Bar owner Derek Brown isn’t even sure they still make the stuff, but sitting at the bar at Old Ebbitt Grill on Monday night, he asks anyway: “We’ll take two shots of Irish Mist.”
“OK. Chilled or unchilled?” the bartender replies. Brown expected the guy to laugh in his face—the way an Apple Store employee might if you asked for a floppy disc. But this white-haired bartender in burgundy suspenders and a bowtie isn’t fazed.
“Uh,” Brown says. “You have it?!”
“Irish Mist? Yeah.”
“Oh my god. Yes.”
“Not many people order it anymore like the old days.”
The bartender pours a heavy helping of the brown liquid—an Irish whiskey liqueur made with honey, herbs, and spices—out of a cocktail shaker with ice. Brown and I clink our shot glasses and swig it back.
“I think I just did a shot of simple syrup,” Brown says.
“It tastes like maple syrup,” I say. “It tastes, actually, like watered down maple syrup.”
“Yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s purely confectionary,” Brown says. But drinking it here in one of the oldest restaurants in D.C.? “That’s true shot anthropology.”
When Brown was just starting out as a bartender a dozen years ago, Irish Mist was what the old-school bartenders drank. It was huge in the ’80s. Ordering a shot was a silent acknowledgement that you probably worked in “the industry.”
Tastes, thankfully, have changed over the years, and industry people have cycled through other boozes of choice for their post-shift buzz. In D.C., Irish Mist begat Grand Marnier begat Jameson Irish Whiskey begat Fernet Branca. Now, catch any bartender drinking off-hours, and there’s a decent chance he or she is chasing a shot of Old Overholt rye whiskey with a can of National Bohemian beer—“Boh and O.” Despite the fact that neither brand has any local ties anymore, the pairing has become a distinctly D.C. go-to for local bar and restaurant industry folks. But how?
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“You’ve been working all night. You hit a place for last call. There’s some people there that you know. You try to unwind,” says Jim Hewes, who’s been bartending since the early 1970s and working at Round Robin at The Willard hotel for 28 years. “So you do a couple of shots. Something that goes down easy.” Thirty years ago, that something was Irish Mist.
Sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Grand Marnier—“GM” or “Grand Mar” as it’s known behind bars—began to take its place. The Passenger co-owner Tom Brown, Derek’s brother, thinks the orange-flavored Cognac liqueur caught on because, at least for a while, when bars ordered six bottles, they’d get an extra one free. “It was always that free bottle that all the shots came out of,” he says. Or not. Hewes recalls that Nathans in Georgetown, once a popular last call hangout, stopped keeping bottles of the liqueur behind the bar because all the bartenders and the staff were stealing shots. Instead, the restaurant stocked mini-bottles, so management could keep track of inventory. “Grand Marnier was always the drink of choice,” Hewes says. “It was kind of Scope [mouthwash] for bartenders. You don’t want to smell like a brewery. You don’t want to smell like Scotch.”
Bartender Rachel Sergi, who works at Lincoln Restaurant, recalls Jameson—“Jamo”—catching on around 2001 or 2002 when she was working at Topaz Bar. “We were trying to lure people from GM to Jameson,” she says. “We younger bartenders at the time, we were like, ‘We don’t want that syrupy kind of old man’s drink. We were drinking whiskies...’ If you drank GM, you were kind of like a fuddy duddy.”
An import from San Francisco’s bar culture, Fernet Branca also had a brief moment in D.C. beginning in 2009 or 2010. (The Passenger put the Italian amaro on tap two and a half years ago.) “It’s like a code. If somebody asks for a shot of Fernet you’re like, ‘Oh, where are you from?’” says Sergi. “It’s like a secret handshake.” Appropriately, the bitter spirit is known among bartenders as a “handshake.”
Meanwhile, a rye whiskey renaissance emerged several years ago as locally minded bartenders sought out products that were historically popular in the mid-Atlantic. But there’s nothing particularly local about Old Overholt. Originally produced in Pennsylvania, it’s now made in Kentucky by a sub-subsidiary of Japanese corporation Suntory Holdings.
So how did Old Overholt become the D.C. default? Many credit The Passenger for popularizing it. When the Brown brothers opened The Passenger in 2009, they purposely didn’t carry Jameson, which was still hot then. “Jameson is a breakfast whiskey,” explains Tom Brown, “and we’re only open for dinner.”
Jameson was also getting more expensive as it became more mainstream. “Every douchebag in the world started drinking Jameson,” says Derek Brown, who nonetheless still enjoys an occasional shot of it. “It’s like one of those things where you’re like, ‘I don’t know. Do I want to be drinking Jameson if that guy’s drinking Jameson? Because that guy has date rape and vomit written all over him, and I’m not into that.’”
But the douchebags hadn’t yet discovered Old Overholt, which had long been Tom Brown’s tipple of choice. “For me, it was always a thing because Old Overholt was always cheap,” he says. “When I was working for other people, I could do shots of Overholt or give shots of Overholt to people, and it wouldn’t really affect their liquor costs too much overall. It was kind of like one of those sneaky shots you could do with your bartender buddies when they came in.”
Plus, most bartenders will tell you it’s actually pretty tasty—and the hangovers aren’t so bad. “You really have to spend five or 10 bucks more a bottle to get something that’s of comparable quality,” Tom Brown says. With The Passenger, Brown wanted everyone to partake in things he shared with his “insider” friends, so Old Overholt—sometimes called “double O”—became the house shot. Every day, the blackboard advertises a tallboy (Schlitz, not Natty Boh) with a shot of rye. The combo has a different name every day: “Mandatory Fun,” “Dumb and Dumber,” and most aptly, “I’m So Passenger.”
On average, The Passenger goes through about three cases—36 bottles—of Old Overholt every week. Brown says it’s added up to around 10,000 bottles in five years—enough to cover every square inch of the establishment.
Because The Passenger became an industry hangout, the popularity of Old Overholt spread among bar and restaurant workers. “That’s what everybody was drinking,” says Sergi. She says Tom Brown would give fellow bartenders shots of Old Overholt, and when he visited their bars, they would want to reciprocate with the same. “I think it definitely picked up that way, for sure, amongst the industry folks and then the people who follow the industry folks.” Other bars are tearing through Old Overholt, too: Showtime owner Paul Vivari says he sells more of it than any other non-rail liquor.
As for the combo with Natty Boh, well, it was considered the “local” beer for a long time. After all, D.C. had no breweries of its own until DC Brau opened in 2009. “It was the working man’s beer,” says Sergi. “We’re working men and women behind the bar. It’s almost a solidarity thing.” Never mind that Natty Boh hasn’t been brewed in Baltimore since 1996; it’s now owned by Pabst Brewing Company, a multimillion-dollar corporation based in Los Angeles.
“It’s a gesture toward localism with an acknowledgement of globalism,” suggests Boundary Road Beverage Director Brenden Mulder-Rosi. The H Street NE restaurant features the “industry combo” on its late-night menu. But for him, the appeal is utilitarian: “It gets you where you need to go quickly.”
Whatever its magic, the boilermaker is now advertised at a number of places. At Eat The Rich’s late-night “industry” happy hour, there’s a special on “Boh and O” for $7. And at Dr. Clock’s Nowhere Bar in Adams Morgan, the $6 “low places combo,” as it’s called there, is a menu staple. “I started getting calls for Old Overholt probably within the last two years,” says owner Van Hillard. “I see it more and more. It sort of perpetuates itself.”
And whereas PBR used to be the favored beer, Dr. Clock’s now sells more Natty Boh. One potential reason? PBR has become tragically “hipster.” Natty Boh is considered less so, which bartenders appreciate.
It may seem perplexing that people who make a living mixing sophisticated cocktails and comparing wine notes would drink cheap shitty booze when they’re off duty. But that’s kind of the point. “When your mind is completely engrossed in trying to figure out the best things to drink, sometimes you need to reset your mind with something that’s just a base level delicious,” says Derek Brown. “Shitty that tastes good is Old Overholt and Natty Boh.”
But Boh and O likely won’t live on forever. As its popularity rises, so do the prices, which will inevitably make it less popular with industry people.
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Drinking our way through the history of bartender shots, Brown and I follow Irish Mist with Grand Marnier. From Old Ebbitt Grill, we head to Shelly’s Backroom for some Jameson. And it was only appropriate that the night end with Old Overholt at his own bar, The Passenger.
“What are y’all drinking?” the bartender asks after that.
“What’s the shot of the future?” Brown asks her. “What comes after Overholt?”
She suggests Smith & Cross Jamaican rum with Fernet. “It’s too esoteric,” Brown says. “What will make a shot a shot of the future will be that you don’t have to mix anything.” Instead, she brings over something clear that smells like cumin, caraway, and fennel. “What the fuck? Is this Indian food?” Brown asks. It’s Kümmel—too sugary to be a real contender. After all, the progression from Irish Mist to Old Overholt has moved from sweet to dry. That’s the trend in cocktails as a whole, too. Instead of the Cosmos that dominated bars more than a decade ago, a new generation of drinkers opts for Aviations, Brown points out.
He’s not sure what will come next, but he does know this much: “That generation is not content with fucking Irish Mist.”
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Photo of Natty Boh and Old Overholt at Boundary Road by Darrow Montgomery