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D.C.’s Thriving Cocktail Culture

With the artistic landscape in the District once again receiving national recognition, we often look to music as the marquee, but it seems one of the more overlooked mediums, at least when it comes to artistic expression, is undoubtedly clinching its grips all over the city.

It’s a cold Friday night in the middle of January, and I’m walking into Sugar Shack Donuts at 9th and U Streets NW. In the basement below Sugar Shack is Nocturne, a craft cocktail bar that uniquely transforms and broadens your appreciation of liquor.

Just beyond the rows of hand-crafted donuts, the entrance to the basement door opened to a dungeon-like space. Barely lit by glowing countertops, futuristic lights on the walls, an artistically lit top shelf where the liquor sits, the intimate setting provides 17-seats for a warm and seductive ambiance.

Hakim Hamid, mixologist at Nocturne in Shaw (Photo by Yogi Shields)
Hakim Hamid, mixologist at Nocturne in Shaw (Photo by Yogi Shields)

Hakim, the beverage director, greeted me and provided me with a menu that highlighted cocktails representing regions around the globe. Each cocktail feature two to three indigenous ingredients. For example, from Scandinavia are cocktails that feature earthier ingredients such as pine and celery; the Americas feature fresh produce and region-specific liquors like tequila and passion fruit, while Western Europe features grapes and chocolate. After a night full of flavorful cocktails, my mind was blown away, and I knew I had to understand more.

I reconnected with Hakim a few days later to discover the full story behind space and tastes at Nocturne.

“What do you consider yourself,” I asked, “a bartender, a mixologist or a chef?”

“I’m going to say all three,” Hakim said. “I’m bartending when I’m tending the bar. I take care of it like a proud 17-year-old with a new license takes care of his car. I’m a mixologist when I have one of these ‘artsy fartsy’ ideas when I come up with something that blows my mind. But I’m ultimately a chef in the original sense, a leader. I lead guests through experiences and my team to use their creative abilities.”

It is all three that makes Nocturne stand out.

“Watching that moment when a chef’s turmoil and grief turn into happiness and excitement made it cool to be creative,” Hakim said as he reflected on his experience in the kitchen that led to his current position of beverage craftsman. “It was a style of artistry that I had for so long taken for granted.” Artists pull from real life experiences to create a palette that shapes their perspectives and Hakim’s study under his mentor at Coco Sala seems to be one of those turning points in the storyboard of life.

Until recently I dismissed the art of crafting beverages as a medium worth acknowledging. It wasn’t until meeting Hakim that I truly understood the parallel to a chef that these mixologists, in the city’s rising cocktail culture, actually have.

It’s this thriving cocktail culture in the city that creates spaces where people from different backgrounds mesh together perfectly.

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