Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a bar that once convinced a Middle Eastern king to drink Kentucky bourbon.
NAME: Jack Rose Dining Saloon
LOCATION: Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.
ON THE JUKEBOX: Stevie Wonder, The xx, Jay Z
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Silent Stills flight: All spirits come from shuttered distilleries; current flight includes Littlemill, Rosebank and Glen Mhor Scotches
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): A pour from a Jack Rose single barrel such as Belle Meade, Willett or Maker’s 46
WHY WE LOVE IT: A crowned prince and a foreign minister walk into a bar. They slurp down some oysters, share a few glasses of Glenmorangie single malt and then when the check comes, they playfully fight over who will pay the bill. This sounds like the set up to a joke, but when it happened in real life, at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., body guards flanked the table, intervening to make sure it didn’t turn into an international incident.
At Jack Rose, the 7,700-square foot whiskey emporium in Adams Morgan, these kinds of scenes occur regularly. Here, everyone from the cast of House of Cards to booze travelers to locals from around the corner gather to drink rare bottles, strong cocktails and unusual beers. “We get everybody in here,” owner Bill Thomas says. “In pure volume we sell more whiskey than anyone else in the country, maybe even the world.”
In a typical year, Jack Rose goes through 10,000 bottles of whiskey. The bar currently has 2,700 bottles in its collection, but Thomas says the number is not the point. “A lot of people say they have these great whiskey collections, but they’re not really trying to sell it,” he says. “Anybody can buy bottles and put them on a shelf. We don’t want it to sit around. We want you to drink it. We’re a library, not a museum.”
His inventory is always evolving and changing, with one-off bottles coming and going every day. “We keep redefining ourselves and narrowing our focus. The goal is to know that every single bottle on the shelf is amazing,” he says. “People know they can come anytime and there’s always going to be something new and special.”
But Jack Rose is more than whiskey. The space actually contains five separate bars: The main dining saloon, which has 2,700 whiskey bottles on display, a cellar, an open-air terrace, a balcony room and a tiki bar. Each bar has a different feel and a different cocktail menu, including many non-whiskey-based drinks. For example in the dining saloon you can order the Kentucky Creole, a combination of Copper & Kings apple brandy, mezcal, chicory coffee syrup and bitters. Or in the tiki bar you can sip on a Coco Face, made from Hamilton Demerara rum, Anchos Reyes chile liqueur, almond-coco cream, cinnamon-chili honey syrup and pineapple juice.
“We wanted to create this big umbrella under Jack Rose that is all things you want to drink,” Thomas says. “This is the best time in American history for drinking. You have the most educated consumer now than you’ve ever had, and with education comes a better appreciation of quality spirits.”
That’s saying something coming from Thomas, whose family has lived in Washington, D.C., and operated restaurants and bars since the 1800s. (“If I ever complain, I’m like well my grandmother and great-grandmother had to deal with Prohibition, so shut up and stop whining,” he says.) Thomas opened his first whiskey-focused bar in 2002.
Back then, he would stock his bar with every bottle of bourbon that was available in D.C. That number was 50. “It was crazy! So I went to Kentucky—there was so much stuff that never left Kentucky and was just sitting on the shelves at the time—and would literally fill U-Hauls with bottles and drive them back,” he says. Legal? Maybe not. But that’s how he helped expand the whiskey offerings in his city.
Today Thomas does things a little differently. He approaches collecting bottles in two ways: First he identifies iconic bottles of the past and then tries to buy up as many of them as possible. Second he tries to determine what will be the next iconic whiskeys (the Ardbeg Dark Cove, for example) and then stockpiles them so he can sell them at a fair price a few decades from now. “I’m thinking 20 years out right now. I never want to get behind,” he says.
He buys everything he can from distributors and local liquor stores, then he goes national, scouring auctions, bottle flippers and estate sales. “You have to be in a constant search,” he says. “Create friendships so you can be the first person who gets a call when something’s coming on the market. Or your best bet is to try to stop it from going on the market.”
Because Washington, D.C., is a federal city, not a state, Thomas is able to sell any bottle that has federal label approval. “If it’s legal in the United States, it has federal label approval,” he says. “So I can buy things at private auctions, immediately pay an application fee and an extra tax and have it on the shelf the next day.”
A bottle’s price often varies wildly, based on quality and scarcity. But Thomas is philosophically opposed to marking up bottles based on marketing alone. (Cough, cough, Pappy Van Winkle, cough, cough.) “There are whiskeys that I’ve seen on other peoples’ lists that are $600 an ounce. You come into Jack Rose and get it for $50,” he says. A bottle of Willett that Thomas bought for $90 a few years ago, for example, is now selling for $6,000 on the secondary market. “They look at it like I’ll never get this bottle again, so I want people to pay the maximum amount because it’s such a rare bottle. I look at it this way: There’s always plenty of rare bottles out there. You just have to go out there and find them.”
To help him determine the old, hidden gems or vintage one-off bottles, Thomas taps into his private whiskey-drinking group that has a 13,000 bottle collection in storage. “Because of who I drink with, we have access to all of these great bottles, all of the way back to turn of the century,” he says. “Not all whiskey ever created is amazing. My job is to find out I like something and then search out as many bottles of it that I can find.”
In the bar, his detailed Whisk(e)y Book breaks down all of the diverse bottles by type of whiskey, region where it was produced, distillery, when it was distilled, when it was bottled, cask (if any) and proof. Then Thomas acts like a sommelier, keeping budgets in mind. If someone says they want to spend $10 or $30 on a whiskey, he will find you the best whiskey at that price point. He asks what they like to drink at home. If someone likes wine, then he’ll offer them a single malt that’s finished in a wine cask. “You can get anyone to try one whiskey, but the experience has got to be so good that it makes them want to go and pick up the next whiskey and then learn about the next 100 whiskeys,” he says.
Jack Rose has already outgrown its space and Thomas is opening another bar, located three doors down, later this year.
“I never expected whiskey to blow up like this,” he says. “In the old days when you walked into my bar and asked about a bottle, chances are I’d come sit with you and I’d comp your tab just because I was so happy to have someone to commiserate with about whiskey. Those days are gone. Now the average person who walks in the door knows so much about whiskey and spirits in general. It’s great because now I’m actually making money off of whiskey instead of just giving it away to make friends.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep