Know Your Corner Bar: Round Robin at the Willard Intercontinental
The birthplace of the mint julep has hosted everyone from Mark Twain to Woodrow Wilson
D.C. is home to plenty of great watering holes, but none is more beloved than the corner bar. Hence we bring you Know Your Corner Bar, an occasional, ahem, dive into the tales and characters behind one of the city’s most storied taverns.
It’s pretty cool to say you just grabbed a drink at a D.C. institution your grandpa used to frequent, but what about your great-great-grandfather? A place where White House staffers and K Street interns once rubbed elbows with the likes of Mark Twain or former US president Woodrow Wilson?
Because that’s the case for visitors to Round Robin, the historic bar located inside what is now the Willard InterContinental Hotel, a Historic Hotel of America.
First established in 1847, the circular-shaped bar is all leather and mahogany. Black and white portraits of historical figures line the curved walls, painted an olive green. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch Jim Hewes, Round Robin’s best-known bartender, who’s been serving drinks there for no less than 34 years. You can find him behind the pine most nights pouring bourbon or stirring up Mint Juleps, the bar’s signature drink. It now comes as no surprise, considering Round Robin’s popularity among the political crowd, to hear that the julep owes its provenance to a former statesman: Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, who first introduced the cocktail to DC while holding court at the Round Robin.
Hewes even recalls the first time he experienced the Willard himself, in 1963, as a 10-year-old boy. He had no idea that 23 years later he would return to the iconic hotel to work as a bartender.
Now serving as somewhat of a mascot for the bar, Hewes aims to weave as much history into his role as possible. He hosts a History Happy Hour every month that he says has been “an honor and dream.” A few years back, he even distilled the drink preferences of the U.S. presidents into what is now the bar’s highly coveted Presidential Cocktail Menu. Some drinks are based on what the presidents were known to have, while others are more symbolic of the time period in which they served.
The Blue Hawaiian was created in honor of President Barack Obama. It’s made with tequila, Curacao and lime juice, so “you feel like you’re looking at the beautiful waters of the Pacific, which honors the president’s heritage in terms of growing up in Hawaii,” Hewes says.
Ask Hewes how the Round Robin Bar has changed over the years and he’ll say that it hasn’t much, but what has been added to the menu is very intentional. “It’s always been the goal of our staff to ensure the hotel, including the Round Robin Bar, retains its true character,” says Hewes. “We have always been a classic cocktail bar, and that is what we will always be. However, over the years we have introduced more contemporary spins on those classics. A great example of this is the introduction of your barrel-aged cocktail program.”
With their barrel-aged cocktail program, Hewes and the rest of the bartenders at Round Robin are redefining the art of drinking cocktails by giving three vintage classics a modern-day makeover: the Manhattan, the Boulevardier and the Negroni. They age each inside of a barrel to enhance the flavor and give it an unexpected twist.
“What makes the Round Robin Bar unique from others in the area is its history,” says Hewes. “No other bar in Washington, let alone America, has the history that the Round Robin Bar does. It’s a quintessential DC experience, and a bar in which you never know who you might see imbibing in a cocktail or two.”