In the upscale Dupont neighborhood of Washington, D.C. sits a bar named after a well known, if not infamous Union Commander. The bar that bears his name offers a wide-ranging cocktail menu and monthly specials that turn cocktails on their heads using unique and local ingredients. We sat down with Brian Nixon, general manager and bartender, at McClellan’s Retreat, to find out more about how this bar became a local favorite.
INTERVIEW: BRIAN NIXON
How long have you been “behind the bar?”
I've been in the business for somewhere around 16 years. I've worked everywhere from divey Irish bars to most recently the inimitable Rose's Luxury. I started focusing on craft cocktails about 6 years ago when I worked for a short stint at the now defunct Sibling Rivalry in Boston.
Tell us about the inspiration behind the name. Why McClellan?
We are located about a half block from the statue dedicated to General McClellan. The Retreat portion of our name is a bit of a double entendre. McClellan, although beloved by his troops, had a reputation for not engaging the enemy and always requesting more troops. You also have the second meaning of "retreat" as in a place to relax, and as you can see from the photos, we offer a cozy atmosphere and good drinks, perfect for just that.
How is the bar at McClellan’s Retreat unique?
I think we fill a special niche not being fulfilled a lot in DC and other places. We offer a casual, relaxed atmosphere with really good drinks and none of the pretentiousness you can experience at other "Cocktail" bars. Mostly we just like getting to know the people that come in and making sure they have a great time while they're with us. It doesn't matter if you want a Vodka Tonic or one of our house creations, we just want you to have a good time.
What is your go-to cocktail?
I change cocktails with the seasons, really. If I go into a new cocktail bar, I generally order a Jack Rose. I want to see if they know how to make it, if they have the ingredients, is their juice fresh, and do they make their own grenadine. It also shows if they understand balance, much like a daiquiri, which I know is the go-to for many of my colleagues. If it's just going out to a neighborhood bar with friends, give me a High Life and a shot of rye, and I'm a happy camper. If I'm making something at home, it's usually a Left Hand or an Old Fashioned.
Do do you drink when no one is looking?
The White Russian. I love them, always have always will. Although since college, I've upgraded mine just a touch from Velicoff Vodka and Kahlua with a touch of Buttershots to Tito's and Lucano Caffe. I even tried it with Belle Isle, Lucano Caffe and a splash of Raspberry Liqueur the other day and it was really tasty.
Did McClellan have a favorite cocktail?
Funny actually. McClellan was a teetotaler.
What’s coming up at McClellan’s?
We like to give folks a reason to keep coming back to visit us at McClellan's Retreat. Each month, we switch out the specialty cocktail list to reflect a different theme. Currently, we've got "Who's Fooling Who", where we took Classics and put them on their head, the "Martini" with the Belle Isle Honey Habanero being a prime example. The next couple of months we have "Spring Blooms" which will be floral and vegetal cocktails, then "America's Pastime" which will have baseball inspired cocktails and beer-tails, and then July is Rickey month here in DC which is always a lot of fun.
1/2 oz. Belle Isle Honey Habanero
2 oz. Tequila Cabeza
1/2 oz. Cocchi Americano
2 dashes Orange Bitters
Add ingredients to mixing glass, fill glass with ice, stir until well chilled. Strain into a coupe, express lemon peel over glass, place on Rim of glass.
Recipe by Brian Nixon
1 1/2 oz. Belle Isle Premium Moonshine
1/2 oz. Vedrenne Orange Curaçao
1/2 oz. Lime Juice
1 oz. Cranberry Juice
Add all ingredients to a mixing tin, fill tin with ice, shake until cold. Double strain into a Coupe, garnish with lime wedge.
Recipe by Brian Nixon