By Derrick Perkins (Photo/Derrick Perkins)
Behind an unremarkable door in an otherwise unexceptional part of Old Town, two men brought Alexandria and France a little bit closer together over drinks one evening last week.
For more than an hour, the Port City’s most celebrated mixologist, Todd Thrasher, swapped recipes and techniques with Jerome Susini of the Parisian cocktail lounge Shake n’ Smash. It’s a cultural exchange local tourism experts hope will enhance Alexandria’s stature among French travelers.
There’s a lot riding on it. Local tourism experts estimate that France sends 25,000 visitors to Alexandria each year, pumping about $20 million into the local economy. Boosting those numbers would bring about even greater dividends.
“The international travel market is very appealing; these types of visitors stay longer and spend more money,” said Claire Mouledoux, communications director for the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association. “In Alexandria, we’re most interested in France, the U.K. and Germany. They are looking for an authentic experience with culture, great dining and a small-town feel.”
Mouledoux’s association helped coordinate last week’s cocktail summit at the acclaimed cocktail bar and replica speakeasy PX with the intent of sending Susini back to France with one of Thrasher’s signature recipes. There, he will duplicate the concoction at an event later this year aimed at boosting travel interest in Alexandria and across the metropolitan region.
But Thrasher and Susini focused less on the economics at play and more on their drinks. Despite having never met before, the two collaborated like old partners, talking shop as they concocted ever more elaborate cocktails for a small group of reporters and tourism officials.
First, back to that unassuming door near the intersection of King and Columbus streets marking the entrance to Thrasher’s imitation speakeasy. Though Thrasher is a celebrity in the cocktail world (much like his business partner, chef Cathal Armstrong, is in culinary circles), ring the doorbell and you might find him on the other side.
“I’m here for the demonstration,” says the reporter when the door swings open.
“Oh, good,” Thrasher replies. “I’m here for that, too.”
He is just as irreverent explaining the back-story of the name of one of his favorite cocktails: Change This, Change That, Change Everything. It stemmed from a customer who, years ago, got Thrasher fed up with ingredient substitutions.
He has a slightly different name for it: Change This, Change That, Aw F--- it, Change Everything.
“But I can’t put that on a menu,” he says resignedly.
Susini is just as gregarious, passionately describing how he comes up with recipes, explaining his choice in ingredients and discussing French drinking habits.
“In France, people start with a cocktail and go to the wine,” he says matter-of-factly. “And then, often, another cocktail.”
Their collaboration came about serendipitously. As part of their effort to entice European travelers, the local travel association works with Capital Region USA, which promotes Washington, Virginia and Maryland overseas. When that group’s French representative dropped by PX last year, he fell in love, as the speakeasy reminded him of Susini’s Parisian hotspot.
Capital Region USA and Alexandria’s tourism association were able to organize a meeting of the minds while Susini and co-owner Sephora Cohen were traveling in the U.S. The result: A friendly game of one-upmanship that saw Thrasher mix up one of his staples — Sweet Basil — as well as Change This, Change That, Change Everything and a new drink crafted in homage to Portland chef Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok restaurant.
Susini countered with On My Way Back from Omaha — named in honor of American soldiers who participated in the Normandy landings during World War II — a garnish laden cocktail known as In Bacchus We Trust and Le Dandy, a drink that’s only complete with a ribbon representing the colors of the French flag wrapped around the glass.
“Whenever any other bartender comes to town,” Thrasher said, “it’s exciting.”