When was the last time you went to the Red Hen? This isn’t an attack. It’s a moment of self reflection. I’m guilty of pulling up Resy, pointing my 1000 yard stare at the weeks and weeks of booked tables and closing the tab with a sigh. I don’t like waiting in lines and I love having solid, booked, one hundred and ten percent confirmed plans, so I’ve been letting my visits to one of the most delightful Italian restaurants in D.C. lapse. I’d forgotten that you don’t have to have a multi course meal to tap into their magic. Your time there doesn’t have to be a big to do. You can just go have a drink (and maybe even some pasta) at the bar.
At its very core, Red Hen is really just a neighborhood bar. It might be the most booked neighborhood bar in D.C., it might even be the most popular neighborhood bar in D.C. period, but it’s still just a neighborhood bar. Forget about grabbing a table and figuring out which antipasti to split, and make a beeline for the bar. Don’t even worry about rounding up your friends or making plans with a date, just go and let Beverage Director Samuel Nellis take care of you.
If you haven’t been paying attention to Red Hen’s small but mighty cocktail selection, it’s a good time to start. Yes, you can share a bottle of wine and get wild on pasta, but pairing the rigatoni with a cocktail can be just as fun. The list, which rotates often enough to keep things interesting, is made up of five drinks (plus a spritz) that start from the most approachable to the more niche drinks. At the top of the menu is the Queen of the Creek, the most popular drink at Red Hen and one that is basically always on the menu. With it’s very refreshing mixture of local gin (Catoctin Creek to be exact), pear, lemon and honey, it’s a perfect drink to kick off a night of lounging at the bar, but even Nellis’s weirder (and we mean that in a good way) cocktails still pair well with all of the dreamy carbs you can order from the kitchen.
And since I like weirder drinks, the kind of cocktails that make me think, I couldn’t help but be attracted to the cocktails bringing up the back of the list. The Piña Covardier, which is the boozy lovechild of a Piña Colada and a Boulevardier, is made with a coconut infused Campari that gives you that little shot of beachy sweetness, without tasting like a bombastic tiki drink. The spice of the rye, the citrus slice of the pineapple liqueur and the bitter shot of vermouth makes for a drink that leans more Boulevardier than Piña Colada. It’s like drinking a summer sun during a chilly winter day.
If rye isn’t your thing, the Nobody’s Perfect might be the right call. It’s got bourbon, vermouth, coffee, some honey and some rancio, a dry and unfortified wine that brings sherry and tobacco notes into the party. It’s the sort of drink that makes you feel like you’re smoking a cigar by the light of your cavernous fireplace in your ramshackle mansion on the edge of the woods. You may or may not have a woman in your attic, but you definitely have good taste in bourbon.
At the bottom of the list, you’ll find a single vodka cocktail. “People think the best vodka tastes like nothing,” Nellis says, but his Suit & Tie is out to prove them wrong. While vodka might have been the hottest liquor in America at one time, it’s fallen out of favor for heartier spirits like whiskey and gin, at least when it comes to the menus of trendy cocktail bars. Suit & Tie, which was my favorite drink of the night, uses Civic Vodka (Nellis likes it for its hint of sweetness and luxurious texture), a splash of sherry, some Maraschino liqueur, Absinthe bitters and a bright pink cocktail onion to create a drink that leans dry and savory. It’s not quite what you expect, but I also couldn’t stop drinking it.
The next time you start making plans to go to Red Hen, stop. Don’t make any plans at all. Don’t check the website and don’t text all of your friends. Grab a book, grab a bar seat and tuck into a good cocktail and pair that baby with a good pasta.