Pisco Club to get exclusive samples of the bottles he carries back from trips to Ica, Lima, and beyond.
In DC’s Manor Park, red llamas on the entry walls will lead you to Chacho (6031 Kansas Ave., NW), a production facility and tasting bar for jalapeño-infused “aguardiente,” inspired by Colombia’s national spirit. Owner Daniel Ziegler guides patrons through his process—importing the neutral, sugarcane-based “firewater” from South America and then upping its kick with jalapeño. (A new version is finished in bourbon barrels.)
All-day cafe the Royal (501 Florida Ave., NW) is among several bars to carry Ziegler’s spirits. Owner Paul Carlson, who was born in Colombia, mixes cocktails such as aguardiente with Chartreuse, citrus, and mint. Also behind the bar: Brazilian cachaca, which is infused with pineapple.
Mamajuana, Patagonian Brandy, and Beyond
A kaleidoscope of Latin spirits and flavors come together at Serenata, the cocktail bar that anchors the Latin marketplace La Cosecha (1280 Fourth St., NE). Beverage director Andra “AJ” Johnson has curated an impressive array of sipping tequilas, mezcals, and rums, though this also a great place to delve into her team’s complex creations. Take the Coronado, in which aged tequila is rested with spices, honey, and tree bark to create mamajuana, an herbal Dominican brew that’s known as an aphrodisiac. That’s mixed with Patagonian brandy; house-made Mexican-style vermouth brewed with orange, avocado, and Tajin spice; and prickly-pear juice from the Mexican fruit wholesaler across the street. And that’s just one drink.
This article appears in the November 2021 issue of Washingtonian.