I am not usually fond of complicated cocktails. It is a general axiom that the more ingredients in a drink, the less palatable it is (that’s right — I’m talking to you, Mr. Long Island Iced Tea). I am also of the opinion that the speakeasy style of joint that hit max hep in the late aught years has been a tired, tiresome, and tiring concept (where is the hidden doorbell on what unmarked door?) ever since. How is it, then, that a Washington, D.C., speakeasy with complicated cocktails has caught my fancy? It’s about as likely I would like a Schmenge Brothers Play Hip-Hop Favorites album or John Cage performing a 4-minute, 33-second version of the "Beer Barrel Polka."
But like it, I do, in no small part because the walls are covered in a fantastical oil mural featuring riffs on John Tenniel’s art for the Alice books, with Alice replaced by Ruby Bridges, drawn not unlike how she was movingly illustrated by Norman Rockwell in the painting The Problem We All Live With. Alice faced the ruthless Queen of Hearts; Ruby faced King Kleagles. There is a certain similarity, painter Erik Thor Sandberg told me: “I thought something rang true about a smart and thoughtful young girl that enters a world of irrationality and hostility.”
Not to belabor how good Sandberg’s illustration is, but until I went to Allegory, my favorite bar for visuals was Bemelmans Bar in New York’s Carlyle Hotel. The artist famous for the Madeline books, Ludwig Bemelmans, lived in the hotel for more than a year and paid for his stay by drawing his distinctive cartoons in a delightful panorama of Central Park. Come to think of it, Allegory is in a hotel in downtown D.C., the Eaton. It would be fitting if it provided Sandberg with a room next year.
Before we get to the cocktails, a caveat. The hotel and the bar have a political point of view, but it is rather cryptically presented, for example in the names of some of the drinks. Unless one is hyper-sensitive to the presence of politics (in the way some people can’t even be in a room where someone else is eating peanuts) one will come away from the speakeasy remembering it for its mixology, not its ideology.
Take the drink “The Color of Law.” It combines Kopper Kettle Virginia whiskey, ODVI Armagnac, Martini & Rossi Ambrato, Cascade hops, local honey, fassionola, and supercharged grapefruit. That’s seven ingredients, more than half of which most people will not be familiar with. (Fassionola is a fruity syrup; Ambrato is an amber-colored vermouth; supercharged grapefruit is your guess or mine.) It should be cluttered with contradictory flavors but ends up surprisingly coherent.
“Mad as a Hatter” is another supercrowded cocktail that proves to be perfectly drinkable. It’s made from a Tequila blend, smoked apple “pechuga,” dill, falernum, blanc vermouth, and clarified butter. Well, at least that’s only six ingredients, even if one is butter. Pechuga, by the way, is a flavored mezcal. Ingredients from fruit to raw chicken are suspended inside the still, where the vapors rise and take on those flavors. I am glad that the Allegory cocktail used apple-steamed mezcal rather than the raw chicken type.
And so go the drinks, which taste better than they should. But can they do simple? There is a section of the menu titled “Passage to the Somewhat Familiar,” which promises classic cocktails. There, one will find drinks such as a pisco sour made from pisco, lime, lemon, sugar, and egg white, which is exactly how one makes a simple, straightforward pisco sour. Their Scotch highball is made with Scotch and fizzy water: Only the addition of grapefruit oil ruins the two-ingredient perfection of the traditional highball.
I am left to wonder, however, whether the grapefruit oil is supercharged. I may have to go back and have another to find out.
Eric Felten is the James Beard Award-winning author of How's Your Drink?