Ivy City distiller Joseph A. Magnus laid off about half of its full-time staff earlier this year in a move the company claims was part of a new national growth strategy. Two of those affected employees, master distiller Nicole Hassoun and marketing head Thy Parra, quickly moved on from the loss by creating their own pop-up cocktail company.
Cocktail Curations has already been hired out for events at hotels, private homes, and museums around town. The partners declined to comment on their break with the distillery, but called the nudge toward entrepreneurship the “silver lining.”
”I am always going to be creating gins and recipes for people, so that will never stop,” says Hassoun, whose experience helming Jos. A. Magnus’s vodka and gin lines helped the brand win awards and raise its profile.
For her new company, she’s creating flavored zero-proof cocktails by distilling water with citrus, herbs, and other natural botanicals to mimic the flavor and depth of gins without alcohol or sugar. At booked events, the company serves those drinks on their own or with spirits on the side.
According to the founders, the demand for zero-proof cocktails in D.C. is at an all-time high.
”People want to eat and drink well and not have that, ‘I feel terrible the next day’ feeling,” Parra says. ”A lot of clients either want low-ABV cocktails or are just on a cleanse, or it’s part of their way of life.”
Despite her deep love for gin and other spirits, Hassoun also favors zero-proof and low-alcohol drinks.
”I want those flavors but sometimes I just don’t drink,” she says. “Being in this industry so long, sometimes my body just doesn’t want [alcohol].”
The partners first met eight years ago. They say forming a cocktail company based on their paired skills was always in the back of their minds.
Parra, a D.C. native with deep connections in the industry, is a former chef with experience planning lavish parties and catering events at the Mandarin Oriental and other top D.C. hotels. Hassoun brings experience as a craft bartender and distiller to the table. She previously worked at Wisdom and the Gin Joint, where Washington Post Express readers named her D.C.’s best bartender.
They hurried the launch of Cocktail Curations during White House Correspondents’ Dinner weekend in April so the company could serve its products at a Capitol File party in the Dupont Circle Hotel.
”It was great timing. It happened so quickly — we weren’t expecting to go so full force yet,” Hassoun says. “Everything fell into our lap.”
Cocktail Curations’ website is expected to go live soon, and the duo is already working to bulk up its staff.
Along with its line of botanical waters, which the pair hopes to sell to bars and restaurants one day, the company aims to create “experiential” cocktail parties with specialty concoctions, spirit tastings, mixology classes, and custom cocktail bars.
Once the company books an event, the founders’ creative process includes finding out what food will be served and playing up flavors from there. Each event dictates what kind of garnishes and glassware to use. Parra likens the company to a “chameleon” that blends in with each event’s look and style.
For example, if Hassoun knows steak will be served, she can find gins distilled with flavors that will complement the meat and create a custom juice blend.
An event at the Smithsonian American Art Museum last week showcased two botanical tonics: a raspberry and lavender flavor and and basil and fennel flavor. Those were served alongside fresh and dehydrated vegetables, herbs, spices, and bitters with an option to add gin, vodka, or tequila. An Old Fashioned station let guests pick their bitters and base spirit (or skip the spirit entirely).
Event planning company EVOKE DC and flower farmer group American Grown Flowers recently hired Cocktail Curations to make drinks for an outdoor dinner at a farm in King George, Virginia. A raspberry and lavender thyme tonic, built with goods from a local a farmer’s market, was mixed with Green Hat Gin, Don Ciccio & Figli limoncello, and fresh lemon.
”I love to balance botanicals. it’s so much fun,” says Hassoun. ”I go to sleep thinking about recipes and flavors and when I wake up I am excited to execute them.”
Right now one of her favorite “funky” brands to serve (and drink) is Gin Mare, made in the small Spanish fishing town of Vilanova with local Mediterranean botanicals like olives.
”I love big and bold with juniper,” she says.
She’s also pouring Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin, slow distilled by hand in medieval copper pot stills with Caraway seed and Indian cardamom alongside vapor-infused botanicals like Chinese lemon and Gunpowder tea.
“There is no short supply of outstanding gin and spirits out there to choose from, and that makes my job pretty amazing,” she says.