Tucked in a corner at the North end of DuPont Circle, you might overlook McClellan’s Retreat when making a late-night Florida Avenue trek to Adams Morgan. The façade doesn’t try to call your attention because, frankly, McClellan’s doesn’t need it. It’s been just over a year since this spot opened its doors, but a loyal following of whiskey connoisseurs, Civil War buffs and locals looking for a well-made cocktail keep this Urban Bourbon paradise packed to capacity.
If you’re a McClellan’s regular, then you’re already in on one of Washington’s most beautiful, boozy secrets. If you’re not, they’ll still welcome you anyway, just like they did for me.
“Beautiful” was not only my first impression, but it was also Thrillist’s first impression this past November when selecting DC’s most beautiful bars. Stepping into McClellan’s is like taking a step back in time, with red velvety walls, gilded gold ceilings and Civil War-era photos lining the walls. General George B. McClellan, the namesake of the bar, stands regal outside this watering hole, no doubt ready for a generous pour of America’s native spirit. I shared the sentiment.
Can you spot General Manager Brian Nixon?
Kindly serving me was General Manager Brian Nixon, who’s had his fair share of experience in Washington’s wet scene. Clyde’s, Brasserie Beck, Vermillion, Le Diplomat and Rose’s Luxury; Brian has mixed and poured at several DC favorites and is now bringing that experience here.
I sat at the corner of the bar, across from Brian and next to a couple on a blind date, which I was told is a common occurrence at McClellan’s. The bar is dim, cozy, and elicits an old romanticism that’s perfect for a first drink. Having Brian behind the bar asking how he can “fix” your empty glass and whipping up specialty cocktails doesn’t hurt either. As he helped smooth the nervousness between the romantic patrons to my right, he managed to keep my glass full and answer my questions, multi-tasking with the skill of a thousand bartenders.
Brian’s attraction to McClellan’s was its focus on a superb bar program, allowing more cocktail creativity than he’s had in the past. Along with fellow cocktail experts Tony and Chris, the trio has a collective 33 to 34 years of experience behind the bar. The result? A host of scrumptious staple cocktails and a specialty menu that constantly changes with new themes and fresh ingredients.
December’s cocktails theme was “By the Fireside,” so my first pour was Cuddalore. Served warm, it’s a mixture of Rittenhouse Rye, Laird’s AppleJack Brandy, chai syrup, lemon and cloves. The initial bitterness of the rye, followed by the sweetness of the apple, was the perfect way to warm up in chilly December.
Now that it’s January, however, McClellan’s has embraced winter citrus and heated up their menu with a tropical theme. While we enjoy new names like “The Hawaiian Shirt I Bought, But My Girlfriend Won’t Let Me Wear,” it’s also good to see a few of December’s specialty cocktails stick. In particular, we’re excited about Grant’s Hour.
Brian Nixon’s take on a Trinidad Sour, this beauty is based with Angostura Rum and Amaro instead of the traditional rye and bitters. What’s truly special is the house-made orgeat almond syrup, which involves soaking, crushing and milking almonds, which is then cooked into syrup with sugar, brandy and orange blossom water. Add lemon to balance the beverage and you’ve got one gorgeous glass.
As the winter winds whip harder, prepare to warm up with these three McClellan specialities.
Brian Nixon’s take on Mexican hot chocolate, the Pepperbox’s “habanero ice” started out as a practical joke. Nixon froze bits of the pepper into ice and planned to trick a friend, but actually surprised himself with the creation. The ice’s subtle, lingering heat slowly melts into a cocktail and adds a whole new depth of flavor. When he combined it with Peloton Mezcal, Lucano Caffe and chocolate mint syrup, a boozy take on this winter classic was born. Delicioso!
Oil of Gladness
You’ll certainly be glad if you order this decadent mix of Angostura 7 year Rum, Cardamaro, brown sugar, and coffee topped with Amaro Montenegro whipped cream. It’s served hot, so consider this a cup of cocoa with a warmth that’ll last through the night.
68 Day Barrel-Aged Manhattan
Fellow Urban Bourbon-ers will recall my fascination with Barrel’s barrel-aged cocktail program. McClellan’s is no stranger to this practice, aging Henry McKenna Bourbon (distilled by Heaven Hill in Bardstown, KY!) Miro Vermut and Creole and Angostura Bitters in barrels right behind the bar. Order this if you want a McClellan’s keepsake, because you get to keep the bottle it comes in. Also order it if you’re a fan a marvelous Manhattans.
“In the end, we’re a neighborhood bar with good whiskey and nice cocktails,” says Brian Nixon. An avid traveler, Nixon is working toward bringing the European tradition of artisanal, craft cocktails to fast-paced American bars. For him, it’s clearly an art form, it’s fun, and it’s something he wants to share with Washingtonians.
As he pours one of my last drinks, he dances to the music. “It’s only awkward if you feel awkward,” says Nixon.
“Do you feel awkward?” his fellow cocktail expert asks.
“Not even a little bit,” Nixon laughs. It’s hearty, it’s warm, it sounds like bourbon;
and thanks to Brian and team, McClellan’s is everything an Urban Bourbon oasis should be.