With celebrity mixologists banishing the ho-hum cosmo and simple martini from specialty cocktail lists, many bartenders struggle to keep things interesting on the house libation menu for just one restaurant. One of the guys keeping the bar scene interesting around Washington D.C. is Jeff Faile. As the incoming bar experience director at Neighborhood Restaurant Group, a culinary umbrella of restaurants and bars in the D.C. and Virginia area, Faile has the enviable (but Herculean) task of mixing beverages for many of these restaurants, including the beer-centric Churchkey, and Vermilion, two of the Obamas’ favorite places to dine.
The NRG’s newly created position for Faile — Jeff worked in the bars at respected Italian spots Fiola and Casa Luca before this opportunity — came just in time because in addition to all the eateries, the company also operates Red Apron Butcher, brewery/restaurant Bluejacket, 550 Events catering company and the nonprofit educational farm Arcadia — all of which clamor for cocktail pairings. A second Red Apron debuted in Penn Quarter at the end of February. It will have The Partisan restaurant attached to it sometime in March, meaning Faile will likely have to come up with even more fabulous concoctions before long. Luckily, in between opening restaurants, Forbes Travel Guide sat down with the busy cocktail architect to talk about building on his bartending success and dealing with such a demanding schedule.
Your trajectory in D.C. has been stunning. Did you start out creating cocktails?
When I first came to D.C., I was slinging drinks at Local 16 down on U Street, which was nothing but “What do you want? Here you go. What do you want? Here you go” for four or five hours. It was a great introduction on how to serve fast — I have so much respect for the people who do it because it takes so much out of you — but it’s hard to have longevity in that environment. I was there for 18 months, so when I started at [Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star restaurant] Palena, I was the worst server in the world because I had that same mentality: “What do you want? Here you go.” I would always end up apologizing to everyone I helped. But the bartender there left and I took over. Palena has had a great run with bartenders, including Derek Brown [now owner of The Passenger and Columbia Room].
What did you learn at Palena that changed you?
From [chef] Frank Ruta, I learned a lot about flavors and he gave me so much leeway on the cocktail list when I was still learning about ingredients. When I left and went to Fiola, [chef] Fabio Trabocchi continued that flavor education, plus, I had a bigger stage and a wider audience in a downtown location. And Fabio taught me a lot on the business side, which lets me take on this greater role with NRG.
So what does a bar experience director do?
NRG has a wine director, Brent Kroll, and our beer director, Greg Engert, is a walking encyclopedia. So, there’s no need for me to deal with any of that when we have those guys. I just finished creating a list for Iron Gate, which opened a few months ago and is Greek-influenced. Tony [Chittum, Iron Gate’s chef] was just nominated for a  James Beard award [for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic], and he makes this amazing Greek yogurt. I paired his recipe in the Nicolaki cocktail [with] vodka, honey, lemon and rosemary. That’s a best seller over there. Tiffany [MacIsaac, Birch & Barley’s pastry chef] was also nominated for a Beard award [for Outstanding Pastry Chef], so I’m working with a phenomenal amount of talent.
Developing a list for Bluejacket, a brewery restaurant, is different. I won’t have any beer cocktails. I’m all for a good shandy once in a while but the beer Bluejacket is turning out should be served on its own. The crossover will be that some of the ingredients that they use in the beer, I will use in the cocktails. And since Bluejacket is near Nationals Park, the cocktails will be geared toward warm weather and baseball season, so you can sip something that won’t knock you on your butt before the game — but I might throw in a good whisky or tequila cocktail along with the gin. I’ll be using quite a bit of what NRG’s Arcadia farm grows once the spring and summer harvest rolls around. I can’t wait to use those ingredients.
And beyond crafting lists?
I’ll teach a master class in cocktail making as an Arcadia fundraiser in July. And it sounds cheesy, but I really want D.C.’s cocktail scene to grow and a lot of the cocktail bartenders, including myself, aren’t getting any younger. Going to NRG lets me train and teach a new class of bartenders right away, and that’s intriguing. It’s been my dream to have a cocktail bar and Michael [Babin, owner of NRG} wants one as well. NRG has a wider range and a broader clientele. We’re looking at a few spaces and have some ideas but there’s no timeline. Before we take on a major project like that, I want to make sure the other spots are kicking out drinks as if I’m standing there making them.
Will the cocktail bar be in D.C.?
Oh yeah, D.C.’s my place. It’s completely selfish; it makes the commute easier. I’m officially on baby watch — my wife is due March 9, so it’s crazy times. But may as well cram it all in.
We’ve been talking for a while and you haven’t once said the word “mixologist.”
Mixologist is thrown around so much these days. Some people want to be called [a mixologist] and that’s great. But for my style, I want everyone to feel comfortable. When I throw out a term like that, it’s not exactly elitist but it could make people feel uncomfortable when they’re talking to me; and the more comfortable they are when they’re drinking, the better time they’ll have. At the end of the day, I’m a bartender. I’ve been to spots — not in D.C. — with an elitist mentality, some who want to live under that title, who want you to feel that you’re lucky to be in their bar. In reality, when there are five bars opening every week, we’re lucky that the patrons are there, no matter how amazing our drinks are. So, I want a bar to be approachable.
Sounds like a dream job.
I couldn’t be happier. The talent I’m working with is mind-blowing, including Michael [Babin], who just opened a fine-dining restaurant, a brewery, a butcher shop, with another restaurant coming up, and hasn’t missed a beat. And the elevated service he inspires across NRG goes to every diner, treating them well whether they’re eating a $40 entrée or a burger. He continues to raise the bar. No pun intended.
Photos Courtesy of Greg Powers