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14 Apr 2016 By

This bartender creates cocktail menus based on great works of literature. Chantal Tseng of Reading Room (D.C) is probably the most well read bartender around, and she translates books into booze. Champion.

Slate’s Jacob Brogan talks to Chantal Tseng about her job as a bartender at Washington D.C.’s hidden gem, The Reading Room—a book-lined bar tucked inside another bar at Petworth Citizen, a restaurant in Northwest D.C. Undoubtedly the city’s best-read bartender, Chantal has mixed her love of literature into craft cocktails, chockfull of literary references. Do your own reading here…

Jacob Brogan: Welcome to Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day. Chantal Tseng is a bartender who works out of the Reading Room at Petworth Citizen, a restaurant in Northwest D.C. The Reading Room is a bar tucked away inside a bar. It’s a book-lined space that feels set aside from the hustle and bustle of the everyday.

Each week, Tseng plans a new menu for the space, designing a cocktail list inspired by the work of an author she’s been reading recently. We spoke to her as she was preparing to debut a Lewis Carroll–inspired menu. But in the past, she’s extrapolated on the week of Italo Calvino, Graham Greene, and many other authors. We talked with her about how she creates new cocktails, and about the effort that she puts into setting up and running the bar itself.

Can you tell us who you are and what you do?

Chantal Tseng: My name is Chantal Tseng and I’m a bartender. I have a specific cocktail program back here where I create cocktail menus every weekend based on rotating authors. Sort of a literary cocktail series.

Brogan: Who are some of the authors and writers that you’ve worked with?

Tseng: Well, currently we’re doing Lewis Carroll this week, but we’ve gone through a lot of great authors, starting with Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, then Shakespeare, Ian Fleming, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Hans Christian Andersen, Kafka, Bradbury, Murakami, Patricia Highsmith, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’ll stop. I can keep going. There’s a lot.

Brogan: That’s a lot. So, what does that mean on a week like this one for the Lewis Carroll cocktails?

Tseng: Well, so that means I’ll read the literature by the author, not all of it obviously, but I’ll find some stories and then I’ll read those stories or those novels, and then I will use that as my inspiration for the actual cocktail.

This week we have a cocktail menu of seven drinks. I’m riffing off of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, The Hunting of the Snark, and then a few of the characters that are inside those actual pieces of literature.

book pages

Brogan: What’s the first step when you set out to invent or design a cocktail for an event like this one?

Tseng: Well, I guess the first step is the reading, but as far as like thinking about the cocktails, it’s basically inspired from the literature, so as I’m reading I’ll sort of pick up what they might be drinking, what they drink in the book, or perhaps some kind of aromatic element, if they’re in description talking about the orange groves, and the cinnamon in the air, then I kind of feel like the need to incorporate said elements.

Brogan: How do you figure out what should go in a specific drink?

Tseng: So a lot of it just comes from making cocktails for a long time and kind of going, all right, this is in my head, this is in my palate, let me sort of free-associate and riff off and create these drinks. And a lot of them, for example, start from classics.

Brogan: Do you taste your work as you go?

Tseng: I do. I also taste a lot of it, or I’ll use recipes that I’ve used before, or riff off of other recipes. And sometimes it’s not tasted, but I kind of know what the flavors are, so I feel good about it. Or I’ll get there that day and sort of tweak the ratios and the proponents, or go, OK, well there needs to be more lemon to make this work.

Or, a little bit less of the gin, or a little bit more of the vermouth. And so it’s always a little free-flowing improvisational on the day of.

Brogan: Is there ever danger of getting sloshed while you work?

Tseng: Oh no. I’m professional.

Brogan: How long does it usually take then to dial in a new concoction?

Tseng: It’s kind of a large span of time from perfect—that took me two minutes. I think that needs to go with that. Or, I might lead in thinking, I’m reading Death in the Afternoon. You know what? There’s already a cocktail named Death in the Afternoon, created by Hemingway.

Or, I’m reading The Jabberwock, has a cocktail named after it for Lewis Carroll. Or, I could take a couple days. Sometimes I just wrack my brain going why can’t I make this happen, and then it just comes to me.

Brogan: Can we talk about one of the cocktails from this week? Maybe let’s say the March Hare. What’s in the March Hare?

Tseng: So, the March Hare has rye whiskey, with some fresh squeezed carrot juice, barley tea, some ginger syrup, a little bit of lemon, and then it gets topped off with nutmeg.

Brogan: What was your thinking behind that one?

Tseng: Having read the story and the element in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, we were looking at the tea party. So, I did want to incorporate in the menu several drinks with tea.

I’m also a huge tea drinker. It’s insane how much tea I drink, just on an aside. But, so I thought, well, the March Hare, they’re stuck in this time, which is like a minute before tea time, because they got into an argument in Wonderland, and so they’re stuck right before tea time, and this endless tea party, which is why it’s a mad tea party.

And what is keeping him wired, versus the mouse next to him who is constantly falling asleep. I was like, well, if you can’t drink tea, perhaps it’s whiskey. He kind of has that like wired look around him. So I was like this could be a whiskey cocktail. And then naturally that made sense with fresh carrot juice. And I love the flavors of carrot juice and ginger, and like that lemon and that spice element. It all comes together.

It’s something I’ve done before, so it kind of makes me go, oh good, I love that. This is perfect for this.


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