Punch by Twilight – Columbia Room (Punch Garden)

The perfect spot for a spring or summer soiree, the Columbia Room’s less formal sibling offers a ton of refreshing and delicious cocktails.

 Ambiance: ****1/2

Decor: ****

Service: ****

Cocktails: ****

Overall Rating: 4.25

So if you are familiar with the existence of alcohol and Washington DC, you’ve no doubt heard of the Columbia Room, the famed and much-heralded doyenne of the DC cocktail scene. Reopened to much acclaim in February, I have been chomping at the bit to visit but feared the legions of well-dressed sophisticates that I imagined packing the bar. What can I say, I don’t care much about getting the “yes I was there the first week it opened” merit badge and am more attracted to spending seven hours with friends in a casual setting than in an elegant but crowded environment.

But any concerns I had of being drowned in pretension were dashed this week when I spent an evening at the Columbia Room’s newly-opened Punch Garden, an elevated, peaceful oasis serving some really money drinks. Simply adorned with comfortable furniture and featuring a beautiful view of the Mt. Vernon neighborhood, the garden hums with conviviality and charm. It was a bit cold that night but the powerful heaters kept the chill at bay. Our bartender and punch maven provided excellent service and was super friendly to boot.

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I loved the punches and bottled drinks at the Punch Garden; of the ten we sampled, I thought four were standouts that I won’t soon forget. To a drink, they confirmed and embodied the laissez-faire atmosphere of the garden but also paid homage to the sophisticated nature of the inside bar, deftly wielding exotic ingredients like jugo verde (a fruit and veggie blend from Mexico) and lemon verbana (a Japanese spirit with rice, barley, and sweet potatoes). Even better, the bottle cocktails, contained in pretty little glass pop tops, open with an energetic flourish that yells carbonation and fun.

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We started the journey off right with one of my favorites, the standout “May Wine” with Riesling, brandy, sparkling wine, sweet woodruff, strawberries, cane sugar, and lemon. This is a great example of drinks matching setting: like the bar it came from, the May Wine was relaxing, casual, but interesting enough to talk about. A beautiful strawberry essence haunts the light taste of sweet wine and brandy, making for an easy sipper that warrants a moment or two of contemplation as you drink. Loved it. On to the “Gin Punch a la Terrington” with gin, green chartreuse, oleo saccharum, lemon, soda, and lemon verbena. This was actually a fairly strong, stiff gin hit, which I didn’t shy from at all. Very herbal, the cocktail offers a few hints of lemon but is mostly a gin and chartreuse show, pepped up a tad with soda. Good.

Things got much spicier with “An Early Morning Swim in Puerto Vallarta” with tequila blanco, jugo verde, supercharged OJ, and heirloom pepper vinegar. This was a bit of a miss for me, I though the heat was just a little uneven and overbearing, and I didn’t love how the tequila paired with the other ingredients. However, a friend of mine declared it his favorite drink at the punch garden, so there you go, maybe it was just my delicate palette. Then we sipped the “Linstead Punch” with rye, pineapple syrup, lemon, absinthe, and aromatic bitters. I noted in my little cocktail journal how “complex” this one was: heavily anchored in the wonderful pineapple syrup, this checked off several flavor layers as I sipped, going from a soft citrus hit, to a strong rye burn, to an even, sugary finish. Nice.

A great standout came next, the “Citrus Chu-hi” with shochu, mineral water, and citrus. The citrust was everything in this cocktail, making for a wonderfully subtle flavor with the shochu, which I don’t think I’ve had before. It added a faint touch of nuttiness to that refreshing orange-ish mineral water taste. Awesome. Then the “Salted Cucamelon Chu-hi” with shochu, mineral water, and salted cucamelon. So a cucamelon, which sounds really cool, is a little fun vegetable from Central and South America that tastes like cucumber. Again, the shochu is a cool compliment to this herbal salt mix, bracing it with a good, earthy burn. Nice.

My favorite cocktail of the evening came next, the “Cherry Blossom Collins” (not pictured) with vodka, pickled cherry blossom cordial, lemon, grenadine, and soda. Sadly I forgot to snap a photo of this masterpiece but the wonderful taste is still etched on my taste buds. A superb mix of strong vodka and a simmering sweetness with some tartness on the back end, this is the definition of the outdoor drink. Poppy and fresh, this is a light and pink taste which you’ll have to struggle to place down. One of those that you could drink 2 or 3 of with glee. Perfect. The “Rhum and Rhubarb Basil Tonic” popped next with aged rhum agricole, rhubarb basil tonic, and lime. A good one, the lime mixes so well with the sugary rhum agricole while the basil just kisses the edges of the flavor. Nice and easy.

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I started the final descent with the “No Mail on Sunday” with white rum, rhum agricole blanc, bergamot honey, lemon, and prosecco. This was decent, with a pretty stiff white rum kick leavened a bit by the honey, while the prosecco bubbles down your throat. I did think the balance on this one was a little off, with that stringent rum burn on the front end, but that’s a minor nit. The final entry was the “Suffering Bastard” a wonderful standout with bourbon, rum, ginger vanilla soda, aromatic bitters, and lemon. This was divine particularly the ginger vanilla soda, which adds this cool, almost minty flavor to the always welcome bourbon burn. Thrown in a hint of citrus on the backend and you have yourself a near perfect, slow-drinking sipper. It was a memorable and great night at the Punch Garden and only intensified my desire to return and take on the Spirits Library. Maybe next week 🙂

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