On the Tuesday before inauguration, a mile from the nation’s Capitol Building where Donald Trump will take the oath of office, a crowd formed at the back of Washington, DC’s bourbon bar Barrel. A group of five blocked the stairway down to the bar’s basement speakeasy, snapping selfies with a taped-up, life-size photograph of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s head. Just past them, a woman paused to read a laminated sign: “Complimentary Wet Work, brought to you by the KGB.”
The speakeasy is called Elixir Bar, and it was reprising an election-season hit just in time for inauguration. In October, it made national headlines for “Make Cocktails Great Again,” a menu that riffed on then-candidate Trump’s most viral remarks. There was a rum concoction named “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” and a vodka-based cocktail called “I moved on her like a bitch … when you’re a star, they let you do it. you can do anything … grab them by the pussy.”
For inauguration week, Elixir has reprised the theme, with an updated motif meant to jab at the new president. It is a Russian victory party, and a “middle finger to the highest government body in the United States,” said the bar’s beverage director, Parker Girard.
A hallway was filled with Trump’s most spiteful tweets and a portrait gallery of Trump’s inner circle, printed on 8-by-11 paper sheets. The tweets were organized by topic: The “Against the media” column reached the floor. The “Against Russia” column was empty. Rudy Giuliani’s photo was captioned, “Nosferatu. No one knows where Rudy Giuliani has gone.”
Russian marching music drowned the room.
“We have Russian club music lined up for later,” Girard said. “You know, that sleazy lounge vibe.”
A bartender in a T-shirt with Trump’s face on it shook vodka cocktails under a Soviet ushanka, dangling like mistletoe. His bosses bought 12 cases of vodka for the week (in a typical week, they go through six bottles).
The room was bookended with Soviet Union flags. The Trump TV hit The Apprentice played on the bar’s only television, with life-size cut outs of Putin and Trump standing nearby. Russian and American flags lined the ceiling in pairs, and tiny snowflakes hung between them. Posters of the Capitol Building, photoshopped to look like the Kremlin, plastered the walls. The menus were so large, holding them made your hands seem smaller, a gag so effective the bar reprised it from the fall.
The trumpets and drums were unrelenting.
“If we can’t have satire, what can we have?” asked one patron, before taking a picture of a mural Girard had commissioned for the week — a vulgar play on the Last Supper. In the image, Trump’s campaign and transition team stand in place of the traditional biblical figures: The Donald is centered, with a nude Chris Christie to one side, Ivanka Trump on the other, and Rex Tillerson in the corner with a baby-size Vladimir Putin in his pocket. It may be the only context in which a man who has belittled the sacrifices of Sen. John McCain, Rep. John Lewis, and the Khan family could be called the sacrificial son.
“We wanted to take the fangs out of some of the things he had said — just owning the absurdity of it,” said Mike Haigis, Elixir’s former general manager, who returned to Washington to help with the new theme. “Then he won, so now we want to point out that his legitimacy is questionable.”
But unless prompted, the nature of the satire — that sipping on a drink named “The Red Scare” (Russian Standard, vermouth, Campari, and orange liqueur) to the sounds of Russian marching music is now a direct commentary on the 45th president of the United States — seemed lost on much of the crowd.
Kaitlyn Sill, a visiting political scientist from Pacific Lutheran University, leaned against the bar, taking in the theme. Its repetition of Trump’s most Trumpian moments, she said, represents “a normalization” of sorts.
“By being here,” she said, “there is some form of acceptance.”