Sambonn Lek isn’t your everyday bartender. Sure, he’s happy to lend an ear to good or bad news as he pours, mixes and shakes, but he’s just as likely to wow with tricks as he is to work his magic preparing drinks.
Lek, a Cambodian native whose father was an ambassador, does mind-reading and levitation, and he can turn a $20 bill into two $10 bills — “but only at slow times. I cannot do it when it’s busy,” he said.
A few times he’s even played matchmaker. For instance, there was the man who asked him how he could approach a fellow bar patron. “I say, ‘Don’t worry, sir. I’ll take care of it,’” Lek told us. “I say, ‘Showtime!’ and then I say, ‘Sir, do you mind sitting next to the lady over there? That way I can show one time. I don’t want to show twice.’” After he was done, the two started talking and eventually married.
But not all his tricks involve sleight of hand. Lek collects business cards and until 2008, he mailed 3,000 holiday cards every year. After the recession hit, he switched to sending e-cards. Additionally, if a woman at the bar is celebrating her birthday, he gifts her a scarf from Cambodia. “They remember this small thing I do for them,” he said.
Lek, 64, came to Washington in 1974. He worked for a few months as a dishwasher at the now-closed Blackie’s House of Beef before taking another dishwashing job at the Golden Ox, which promoted him to bar-back.
“I wrote down whatever the bartender does — let’s say, how to make gin and tonic,” Lek said. So, when the bartender didn’t show up, he easily moved into the position.
The Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, and the State Department offered Lek the chance to earn a green card and attend hotel management school. In April 1976, Lek accepted a position as bartender at the Mayflower Hotel’s now-closed Town and Country Lounge.
A few years later, “they asked to promote me to beverage manager. I said, ‘No, I love my bartending,’” Lek recalled. In 1980, he became head bartender instead — and a beloved Washington institution, serving up drinks at the Mayflower until 2012.
That year, Lek went to Cambodia to work with his nonprofit Sam Relief Inc., which he founded in 1999 with money his mother had left him to use to help the country’s poor when she died in 1998. The organization has built 27 schools and 349 wells, delivered 128 tons of rice to hospitals and awarded more than 100 college scholarships.
In April, Lek returned to Washington as a bartender at the St. Regis, Washington D.C., where he serves his signature Sam I Am drink, which he created in 1980. But mostly he considers himself an old-fashioned bartender serving tried-and-true recipes. “I like the old school better. Old-school, they do it the proper way,” Lek said.
But Lek’s old-school magic is not the only game in town. A younger generation of bartenders is shaking things up with an innovative, experimental approach that treats cocktails as a form of high art.
About a mile away from Lek’s elegant watering hole at the St. Regis, Christopher Mendenhall combines technology, culinary tricks and alcohol in a way that’s earned him the title of lead mixologist at Quadrant Bar and Lounge, a craft cocktail bar at the Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C. The difference between “bartender” and “mixologist,” he said, is in the creativity.
“But if you ask me, I’ll tell you I’m a bartender,” said Mendenhall, 38, who’s worked at Quadrant since it opened in 2015.
At the end of May, it began offering bourbon and whiskey aged using sound wave technology. Growing demand for those spirits led him to look for ways to speed up the process of making them. “The thing about bourbon and whiskey is they’re not like vodka and gin. You can’t make it in a couple days. It takes time. It takes years to mature and become what it is,” Mendenhall said.
His research led him to a machine that uses sonic waves to create spirits in hours that taste like they’ve been maturing for years.
“We take existing whiskeys and we hit it with our magic wand,” he said. Still, “There’s no replacement for time. What we’re really able to do with this machine is show you characteristics of time.”
The intersection of creativity, tradition and science is the future of bartending, he said. With the recent resurgence in the popularity of cocktails, mixologists are working hard to keep up with the demand.
“It got to this point where now we’re trying to one-up each other and find a crazy ingredient. We’re finding Arctic ice and unicorn tears in the rainforest,” Mendenhall quipped. “That’s not sustainable, so I personally feel that the science world is the next turning point of the mixology world. With these devices becoming more available to bars and restaurants, if we fold this third aspect in, we can make almost anything.”
He draws inspiration for his cocktail menu from the culinary world. For instance, the bar’s most popular drink is the Smoked Old Fashioned, made with bourbon, house-made smoked syrup, cherry bitters and cedar smoke. It’s served with warm mixed olives soaked in the same wood chips used to make the drink.
“It’s like being a little kid,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t play with Legos any more. I play with fruits and vegetables and spirits and putting those things together, and it’s exciting.”
Whether you’re on Team Traditional or Team Trendy, there’s a cocktail for you in the D.C. area.
Here’s a sampling of old-school favorites and spirited new concoctions:
Sam I Am at the St. Regis
923 16th St., NW
Grab a drink and a show as Lek works his magic — both literally and figuratively.
Sam I Am ($8)
1 and 1/5 oz. Citron Vodka
3/4 oz. amaretto
3/4 oz. sour mix
3/4 oz. simple syrup
1 oz. cranberry juice
Serve up with up glass
Garnish with lime wedge
Sound-Aged Spirits at Quadrant
1150 22nd St., NW
Mendenhall uses a specially made homogenizer that applies vibrations of sound energy to create spirits in hours that taste like they’ve been aged five to 10 years. The addition of wood chips helps mimic the flavor profiles of traditional spirits aged in casks. The alcohol is available in two-ounce pairs ($18-$20).
Bourbon Style #1
120-proof, nine-year-old Kentucky bourbon that has been sound-aged
Bourbon Style #2
A seven-year-old Kentucky bourbon sound-aged with American Oak chips soaked in a 10-year port
Whiskey Style #1
A 90-proof Tennessee sour mash whiskey sound-aged with French Oak chips soaked in sherry
Rye Style #1
A 100-proof, four-year-old American rye-style whiskey sound-aged with French Oak chips soaked in cognac
Mint Julep at the Willard InterContinental Washington
1401 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
This drink helped put the historic hotel on the map. In 1851, statesman Henry Clay introduced the cocktail for the first time outside Kentucky at the Willard’s iconic Round Robin Bar. Since then, it’s become the hotel’s signature drink, with 20,000 served each year.
Maker’s Mark Kentucky bourbon
Branch water/soda water
Feud of the Founding Fathers at The Jefferson
1200 16th St., NW
Two drinks ($19) called the Jefferson and the Hamilton battle for popularity, much as their namesakes, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, disagreed on the approach to governing under George Washington’s presidency. Quill bartender Sophie Szych drew inspiration for the Jefferson from the gardens of the former statesman’s Monticello estate. The Hamilton ties Caribbean ingredients such as coffee and coconut with American tastes.
Ketel One Botanical Grapefruit & Rose
Strawberry-Infused Capitoline Tiber
Rolled and served in a red wine glass
Neisson Rhum Agricole
Espresso bean, blueberry, lemon zest syrup
Shaken and served in a martini glass
‘Hamilton’-Inspired Drinks at Kingbird at the Watergate Hotel
2650 Virginia Ave., NW
In honor of the local run of the wildly popular “Hamilton: An American Musical” at the Kennedy Center Arts through Sept. 16, the iconic Watergate is offering four themed cocktails for $16 each and an optional add-in called My Shot.
Amaro Averna Italian liquor
Kahuna Kevin, Fireside Chat and A Ting with a Sting at Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons
2800 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Grab a taste of the Pacific, pair your drink with a cigar or give a nod to “Hamilton” with three drinks on the menu at Bourbon Steak’s brick-walled patio.
Kahuna Kevin ($46, serves two)
Ron Zacapa 23
Lit on fire, tableside, and served in custom mugs by tiki artists
Fireside Chat ($125)
High West Campfire Whiskey
English breakfast tea
Prepared tableside and served with a Year of the Dog cigar
A Ting with a Sting ($17)
Ting, a Caribbean grapefruit soda
Served in a mini beach-wood barrel mug
The Dragonfly at the Mandarin Oriental
1330 Maryland Ave., SW
Created by bartenders at this 400-room hotel, the Dragonfly cocktail was so popular as part of the Chinese New Year menu this year that it returned to become a part of the summer cocktail menu.
1/2 oz. Bombay Gin
1 and 1/2 oz. cucumber sake
1/2 oz. peach schnapps
1/2 oz. grapefruit
1/2 basil springs
One grapefruit triangle
Garnish with pomegranate and basil
Craft Cocktails at Rosewood
1050 31st St. NW
Since they appeared on the spring menu at the bar in this Georgetown hotel, three drinks have been especially popular. Between April 1 and May 30, the bar sold 229 Agua Frescas, along with 381 Rhubarb Mules and 307 Spicy Guavas. Each costs $16.
2 oz. bourbon/rye
1 oz. lime juice
1 oz. tamarind syrup
1/2 oz. cream de cassis
Couple of dashes of orange bitters
Add 3 oz. ginger ale and ice
2 oz. vodka
1 oz. rhubarb syrup
1/2 oz. Aperol
3/4 oz. ginger syrup
1/2 oz. lime juice
Shake with ice until chilled
Top off with ginger ale
Garnish: Rhubarb stick
2 oz. Tequila Blanco
1 oz. guava puree
1 Thai chili
3/4 oz. lime
1/2 oz. simple syrup
Shake, then add ice and shake again
Top off with 1/4 oz. Luxardo Maraschino
Garnish: Thai chili
Purple Rain at Brabo at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa
1600 King St., Alexandria, Va.
Calling on Prince fans, bartender Niko Chauvet created this riff on a margarita ($16) in honor of his grandmother, who was a fan of the late musician.
Basil-infused Espolon Reposado tequila
What Did You Do? At Firefly at Kimpton Hotel Madera
1310 New Hampshire Ave., NW
This $16 cocktail is made with ingredients from the restaurant’s rooftop garden.
What Did You Do?
About the Author
Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.