WASHINGTON — Torrence Swain is the Jay Z of cocktails.
“You know how Jay Z doesn’t write his rhymes, he just goes in the booth and starts putting it down? That’s how I feel when I get that creative juice flowing,” said Swain, the head bartender at Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons in Georgetown. “I’ll just stand in the bar and just keep working on it until I get something.”
This month, he’s devoting all of his creative energy to bourbon.
September is National Bourbon Heritage Month. During a time of year when minds switch from sandcastles to school buses, Swain and others in the booze business want consumers to trade in their frozen beach drinks for America’s native spirit — and there’s never been a better time for bourbon.
“In the last, maybe 10 years, bourbon has seen a revival, a resurgence,” said Swain, who credits labels such as Bulleit and Beam for making the spirit more accessible, both from a price and taste standpoint.
In fact, bourbon production jumped more than 70 percent between 2009 and 2013, The Washington Post reports. And according to Fortune, American distillers tripled the amount of whiskey they exported between 2002 and 2013.
“And folks are opening their minds more,” Swain added.
Bourbon is inescapable at Bourbon Steak — after all, it’s in the name. The fine-dining establishment has long been a destination for those seeking a pour from some of the best bottles in the world. Swain says some guests have paid upward of $350 for a dram of the ultra-rare Michter’s Celebration.
But managing a bourbon program doesn’t mean stocking the shelves with scarce and stodgy bottles that only the 1 percent can enjoy. It’s also about tracking down what’s new and next, and these days, a lot of the excitement is local.
“The reason why D.C. became the No. 1 food town by Bon Appétit is because we have such a strong community here. It’s less about rivals and more about helping one another,” he said.
And showcasing local brands to global guests is a way to introduce the world to what’s happening in the heart of the nation’s capital.
“I would say that the Four Seasons is kind of like a stage where a lot of people pay attention,” Swain said. “Partnering with those distilleries … it definitely gives us a wider bandwidth out in the community, that people know we’re using those things. It’s a good way to keep us all together.”
D.C.’s brown liquor community is still pretty green, however. Most of the District’s distilleries opened their doors in the past two years and are still waiting for their first batches to mature. The bottles they’re currently selling are bourbons that were started somewhere else and finished using their own proprietary methods, Swain explains.
“Every now and then, you’re able to cut that corner if you have a new way of aging, or maybe smaller barrels, but by and large, it takes a while to bring your own stuff.”
With bourbon on the rise, Swain likes to introduce the spirit to newcomers one of two ways: He pours flights for those who prefer to compare flavor profiles, and mixes cocktails for those who opt to drink it with syrups and spices.
Of course, you don’t have to reserve a stool at Bourbon Steak to experiment with bourbon. You can do what Swain does and get creative in your home kitchen.
The good news is, a good bourbon cocktail requires very few ingredients. One of Swain’s favorites is a punch with bourbon, green tea and honey.
“It’s just that simple,” he said.
Bourbon and fresh lemonade make for a refreshing late-summer drink, as does a “brown derby,” which is 2 ounces of bourbon mixed with 1 ounce of grapefruit and 1 ounce of honey.
Of course, having the recipe for an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan in your repertoire is essential.
“There are all different ways you can apply bourbon and it’s pretty easy,” Swain said. “I’m just glad bourbon’s on the rise. We’re named Bourbon Steak, so that kind of works out for us.”
Cocktail Recipe: Give ‘Em Hell, Harry
Torrence Swain, Head Bartender, Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons
Yield: 1 cocktail
2 ounces bourbon
1 ounce cream sherry
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Lemon twist to garnish
Bourbon or maraschino cherry to garnish
Stir ingredients over ice and serve up in a coupe glass or in a rocks glass over ice. Garnish with a lemon twist and a cherry.
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