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ISIS Punch? DC-based Arab barman mixes up cocktails with a twist

Francke’s challenge is coming up with a new drink every night he bartends

Published: Updated:

Chris Hassaan Francke hit a trend trifecta when he started his Arabic themed pop-up bar in DC last year.

Capitalizing on the capital’s preoccupation with the Middle East, its obsession with craft cocktails and its desperation to host the next new thing: “pop-ups,” a new wave of rented spaces shared by small restaurants.

Francke’s pop-up is called the “Green Zone” and it’s probably the only bar in the world you can order a “F**k ISIS Punch” (topped with an optional candied bacon stick) a “Saz’Iraq” (a twist on the popular Sazerac with “Chraq’treuse” syrup) and a Turk Noir (inspired by the Black Russian, but with cardamom-infused Turkish coffee liqueur instead of humdrum Kahlua).

Francke is a half-Iraqi half-American World Bank consultant in his mid-twenties who said he’s been making cocktails ever since he started drinking, around ten years ago. He wanted to make cocktails with Arabic flavors he had experienced growing up and visiting the Middle East. “Combining Arabic flavors into cocktails has not been done before, but there are a lot of great non-alcoholic drink options in the Middle East.” Francke said.

He tries to pair them up with appropriate liquors - adding vodka to the quintessential Arab summer drink, mint lemonade. But his concoctions go far beyond that: they’re perfectly balanced, delightfully scented odes to the Middle East. A whiff of rose water, a taste of pistachio syrup and a sip of orange blossom has the ability to transport anyone who’s been to the region into a nostalgic trance.

Francke said he called his small establishment the “Green Zone” after the secure 10-square kilometer district in Baghdad where the coalition’s provisional authority was once based. The heavily-fortified area is still one of the safest in the city. “The Green Zone in Baghdad is where you’re safe and can relax and be yourself.” Francke said.

Francke hopes to parlay this experiment into a fixed-space cocktail bar. For now, the pop-bar bar, which started last year, doesn’t have a permanent location. Francke currently works with established bars and restaurants that set aside rental space for aspiring entrepreneurs.

He rents a space out for a couple of nights a week and informs his loyal fans about it via Facebook and social media. Green Zone has been in four locations around Washington so far. The latest is at “Eats Place” whose founder Katy Chang describes as a “food incubator and pop-uppery”. The space hosts guest chefs, mentors them and connects them with investors. Green Zone is Chang’s first bar pop-up.

Arabic recipes

Francke said doing a pop-up allows him to keep his day job and test out his recipes with little overhead or risk.

His Green Zone, at all of its various locations, has become a meeting place for Washingtonians who have an interest in the Middle East. At any given Green Zone night you will find Arabs, Arab Americans, Iranian Americans, Arabic language students and those passionate about the Middle East lingering over cocktails and Arabic pickles, the folk sound of Ilham Madfa’i and the melodies of the Rahbani brothers wafting in the background. Francke also tailors his cocktails to be seasonally appropriate: his summer cocktails include a healthy dose of orange blossom and rose waters.

“I grew up in a culture of Arab hospitality, I love entertaining.” Francke said.

Along with hosting a great party, Francke also makes his own bitters: intensely flavored infusions of herbs and spices. He adds his Arabic and Persian variations to his cocktails sparingly. It’s that subtle whiff of scent that transports some patrons back to their Middle Eastern childhoods.

Francke’s challenge is coming up with a new drink every night he bartends. His “Rivas Julep” has been a crowd pleaser. Made with whiskey, rhubarb syrup, rose water, crushed ice, lime and some secret extracts. The advent of Ramadan means Arabic stores in the area carry Apricot leather, which Francke mixes with cognac and lemon, turning it into a cocktail he calls the “Lebanese Number One.”

“I really like giving people a good time,” Francke said, “and that’s the most rewarding part.”