My favorite cocktail bar in Washington DC is Serenata. A bustling hub within La Cosecha market in the NoMa neighborhood, Serenata (serenade in Spanish) serves up beautiful cocktails that showcase the flavors and heritages of Latin American countries.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Andra (“AJ”) Johnson, who is Managing Partner and Beverage Director at Serenata, to learn about how she came to pursue this line of work and where she encounters beauty in her work. I will post the full interview later, but for the moment, here are three vital elements of a beautiful cocktail that she shared in her interview. Check out the video below. (I recommend turning on closed captions since the audio isn't great).
AJ’s first criterion for a beautiful cocktail is balance. We talked in earlier posts about unity and harmony, and balance is a concept in the same family. Her go-to example for a truly balanced cocktail is the Rye Manhattan.
I think the first cocktail that I drank that I did not make myself, and I was like, oh, you just can't mess this up, is the Rye Manhattan. High West, orange bitters instead of Angostura bitters, because you already have that spice coming from the rye. Sweet vermouth, don't really care what kind as long as it's not Carpano, because Carpano Antica is very vanilla forward, it's way too sweet. It's good for Boulevardiers, but not for Manhattans. And then orange zest instead of a cherry or this or that, none of that. And that I could drink anywhere,... because I knew exactly what I was going to get every single time. And that, for me, expressed actual true balance.
So what exactly is being balanced, I asked AJ. She replied:
The aromatized wine and the rye whiskey. There's a really beautiful play of spice that pertains to a zing, and baking spices, that is very, very nice. I really enjoy that very much. I think by adding Angostura there, you kind of take it over the top in a way that is unnecessary. And again, it sort of throws it off a little bit, right? So, in order to create a little bit more roundness, you give it orange instead of Ango. And then on top of that, you've created now a fruit dimension into the cocktail that was never there. Orange and rye play really well together.
Okay, so there are some who like their Manhattans with Bourbon or with Angostura or with the sweetness of cherry added to it. But I tried her version and found it to be exquisite; or maybe my trust in her expertise changed my judgment. But you can try it out yourself. You'll need:
· 2 ounces of a good rye whiskey like High West
· 1 ounce of sweet vermouth (but not Carpano)
· 2 dashes orange bitters
· Garnish: orange peel
Stir with ice and then strain into a chilled glass. And if you want to try out the Boulevardier—another beautifully balanced cocktail--use equal parts rye, Campari, and sweet vermouth (I can attest the Carpano works well here), garnished with an orange twist. And stirred, not shaken.
Beyond balance, AJ added a second criterion that I wasn’t expecting: A beautiful cocktail tells a good story.
They have to make sense. What I've found and what I try to teach people who work for me is that I don't want... if you just pass me a glass of what's in the cocktail, I don't really care what's in it. I care about how you got there, and what's the story behind it. The reason being because the story behind it will literally tell you how much of an ingredient you should put into this cocktail.
She gave me a great example of a cocktail that has a powerful story behind it.
So, right now on the menu at Seranata, we have a cocktail called Perejil. And Perejil is in reference to the Perejil massacre imposed on Haitians by a Dominican dictatorship, where about 20,000 Haitians were killed on the spot if they couldn't pronounce one very particular word, which was perejil, which means parsley, right? You can't roll your Rs, that means you don't have any Spanish background, that means you're Haitian, you got to go....
When I was told that story, I immediately said, "I want to make a cocktail about that." Then I thought about it, and I said, "I need to be 100% careful about how I'm going to do this, because there are people who are still alive right now who lived through that. I also want to make sure that I'm being respectful of both country's cultures at the end of the day, and make sure I'm being sensitive to the fact that it was a mass murder of people. So it was: what am I going to do? The beauty in that was that I was able to find a way to incorporate parsley into a Haitian liqueur, a Haitian coffee liqueur, with a Dominican rum.
And it is literally, for me, I think it's one of the tastiest coffee cocktails I've ever had. But down to the sugar cane and the cane fields that are referenced in a poem that was written about this, and being able to really sort of figure out how to incorporate that parsley properly by bringing together two cultures in one drink, that are obviously in this story on opposite ends of the spectrum. It's definitely not about who you're rooting for, it's about how we can come together and create something delicious and tasty, and also something that teaches us a lesson.
To me, that's the beauty of the cocktail, 100%. It's a brown cocktail, right? Is it the most visually inspiring thing that you've ever looked at? No. Does it taste super, super delicious? Yes. And does it innately sort of embody what it means to be this far apart in your ideologies [spreads hands apart], but be this close [brings hands together] and similar, in terms of creating something wonderful? That's it.
She's right about it being one of the tastiest coffee cocktails ever. It reminds me a bit of Kahlua but with the surprising element of herbal bitterness from parsley that cuts down the sweetness; it works so well, and the story behind it makes it more effective.
3. A sense of home
A final criterion emerged when I asked her what she considered the best compliment someone could pay her. “This reminds me of home,” she replied promptly.
This reminds me of home. There's no other approval. This reminds me of home. “I feel like I'm waking up in X. This reminds me of when I was at –" boom. Just “This is home for me.” This is everything for me.
In the video, you'll see that she demonstrates how she conveys this sense of home in a Peruvian cocktail that she made in collaboration with the Peruvian Brothers restaurant across from Serenata, using their chicha morada (a traditional purple corn beverage) in a variation of the Pisco Sour.
This sense of home seems to be an especially important aspect of beauty in food. I’ve spoken with chefs and hoteliers who similarly told me that central to the beauty they want to create is conveying a sense of home. It seems paradoxical to evoke a sense of home in people who may be coming to you precisely because they want to get away from home, but I think what these professionals mean is that the flavors and experiences they are trying to create somehow convey the essence of something deeply familiar. (Think of the incredible success of Christina Tosi's Cereal Milk: would it be experienced as beautiful by someone who hadn't grown up eating cereal?)
But I think it’s not enough for it to be familiar or homey; it needs to be conveyed in a somewhat unexpected or surprising way. And this takes creativity. I asked AJ to give me an example of a cocktail made by someone else that she experienced as beautiful, and you can see in her response the unexpected and creative way in which a sense of the familiar can be conveyed through cocktails:
Nowadays I think I've been impressed by literally one cocktail program where I'm like, "Oh my God, oh my God!" And it was Double Chicken Please in New York city. It's amazing. Their house cocktails are named after food, and the cocktails taste like the food would have none of the ingredients of the food in them. So, they literally had one that was Chicken Noodle Salad. And it literally just took me back to eating California Pizza Kitchen, those little crunchy wonton things on top of their chicken Caesar salad, that's what it tasted like! And it was crazy. I cried, I walked up and I handed the guy a hundred dollars. My friends were like, "Oh my God, you look like a Bridge and Tunnel kid right now. And I was like, "I don't fucking care. Like, this is like the most amazing experience, cocktail-wise, that I've ever had."
For me, that's genius. That's absolute genius. And to make it so simple -- we're not talking about like huge garnishes and this and that and all over, we're talking about a glass with a two by two cube in it filled with a clear liquid, no other garnish. And you read the menu, and you think you're ordering food. You get a cocktail, you drink that food.... With this, everything is a cocktail except for the flavors. And you're just like, "Yo, I don't understand!"
That's probably the most amazing cocktail experience I've had in the past ten years. Hands down.
So there you have it—three secrets to a beautiful cocktail: balance, story, and a sense of home. With a generous dash of creativity.
I'd love to hear from you about anything that you found interesting in this post. Is there a cocktail or drink that you would consider especially beautiful? I'd love to know what it is and what makes it beautiful to you.
If you found this post valuable, please share it. Also please consider supporting this project as a paid subscriber to support the costs associated with this work. You'll receive early access to content and exclusive members-only posts.