Food & Drink

How Megan Barnes Changed DC's Cocktail Scene in 2016

Published On 11/02/2016 Published On 11/02/2016
Megan Barnes
Courtesy of Megan Barnes

Espita’s general manager, Josh Phillips, is one of the world’s few certified Master Mezcaliers, and he tapped Barnes to head the bar program, and help make a name for mezcal in DC. Since Espita opened, Barnes has introduced several new lines of mezcal to the DC market, and she’s visited Mexico on behalf of the Tequila Interchange Project, which advocates for sustainable practices in agave distillation and encourages the preservation of the heritage behind production. She’s an alumna of Columbia Room, McClellan’s Retreat, and Policy.

What do you see as this year’s biggest changes or developments in DC’s drinks scene?

Cocktail programs in restaurants -- in the past, it was all about the food, and pairing dishes with a good glass of wine. Now, restaurants are expected to have an exceptional drinks menu and a bar team that will earn them accolades.

Also, women behind the bar are finally being recognized. I hate pulling the girl card, but for years, the best bartenders list failed to mention the powerful women in our industry. If you read the comments after this article, you'll see that we still live in the stone age, where women are like ornaments, meant to attract male clientele -- or at least that's what men think. But many of my female friends are running successful bar programs, winning competitions, and supporting things like the Speed Rack competition for breast cancer.

What kind of an impact do you think the addition of a mezcaleria has made on the spirits conversation in DC?

Espita has had a huge impact on DC. Now we are seeing mezcal on every cocktail menu, and usually if you peer behind the bar, you'll see at least three bottles of mezcal stocked. I ate Japanese a couple of weeks ago, and had a pour of mezcal with my dinner because they offered it.

We have also widened the access to really unique bottles of mezcal. Bottles of Fidencio Clasico and Del Maguey Vida used to represent the only mezcals in the city, and now I can proudly say that I have allocated over 100 different bottles of mezcal for Espita. Drinking responsibly now has a new meaning; we’re teaching people to drink and enjoy these hand-crafted, small-batch spirits, and not those mass-produced, branded-to-death spirits like Patrón Tequila. It's really cool to be able to trace every bottle back to a family in Mexico, and it's fun to share that with our guests.

Tell us about your favorite cocktail or ingredient from 2016, and what you loved most about it.

Obviously, mezcal. I swear by it. I can drink mezcal for days and never see a hangover. I will shout out my alma mater here and say that Columbia Room has the coolest cocktail of 2016. It's called This Is Not a Rosé. It comes out in a wine glass, looking like a blush wine, and is actually a mezcal-based cocktail with an infusion of red bell pepper and Cocchi Americano -- I think. Drink credit: Jake Kenny.

Which aspect of your career is the most rewarding?

Being able to support such an awesome spirit, and to be able to represent the families in Oaxaca. I love educating people about mezcal because like I said, every bottle has a story, and I love telling stories. I have an incredible team at work -- not only behind the bar, but on the floor. We are incredibly tight-knit, and I am happy to say that they've been with me since day one. Seeing their faces light up when they talk about mezcal is intensely rewarding.

What excites you about DC’s drinks scene right now?

The culinary uprising; I've lived in DC all of my life and have been in the industry for 10 years, and finally people are starting to take our restaurants seriously. We're seeing young creatives grow up before our eyes, and they are now making lists of best restaurants in the country. When our restaurants are doing well, our bars are doing well. Also, it seems to be the year of mezcal. It excites me to be the pioneer of that.

What are you looking forward to in 2017, and what do you think the new year has in store for the DC drinks scene as a whole?

We've been sitting down with producers and tasting new distillations, and, well, wouldn't it be fun to make a bottle of your own mezcal? I don't want to give too much away, but we're in the concept development phase for a potential second location.

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Lani Furbank is a freelance food and drinks writer who is crushing hard on the bar stars in this year’s winners’ circle. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @lanifurbank or read her blog at www.LanisCupOfTea.com.

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