“C’mon Juan, you’re the biggest bullshitter in the room,” José Andrés grunts at his head minibar mixologist, Juan Coronado. He’s offering up a compliment, believe it or not. When it comes to creating on-the-fly, Coronado may be unrivaled among his peers in the District.
Andrés, the James Beard Award-winning chef and DC dining scene iconoclast, has just ambled into to his new minibar companion cocktail lounge with a clutch of NASA officials, and he’s tasked Juan to serving up a drink not only worthy of a decadent drinking experience, but a repartee of cosmological quips has all of a sudden put Juan on the spot to maneuver his creativity into serving the space Suits a libation evocative of their astrophysical endeavors.
One part gin, one part vermouth, one part bitters. Flash freeze. Rim it wit a double ring of pestled herbs. The result? An edible Negroni simulating Saturn and its rings, with a botanical flourish of tri-color violas on top:
Although the luxury 26-seater cocktail lounge promises to marry itself to Andres’ philosophy of paying homage to the golden era of cocktails using forgotten techniques, Juan Coronado is as forward thinking as he is a scholar of the classics. Each drink he serves up aims to be elegant, historical, modern, and futuristic. A tall, fourth dimension-defying order? Maybe for some. Almost everyone that has walked out of barmini does so in a rhapsodic daze, effusing praise, and muttering “best I’ve ever had,” superlatives. I spoke with two of its early-look customers and both commented that they literally had dreams about their drinks the same night they had them.
If you walk out feeling dreamy, there’s a good chance your trance started on arrival: stepping into the lounge is a touch surreal.
For the barmini aesthetic, Andres once again recalled architect and designer Juli Capella, as well as Georgetown-based architecture and design firm CORE and Forrester Construction Company. A series of white pod counters – a “broken bar,” named as such for its porous entrance and exit points – will host guests and ease them into a panorama of visual splendors and oddities: antique glassware, a wall studded with molds of Andres’ hands cupping fresh fruit, a bulbous cactus couch, chain curtains, plants cascading down in columns, booths with Cubist design padding. The amount of detail is eyecatching, vintage, and fantastical all at once.
The film nerd in me immediately connected the interiors to the walleyed imagistic wonders of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s bizarre feverdreams, or David Lynch’s Red Room concept from Twin Peaks. However it is befret off the iciness of those insinuations, but retains their sense of wonder. It’s impossible to not feel warm and at home with our barkeep Juan, an increasingly gregarious presence exhibiting an almost childlike passion in his simple, unadulterated fascination with cocktails.
We meet Juan dressed in all black save for his plaid bow tie. His rhythms change from the silent intensity of a biblical scholar as he shaves off a curlicue of orange garnish to “How come everyone is so quiet!?” (Answer: we’re still gaping and gawking having just arrived) to a borderline salsa dance as he rattles his cocktail shaker like a maraca (who knew there was any shaker technique undulating from the hips?).
Our first drink is a Whiskey Sour. But of course there’s a little twist. He composes it with yuzu-infused (citrus notes) Japanese whiskey, simple syrup, and eggwhite. It’s smooth, starburst-sweet, but never broaching a cloying overdose of fruity saccharides, and somehow tames this whisky without obscuring its essential smoky, barrel-aged highlights.
Next he makes a gin fizz – a personal favorite – one part gin, carbonated lemon soda, and emulsified goat whey to give it the drink a froth worthy of its fizzy name. Its viscosity isn’t too dissimilar for using an egg white, but the underscored point is out of 2-3 simple ingredients, they all sing on your palette with the intensity of a soprano opera company.
After he’s done dazzling our tongues he swivels to take out all his toys behind the bar. Juan told us more about his glasses than he did his drink. “Each one tells a story,” he said. “From the tradition of the cocktail itself, to the glasses with histories themselves, to the patrons own experience with the drink, we want to tell a story with each cocktail.” The glasses – stemware, steins, goblets, and port copitas – range from elegant to kitsch, tiny to large. Like a boy on show-and-tell day, Juan won’t stop talking about his glasses until you divert his attention elsewhere.
Our wide eyes shift to the heavy artillery of his mad science: the Heidolph rotary vacuum machine. This lab-ready device distills the essence of any food you put in it. Through a series of tubes, beakers, and temperature controlling secondary parts, you can put almost any and all foodstuffs in, and have a clear, explosively evocative precipitant liquid of the original item. From green peppers to peanuts, his mixology machine draws out the taste of any idea you throw in it.
But his favorite piece of hardware? “A jigger. When I sit down at a bar and see someone that can use a jigger properly, I know I’m in the right place.”
His back-to-the-basics preference for primitive bar tools serves to illustrate the overall philosophy of Andres’ avant garde dining establishment: out of simplicity comes quality. Everyone in the Penn Quarter bar makes their job look easy, almost elementary. But what you get will launch your senses skating ’round the rings of Saturn itself.
barmini opens February 15th. It is located at 405 8th St. NW. Its menu will include small bites, and over 106 cocktails on hand. Prices range from $14-20, with some speciality cocktails climbing higher than that. Stay tuned for information on their beer menu in the coming weeks