Cocktails from the Garden – The Dabney (Visit #2)

Everything right in the bar world, The Dabney provides a luxurious but homey setting, exemplar service, and wonderful cocktails.

Ambiance: ****1/2

Decor: ****1/2

Service: *****

Cocktails: *****

Overall Rating: 5

“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald

When I completed my one-night cocktail residency at the Dabney in February, the Shaw-based restaurant was riding a wave of foodie adulation rarely seen in DC. It was the talk of the town, the belle of the ball. Well, seasons change, but the fervor surrounding the Dabney hasn’t ebbed – quite the opposite in fact, as the restaurant was recently nominated for a Beard Award and their staff even made lunch at the White House! So, when I heard the Dabney had updated their great cocktail list, I jumped at the chance to join in all the fun.

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Hearing or reading about all the bourgeois enthusiasm, you might think that the Dabney is a special occasion spot, not quite right for a casual dinner or drinks. But no, the restaurants simple, Mid-Atlantic country charm is warm and welcoming, with plenty of natural sunlight, light brick, and herbs on herbs. Speaking of plants, the Dabney sources many of its greens and herbs to its rooftop garden, and the greenery finds its way to the bar and in the cocktails, which are all the better for it.

 

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Regarding the drinks, I was happy to discover that the Dabney’s updated cocktail list retained the quality and ingenuity that won it a much coveted spot on my Uber Elite Hot List. The list features several solid gin entries and memorable herbal influences. Of the eight cocktails sampled, I thought four were standouts. Additionally, the bar service is wonderfully friendly and efficient.

My favorite drink of the night was a cocktail coming to the menu shortly, an “Aperol Spritz” with Aperol, egg white, magic pineapple syrup (my informal descriptor) and lemon. The folks behind the bar were nice enough to give me a preview of this one and, after a taste, I couldn’t have been more thankful. A divine blend of soft citrus and bitterness, this was so simple but delicious, with a velvet sweetness, herbal kiss breaking gently into a nice spirit push. Magnificent. And look, it’s goooorgeous.

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I started the party with the “Rooftop Swizzle” with Cocchi di Torino, summer herbs from the garden, and Dabney lemonade. Nice and easy, the lemonade is strong and the cocktail has an inoffensive, bitter twist. A herbal back bone relaxes the cocktail and adds some real character to this smooth and refreshing sipper. Good. Then the “Bitter Botanist” with Green Hat Navy-Strength Gin, Don Ciccio e Figli Cinque, local gin botanicals, and bubbles. Literally swimming in herbs, this was a little too bitter for me off of the cinque, but the herbal power is something to experience for the adventurous. Spicy and herb forward, the gin is subtle and the cider contributed powerfully near the end, making for a nice chaser. Not bad, and I admired the unique flavors found within this organic drink.

Stayed on gin with “Near the Sun” with Green Hat summer gin, the Dabney wildflower tea, lemon, and clover honey. A good spirit/honey combination, I liked the tea spice here and the light florals of the summer gin. I did think the lemon was a little too strong and stringent in this mix, though. But good stuff, overall. Then a great standout, the “D.T.O” with Owney’s NYC rum, raspberry shrub, lime, and Virginia spicebush. Just delicious and refreshing, the rum is light, and the pronounced shrub and lime really drive this perfect summer cocktail. One of those rare drinks that marries a complex taste with a refreshing sensation. Really enjoyed it.

Next was a standout, the “Double-Ration” with Catoctin Creek roundstone rye, Appleton rum, Byrrh (a red wine-based aperitif with an interesting history), and the Dabney walnut tincture. Superb and smooth, the rye is so even that it barely registers, blending seamlessly with the sweeter rum and resonant Byrrh. Then that natural nutty flavor comes in on the edges, making for a wonderfully understated but memorable cocktail. The “Rhubarb Negroni” was next, with Bluecoat gin, H&H Rainwater Madeira, Sfumato Rabarbaro amaro, and rhubarb. While not exactly pleasing to my palette, this is a wild one, electric with an intensity you don’t expect. A shotgun of abstract flavor hits from the onset with the amaro and gin making for a floral, bitter cut, then the honey-ish, lighter flavor of the madeira evens it a bit, but not enough to really tame it. Again, wasn’t one I would order as a starter, particularly if I was new to spirits and cocktails, but it’s a killer ride.

Our conclusion was the standout”From Richmond to Edinburgh” with Smooth Ambler Old Scout 7yr Bourbon, Macphail’s 8 yr single malt scotch, pecan reduction, and Dabney sasparilla bitters. As a scotch scaredy-cat, my lips were a bit pursed for this one, but what a nice cocktail – an experience rather than a drink. I sipped it slow as to appreciate the range of neat flavors that pop as it goes down – the scotch is a kick but the pecan and sasparilla influences leaven it, cutting its stringency. The result is a wonderful, earthy touch that works so well with the bourbon, making for a fun, risk-taking drink that comes through well in the end. A good sendoff to another fun and tasty time at the Dabney – I look forward to my next residency 🙂

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