Words by Logan Hollers
Photos by Clarissa Villondo
We’re all guilty of it, really. I’ll admit it: I think I know the “best” cocktail bars in DC… 2 Birds, Gibson, Columbia, Copycat, etc., etc. That knowledge is nice. But sometimes it blinds me to spots that might fly a little more, shall we say, under the radar.
One of these spots is Urbana. The excuses are numerous: I never make it over to Dupont; I just didn’t know about it; I don’t hear enough about the place… Throw those excuses out the window. Urbana is currently crafting some of the best cocktails in DC.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Urbana’s new themed cocktail menu. Beverage director Andrea Tateosian, a well-known name in DC’s drinking culture, has channeled current events and historical nerdery into a list of seven cocktails based around the Fall of Rome.
Any discussion of the fall of the Roman empire could take up, literally, months of discussion; for now let’s just leave it at the fact that factors that contributed to its decline were, among others, the health and numbers of the Roman population, the strength of the economy, the competence of the Emperor, and the efficiency of the civil administration. Sound familiar?
While the idea was Tateosian’s brainchild, all the Urbana bartenders contributed to the eclectic list, and there’s certainly a wide range of tastes and textures represented. We were lucky enough to taste six of the seven new cocktails, and can confidently attest that in addition to being delicious, half the fun of drinking them is the stories behind each drink.
We started with the Imperial Republic, a play on a Ramos Gin Fizz that combines Bombay Sapphire gin, crème de cassis (a blackcurrant liqueur), St. Germain, ginger beer, lemon, grapefruit, and egg white. Light and refreshing, with a touch of sweetness, the cassis lends body to the drink; a sprinkling of lavender zest adds floral notes that help distract from *actual* emerging imperial republics.
Next up on the list was Hadrian’s Winter, named after Hadrian’s Wall in Great Britain, originally designed as a defensive fortification in the Roman province of Britannia (and reportedly the inspiration for George R.R. Martin’s Wall in the Song of Ice and Fire series!). Naturally, a drink inspired by a wall has to be made with Mexican spirits; Herradura blanco and anejo tequilas form the base, while velvet falernum, allspice dram, and zirbenz (a stone pine liqueur) combine to form a wintry, Old Fashioned-esque cocktail.
Tateosian has long been an advocate for sherry (even before it was cool, nbd); the No Rex for the Wicked combines the spirit with Maker’s Mark, walnut liqueur, and a few dashes of Angostura bitters. Creamy and sweet, the cocktail is very walnut and vanilla forward, the perfect after-dinner or dessert drink.
Similarly skewing sweet is the Gladiator’s Release, Urbana’s play on a classic Spanish sangria. A low-proof cocktail, the drink was inspired by flavors used in Roman honeyed wines (which were invented, interestingly, as a way to add different flavors and botanicals to shitty wine to make it palatable). Red wine (not shitty, thankfully), honey, orange, lemon, and angostura blend into a pronounced mulled wine profile, lightened by the addition of Pimm’s and with a bitter bite from a dash of Cynar (an Italian bitter liqueur). The garnish is especially clever: an orange peel is stabbed with multiple cloves, both adding a fragrant wintry note and evoking a shield pierced with arrows. Very gladiator-y.
The most visually striking cocktail, the Domus Aurea, requires a brief explainer. The phrase, Latin for “Gold House,” refers to the imperial palace completed in 68 AD by Emperor Nero after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD had cleared away a huge swath of dwellings in Rome. There’s a not-uncommon theory amongst historians that Nero himself ordered the fire in order to ensure he had the space to build while at the same time allowing the Emperor to blame the already unpopular Christians. Regardless, the message here is that an insane ruler was willing to destroy his own people for personal enrichment in the form of a gilded, gold-covered palatial estate. Hmmm. The drink itself is much more palatable than its namesake: Plantation pineapple rum is mixed with Carpano Antica, Angostura amaro, Aperol, and Ilegal Mezcal (for that hint of smoke, of course), but the real play is in the optics of the drink itself. Before pouring, the coupe glass is brushed with edible, alcohol soluble gold confectioner’s paint; when the cocktail is poured, the gold dust swirls and shimmers on top of the liquid, completing the rich, decadent feel of the drink. Tastewise, it’s similar to a Manhattan, brawny and full-bodied with that touch of smoke from the mezcal. One of the more well-crafted and topical drinks on the menu.
Finally, we were able to sample the Et Tu, Brute?, featuring Grappa Mazzetti, green chartreuse, Luxardo Maraschino, and lime. The drink, a twist on the classic cocktail The Last Word, is absolutely gorgeously colored and perfectly balanced. Incredibly floral, and smelling of fresh-cut flowers and citrus with a pleasing acidity and a complex depth; I continually kept reaching back for this drink to refresh my palate between sips of other cocktails. Oh, also, the drink is garnished with a “bloody” cherry – apropos in a cocktail named after the assassination of a dictator. (NOTE: Don’t read too much into this one…it’s just a drink that fits the Roman theme.)
Maybe this assignment was a little too on the nose for me: I love booze; I love history; and I despise the current administration. That said, even if you satisfy just one of those categories, you’ll love these drinks. In an increasingly partisan world, I’d like to think that good cocktails are at least one constant amongst nearly everyone. Andrea Tateosian and the entire team at Urbana are combining innovative flavors with whimsical and cerebral plays on an all too relevant historical theme. And in doing so, they’re helping Make Cocktails Great Again.