The Whiskey Cola
A drink from Budapest’s Pink Pony Club.
This Washington, D.C., icon promises both a notorious setting and an impressive selection of drinks.
AS I PULLED into the entrance of The Watergate Hotel, I fantasized that it was the 1970s and I was a journalist meeting up with a top-secret source with dirt on a corrupt politician. For anyone of a certain age, the word Watergate carries a very specific set of cultural connotations, so actually setting foot on the historic property feels surreal. The Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. — like so many other legendary mid-century buildings — feels both beautiful and a little broken. The elegant curve of the building’s facade and distinctive concrete balconies with toothlike cladding are stunning, and the wear of the years gives the complex an unexpected charm.
For anyone unfamiliar with The Watergate’s notorious past, a quick history lesson: On June 17, 1972, five men with ties to then-President Richard Nixon were caught breaking into The Watergate complex’s Democratic National Committee headquarters, which eventually led to Nixon’s resignation. So while the word Watergate is now synonymous with scandal, it wasn’t always so. The Italian architect Luigi Moretti designed the complex in 1963, which arcs around a small bend in the Potomac River, just north of the Kennedy Center. Its modernist style was initially met with derision by conservative residents who thought the building tacky and garish, but The Watergate Hotel, located within the Watergate complex, was quickly adopted by celebrities, politicians, and dignitaries as an A-list hangout after its opening in the spring of 1967. For a time, Elizabeth Taylor even called the hotel home.
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These days, The Watergate is a beacon of pristine midcentury design, thanks to a major renovation helmed by famed interior designer Ron Arad in 2016. In addition to its 336 rooms and sublime Argentta Spa, The Watergate houses Kingbird, a restaurant led by Chef Tony DiGregorio, and Top of the Gate, a rooftop bar that affords spectacular river views. But a highlight of any visit and my reason for being there was The Next Whisky Bar, which lures visitors with a glowing pillar of 2,500 iridescent whiskey bottles. (The bar uses the spirit’s predominant spelling; only Americans and the Irish include the “e.”) Named after Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Alabama Song/Whiskey Bar” (made famous by The Doors in 1967), The Next Whisky Bar is a cozy yet sophisticated cocktail destination with a small dinner menu and a cigar selection.
Unsurprisingly, The Next Whisky Bar serves up an impressive selection of whiskeys — more than 289 — from all over the world. As chief bartender Kalkidan “Kal” Lemma explains, “Most heavy whiskey advocates want the complexity, the spice, the oaky, the apple, the cinnamon, the dry wood, or the hickory.” He also assures me that The Next Whisky Bar is designed to accommodate any visitor, regardless of their whiskey experience level. When asked what he would recommend to a novice, Lemma suggests one of the bar’s signature flight samplers, which showcases smoother varieties such as Glendalough Calvados XO, an aged Irish whiskey that’s finished in Calvados casks.
Hailing from Ethiopia, Lemma inherited a love for cocktails from his father, a military chef. “We’d go to the fresh market, and I’d always see him combining and blending,” he says. “I learned that what you can do with spirits is endless.” This ethos of experimentation is evident in The Next Whiskey Bar’s cocktail menu, which evolves seasonally. Knowing that not everyone desires straight whiskey, Lemma aims to satisfy those who want something easier on the palate. One of his signature drinks is the aptly named “Cover-Up,” a dark and spicy cocktail featuring Woodinville whiskey, cider spice, Averna, lime juice, and peach bitters — a flavor profile that evokes all of the noir intrigue of the Watergate scandal.
After all, part of the appeal of coming here is the wink and nod to the hotel’s salacious past. A 1960s aesthetic abounds — from the staff’s retro uniforms, designed by “Mad Men” costume designer Janie Bryant, to the room keys, which read “No Need to Break In.” The hotel even offers a stay in the Scandal Room, the site of the famous break-in, which is painstakingly decorated with period memorabilia. To many D.C. residents, the complex is simply another part of their city’s rich and sometimes fraught landscape. But for a history nerd such as myself, staying in the hotel provides a fascinating encounter with one of this country’s most bizarre cultural moments. As Lemma puts it, this is what everyone at the hotel hopes to provide: “We try to create something that is unique so people will say, ‘I can have this only at The Watergate.’’’
No trip to The Watergate would be complete without a visit to the Scandal Room, or Room 205 (formerly Room 214). This room played a key role in the infamous Watergate break-in on June 17, 1972 and is decorated with period furniture and news clippings about the event. For the truly Watergate obsessed, the hotel can even organize a visit by your very own Richard Nixon impersonator. If the room is unoccupied, the staff is happy to give you a tour, which includes a fascinating walk-through of the property and a play-by-play of the notorious break-in.
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Joshua Sanchez’s debut feature film “Four” won the Best Performance Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. He’s a member of the Writers Guild of America, East, and has contributed to the Guardian, the Creative Independent, and Lambda Literary.
Rachel Paraoan is a food and restaurant photographer living in Baltimore, MD. Her work has previously appeared in Thrillist, Eater DC, The Washingtonian, Southwest Magazine, the Baltimore Magazine, Baltimore Business Journal, and more.
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