Barrel is a nice Capitol Hill watering hole offering lively exchanges and plenty of old and new bourbons
Overall Rating: 3.75
I’m the focused, deliberate sort: when I find a new neighborhood in DC that I haven’t sipped from extensively, I get fixated, and work my way through its offerings. So on a warm evening visiting Hank’s and Beuchert’s Saloon, I made a stop in at Barrel, the Capital Hill spot which, alluringly, bills itself as DC’s bourbon bar. Populated mostly by well-dressed couples and hard-drinking hill staffers, the bar has a massive, serpentine expanse, high seats, and USB ports. Light wood and warm light set a convivial, low country ambience. A nice back bar hosts a younger, beer-focused crowd. The atmosphere is DC-fun, high-minded discussions mixing with baser conversations (my contribution). Service was friendly and excellent.
Barrel presents its liquor bona-fides in its expansive holdings along the wall – the bar offers a really formidable bourbon list with some rare and pricey specimens. But the proof is in the cocktail-soaked pudding – I thought Barrel’s plentiful cocktail offerings were strong, very spirit-forward, and mostly enjoyable, with one standout. That favorite drink of the evening was the “Bangkok Surprise” with Old Grand Dad, aperol, lemon, and simple syrup. This heavenly elixir drank something superb, with a bitter cut on the nose that was tastefully relieved with a sweet, citrus flush from the lemon and syrup. I love dichotomy in girls and in cocktails, and that dueling, clashing sensation shines here.
Started with”A Henway?” with Barr Hill gin, blackberry syrup, and lime. Gin lovers will revel in this one, as the enervated herbal lights you up straight away, with the blackberry and lime playing a supporting role in the second half. Refreshing for a ginny heavyweight, this was ok. Up next, “The Bucket” with Old Forrester, pepper-ginger syrup, and bitters. I liked this one, and thought it was the best bourbon-based cocktail at Barrel; resonant, oakey, and a tad syrupy, this drink benefits greatly from the mischievously spicy pepper ginger syrup, which I found interesting. Good.
A great Seinfeld reference came with the next drink, the “Summer of George” with St. Germain, suze, mint, and ginger beer. It’s appearance suggests a summery elderflower sipper, but the suze and ginger deliver a surprisingly acute burn here, making this a slow drink. A brash cut from the beginning powers this drink, which I found engaging and unique. Worth a go. Then the “Si, Wey!” with tequila, Ancho Reyes, sage, and lemon. This was so-so: everything in this drink was just ok but you won’t remember it, with an melancholic sting from the tequila leveled with the lemon. A perfectly acceptable subtly sweet tequila based cocktail, but not one you’re likely to remember.
Then the “Open Arms” with Rittenhouse rye, cynar, and Mandarine Napoleon, an orange liqueur made from, you guessed it, mandarine oranges. I was braced for this one but actually ended up reveling in its boozy power; the rye and cynar mix well for a luxurious and bitter burn that doesn’t quit. The best part is the orange, bitter kiss at the end, which makes for a great aftertaste as well. I enjoyed this one, and thought it was a very good exposition of Rittenhouse in a cocktail. Always willing to experiment, I tried one of Barrel’s “from the Lab” barrel-aged cocktails, in this case the “Corn & Oil” with Black Seal, Velvet Falernum, and angostura bitters, aged in red wine barrels. This was an attractive drink with a cool, almost coke-ish hue. The taste was intriguing, very syrupy and sugary slick from the dark rum, then an ambient bitter taste from the falernum and angostura. I pondered this drink, which is a good sign; I couldn’t quite et a handle on its flavor profile, so I’d recommend it for people who want to challenge their alcohol palette. Enjoyable, just like my evenings at Barrel – if you’re looking for a place to relax or drown your sorrows on the Hill, Barrel fits the bill.