Rising Stars

5 Rising Stars in Washington, D.C.

Recognizing the creative professionals transforming the drinks scene in the nation’s capital

AJ Johnson
AJ Johnson. Photo courtesy of AJ Johnson.

In our Rising Stars series, seasoned beverage professionals spotlight five of the most outstanding up-and-comers in their city—and discuss the mark each is making on the drinks scene.

While Washington, D.C., has always been a drinking town, in the last decade the city’s flourishing dining scene has given rise to sophisticated cocktail programs, distinctive new wine bars, creative beverage lists, a growing brewing community, and a heightened attention to hospitality (perhaps even more so with the arrival in 2016 of D.C.’s own Michelin Guide).

And thanks to the District’s international and multicultural communities—both its own residents and personnel associated with the embassies it hosts—uncommon ingredients and interesting bottles are finding their way onto many lists. This influence is also evident in the values veteran industry professionals referenced when nominating D.C.’s five rising stars. Diversity, social impact, and heritage were repeatedly remarked on.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the nation’s capital if some politics didn’t trickle into the culture—from a beer retailer who helped change local laws, to a bar owner inspired by current events, to a beverage manager giving a voice to her community. D.C.’s rising stars all share a passion for what they do and are transforming Washington into an even more multidimensional city.

Liz Howard
Liz Howard. Photo by Rey Lopez.

A Michelin Inspiration

Rising Star: Liz Howard, general manager and beverage director, Bresca
Nominated by: Jennifer Knowles, advanced sommelier, general manager and beverage director, Mirabelle

It was Liz Howard’s talent for pairings that first stood out to Jennifer Knowles, one of D.C’s veteran sommeliers. And it wasn’t just the amaro with a foie gras–laced chocolate dessert that was impressive to Knowles but how Howard paired hospitality with her service. “To watch her [work a room] is inspiring,” says Knowles. “Her commitment to guest satisfaction and happiness is just really thrilling to see. At Bresca—which earned a Michelin star in 2018, a year after it opened—the wine program is small and curated to match the chef’s contemporary dishes.

But with an ever-evolving menu, says Knowles, to be successful “you have to have a thorough understanding and experience with food and wine and how that translates to the guest in the restaurant.” She says that can get lost given the increasing numbers of wine professionals who don’t necessarily come up through the restaurant world before studying and getting a certification. “At some point,” Knowles says,” you have to pick up a case and do inventory. There are so many dynamics of running a wine program, and I see [Howard] doing it graciously, with such excitement. She is so driven to make the guest happy. That’s hospitality.”

Howard, who has been working in restaurants since she was a teenager, says that the hospitality part comes easily for her but that it was the beverages, which she only started focusing on in the past couple years, that she found more challenging. “The feel of what a restaurant should be,” she says, “and the small touches and warmth to bring to it is a very natural thing to me.” At Bresca, she says she enjoys finding ways to engage with the guests, whether it’s figuring out the perfect way to celebrate an occasion or introducing them to new wine. “We’ll pull highly allocated bottles out of the cellar and give them to guests at great prices,” she says. But it all comes back to ensuring that the food and wine pairings reign supreme. “If the wine doesn’t match the food, it doesn’t come into the restaurant,” she says. “We taste wines all the time that are amazing, but if we can’t pair it with the chef’s menu right now, it doesn’t come in.”

AJ Johnson. Photo courtesy of AJ Johnson.

An Inclusive Voice

Rising Star: Andra “AJ” Johnson, cofounder, DMV Black Restaurant Week
Nominated by: Nadine Brown, sommelier and partner, Society Fair

Andra “AJ” Johnson is making waves in the D.C. beverage industry by applying an entrepreneurial hustle to wine, says Nadine Brown, who led the wine program at Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill for more than a decade. Whether Johnson is consulting on wine lists around the city, creating a podcast, or bringing the community together through local events, Brown says her combination of energy and knowledge makes Johnson a star. As a cofounder of the DMV Black Restaurant Week (DMV is a local abbreviation for “D.C., Maryland, and Virginia”), Johnson is not just talking with colleagues about her concerns for the city’s diverse workforce—she’s giving them a platform. “There’s no pretension about her,” says Brown. “She’s got dreads, two sleeves of tattoos, and wears a hat that reads ‘WOKE.’ She’s very genuine. It’s an important image to be out there.”  But more than that, Brown says, Johnson is encouraging D.C. residents to have “real, honest conversations that are thought provoking and need to happen.”

At 31, Johnson has already run wine, beer, and cocktail programs at restaurants around the District; she’s become an investor at Macon Bistro & Larder; and she recently launched a podcast while finishing her book, White Plates, Black Faces, which chronicles the diverse experiences of African Americans in D.C.’s restaurant industry. “D.C. is not ‘Chocolate City’ anymore,” Johnson says, explaining that very few black-owned businesses are appearing on D.C.’s best-restaurant lists. “I’m a free resource to the people who want it. I want to make sure they’re having a fair shake. The better those restaurants are, the better they look and are of a higher standard—not just part of the carryout culture, but in a position where they’re financially solvent—that will attract writers and restaurant guides, so they’re on the map for the city’s nearly 700,000 residents to see.”

Dante Datta
Dante Datta. Photo by Chris Chen.

A Master of Ingredients

Rising Star: Dante Datta, bar manager, Ellē; owner, Daru (opening later this year)
Nominated by: Adam Bernbach, bar director, Estadio

Dante Datta’s seamless blending of unique ingredients into his cocktails is the reason Adam Bernbach, one of the city’s most creative mixologists, says he’s someone to watch. “He uses unusual ingredients at times—not in ways that are showy or superfluous,” Bernbach says, “but in ways that are integrated very well and serve the sole purpose of creating brilliant drinks. He’s expanding the lexicon of the ingredients cocktails can use.”

For example, Datta says that one of his favorites among the cocktails he’s created for Ellē is the savory Arabesque, named after the Arabic ornamental design and inspired by a trip to Morocco. It mixes amontillado sherry, dry vermouth, kümmel, and black lemon bitters and is garnished with a black kalamata olive. More influences come from the Indian spices and flavors he recalls from the home cooking he grew up with in the D.C. area, mixed with more formal training he received while working at D.C.’s Rasika West End, the city’s top Indian restaurant; he developed a more studious approach to cocktails and spirits while working at Derek Brown’s Columbia Room.

“So, Daru is a combination of those experiences,” Datta says about the new cocktail bar he’s opening at the end of the year. “The Indian food scene has really exploded over the past couple of years—the flavors and the ingredients are more accessible to us, and they’re more accepted. People are traveling a lot more, so they understand it. I’m just really excited we live in a time where a place like this is possible.”

Erika Goedrich
Erika Goedrich. Photo courtesy of Erika Goedrich.

The Craft Beer Advocate

Rising Star: Erika Goedrich, owner, Craft Beer Cellar DC
Nominated by: Thor Cheston, cofounder, Right Proper Brewing

In the two and a half years since Erika Goedrich opened Craft Beer Cellar DC, a Craft Beer Cellar franchise location near Union Station, she’s helped the city pass new legislation and has created a store that honors both consumers and brewers. “Erika is nothing if not passionate about craft beer and wanting to enlighten people [about] all the joys of craft beer; she curates a wonderful shop of the best of the best,” says Thor Cheston, whose Right Proper beers are sold at her shop. “People have come to respect her efforts and taste, and if you’re lucky enough to be included on her shelves, you really do feel honored.”

Like most beer enthusiasts, Goedrich saw beer as a hobby—going on brewery tours, attending festivals, and learning all she could. “It wasn’t just the liquid,” she says, “but the people’s stories, and their entrepreneurship, and the creativity behind it.” While working full-time as a software product manager, she dabbled in the industry by working in Old Dominion’s tasting room (before it was purchased by Anheuser-Busch) and by creating a beer recommendation website—EmbraceBeer—before Untapped became popular. But it wasn’t until 2016 that she decided to leave her full-time job and open a store in D.C., making craft beer her sole focus.

In the short time she’s owned Craft Beer Cellar DC, Goedrich has helped change the city’s alcohol laws so her customers (and customers of retailers across the city) can purchase either single bottles or mix-and match-cases, as well as large-format aluminum crowlers. “I get this way when I want to do something and there’s a roadblock in my way. How do I get over it, knock it down, or achieve my goal?” she says of her motivation to work with D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration and the D.C. City Council on two separate laws. “All these things are about helping people connect with beer and explore more. I believe there’s a beer out there for everybody—you just have to find it.”

Chris Hassaan Francke
Chris Hassaan Francke. Photo courtesy of Chris Hassaan Francke.

The Innovative Entertainer

Rising Star: Chris Hassaan Francke, owner, The Green Zone
Nominated by: Derek Brown, president/partner, Drink Company; author of the forthcoming Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World

When Chris Hassaan Francke was working as a contractor at the World Bank, he began hosting private cocktail events in his apartment. The events grew, and five years later The Green Zone is a brick-and-mortar bar in D.C.’s thriving Adams Morgan neighborhood. Along the way, Francke’s cocktail creations caught the eye of D.C.’s spirits community, including one of its most noted professionals, Derek Brown. “Chris is just a fantastic bartender,” says Brown. “He’s been doing these pop-ups for years, and I thought it was a pretty innovative concept—bringing flavors from the culinary world and the Middle East to cocktails.” The Green Zone, which opened in July, is “more like a house party than a formal bar. It’s always blasting metal, or Middle Eastern music, or both,” says Brown. “Some bars are replicable, and some bars are truly unique—his bar is the latter.”

Francke grew up in the D.C. area, but his frequent visits to Lebanon to see his Iraqi family are a big influence on his work. “I wanted to bring my heritage into the greater hospitality and entertainment scene,” says Francke, who was once a DJ and wanted to own his own nightclub. “I was wondering in this great cocktail resurgence D.C. was having, why you’d have Latin, East Asian, and God knows what, and nothing from the Middle East.” The Green Zone’s menu reflects much of his ancestry (along with his love of rum). But influences also come from the political atmosphere and current events.

Francke created the Sun Ladies Brigade, a cocktail made with raw honey from Iraqi Kurdistan that a relative gave him during one of his visits to Lebanon. The drink honored an all-female Yazidi military unit from northern Iraq who fought against ISIS. He also created a drink he called Fuck Trump Punch by adding mezcal to his Fuck ISIS Punch recipe. (“It’s an Arab-Mexican resistance fusion drink,” he explains.) He created Human Rights Human Love in honor of D.C.’s Pride week, and around the time of the presidential inauguration, he served a hot drink called Refugees Are Welcome Here. “Arabs have a hospitality gene,” Francke says. “We want you to feel like you’re coming to our house, feeding you, and giving you cocktails.”

Alicia Cypress is following her passion for wine after spending more than 20 years as a journalist at National Public Radio and the Washington Post. She’s currently a managing editor at Reviewed.com, a part of the USA Today Network, and she writes a wine blog, itswinebyme.com. She’s received the WSET 2 certification (with distinction) and hopes to continue her studies. Talk about wine with her on Twitter or Instagram.

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