If you were known to throw back a few Zimas in high school or had a taste for any brightly-colored drink that arrived at your table in a Martini glass, then these new cocktails are for you.
The Tasting Room at Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. recently unveiled its latest tasting menu, which pairs elevated versions of oft-maligned lowbrow drinks with bites from partner and head chef Johnny Spero.
Dubbed “So Bad, It’s Good,” the nostalgic yet forward-thinking menu serves up four guilty pleasure cocktails popularized during the so-called Dark Ages of the Cocktail, when sweet drinks and anything made with commercial mixes ruled the back bar. The creations were a collaborative effort of the Drink Company team, according to partner and head of bar concepts Paul Taylor. What makes it even more fun is that they are accompanied by a playlist that’s the stuff of old-school hip hop and pop dreams.
After a welcome aperitif, the experience kicks off with a bottled cocktail that’s an homage to Zima, the clear, carbonated, super-sweet malt liquor beverage that was marketed as an alternative to wine coolers and was part of the “clear craze” in the 1990s. Their version mixes Siembra Valles Tequila, Riesling, angelica, vanilla, salt and lemon-lime soda; it’s paired with a dish dubbed “Thai Caviar,” in which paddlefish roe and minced cucumber are served in a tin over a coconut water gelée.
Next up is the Appletini, which bartender Justin Cara-Donna points out was created at West Hollywood restaurant Lola’s in the mid-1990s by a bartender inspired to find a use for the neon green-hued, Jolly Rancher-esque DeKuyper Sour Apple Pucker. Columbia Room classes up the apple sip by stirring Calvados, Cognac, sherry and clarified apple; at the bottom of the glass is a cherry-like garnish made with the molecular gastronomy technique called spherification; encased in the thin membrane is a liquid that tastes like a spicy Atomic Fireball. On the side is a fun take on the wedge salad sprinkled with dehydrated blue cheese.
And then there’s Columbia Room’s version of the Long Island Iced Tea, a cocktail that adds everything but the kitchen sink yet contains nary a drop of iced tea. As the menu points out, “it didn’t need to taste good, because halfway through your second one, taste was relative.” But this one does in fact taste pretty fantastic. Instead of upended bottles pulled from the rail and unceremoniously dumped into a tall glass, it has St. George Terroir Gin, Absolut Elyx Vodka, green pepper-infused rum, Spanish vermouth, amaro, fresh sour mix and house made cola. The taste is savory, dry, vegetal and refreshing. But it’s the food pairing that’s the real star: chicken nugget croquetas marinated in dill pickle brine and packets of umami-rich burnt miso honey mustard, served in a fast-food clamshell container.
It all rounds out with a libation first served in 1977 at the cast party for Saturday Night Fever that’s been making a bit of a comeback as of late: the Midori Sour. Cara-Donna believes Midori is a well-made product albeit it a little sweet. Its fancier cousin starts with High West Oat Whiskey, which is shaken with sake, honeydew, oats, shio koji (an ancient mold) and aquafaba, the liquid procured from canned chickpeas that’s a vegan substitute for egg white. The dessert course is a creamy, dreamy canele with mandarin orange, finger lime and honey cream.
The So Bad, It’s Good menu is US$85 (€76) per person plus tax and gratuity, and reservations can be made through the Columbia Room website.