From yeshiva schoolboy to colorful cocktail cartoonist, Adam Bernbach has led a winding, passionately creative, booze-forward path—starting with a Cape Cod childhood up to his current digs as the bar director at the suite of DC restaurants: 2 Birds 1 Stone, doi moi, Estadio and Proof.
Steeped in a strong tradition of community and conviviality, Bernbach brings whimsy and winks to his spirits program across all of these sister spaces in Washington, DC. We sat down with him at his beloved subterranean home, 2 Birds 1 Stone.
Jewish Food Experience: Let’s talk first about your background.
Adam Bernbach: I was raised in Cape Cod, but moved to DC as a teenager. I consider both of these places to be home. I attended a yeshiva for elementary school, and that had a pretty heavy influence on my “Jewishness.” My class would travel to places like Crown Heights and Lakewood, New Jersey, to Hasidic Ashkenazi communities, very Eastern European in cuisine, and that’s had a huge influence on me, both subtly and overtly.
JFE: Speaking of—how has that upbringing and Jewish heritage inspired and informed your work?
AB: I started in the hospitality world as a teenager, working in hotels on the Cape. When I moved to DC, I started at a coffee roastery near my high school. As part of that job, I learned to taste, or “cup,” as a process. Tasting as a regular process got me interested in tasting in general, and I became really interested in tasting wine, beer and, especially, spirits. Of course, I was underage for all of this. So, imagine replacing your traditional teenage-quest-for-a-six-pack with trying to score a single malt. Hilarity, I assure you. The owner of the roastery opened a bar/art-film house, Visions, a few years later, and I took advantage, working there in any capacity I could before I turned 21.
I was fortunate to start bartending there. I became a manager at Visions. I moved on to Café Saint-Ex as bar manager, and its sister bar, Bar Pilar. In 2009, I joined Mark Kuller’s Proof, after meeting him while at Saint-Ex. I was taken with his views on restaurants, and what he saw for his own future group of restaurants. Estadio followed Proof, and a few years later, in the process of developing what became doi moi, we started throwing around the possibility of a bar.
I was thrilled, obviously. We all were very much in favor of something lively and boisterous. By that point, “speakeasy” had pretty much become a synonym for “cocktail bar,” and while we really loved a lot of those bars, we wanted the bar to be something different. The challenge with having a cocktail bar literally underground, and with little space for markings, is that it screams “speakeasy.”
To combat that, we chose to pull from my upbringing, going for a brilliant-white, Cape Cod-style vibe. Informal and welcoming. The Cape is built pretty heavily around the hospitality industry, so it seemed like a very organic connection to make. 2 Birds 1 Stone has become a home for me—I don’t sleep under the table, but sometimes it feels like it. Having a community and a community space there is really important for me. I think a good portion of that comes from the heritage I shared with Mark and the family.
In fact, behind the bar we have a big photo of Sandy Koufax. When Mark and I began this we would argue, at times intensely, about how the place should look and feel. This was pretty natural given that we would argue about everything, a lot revolving around sports. Mark was a big Yankees fan, and I love the Red Sox, but we always would agree on our love for Sandy Koufax. When we opened, we hung that photo in homage to our compromises.
JFE: What are some challenges of being Jewish and working as a bartender?
AB: It’s most certainly hard to juggle holidays and needing to be at work. Yom Kippur, I think especially, is a big challenge. While I am by no means a very observant Jew, observing Yom Kippur is very important to me, particularly as a means of reflection. Sometimes getting away from work can be difficult, but Yom Kippur is a priority. My wife likes to tell people about the year I walked to Proof, timing my arrival for sundown when I could start work.
JFE: What is your favorite drink to make? Anything you see as underrated?
AB: A tough question, and one that I can’t answer. My satisfaction in creating drinks comes from creating something that people love. If I’m able to put, for lack of a better term, my “voice” into something that makes a lot of people happy, I’m pretty happy. I don’t feel super comfortable talking about things that are underrated or overrated. I don’t really like to proselytize—maybe that’s the Jewish in me. If there’s an ingredient that I love, it’s my challenge to feature it in a way that’s enjoyable.
JFE: How would you describe the DC bar scene?
AB: Inspiring. Its growth has been amazing. In 2008, I was at Pilar and part of an informal tasting group on Mondays. We tried all sorts of spirits. It was kind of a thing to bring the craziest bottle of liquor. A lot of the regulars to this group worked in restaurants throughout the city. The DC Craft Bartending Guild grew in large part from this group. When we founded the guild, I think all ten of us had been regulars at these Mondays at Bourbon. We were just super interested in spirits. Back then, you couldn’t make a living from being a cocktail person. Maybe a sommelier, but not cocktails. And now, you can have a successful, flourishing career in cocktails, just a few years later.
2 Birds 1 Stone, 1800 14th Street NW, Washington, DC, Tuesday–Thursday 6 pm–12:15 am, Friday–Saturday 6 pm–1:15 am. Not kosher.
Top photo: Inside 2 Birds 1 Stone.