They are your masters of liquor, your mixing wizards, your alchemists with alcohol. They are your bartenders, and they are Jewish.
Bartenders not only craft drinks, but they also learn our innermost secrets as we order another round and share life stories with friends, lovers and coworkers. But how well do we know them? In this occasional series, we’ll explore the story behind the pourer of the highball—Jewish ones, of course.
First, we have Sarah Rosner, currently at the handsome midcentury-design-oriented restaurant Radiator. Sarah was most recently at Copycat Co. on H Street, but also worked at Eat the Rich, Jack Rose and Marvin. She’s now the head bartender at Radiator, pleasing patrons with unique and exciting concoctions in stunning barware.
Joining her is Alex Levy, at Columbia Room, the specialty and experiential cocktail space run by Derek Brown. He came over from Southern Efficiency and has spent time doing culinary and drink R&D in kitchens across DC.
Jewish Food Experience: Tell us a bit about yourself, where you came from and where you’re going.
Sarah Rosner: I’m from Hawaii and grew up in a very small Jewish community where there wasn’t even a synagogue. We called ourselves “Jewaiian.” I got my start working at some restaurants in Hawaii, but I wanted to get out and explore the world a bit. I came to visit DC and really loved it. For undergrad, I studied at University of North Carolina for a degree in English and creative writing, but bartended to pay for it—and then never left the industry again.
Alex Levy: I was born and raised in Bethesda and attended the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. I then went to University of Maryland, working as a barback at Mockingbird Hill (one of Derek Brown’s bars on 7th street in Shaw). Once Eat the Rich opened next door, I transitioned to a new role as a server (NB: this is when I met Sarah Rosner, who was working as a bartender at Eat the Rich), and I’m now at the Columbia Room.
JFE: How has your upbringing and Jewish heritage inspired and informed your work?
SR: I very much have the food industry in my blood because my dad owned a deli in Austin and I grew up on a farm, always outside playing in the dirt next to our coffee and orange groves. My parents kept “Hawaiian kosher,” and even though we didn’t have a synagogue nearby, being Jewish was a central part of my upbringing. Now, I love using local and underrated spirits, representing my home and family and being really inclusive to those who feel like outsiders. To me, bartending is a community and home away from home.
AL: My Jewish heritage has absolutely affected my work; hospitality and treating guests like family are values that have been important to me since I was young. To me, being a bartender is about much more than just knowing all of the recipes or making good drinks—it’s about taking care of people, ensuring they have a good time and being empathetic. Of course, making good drinks helps, too.
JFE: What are some challenges being a Jewish bartender?
SR: Bartenders are expected to give a lot of themselves and their time. It’s tough to work on holidays, though at the same time, I always offer to work on Christmas so I can go home for Thanksgiving. Something more insidious though, is customers who make “Jew me down” payment jokes, or get angry when I say “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
AL: I think the toughest challenge is missing time with family. The nature of our industry makes it tough because you miss large chunks of time. I’ve been fortunate to work for a company that understands the importance of family and religion, and so I’ve still yet to miss a Passover Seder, but it’s tough to find that balance. Of course, it’d be even tougher to keep Shabbat, since it’s nearly impossible to not work any Friday or Saturday.
JFE: What’s your favorite drink to have and to make?
SR: When I’m out, I’ll go for something simple, like a Manhattan or a beer and a shot. My favorite to make, though, is my own creation, called The Ricotta Situation (watch out, it’s not pareve!). I was having a fig cheesecake and loved how the flavors melded together beautifully. So I found a Moroccan fig liqueur, infused that in a strained ricotta, added vanilla and a touch of honey and now I have one of my favorite drinks.
AL: My favorite drink to make is also probably my favorite one to consume: the Sazerac. It’s simple enough that just about anybody can make it, but there are lots of variations or ways to make it fun, especially by tossing the glass in the air to rinse it with absinthe.
JFE: What the most underrated spirit?
SR: Gin, for sure. So many of us have had terrible gin with gross tonic, but with the way I make gin, I’ve created gin lovers. I’m a gin-bassador.
AL: Brandy, because are so many different types and styles, like Cognac, Calvados, Armagnac, Pisco and Singani, and that variety lends itself to a wide range of options when crafting cocktails.
JFE: And finally, tell us about the DC bar scene.
SR: It’s really incredible, the change I’ve seen since I started out here. There’s so much opportunity and space to grow, and everyone’s doing something new and different. The bartending community is small, but so strong, and is really supportive.
AL: I’d say it’s growing exponentially. It feels like every week a friend opens a new spot. And it’s not just cocktails: there are plenty of awesome beer gardens and bars, a lot of restaurants have incredible wine lists and there are plenty of great spots to just unwind and have a shot of whiskey and a beer, too.
Radiator, 202-742-3150, 1430 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC, Bar hours: Sunday–Wednesday 4 pm–10:30 pm, Thursday 4 pm–11:30 pm, Friday–Saturday 4 pm–1:30 am. Not kosher.
Columbia Room, 202-316-9396, 124 Blagden Alley NW, Washington, DC, Tuesday-Thursday 5 pm–12:30 am, Friday-Saturday 5 pm-1:30 am. Not kosher.
Top photo: Sarah Rosner’s Big Boy Pants, Fancy Pants and Rickey Goes to Hawaii. Photos courtesy of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants.