Note: First Looks give previews of new drinks and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
One of the latest additions to the booming 14th St. corridor in Washington, DC is the newly opened Black Whiskey, from the team behind Kushi Izakaya. It pulls double duty as a mixed-use event and live music space on the first floor and a small craft whiskey bar on the second, the latter of which is run by bar manager Jack Caminos (formerly of Black Jack and The Brixton). With 60 to 70 whiskies behind the bar, Caminos wants people to explore the complex array of flavors that whiskey can offer.
Caminos freely admits that he hates cocktail menus. "I think the cocktail menu has destroyed drinking in America," he says, expressing his exasperation for "this constant need to create and reinvent." Instead, Caminos wants people to "appreciate the core ingredients" that people have put so much time and effort into creating and curating. "You don't want to cover it up with too many other flavors." In that vein, Caminos can easily prescribe a particular whiskey (or whisky) for your tastes on a given day.
From the affordable end of the spectrum, the $7/glass Lexington Bourbon, Caminos says, is "just a well-made Kentucky Bourbon," great for people trying to get familiar with whiskey without breaking the bank. On the more expensive side is a whisky that Caminos describes as "just magical." Blackadder Raw Cask whisky is bottled straight out of the cask. This non-chill filtered whiskey contains particulate matter from its casks that Caminos says allows the "flavor to evolve while in the bottle. It's the same difference," says Caminos of the comparative depth of flavor, "as a salami versus a hot dog."
Other notable bottles that Caminos pulls from the shelves include Breaking and Entering Bourbon from St. George Spirits. "It's a whiskey for people that call themselves whiskey aficionados; it's got smoke, but it's not too challenging." He even has a handful of corn whiskies, including a bottle of Hirsch Kentucky Corn Whiskey that's made of a 100% corn mash bill. "It has the sweetness of a corn liquor," says Caminos, "but with the distillate harshness."
Caminos does draw up a small cocktail menu that changes every day, and is considering establishing a seasonal menu of around five cocktails. He would still, though, much rather prepare a drink for you based on your conversation with him. "If people come in and know what they want, that's great; if they don't know what they want, that's great too," Caminos remarked, but laments the kind of drinker that has a pre-established agenda, such as drinking all whiskey neat indiscriminately, even if it calls for a splash of water.
When I asked for something bitter and citrusy, Caminos poured a concoction called "Bitter Death," a rye cocktail with Cynar, lime juice, and Maraschino liqueur. The drink was herbaceous and bitter, but with an acidic undertone from the lime. When my drinking companion expressed an affinity for Moscow Mules, Caminos whipped up his version of a Negroni Sbagliato, which he dubbed a "ballsy Negroni." Proving that there are at least a few non-whiskey bottles in the building, it contained barrel aged Old Tom gin, Campari, Dolin sweet vermouth, and topped off with tonic.
Caminos believes that the lack of an established cocktail menu isn't a deterrent even for the uninitiated. He hopes the interaction required will help guests discover the wonders of whiskey: "If you serve something to people in a knowing way, they'll appreciate it."
Hang out at Black Whiskey and you're likely going to need something to soak up all of that whiskey, so it's also worth noting that Black Whiskey is also a "carvery pub." Kushi owner and chef Darren Norris have installed a carving station at one end of the bar to serve $18 carving plates featuring items like bacon wrapped pork loin. And if your stomach needs a break altogether, there's a pool table in the back and live music on select nights downstairs.