Loudoun County is a drinker’s paradise. Wineries, breweries and, more recently, distilleries dot the landscape like so many wildflowers, beckoning our collective proboscises to drink deeply of their strong nectars. As the watermark on local booze continues to rise, creative restauranteurs Jason Miller and Michael Mercer created Hugo, a new watering hole with old-world air that, true to reputation, incorporates local ingredients from the shaker up.
Named for legendary cocktail creator Hugo Ensslin and hosted on the first floor of WK Hearth in Purcellville, Hugo features a menu of intriguing pre-prohibition era cocktails pulled straight from the pages of Ensslin’s bartending primer, “Recipes For Mixed Drinks.” Miller happened upon a copy while browsing the dusty shelves of a local antique shop, and was quickly absorbed by its contents. In a happy coincidence, Miller noticed Recipes was published in 1917, the same year in which the historic farmhouse that houses Hugo and WK Hearth was built. The serendipity was impossible to ignore.
“Hugo is special because of its setting in a farmhouse from the same era [as] our cocktails, all slightly re-interpreted in a modern and creative way,” Miller said. “The pre-prohibition cocktails using local spirits and seasonal ingredients, paired with distinctive menu items designed to be shared and spark conversation, are what we feel set Hugo on a unique path.”
Let’s Talk Hooch
Many of the drinks included in Ensslin’s famous guide are still ubiquitous today, such as the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Martini. Others however—the Beauty Spot, Humpty Dumpty and Littlest Rebel, to name but a few—have been virtually erased from the popular consciousness. Convenience is perhaps the hangman here, as few modern bartenders can afford the time it takes to whip a fresh egg for every Love Cocktail that comes down the rail. Hugo, however, with its pared-down menu and succinct drink offerings, affords room to craft beautiful, delicious beverages from a bygone era.
A must-try among Hugo’s current cocktails is the Aviation, considered by many to be Ensslin’s signature drink. It incorporates gin, maraschino, fresh lemon juice and house-made crème
de violette for a delicate, highly quaffable concoction that barely betrays it’s almost all gin.
Those looking for something a bit more straightforward will enjoy the Manhattan Flight—two, made perfect, one with locally distilled Catoctin Rye, the other with Woodford Reserve. Adventurous, nostalgic palates will find a rotating cast of swing-era-inspired drinks—one of Miller’s current favorites is the Widow’s Dream. “[It’s] the most unique and fun cocktail, and also the hardest to reinterpret from its original recipe,” he said. “The original drink called for Benedictine with a whole egg cracked into it, then topped with whipped cream. Ours has the same Benedictine but with milk and a fennel/orange simple syrup, shaken until frothy and served in a tall, slender coupe-style glass.”
Like Miller and Mercer’s other properties, Hugo’s menu features innovative dishes crafted
from local, seasonal ingredients. Novel “pantry jars”—short vessels stuffed with beet-pickled quail eggs, steak tartare, pickled vegetables and other delights—are lovely for snacking and sipping. Slightly larger plates like the half smoke (featuring Lothar’s sausage, a Loudoun favorite) and rabbit pot pie lay down a firmer foundation if an evening’s cavorting is ahead.
“To us, it is an expectation, rather than something new or novel, to use local farms and maintain a seasonal approach to both cocktails and [food] menus,” Miller said. “We will always maintain our commitment to seasonal, local ingredients.”
Dames and Daddies Welcome
Hugo’s revamped interior cultivates an intimate, conspiratorial experience. About 15 guests can install themselves in the bar’s deep leather couches and swank booth area, while 10-12 have room to post up at the bar. When the weather’s right, 20 more have room to mill around and shoot the bull outside on the patio.
“To us, the best part of Hugo is our ability to interact with our guests and craft a cocktail just for them while they watch it all happen,” Miller said. “With cocktails, if you like it a little sweeter, we can do that. If you like your drinks a little lighter, we can do that, too. Cocktails give us another opportunity to have a conversation with our guests and offer an even greater experience of hospitality.”
Hugo’s grand opening celebration kicks off at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 19, at the restaurant, at 30 Purcellville Gateway Drive in Purcellville, and will feature tastes from the menu and the full array of craft cocktails. For the latest information and updates on Hugo, follow the Wine Kitchen on Facebook or Twitter, or go to thewinekitchen.com.