The New Mythology of Greek Mixology

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
October 2014

Restaurant

  • Kapnos
    2201 14th Street Northwest
    Washington, D.C. 20009
    (202) 234-5000
    kapnosdc.com

Anise. Mastiha. Grilled lemon—its bright sourness cut by a deep char, the way dark shadows streak across a sundrenched Mediterranean afternoon. Welcome to an exploration of Greek mixology.

“I don’t really see these as less explored flavors,” says Taha Ismail, beverage director at Mike Isabella’s Kapnos in Washington, D.C. For Ismail, they’re close to home. Originally from Casablanca, Morocco, where dishes are “always cooked with six to 20 spices,” he’s familiar with a panoply of flavors. And with modern mixology matured, there’s room and demand for something different.

Beverage Director Taha Ismail of Kapnos - Washington, D.C.

Beverage Director Taha Ismail of Kapnos - Washington, D.C.

Lion’s Milk: Skinos, Lemon, Lime, Yogurt Liqueur, Egg White, Heavy Cream, Rose Water, and Soda

Lion’s Milk: Skinos, Lemon, Lime, Yogurt Liqueur, Egg White, Heavy Cream, Rose Water, and Soda

Gin Lemonade: Gin, Batavia Arrack, Grilled Lemon, Honey, and Thyme

Gin Lemonade: Gin, Batavia Arrack, Grilled Lemon, Honey, and Thyme

Beverage Director Taha Ismail of Kapnos - Washington, D.C.

Beverage Director Taha Ismail of Kapnos - Washington, D.C.

Like the plays and myths that originated there, the flavors of Greece throb with all the drama a bartender could ever hope for. Enter the lemon, grilled pepper, and burnt cinnamon that comprise Ismail’s Blame It on the Rain. There’s also the lemon bitters, green tea, copious gins, and the unflinchingly herbaceous Mastiha liqueur that rule Ismail’s menu, calling to mind some kind of ancient spring rite, with verdant greens and floral notes undercut by subtle tannins, bitterness, and heat. Brightness is in abundance.

Ismail’s assertive Lion’s Milk, mixed in homage to the Ramos Gin Fizz, includes Mastiha, delicate rose water, and a tart yogurt liqueur for a drink that’s at once exotic and a clear cousin of a classic. “I wanted to use a Greek spirit like Mastiha,” says Ismail, referring to the liqueur which might be more definitively Greek than Scotch is Scottish. It’s distilled in a controlled manner from the “tears” (resin) of the mastic tree, which grows only on the sunny southern part of the island of Chios. This process yields a full-bodied liqueur with some pine and cedar affinity, giving Mastiha what one producer simply calls “an intense after taste.” Balancing that out—here with rosewater and yogurt—is part of why Ismail loves mixing in this range of flavors. “It challenges me to stretch my skills. I really do love exposing the [flavors] to new people,” he says.

He embraces the challenges of mixing with more potent, demanding Greek spirits. “Ouzo is always hard to work with. It’s very powerful, but it’s fun; same with anise. You have to be careful because it’s such a dominant flavor.” Again, the challenge is part of the draw. “When it works, it’s such an accomplishment.”

Ismail is serving a particular D.C. crowd at Kapnos. It’s a clientele known for making, celebrating, or redacting decisions over a drink. To satisfy the high-quality, high-volume demand, Ismail looked to kegging and bottling. The Gin Lemonade, made with that char-grilled lemon is one of four kegged lemonades always on tap. It’s a double win for Ismail: the Gin Lemonade is stable and easy to execute, and it takes on the typically laborious role of “signature” drink, one that’s “inspired by Greece, where you find lemonade stands on every corner.” Pre-made honey-thyme syrup lends yet more convenient complexity, with citrusy Beefeater and muscular Batavia arrack rounding out the sunny-bittersweet balance. Bottled cocktails do a similar straddle, ferrying ancient flavors within the context of sleek modern conveniences. “Customers love them,” says Ismail, whose current bottled offering proudly features a triple-distilled Greek grappa.

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