Drinking clubs and challenges of all varieties are popping up around D.C. One of the most unique is at Balkan restaurant Ambar. Growing up in Serbia, Uroš Smiljanić started making and drinking rakia as young as age 12. He didn’t immediately care for the taste of the clear yet potent fruit brandy. But being around it was a way to bond with his grandfather, so he sipped on.
Across that entire region, rakia is much more than a beverage. Every family has a secret recipe that’s kept close to the vest. When visitors come over, it’s considered rude to not greet them with a serving. Sometimes, the liquor is even used to test the mettle of a spouse-to-be.
As general manager, Smiljanić knew rakia had to be on the menu of the Balkan eatery, so guests could partake in this tradition too. Since Ambar’s opening two years ago, the Eastern Market restaurant has offered a growing menu of rakia choices. Then in February, it kicked up its rakia game several notches with the introduction of a new challenge for guests: try all 33 varieties in stock.
The contest, which ends July 31, comes with perks along the way. Drinking 10 rakia shots entitles guests to a free shot. Twenty gets them another free shot. Making it through the entire menu merits winning a personalized bottle of rakia that will stay stored at Ambar for savoring at future times of his or her choosing.
Smiljanić says he thought that creating a challenge with a set stopping and starting point would "fire up the competitive nature" of guests. Ambar is one of the latest eating and drinking establishments around the city to take that approach. Drinking clubs and contests have— and continue to be— an optimal way to educate drinkers about a specific spirit, whether it’s a lesser or more widely known variety.
Rakia is certainly in the lesser-known category, but this challenge is increasing its familiarity with drinkers in the D.C. area. Although just nine patrons have finished the official challenge thus far, many more have started. Smiljanić is also trying to make it extra appealing to give the obscure spirit a whirl by offering rakia-based versions of classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned. It’s available at all times, and there’s a Sunday half-priced deal on rakia shots.
Make no mistake about it, though. Rakia is served in shot-sized portions, but it’s never meant to be chugged. The selection at Ambar reflects a veritable rainbow of fruit flavors, from pear to quince to raspberry, and nearly all varieties are at least 80 proof. Smiljanić even serves the spirit in a traditional glass. The narrow neck makes it almost impossible to shoot the liquid.
Procuring and getting the rakia bottles to the United States is the aspect requiring the most time, effort and trips to the Balkan region. But Smiljanić has no plans to stop. He says soon the eatery will boast 40 types of rakia. He won’t be satisfied until there are 100 varieties on Ambar’s menu.
Across the city in Georgetown, Old Glory has hit that 100 mark with its selection of bourbons. Old Glory, a barbecue joint, may hold the distinction of having the longest-running spirits challenge in D.C. Since 1994, the establishment has given patrons one year from the point they begin to make it through the entire bourbon menu in order to earn a brass plaque that hangs on the wall touting their accomplishment. General Manager Jeremy Curtis says he doesn’t know why or who dreamed up the idea, but it’s caught on in a big way. It became especially popular in recent years as bourbon is now a "hipster signature." Over time, somewhere between 800 and 900 diners have completed the challenge.
The bourbon list changes all the time. Right now, for example, 102 kinds are available and range from Jim Beam at $8 a pop to 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle at $72 a serving. Curtis says usually he’ll recommend that customers "start with something good and then move toward the crappier ones."
"Most people’s palates are not that good that they’ll appreciate a really great bourbon if they’ve had a few already," he says.
What hasn’t changed over time is the far-from-high-tech method Old Glory uses to keep track of competitors’ drinking. It’s a piece of paper with an alphabetical list of bourbons that bartenders punch holes through to check off.
Usually, bourbon club members are locals— age 21 to 26 on average— who stop in a few times a week and have three or four shots per sitting. Spacing it out like that makes finishing the challenge doable and seems easier on the wallet.
Once, 15 years ago, a man passing through Washington took a drastically different tact. He came in at 11 in the morning and took a half-dozen shots until tipsy. Then, he napped in his nearby hotel room for a few hours and returned to repeat the whole process. Curtis says legend has it the man conquered the entire bourbon menu in just four days. It’s a record that no one has come close to touching since.
Whiskey, in a broader sense than just bourbon, is the focus of a spirits club at Church & State, a bar on H Street dedicated to American spirits. There, General Manager Tamarah Taylor says when the club launched about a year ago, the hope was to get bar goers out of their comfort zones.
"Most people come in, and even if they’re a whiskey drinker to begin with, they’ll just get a Maker’s Mark," she says. "But there are so many other whiskeys besides Maker’s, and even some that are like Maker’s but maybe better."
Church & State’s program, unlike Old Glory’s and Ambar’s, doesn’t have an expiration date. Anyone can join the club at any time for $25. Then, each time a guest tries a new whiskey, he or she earns a point. Points add up to prizes like free drinks and swag. Plus, Church & State regularly announces top point-getters via Twitter and then awards them 5, 10 or 15 percent off their bar tabs. And Whiskey Club special events take place all the time for active members.
The establishment’s tracking method is a bit more sophisticated— it’s a Google Doc that members can see and only bartenders can update with points. That way there’s no cheating, yet a healthy sense of competition can play out amongst the 50 club members.
Taylor loses count after 50 bottles. but estimates Church & State currently has about 75 different whiskeys for the contest. They range from white whiskeys to bourbons to American single malts in an array of prices and flavor profiles. Church & State’s GM herself grew to love whiskey because of its complexity and wants more people to appreciate the range.
"You can get ones that are floral and light all the way up to those that are so deep and smoky you feel like you’re chewing on charcoal. And all of it’s great," she says. "Slight tweaks make it all the more interesting. However you’re feeling, there’s a whiskey for that."