Drink Spirits Walks into a Bar: Barmini by Jose Andres in DC

Barmini by Jose Andres
Barmini by Jose Andres

Having spent the past dozen years drinking for a living, I’m not easily floored by experimental cocktails. I like strong, simple, and stirred drinks. A visit to the newly opened Jose Andres concept Barmini in Washington D.C.,  managed by my former colleague and friend Juan Coronado, not only woke up my palate, but challenged me to look at the art of the drink completely differently.

Barmini is not to be confused with the similarly named Minibar, its big sister bar, which sits adjacent. Both Barmini and Minibar are reservation only, have punctual seating times, and must be booked months in advance. It might seem pretentious to have to book seats for a drink months in advance, but the experience at Barmini is anything but pretentious and well worth the wait.

Juan Coronado
Juan Coronado

Barmini is a utilitarian space, designed for function like a chef’s kitchen. Everything is within reach and purposeful. The back wall is one large shelf containing rare cocktail tomes, vintage cookery items, and Coronado’s painstakingly curated glassware collection. There’s no great bar divide between the customers and Juan’s mixology staff – the layout is free form and open. Juan Coronado explains the open concept, which “allow us to connect with the guests, have them walk around to see what we are doing.”

Barmini's Cactus Couch
Barmini’s Cactus Couch

Sleek and brightly lit, with funky patterned sofas (including one that appears to be covered in cacti), Barmini has less than a dozen bar stools. It feels like a cross between a Soho artist’s loft and experimental MIT science lab. A Heidolph rotary vacuum machine sits next to a bubble gum pink cotton candy maker, and big glass jars full of utensils line the countertops. Coronado is excited to show me what looks like a waffle maker, but turns out to be a contraption that instantly makes dry ice.

It’s easy to see molecular mixology as something that’s fussy and overdone, but Coronado makes it into something much more interesting and relevant. Coronado is meticulous, but he also has a contagious zeal for cocktails that is pretty darn fun.

Old Fashioned with Mezcal Cotton Candy
Old Fashioned with Mezcal Cotton Candy

Case in point: the cotton candy machine churns out a smoky mezcal flavored version made from agave. When he sets a rocks glass down overflowing with fluff and announces he’s making a version of an Old Fashioned, I’ll admit I was skeptical. But as he pours a potent mixture of rye and bitters slowly over the cotton candy, it dissolves, functioning like simple syrup. Everything works as it should: a balance of spirit, sugar, and bitter.

I’ve had spirits thrown in centrifuges, lit on fire, and turned in to carbonated cocktails, but most of those are done in places for sheer novelty. Barmini was conceived out of Chef Andres’ culture of creative crazy, Coronado’s encyclopedic knowledge and bar skills, and a desire to change the way we think about drink.

Lost in Translation
Lost in Translation

I’m reminded of Iron Chef, where sometimes strange (and other times ordinary) items are transformed with astonishing results. Coronado whips out a bottle of soy sauce and some mirin and begins setting up to make a cocktail inspired by Chinese takeout. The addition of Bacardi rum, cream, and simple syrup may sound less than appealing, but the result is malty, savory and slightly spicy (he adds a dash of Japanese shansho pepper on top). It’s delicious.

“Lost in Translation”
By Juan Coronado, Cocktail Innovator at Think Food Group
2 oz. Bacardi rum
¼ oz soy sauce
¾ oz mirin
1/8 oz simple syrup
½ oz cream
Shake all ingredients vigorously over ice in shaker. Strain into a rocks glass with one large ice cube. Garnish with a dash of Japanese sansho pepper.

There are over 100 cocktails on Barmini’s debut menu, organized by spirit category and developed by Coronado. Besides the classics (and riff on said classics), there are many brilliant originals. Coronado admits the program is ambitious, but that’s the point. His goal is to push the envelope on how ingredients interact in cocktails. It’s a noble experiment that Coronado is more than willing to do in front of an audience of thirsty guinea pigs, and the experience is thrilling.

Barmini is located at 855 E St. NW, Washington DC, in the Penn Quarter neighborhood. The entrance for Barmini is located on 9th Street, just north of E St. (202-393-4451). Reservations are required and can be made via the Barmini website.