Story and photos by Trevor Baratko
If Loudoun County has arrived at a point where it houses celebrity bartenders—and, we’d argue, it has—the OG is, without question, Jeremy Ross at Sense of Thai St.
Ross has become the face of the county’s most cutting-edge cocktail experience and, by extension, Loudoun’s evolving cocktail culture. That was never more evident than on June 18, when Ross and crew launched their summer pop-up tiki bar, Nai-Ngae-Dee, a fun and splashy scene with the intricate, refreshing sippers to match. Guests can indulge in a classic Zombie (overproof Jamaican Rum, Aged Haitian Rum, Absinthe, Don’s Mix, pomegranate, lime, bitters) or sip Unicorn Tears from playful, conch-shell glassware (Singani, pineapple, passion fruit, peach). The dangerous Atomic Grog (American Dry Gin, grapefruit, lime, Nam Dok Anchan Rum) is precisely what you would want your first drink on a beach-drenched vacation to look like.
“Creating a cocktail for our guests is the ultimate expression of hospitality,” Ross tells Middleburg Life. “Designing a drink around their palate establishes a personal connection from bartender to cocktail to guest, and overall, from my experience, the best cocktails have that personal touch.”
Ross came to Sense, in Ashburn’s One Loudoun development, from D.C. several years back to help open the chic spot. As months went by and he became more involved, he realized he had a unique opportunity to create a premiere cocktail program—and top-tier barman reputation—from scratch. Ross said he left the District in search of a “blank slate” but never thought what he was looking for was just down the road.
With Ross’s devotion to both his individual craft and the industry as a whole, it comes as no surprise that another local cocktail extraordinaire is something of a Ross protégé. In Purcellville, Sam Scarlett is constantly inventing new palate pleasers at WK Hearth, one of three restaurants in the Wine Kitchen group. Scarlett’s funky, eclectic creations are a revelation in western Loudoun’s rural dining scene.
“We’re serving to create more than just a drink, but an experience,” Scarlett said. “There’s a relationship there between us, the drinks and the drinkers. They trust us. And sometimes we even get to surprise them. The whole experience from start to finish and every part in between is honestly a lot of fun and can be immensely satisfying.”
Proving Scarlett’s passion and meticulous attention to detail, ask him his favorite cocktail, and you get a 115-word response:
“Please pardon the pun,” Scarlett tells us. “The Mango(od) Vibrations. It was the result of playing around with a precision cooker to do some sous vide alcohol infusions and trying to be more intentional with some fun and unique flavor combinations. The drink features mango-infused Hendrick’s Gin, Korean chili-infused Dolin Blanc vermouth, fresh lemon juice, honey, and just a few drops of a house-made black and Szechuan pepper tincture, with sliced cucumber and dehydrated mango as the garnish. It’s both fruity and spicy from the mango and Korean chili, with the cucumber cooling down the pepper and spice at the end. It’s a fun, tasty drink for when you need that refreshing kick in your day.”
With more than 40 wineries and 20 breweries in Loudoun County, a refined cocktail scene is the natural next step in the local beverage industry. Several bartenders and general managers, Scarlett and Ross among them, are quick to incorporate local distilleries—Purcellville’s Catoctin Creek, Mt. Defiance of Middleburg—into their offerings. At Cocina on Market in Leesburg, its fresh and lively house margarita is made from a Mt. Defiance-produced agave spirit — tequila just not technically tequila. Diners and drinkers should expect to see more local collaborations like this in the future. Pushing the boundaries beyond a traditional margarita or predictable gin and tonic is necessary to solidify the county’s reputation as a liquid hot spot.
In many ways, Scarlett says, a reputable cocktail scene is the “final frontier for the food and drink culture in Loudoun.”
Back east, veteran barman Phil Duong has been immersed in local restaurants for more than a decade. A Sterling native, Duong worked in corporate spots like Cheesecake Factory and Sweet Water Tavern before landing at revered Sterling eatery Mokomandy, where he developed one of the top cocktail programs in the D.C. region.
Duong recently switched shop to the sophisticated AhSo in Brambleton, the latest venture of Chef Jason Maddens. There, Duong mixes up magic like the Sinful Saint (Cirrus Potato Vodka, St. Germaine, cucumber, basil, lemon and cava) and The Humo Rosado (El Jimador Reposado tequila, Silencio mezcal, watermelon, agave and saffron bitters).
While Duong has dipped into other professions, performing behind the bar is what he loves. On busy but smooth nights, it’s beautiful and “graceful chaos,” he says.
“I’m just naturally a people watcher,” he says. “I love watching people, and as a bartender you’re always watching people. When things are going well, running smooth, it’s a dance. It’s a perfect little dance.” ML