The first time I walked into Church and State I was immediately overcome with the smell of incense — a type with a distinct smell that brought back memories of trying to sit up straight in uncomfortable wood pews while pretending to pay attention to an inaudible and painfully long sermon. The bar was dark and felt quite mysterious as my eyes adjusted to the low light. I made my way to the front room, taking a seat on an old church bench, which did little to ease my strange flashbacks to grammar school, itchy wool skirts and stiff polyester collared shirts. However, once I had a drink in hand and was able to shake the strange childhood Catholic school memories, I began to appreciate the warm comfort of this new H Street bar. Upon my second visit I realized that this would quickly become a regular stop for me on evenings when I’d rather sip a cocktail than drink a beer.
Church and State, as you can imagine, brings together old politics with an old church feel — accented by church pews, stained glass windows, and a large confessional, which I am sure will be home to many future sins. The incense was not burning on my return visit, but the dark church-like atmosphere was the same. (I think they will not continue with the incense since not everyone is a fan). This isn’t a high vaulted ceiling kind of room, but one more reminiscent of the smaller side rooms — tin ceiling, narrow and lined with extra pews and those metal-rimmed chairs that you see pulled out for bingo night in the basement. And while a bar that looks like a church may sound oddly sacrilegious to some, and “kitschy” to others, something about it just works.
This new H Street bar is the latest creation of Erik Holzherr, the mixologist behind Wisdom and Fruit Bat. With a passion for upscale cocktails, this new bar takes an approach unlike the others. All drinks are made of American liquors and mixers, many of which are made by head bartender, Josh Berner. Drinks are all served in small vintage glasses that add character to each order.
As someone who has been to Wisdom more than a number of times, I expected to recognize the list of drinks and was a bit too quick to dismiss the ones I thought I was more familiar with. Thankfully, I was steered in a better direction during Monday night’s media opening. That Sophomoric Sazerac #2? The #2 is a clue that it is a different spin on the Sazerac at Wisdom. Trust me, it is worth a second chance, even if you think, like I did, that you don’t like the liquorish-flavor of absinthe.
I feel that cocktails are difficult to review and describe, as tastes vary widely. Some people love gin while others hate it and only choose vodka. Sweet or bitter, scotch or bourbon, dark rum or light, dry or wet or dirty (I’m referring to a martini, of course)… tastes vary widely and this is one of those places that will leave some saying “it’s too expensive” while others will say they have found their new worshiping grounds. So with that said, here is my non-expert rundown of the opening menu:
The Jack Rose was sweet but sophisticated, served in a vintage cocktail glass that made me feel much more elegant than I am.
The daiquiri had a perfect consistency of crushed ice, going down cold and smooth. It also looked lovely in the glass with two distinct layers of crimson red and hazy white.
The old fashioned was spot on– an important feature on any bar for those of us who just want an old classic when we are feeling less than adventurous. It’s like a vanilla cupcake — if you can’t get the basic flavor right, the others will never stand on their own.
The Chuck Yeager, also known as the Aviation, is a delicious cocktail worth trying.
The mint julep needs some tweaking but that is sure to come, as proper silver cups are on order and will be available soon.
My favorite was the Moscow Mule, a drink with orange vodka and lime-ginger soda. Ginger beer is one of my favorite mixers, so I knew this would hit the spot.
The core list of drinks is called the Bill of Rights and includes 12 modern interpretations of classic American cocktails. You can see the full menu on Thrillist. Once settled with this first half of the menu, they will introduce The Seven Deadly Sins. I will gladly report back when they are ready to give us a preview.
Of course, the bartenders — Josh and Mark Alvarez — will oblige other drink requests and happily tell you about the house-made ingredients and eclectic antique shop cocktail glasses. Josh Berner has a nice style that is down to earth and keeps the craft cocktail experience from veering off into overly pretentious territory.
And don’t worry, if your skirt is too short, there are no nuns around to send you to detention.
Church and State opens tonight at 7:30 at 1236 H St NE, upstairs from Fruit Bat