When Chris McNeal came on as beverage director at Bar Dupont in Washington, D.C., he was tasked with finding a purpose for an unused alcove in the corner of the bar. The small space didn’t scream possibility, and yet, McNeal’s creative repurposing has given Bar Dupont a new reason for its destination status.
While brainstorming creative ways to make the space functional, McNeal stumbled upon the idea of adding a homemade bitters program. In essence, McNeal wanted to become a modern-day apothecary.
While bitters have a history of medicinal use, the functionality in this case leans more toward crafting custom cocktails than curing a stomachache. Customers are drawn to the creativity, the craft, and the ability to build personalized beverages with ingredients made in-house.
Guests choose from eight base flavors of bitters (or from the three rotating specialty flavors), and combine them as they please within any sort of drink—from a Champagne cocktail to an Old-Fashioned. For regular customers, bartenders will even blend different bitters to create specialty mixes, numbering and storing the vials for future visits.
“I wanted to do something that basically eliminates that big bar between the guest and the person behind it to give [guests] a more experiential visit,” McNeal says. "I think it works because people are much more savvy with cocktails now than they’ve ever been.”
He hopes to redesign the formerly empty space to look like an old-school tincture dispensary, with backlit shelving and pullout trays stocked with sugar cubes primed for taste-testing the different flavors—such as the homemade mole, lavender, or peppermint bitters. The remodel is scheduled to be complete by mid-summer.
Crafting the flavors is a relatively cheap and easy process, though it requires patience. Creating each variety requires a base liquor (typically Everclear, though any 100-proof liquor will do), a small amount of a flavoring agent (such as chocolate or habanero pepper), and a couple of weeks for infusing to take place. The cocktails are priced from $12 to $14.
While the process is simple, there are nuances, and McNeal makes a point to avoid one-note flavors. The grapefruit bitters, for instance, also have a hint of hops infused to give the additive more dimension.
McNeal emphasizes that the purpose isn’t to create a stuffy, highbrow experience. It’s just the opposite. The bitters program and apothecary vibe are meant to engender customer-bartender interaction and give visitors who possess a genuine interest in craft cocktails a memorable experience, creating guest loyalty in an organic way.