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Professor Cocktail: Learning is at the core of Derek Brown’s bartending philosophy

Posted on  | April 1, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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Derek Brown, who runs two disparate Washington, D.C. cocktail haunts with his brother Tom—The Passenger and Columbia Room—is known for his scholarly approach to making drinks. At Tales of the Cocktail this summer he’ll be leading a seminar, “What Would Aristotle Drink?” But, what exactly do his customers learn when he’s behind the bar?

The Beverage Network: Reservations-only Columbia Room is unique—it’s small, there are no menus and it’s built around a three-course cocktail tasting you primarily determine. What was your mission?

Derek Brown: One of the things I always lament is that it’s hard to offer the exact service and style of cocktails you want in large-scale environments. Some people do it well but to interact, pull out the drink, talk about ingredients and try different iterations, that’s something really hard to do when the bar is three-deep. Columbia Room is a very intimate experience, and we make the time to make the best cocktails and offer great service. With our focus on ingredients, some people compare it to a chef’s table.

BN: Those ingredients seem just as important to you as the bottles with your apothecary set-up.

DB: A lot of times what happens in the bar is the bottles become the focus. Instead of putting just the bottles on the back of the bar I wanted to have it comprised of the ingredients—tinctures, bitters, liqueurs. When customers ask a question about gins, I want to be able to bring down the juniper, crush it, taste it and show firsthand how these ingredients are made. The display has sparked interest.

BN: How does the evening unfold for your guests? They are truly left in the bar staff’s hands.

DB: We start with punch or a Champagne cocktail; something generally seasonal and simple. The second cocktail is changed weekly and determined by the seasons and the ingredients we’re getting in, say a Cynar Daiquri with blackstrap molasses rum, Cynar, lemon juice and cane sugar, that they enjoy with paired food. The third we discuss with the customers, based on their preferences.

BN: And what do they typically request then? Are you seeing that they’re open to new flavors?

DB: Bourbon is a popular call, but by the third cocktail they’ve had a great experience and instead of making a decision based on what they know, they are now more adventurous. Some have never had a real dry martini, so we’ll give that a try. Sometimes we’ll even introduce them to something like a caraway seed aquavit.

BN: As The Passenger has a decidedly more casual feel, do you see much crossover between the guests there and the ones at Columbia Room?

DB: Some customers who go to The Passenger don’t even know Columbia Room exists. You don’t always want to drink one way like you don’t want to eat one way. Sometimes you want a hamburger and sometimes you want a fine restaurant. My perspective is having this 10-foot bar focusing on classic and ingredient-driven cocktails is one experience, and The Passenger, which is a little more raucous and fun and where you get a can of beer, is a different one.  There are seven nights a week of drinking.


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