Jewish Food Experience®: Tell me a bit about your background? Who you are? Where you are going?
Jessica Weinstein: I grew up nearby in Maryland. I was a goofy and loud kid (surprise!). I spent a ton of time drawing and painting, and I think that’s where my creativity behind the bar comes from. To fund my studies, I started working as a waiter. My older brother was working at a bar, and he found me a spot there.
Soon I became interested in understanding the science behind the bottle. I joined the DC Craft Bartender’s Guild, took Bar Smarts and got the opportunity to work in management. I learned how to translate flavor profiles and techniques that I saw chefs using, and began an interest in cocktail history. I started understanding how this liquid in my glass came to be.
Ace Karchem: I was born in Washington, DC, and raised in Chevy Chase, Maryland. After graduating college, I moved to Baton Rouge to work for Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA). I fell in love with the food culture there—the caveat being I put on 20 pounds in a New York minute. I moved back home to intern on the Hill, and after failing to get a job in the midst of the Great Recession, I waited tables in Bethesda.
When my boyfriend got into Cornell Law, I aimed to go to the Hotel Administration School, and to my amazement, I got in. I met my business partner, Josh Phillips, and his wife, Kelly, there, teaching cocktail classes and the science behind the bar.
After graduation, I moved to NYC to work for Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack, and then moved back to DC. After a grand total of six weeks, Josh invited me to join him for lunch—and so at 28, I would open my first restaurant with my best friend just under a year later with a New York Times-reviewed chef and 2016’s Best Bartender in DC. Espita is now coming up on its first year, and it’s been a humbling experience.
JFE®: How has your upbringing and Jewish heritage inspired and informed your work?
JW: Working really hard and taking care of community was a huge part of my upbringing, both within my own family and the religious community that I was involved in. I always want to just throw a party every time I work at the bar.
In terms of food and drink, it’s very much a family affair. My father’s side has always been involved in the industry, immigrating to the US from Russia and eventually operating a DGS grocery store in DC. My grandfather went to work for Giant Food. My brother just started as general manager for Smoked & Stacked.
There’s definitely been an influence of flavors that have come from the foods that I have grown up eating. I work with flavors and concepts that I love. I use everything seasoning, celery sodas, lots of beets (I’m a Russian Jew) and honey, always honey! The best example: Hank’s Oyster Bar’s “Everything but the Bagel” drink, a combination of house-infused dill gin, celery bitters, lemon and an everything-bagel salt (garlic, sesame, pepper).
AK: I have a large family that’s mostly in DC, but my mother’s side is from Houston, Texas, so we’re not the typical Northeastern Jewish family. My maternal grandmother has been a member of the Jewish women’s group Hadassah seemingly since its inception. The result of that is a strong family culture of service to the Jewish community, both locally and in Israel.
With respect to how it shapes my work, I look to my parents who have set an incredibly high bar when it comes to integrity. Growing up, there was no such thing as moral ambiguity. In some families, men are praised for being rich or strong or handsome—worthy aspirations, but my parents revere do-gooders. They would name Jimmy Carter as the president they most admire before Jefferson or Washington (who were slave-owners).
So the result is that I place a very high value on doing my job ethically. Josh and I are on the same page here. We cover 80 percent of the health insurance premiums for our full-time hourly employees, which includes mental health services, as that is a scourge of our industry. Our sourcing is only from living-wage farms. In Oaxaca, I saw that the mezcaleros (mezcal makers) live in nice homes, so our guys are Oaxacan rich.
I actually had never had mezcal before this project, but my first job was in a Tex-Mex restaurant. When I want comfort, I look to Mexican. The cultural influence on Texas makes Mexican food feel like home. It reminds me of the global presence of Jews, but Mexican food (and drink!) is as homey to me as matzah ball soup.
JFE®: What would be the most underrated spirit for you?
JW: Gin is definitely my favorite spirit to surprise people with. There are so many expressions of this delicious juniper-driven spirit, and I love seeing guests’ idea of what gin is change after thinking it’s all just Tanqueray. I love seeing people when they experience its mixability.
AK: Mezcal, absolutely. I think mezcal isn’t getting the attention it deserves. It is not a spirit that can be properly made at the scale of major spirit categories, such as vodka or gin. If anyone tries to make it at that volume, it won’t taste like mezcal, at least not the interesting stuff.
JFE®: How would you describe the DC bar scene?
JW: An absolute pleasure. The extent of creativity through the bottles on the shelf and the liquid in the glass is evident. People are always interested in what’s on their plate, and now we’re really fascinated by what’s in our glass. It is humbling to enter establishments run by highly skilled, guest-motivated professionals. I am insanely excited to see how and where this scene will go.
AK: Incredibly collaborative. For a city that gets a lot of flack for being unfriendly or competitive, the restaurant and bar scene, in my experience, is full of warmth and camaraderie. I cannot count the number of times I’ve gone out with my partners or colleagues and felt like royalty. I also think that in a city that was regarded as culinary backwater during my formative years, the transformation since Obama took office is nothing short of astonishing.
JFE®: Tell us about some holiday cocktail-making going on and how you’re celebrating Chanukah at the bar.
JW: I’m really excited to celebrate the holidays, especially Chanukah, with a cocktail inspired by the mandelbread my mother has made my entire life. She does a twist and stuffs the biscotti-type bread with Damson plum jelly and walnuts. So this year we will be serving the “Slivositch“: Slivovitz, fresh lemon juice and Damson-ginger soda we make in-house.
AK: Given that it’s the busiest time of the year with parties, I’ll be lucky to grab latkes with the family this year. My favorite thing to do, since making latkes is a pain—my Texas family makes jalapeño latkes—is going to Parkway Deli. In terms of decorating, we don’t do too much in the Chanukah spirit, but I like to think the lights we use are a nod to Chanukah. We have three new cocktails on our winter cocktail menu. For me, the Manantial is the most reminiscent of the holiday spirit—it’s garnished with a tarragon sprig, which is very festive, held by a mini clothespin, which reminds me of the holidays.